Kansas State University’s Department of Agronomy continues to strengthen its ties to the international scientific community. Ganga Hettiarachchi, associate professor, was recently elected as chair of Commission 4.2 Soils, Food Security, and Human Health of the International Union of Soil Sciences. Her term as chair will extend until 2018.

The IUSS is the global union of soil scientists. Its objectives are to promote all branches of soil science, and to support soil scientists across the world in the pursuit of their activities.

The IUSS, founded in 1924, has been a scientific union member of the International Council for Science since 1993. The scientific activities of IUSS are undertaken through four divisions, each with four to six commissions. The divisions and commissions are headed by a chairperson and two vice chairs.

Hettiarachchi said she feels honored to be elected as chair of the IUSS Commission.

“It will allow me to make a valuable contribution to my discipline. Today, more than ever before, those in other disciplines are realizing that soil science is important to many other areas of study. Soil scientists today are instrumental partners in many large interdisciplinary research groups. I see increasing demand for soil scientists as we face this grand challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050 while protecting our environment and health,” she said. 

Her election to this international position comes at a good time, she added. The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been selected to implement the International Year of Soils, within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership.

The goal of designating 2015 as the International Year of Soils is to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.

“I am looking forward to using this opportunity to enhance the public’s appreciation of soils in 2015 and beyond,” she said.

Hettiarachchi’s field of expertise at K-State is soil and environmental chemistry. Her knowledge of soil chemistry to address both agronomical and environmental quality issues has allowed her to make significant contributions to her field.

She is credited for her innovative and constant efforts on pushing the envelope on adopting synchrotron-based techniques in soil research. She collaborates with fellow scientists at K-State as well as scientists at universities and research organizations throughout the United States and around the world to address soil and environmental issues of Kansas, as well as globally.

In addition to utilizing research facilities available at K-State, Hettiarachchi and her graduate students are using synchrotron-based x-ray spectroscopy and microscopy techniques available for researchers at the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory; the Advanced Light Source, Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory; National Synchrotron Light Source, Brookhaven National Laboratory; and the Canadian Light Source. 

Examples of her recent research include remediation of contaminated soils and wastewaters, sustainable reuse of contaminated urban brownfields, the mechanisms of soil carbon sequestration, and nutrient reaction products in soils.

“My research on contaminated urban brownfields focuses on ways of minimizing direct and indirect transfer of common soil contaminants to humans. Along with my collaborators, we are doing a nationwide evaluation of compost and other soil amendments in reducing the uptake of lead, arsenic, and other soil contaminants by food crops,” she said. 

Her work on soil carbon sequestration includes exploring the factors involved in carbon stability in the soil.

“Soil organic carbon is sensitive to changes in climate and management. It remains largely unknown why some soil carbon persists for millennia whereas other soil carbon decomposes readily, limiting our ability to predict how soils will respond to climate change,” Hettiarachchi said.

Her group is using advanced physico-chemical approaches to understand the mechanisms of soil carbon stability and storage to improve understanding of coupled belowground processes driving soil carbon stabilization. 

In addition, Hettiarachchi and her collaborators are working on ways to better understand how different sources of nutrients react in different soils under different management practices at the molecular level. 

“The objective is to aid in the design of better and more efficient fertilizer sources and both farmer and environmentally friendly fertilizer management practices,” she said.