Soil Sciences Superstar Comes to UK

by Jeff Worley
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Here’s Paul Bertsch, the newest hire in UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, by the numbers. Published articles: more than 150 in environmental chemistry, biogeochemistry, toxicology and soil physical chemistry, and mineralogy. Invited presentations and seminars: over 200. Other talks and published abstracts: over 300. Recognitions and awards: nearly an uncountable number. And though his career is far from finished, he’s already won two Career Achievement Awards. (Oh, and he’s also the new president of the Soil Science Society of America.)

So how did UK snag this superstar?

“The one constant in my career so far as a scientist is an intense interest in solving important problems through an interdisciplinary approach,” says Bertsch, a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology, from his office in ag science north. “During the interview process, I saw a lot of inter-connection between disciplines here, and I was pleased to be offered an opportunity to help establish an interdisciplinary program in environmental research.” He adds that he was also impressed with the university’s Top 20 by 2020 plan.

Bertsch is no stranger to the UK campus. He earned his doctorate here in soil physical chemistry-mineralogy in 1983 and worked as a research specialist and assistant professor in the agronomy department for nearly two years after that. “So, yes, this is a homecoming of sorts,” he says, “though UK has changed quite a lot in 24 years. From what I’ve been able to tell, every department in the sciences is stronger and there’s been an obvious expansion, lots of new construction,” he adds, nodding beyond his window to the noise of the UK hospital addition being built.

Kumble Subbaswamy, UK provost, says, “With his extensive experience in building and leading interdisciplinary programs in environmental science, Dr. Bertsch will be able to build on UK’s current efforts to reach nationally competitive levels in this area of critical importance to Kentucky.” Bertsch is the College of Agriculture’s first hire under the provost’s initiative to recruit world-class scientists to the university.

Scott Smith, the dean of the college, sees the hiring of Bertsch as fitting in with agriculture’s strategic goal of being a leader in environmental sciences. “As the college moves aggressively to advance our work on management of natural resources, Paul Bertsch will provide a focal point for faculty leadership of those efforts,” Smith says. “His hire will complement and grow the programs of the Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment.”

“Environmental sciences is an area the college already has a good bit of strength in, and this could take us to another level,” adds Nancy Cox, associate dean of research in the College of Agriculture, who chaired the provost’s committee that conceived of the idea to recruit renowned scientists to the university.
Bertsch admits plainly that he’s “happy to be here,” and says his return to the university involves an interesting déjà vu coincidence. “My lab is currently being renovated—the same lab I worked in when I was a graduate student in the doctoral program here. It’s a bit eerie to think I’ll be inhabiting the same space.”

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Paul Bertsch

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