Meet Dr. Kate Tully: Agroecologist

Meet Dr. Kate Tully

Dr. Kate Tully is an Associate Professor of Agroecology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Check out the video + read her interview below to learn about how one experience abroad in Costa Rica led her into the exciting field of agroecology!

Interview With Dr. Kate Tully

Can you introduce yourself and briefly explain what you do?

My name is Kate Tully and I am an associate professor of agroecology at the University of Maryland. An agroecologist is somebody who looks at agricultural systems through the lens of ecology. We use all the principles of ecology like species interactions, biogeochemical cycling, and understanding abiotic and biotic factors to then try to create systems that are more sustainable in terms of how we produce our food.

Can you tell us a bit about some of your exciting projects and research?

I have two threads of research. On one side, I’m looking at really large scale agricultural systems and trying to increase the adoption of cover crops. We grow a lot of them in Maryland and actually subsidize the growing of cover crops. It’s a surface crop and you don’t necessarily derive any financial benefit from it. If you plant it in the fall, when your corn crop is done, it can take up any nutrients like nitrogen that’s left in the soil and hold it in its biomass over the course of the winter and even into the spring. Then those nutrients can then be released, after the cover crop dies, to that subsequent cash crop. It’s a way of tightening nutrient cycling in our agricultural systems. As a biogeochemist (that’s sort of my other hat that I wear), I always think about nutrient cycling. 

The other project was on saltwater intrusion and the impact that that phenomenon has on eutrophication. In a nutshell, the sea level rise rates are very high on the eastern seaboard of the United States; three times the global average. A sort of almost precursor to sea level rise is saltwater intrusion; it happens before a field for instance, is 100% flooded. You can imagine that adding salty water to anything changes the chemistry right. It changes the chemistry of your drinking water, and is going to change the chemistry of your farm field. Unfortunately, when that happens in an agricultural system, it can basically unlock the nitrogen and phosphorus that was in the soil. Then that could be transported downstream, polluting the Chesapeake Bay. 

Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg

What was your unique experience like abroad in East Africa?

Before I came to Maryland, I had a postdoctoral position at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, but I lived and worked almost 100% of the time in East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania). In both of those countries, I had set up research farms, kind of similar to the work I do here, but obviously a very different system. I was trying to understand how we could increase crop productivity and at the same time, not repeat the mistakes that we have made in our agricultural systems in the U.S., which is like just dumping a bunch of fertilizer on it. I was trying to prevent eutrophication from happening at a large scale. The crop yields in Tanzania and Kenya are about one tenth of what they are here in the United States, but 100% of the corn crop there goes to feed the people and not cars, biofuels or animals. So I was looking at it from a food security perspective. It was an amazing opportunity. I have millions of stories about black mambas and crazy baboons. I actually led a course in the highlands of Kenya for Columbia and Princeton undergrads when I was there, and that was pretty fun, too.

When and how did you develop an interest in agroecology?

I grew up in California, and my dad is a huge gardener (we still flaunt pictures saying like these are what my tomatoes are doing)! I always loved agriculture, but I actually thought I was going to be a poet. I went to Kenyon College in Ohio, which is a small liberal arts school that had a really strong English and creative writing department. It was very well known within the smaller schools for its literary magazine; I worked for the Kenyon Review. I also grew up sort of speaking Spanish, so I decided to double major in English and Spanish. Then, I decided to go abroad to Costa Rica in my junior year, thinking that I’ll get to use my Spanish, and it just so happened that it was sustainable agriculture-focused. I totally fell in love with the concept of agroecology because I love nature and growing food, and I was like, oh my gosh, these things can be done together! I came back and I had this real crisis like, “what am I going to do with my life”! Then, I decided to triple major and added environmental science to my list! When I graduated, I still didn’t really know what I was going to do, so I took a year off and then realized I really wanted to do work and research focused on improving our food systems and making them more sustainable. Not a poet anymore really. 

It’s funny though; the Spanish did have relevance because I ended up doing my PhD in Costa Rica. The fact that I could speak Spanish fluently allowed me to speak with all the farmers. Instead of having to go through a translator, I could ask the questions that I wanted to ask. 

Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg

What do you enjoy the most about being an agroecologist?

First of all, I love my job, both teaching and research. Being a professor is great because it’s a really good fit for me. I love teaching, interacting, and mentoring students. I get to work with graduate students and watch them blossom into really independent thinkers. And I’m kind of an exercise junkie. I really do love being outside, moving around, and I always have field trips and stuff in my class. I love fieldwork, so that is amazing. But I also have really come to enjoy teaching and watching like the light bulbs go off. When students make connections between something they’re learning and say, their econ class, and something I talked about in my class, I just love it when they’re like, oh my gosh, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I find that to be just like tremendously rewarding. I also love that I get paid to use my brain. I can have an idea, think about it, read a bunch about it, and then decide I want to ask this question or look into this phenomenon. If I write a good enough grant proposal, I can actually get paid to go and do it. I love a lot of aspects of my job, but I especially appreciate the intellectual freedom that I have. 

Is there anything that surprised you about your role/field when you first started? 

I was surprised by how much I was able to bring my other skills to bear on my science. I love talking to people and I’ve always worked very closely with farmers; I ask them what they’re interested in, or phenomenons that they’ve been observing. I think one thing that surprised me was that you don’t just have to be good at crunching numbers. I think if you’re really interested in the natural world, you can find a way into science and into agroecology. 

What is one thing that you wish someone had told you before starting this career?

There’s a lot of paperwork and administration involved when you get to the higher levels of being a professor. You don’t always see that, and that’s not always my favorite. I like doing the science, but I don’t like filling out paperwork. Maybe I had a unique experience because my father was a scientist, so I kind of knew, in a sense, what I was getting myself into as I observed my father’s career. Because of that, I didn’t want to be a scientist for a long time, but then of course, here I am, a scientist!

Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg

Can you describe a day in the life of working at UMD if we weren’t in a pandemic?

I get up really early, and I teach and practice yoga. I’m a very big proponent of making sure that you take care of your mental and physical health outside of all the science that we do. After that and before the pandemic, I would Metro to work. Then depending on the day, I would be doing work like reading papers or grading papers. I teach two different courses. I teach global food systems in the spring, which is like a sophomore, second year class. We look at all sorts of things like food waste, sustainable ag systems around the world, and equity or lack of equity in the food systems. In the fall, I teach agroecology. I would teach a class, and then I would probably be reading and grading more papers/admin stuff later on. That’s during the school year. During the summer, I’m in the field a lot. I go down to the field and collect data on water, soil, and plant samples. I’m also a biogeochemist, so I look at nutrients in those samples like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon. Every day is different. Variety is the spice of life!

Do you think it’s fairly easy or challenging to maintain a good work-life balance? 

You have to be very dedicated to setting a good work-life balance. Especially when you first start as a professor, it’s really hard to draw boundaries because there is so much expected of you, and the stakes are so high. You’re trying to get tenure, find graduate students, and you haven’t made a name for yourself yet. Even your colleagues in the department are like, “Who is this person; are they real?” I definitely didn’t get a lot of sleep my first couple of years, but I always exercised. Now, I’m better about trying to go to bed at a certain time. Having some sort of exercise routine is something that I try to promote in my students as well. In my classes we have a yoga break in the middle class where we stand up and stretch. There’s so many studies that show that endorphins and making sure that you stay physically active keeps all the brain juices flowing.

What kind of skills would you say are important for a job like yours?

Obviously, there are skills that you can learn, but then there are just traits that you might have. Curious people who are observant make really good scientists. Skill wise, I think being a good communicator, writer, and speaker is really important. I’ve found that by just being a human being, in the sense that being collegial to build collaborations that work and last and to get grants where you can say that you’re really working in an interdisciplinary team, has been really valuable to me. Other skills like hard skills would be learning how to write a budget that works, staying on top of it, and being organized. There are also managerial skills that are necessary that you are not trained to do. Let me tell you, everyone’s different, and what works for one student is going to be the wrong approach for another. For instance, I had one student who really needed a lot of pushing and encouragement, and then they ended up thriving. I have another student who is just always sending me wonderful manuscripts. So you get to know which people to let fly and do their own thing and which people you need to be on top of. They don’t tell you that a lot of being a scientist is like being a manager. 

Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg

Would you say there’s a lot of collaboration in your field?

Yes, and I love that about the work that I do. We have a lot of wonderful, amazing, great women scientists that I work with. I sometimes joke that I see myself as a connector. I cannot do the work I want to do by myself, so I’ll find people who I can connect with and be like you two should work together on this. I think what’s wonderful about agroecology is that we’re all working towards this common goal of trying to improve sustainable ag systems, so there’s not a lot of rivalry. People say that academia is so competitive and maybe in some fields. I just experience a lot of people who are just great working together, and I feel very lucky because of that. I don’t feel that competitive edge at all. I mean, we’re all competing for money from the government for these projects, but it doesn’t feel the same; there’s not an intellectual competition, and it’s much more collaborative.

What would you say to a student who is interested in pursuing agroecology?

Well, it’s a new field so you can make whatever you want of it! You can be an agroecologist and love insects, and you can be like, I want to look at positive insect interaction. A lot of people who are interested in general ecology where you’re looking at natural systems, I think it can be blended pretty easily now into agroecology. It’s a really exciting field where you get to work with farmers who are great and produce the food that we eat and keep us alive. You get to ask really cool questions, and I love that it feels very practical and worthwhile. I feel like I’m making a difference in my research. I can see that the water is not clear, because there’s all these pollutants in it, and then I can try to come up with a way to improve that. The people are great, and I highly recommend people becoming agroecologists.

What advancements do you think will happen in your field in the future? 

Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball. One thing we’re on the precipice of is with all of the sensor technology now, you can have moisture sensors that can tell you really detailed information. For instance, (this is not work that I do but it’s work that a colleague does) imagine a situation where you’re trying to water your strawberries, and you don’t want to overwater them, because it’s wasting water. But, you can’t be out there personally testing the soil to figure it out. So now there are these sensors that you can use that can send a signal to a cloud based computing platform that knows when it’s time to turn on the irrigation. Your strawberries will get watered, and then the sensor will be like, ‘that’s enough, we’re good’, and it will shut it off. We call this precision agriculture. As our sensor technology and data computing systems have expanded, it’s really expanded our ability to use IT and technology in agriculture.

Of course, something that I’m thinking about because of the pandemic is finally seeing people turning more towards the importance of focusing on food security, access, and justice. I’m hoping to see more attention being paid to the social areas of agroecology. Agroecology actually had its roots as a peasant movement, so it really was a social movement before it was such a science. I’m really excited to see more people thinking about how we can make our food systems more sustainable for everybody and not just for those of us who can shop at Whole Foods!

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