CANR alum is lead soil scientist for State of Michigan

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Martin Rosek sits in his office in East Lansing, Michigan (view larger image)

On a Tuesday in June, inside his East Lansing office, Martin Rosek initiates the first of several phone calls that consume the afternoon. This may seem like a normal day for someone who works in an office building.

But as Michigan’s state soil scientist, an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agency, Rosek has no normal days. That’s because each one presents a new challenge and a unique agenda of activities.

Rosek, 57, is currently working on the biggest project of his career, one that requires coordination among many entities.

“I could work 16-hour days and fill them up completely,” he quips.

His supervisor, state conservationist Garry Lee, has tasked him with managing the implementation of Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology that will provide valuable data for agricultural professionals across Michigan. LIDAR uses remote sensing via lasers to generate extremely accurate topographic maps of land. Michigan’s neighboring states are further along in this process, but Rosek is partnering with federal, state and local organizations to bring the Great Lakes State up to speed.

Tomorrow will most likely be spent tending to another one of his duties. The state soil scientist no longer supervises all field operations, but Rosek still sets the soil priorities and must sign off on projects conducted by field soil scientists.

He’s also a part of the state conservationist management team and provides input on soil-related issues facing Michigan. Teaching other NRCS employees at the state and national levels also falls under Rosek’s jurisdiction. He educates them on wetland compliance and soil health.

“I have both office responsibilities and field responsibilities,” Rosek said. “I enjoy the dynamic nature of my job in that I’m not just doing one thing.”

Stagnation has never sat well with Rosek. Growing up in Midland, Michigan, he enjoyed the outdoors and all of the recreational activities that came with it. Although he wasn’t raised on a farm, his parents, who were both employees at Dow Chemical Co., often spoke of their upbringings and how agriculture played a significant role in their lives.

In high school Rosek devised a plan. He would either pursue a career in meteorology or soil science.

“My two loves were and still are weather and soil,” Rosek said. “There’s so much that goes into soil science with agronomy, environmental sciences, engineering and building, soil health and more. There’s a lot of different directions you can go.”

Ultimately choosing a crop and soil sciences major following two years at Delta Community College, he began his undergraduate education at Michigan State University (MSU) in 1978. Peaking his interest was a class taught by now-retired professor Del Mokma, which covered soil landscapes and mapping.

As a senior, Rosek joined the soil judging team, a group of undergraduates who square off with students from other schools in a competition of describing soil profiles. Contests are held at the local, regional and state levels. In the regional competition at MSU, Rosek took fourth place in the individual judging portion.

After graduation, he headed to North Dakota State University (NDSU) in pursuit of a master’s degree and also worked as a graduate assistant in the soil characterization lab. Using various tools, Rosek honed his skills in the lab. He even coached NDSU undergraduates to a Region 5 soil judging championship.

Rosek wanted more field experience, so he took a job following his master’s program with the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station as an assistant soil scientist. Among other responsibilities, he was able to participate in the soil mapping process he first enjoyed at MSU. It was here that he decided to obtain his doctorate. 

“I thought I wanted to get on the professor track,” Rosek said. “You could teach, do research, get out in the field. It was definitely a draw for me.”

A return to MSU would change the course of his career.

Jim Crum, a 31-year veteran professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at MSU, supervised Rosek’s doctoral studies. Crum said his initial impression of Rosek has held true more than two decades after advising him as a student: He’s a great scientist and a better person.

“Martin was a wonderful resource for many people here because of his field skills and experience,” Crum said. “He had mapped and inventoried soils during and after his master’s degree. He brought a great perspective on soil from the standpoint of a field soil scientist. He did a lot of work at the Kellogg Biological Station that I thought was just remarkable, and he’s been a great friend and colleague since then.”

While Rosek would continue to study soil landscapes, a change in the soil sciences field necessitated a deviation from his original career path. States around the country were beginning to complete soil landscape mapping. Crum switched his primary research focus from soil genesis, morphology and classification to turfgrass. At that point, Rosek saw the number of potential positions for him in academia dwindling.

“Although I took a different route than originally planned, the experience at MSU was great,” Rosek said. “The more I learned about soil and landscape relationships, soil chemistry, soil biology, the more I knew I wanted to head down this path.”

He returned to North Dakota for post-doctoral work before entering the precision agriculture field, which would see yet another trek to the Midwest, specifically Michigan and Indiana. Tiring of the instability in the precision agriculture arena, Rosek ventured back into field soil science and back out west to North Dakota and eventually Wyoming.

Some might find this near-constant movement unsettling. But it’s just the way Rosek likes it.

“If someone would have told me in 1980 that I would have lived in North Dakota three separate times, I would have said they were crazy,” Rosek said. “That’s just the way it worked out. All of those experiences have shaped my career. I don’t have any regrets.”

In August 2012, the opportunity arose for him to come home to Michigan. This time he’s looking to stay.

“I can see myself doing this state soil scientist role for a long time,” he said. “I know this type of work. I enjoy this type of work. Any one day I’m diving off into any number of directions, and that’s comfortable for me.”

More from 2015: International Year of Soils

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