WENATCHEE, Wash. — Visiting the sea floor as a scuba diving instructor in the Maldives ultimately led Kirsten Ball, who is originally from Australia, to a career in plant soil science at Washington State University.
“I saw the planet’s degradation firsthand by diving underwater,” said Ball, a post-doctoral researcher with WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) in Wenatchee, Wash. “I was drawn to plant and soil sciences because of the opportunity to make an environmental impact.”
Initially trained as an exercise physiologist, Ball returned to school for a second undergraduate degree in environmental science, later completing her PhD at Australia’s Western Sydney University and Scotland’s University of Aberdeen. She joined WSU in early 2022 after first working in Arizona.
The Washington State Legislature established CSANR at WSU in the early 1990s to address sustainability and environmental challenges such as finding a way to sequester carbon in soil, which could help draw down carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
“CSANR has flourished in the last three decades as it works to address sustainability issues from a research, education, and Extension perspective,” said director Chad Kruger. “We know it’s beneficial to move compost back to soils. Carbon payment programs could help incentivize this, but we need meaningful, scientific policy analysis.”
That’s where Ball comes into the picture.
“Kirsten is a unicorn,” said Kruger. “She has the right mindset and the perfect mix of experience and training. She has pushed us to examine what contributions we should be sharing in a global setting.”
Since joining CSANR, Ball has analyzed data related to dryland systems and carbon sequestration.
Growing food depletes soil of carbon, which can make it difficult to sustain food production. One solution is the application of organic amendments such as compost, which can help replenish soil systems with the carbon necessary for agricultural production over time.
“I’ve come to understand how little we really know about dryland systems,” said Ball. “Most information about sustainable soil management and agriculture comes from more temperate systems, but drylands are important because they’re one of the world’s fastest growing ecotypes for agricultural development. They are frequently degraded of nutrients but may have the capacity to store carbon more rapidly in the short term than temperate systems.”
The fruits of Ball’s labor are demonstrated in her work on a legislative proviso that was requested by Washington state. The proviso uses state-specific data analysis to demonstrate the short- and long-term potential for organic amendments like compost to improve carbon storage in soils of agricultural systems. It also shows why commodifying compost within the state could be beneficial and reduce greenhouse emissions. This work forms the basis for an upcoming scientific publication.
“It’s unusual for someone to have deep technical knowledge of how modeling tools work and a good sense of how the legislature is thinking about these issues,” said Georgine Yorgey, CSANR associate director and Ball’s supervisor. “Kirsten is able to connect the dots between the research and the outcomes that the legislature would like to see.”
As a recent recipient of the highly competitive Marie Curie Fellowship, Ball will soon leave CSANR to spend the next few years researching dryland agricultural systems at the University of Aberdeen, conducting field work with the Spanish National Research Council, and working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to help women in dryland regions become better stewards of their land.
An eventual return to WSU is also not out of the question. Whatever the future holds, Ball is dedicated to making a difference.
“At this point in my career, my work needs to be tangible,” said Ball. “International capacity building is really where my passion is.”