Profiling a Soil Scientist: Dr. Kira Borden

Welcome to the PRSSS’s interview series ‘Profiling a Soil Scientist’! Our goal is to highlight the work of excellent researchers and professionals that are in the field of Soil Science and to get to know them a little better. With that in mind, Hannah Friesen conducted an interview with Dr. Kira Borden. Kira is not only an excellent researcher and leader, she is also an extremely knowledgeable mentor for students, and has quickly become a favourite with the PRSSS executive due to her affable personality and quick sense of humour.

Name: Dr. Kira Borden

Area of study:

  • Plant-soil-environment interactions
  • Belowground and root system ecology
  • Agroecology
  • Agroforestry

Affiliations: 

  1. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow
  2. Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes Lab, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, UBC
  3. Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, UBC

Thanks for sitting down with us for an interview and taking the time out of your busy schedule. We thought we would start with one of our signature Soil Science questions. Do you have a favourite soil? And why?

My favourite soil group would have to be Acrisol, because I carried out a lot of my Ph.D. research on these tropical soils! 

What do you believe is the focus of your career? Where do you want it to go? 

My research program is committed to answering theory-based ecological questions on plant-soil interactions. At the same time, I want those questions to be relevant to managing landscapes so they can be more sustainable, biodiverse, and resilient to climate change. 

A lot of my work so far has occurred at small scales, looking at the interactions between roots and soil, or at the farm and field scale. I’m moving more and more towards doing research at larger scales and investigating what is happening at regional and landscape scales. 

Do you have any mentors that have helped shape your career or inspired you? How?

My MSc and Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Marney Isaac, has been a hugely positive influence, as well as my MSc co-supervisor Dr. Sean Thomas, both at the University of Toronto. They played major roles in channeling my raw abilities and passion towards becoming a good scientist and strong academic researcher. They’re very good at thinking deeply about a subject matter but also laterally and seeing the bigger picture. This really pushed me intellectually and helped me grow in my own career. 

Their mentorship was very important to me, especially because I didn’t initially plan on going into academia as a career, or even realize it was a path I could take! Really, when I started my masters I was interested in learning more about agroforestry, since I had been working in the field internationally and wanted to understand the science behind it. But with time and a lot of hard work, I discovered my strength and passion for academic work. The mentorship I got from Drs. Isaac and Thomas helped me overcome imposter syndrome in academia, something many of us have experienced. 

Do you have any recent publications that would be of interest to PRSSS members?

Two of my recent publications that may be of interest to PRSSS members are field-based studies that advance our understanding of root-soil interactions in agroecosystems. One study, published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, I led across the cocoa growing region of Ghana: “Soil texture moderates root functional traits in agroforestry systems across a climatic gradient” (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2020.106915). Our findings illustrate the importance of soil-specific management in designing optimal agroforestry systems in the face of climate change. The other is published in Plant and Soil: “Variation in fine root traits reveals nutrient-specific acquisition strategies in agroforestry systems” (https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-019-04003-2). In this study, we used a novel approach to chart the belowground interface of tree and crop root systems in relation to localized patches of six soil nutrients on two-dimensional soil profiles. Please email me (kira.borden@ubc.ca) if you’d like a copy of these articles.

How do you think we can communicate results better to farmers, policymakers, and others?

 I ask myself this a lot, and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Dr. Sean Smukler in the Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes lab. His lab does a lot of extension work with farmers and collaborative research with government scientists. Having transparency in research goes a long way in maintaining and building the public’s trust in academia and science. So it’s been great to learn from Dr. Smukler and work alongside him in that regard. I’ve also found that knowledge exchange with farmers and other stakeholders throughout a research project is critical to understand the on-the-ground realities. This helps ask better informed research questions, and the research can be more relevant to those outside academia when communicating research findings. 

Do you have any tips for fieldwork or lab work?

Being adaptable has been essential for my successful field campaigns. I think part of being adaptable means being able to trust others and also knowing when to ask for help. I’ve been really grateful to have great colleagues and farmers that I’ve worked with and communities that I’ve worked in. They’ve gone out of their way to lend me a hand, from last minute tech support, to helping me access more remote field sites, to providing fridge space in their homes to store soil samples! There’s no way I could have been able to get all the field work done that I have without having a strong network of collaborators and support from communities I work in. 

What challenges have you had to overcome in your field as a woman? Do you feel like you are treated any differently? What do you do to try and lift those up around you? 

As a scientist in the natural sciences field, doing a lot of technical research, I’ve certainly experienced explicit and unconscious forms of bias because of my gender and I’ve also seen it happen to other women. It usually reveals itself through comments or assumptions around my intellectual leadership and expertise. It takes more to gain equal recognition and respect for my leadership and contributions within my field. 

It’s problematic if as scientists we think that we are unbiased, because we all have biases to various extents. First and foremost, I try to question my own biases, and then I work to learn and implement new practices that can counter them in my day to day. For example, creating space for, and amplifying voices of, those who have been marginalized in STEM. 

Dr. Kira Borden (left) and Frank Asuming-Baffour of CSIR-Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (right) using ground penetrating radar to non-destructively measure root biomass for more accurate carbon inventories in cocoa (Theobroma cacao) agroforestry systems, Ashanti Region, Ghana.

To learn more about Kira’s research: GoogleScholar Personal Profile