Meet the Researcher, April Ulery, Professor, New Mexico State University
By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
For this month’s Meet the Researcher, we had the pleasure of interviewing April Ulery, a professor of Soil and Environmental Science for the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department (PES) at New Mexico State University (NMSU). April teaches several classes on soil science in addition to an emergency response to hazardous material incidents course. She also serves the NMSU research community by leading the Environmental Soil Chemistry Laboratory, which helps researchers and students obtain metal, salt, and nutrient analyses of their soil, water, and plant samples. Each year, she typically mentors 15 to 20 undergraduate environmental science students, and two to five soil science students. Currently, she is mentoring one PhD student, and three MS students in their field of study. According to Ulery, teaching students and assisting other faculty members is greatly rewarding for her, and being able to create lasting collaboration opportunities with her colleagues is an essential aspect she enjoys.
Ulery completed her BS in Geology (1980) from the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. She obtained both her MS (1985), and PhD (1992) in Soil Science from the University of California (UC Riverside) in Riverside, California. In addition to her current position, April has held numerous positions throughout her career including Interim Department Head for the Agricultural and Extension Education Department (AXED) at NMSU, Environmental Soil Scientist for Komex H20 Science Environmental Consultants, and postdoctoral research scientist for The U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service Salinity Laboratory at UC Riverside.
April has collaborated and worked with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) since her employment at NMSU in 1998. She has been a part of many different projects over the years, and has had at least six students receive funding for their research through the NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant. One of Ulery’s students, Bianca Wright, was awarded one of these grants in FY20-21 for her project, Evaluating Soil Lead Bioavailability in Agricultural Fields across the Animas Watershed. Wright and her research team are investigating the lead concentrations in the agricultural soil and vegetation in the Animas watershed. Previous ongoing research in this area has shown sporadic high levels of the contaminant in corn kernels, but not in their roots, stems, leaves, or husks. Since corn is a staple crop, especially for the Navajo Nation, this project will strive to determine whether or not contamination is present and to assist appropriate agencies in determining if it is safe to consume corn grown in fields irrigated by the Animas and/or San Juan Rivers. Recently, the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with mining companies to help cover both environmental response costs and damages to natural resources as a result of the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill. More information about this settlement can be found here.
Ulery’s main area of research revolves around how to manage soil quality for improving agricultural productivity and environmental remediation. She is especially interested in quantifying soil properties including salinity, nutrient status, metal concentrations, and how they affect plant growth. Understanding soil is important because it connects the hydrology, atmosphere, geology, and biology of an area. Contamination in the soil can lead to, or be the result of, contamination of the other systems. In New Mexico, water resources are in direct competition with urban development, and changes in this regard could cause significant problems for crop growth. April’s favorite project to date has been developing educational videos to better explain difficult concepts found in soil science to help individuals gain a better understanding of the subject. These videos can be found here, and are free for everyone to use.
April’s research can be found in an expansive collection of over 75 scientific journal articles, book chapters, and NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletins. Her most recent study accepted for publication in the Natural Sciences Education journal (2021) is entitled, Pivoting to online laboratories due to COVID-19 using the “Science of Agriculture” digital tools: A case study. With several other articles and manuscripts in the review/revision process, additional research by Ulery and her colleagues will be released within this coming year.
Ulery has been the recipient of more than ten awards for her exceptional professional service with her most recent honors presented by NMSU, including Outstanding Mentor for NMSU’s Teaching Academy (2020), Outstanding Faculty for AXED (2018), and Professor of Exemplary Teaching for PES (2014-2017). Accomplishments in April’s research allowed her to secure numerous funding opportunities in the form of education and research grants, partnerships, subcontracts, and competitive grants. Developing new labs, case studies, and animation tools to improve learning in STEM courses are just a few examples of how funding has supported Ulery and her students.
At present, Ulery works with several professional organizations, which can all be classified as service to her profession, teaching, or to the university. She is the president of the Soil Science Society of America, and chair of both the PES scholarship and curriculum committees. She additionally serves on the NMSU anti-racism/anti-discrimination task force committee, is an American Geosciences Institute Liaison, and is on the Council of Science Society Presidents’ Board of Directors among others.
As only the third female president of the Soil Science Society of America in 85 years, some of April’s main goals are to be an effective leader for all members of this expansive organization, and to increase diversity in both leadership and membership. In regards to future collaborations with other universities, Ulery has expressed that she is always interested in working on anything water, soil, and/or plant related in managed or native systems located in the southwestern U.S. As a parting message, April Ulery states: “I would like to remind everyone to treat each other with respect and kindness. I’ve learned so much from my students and colleagues over the years, and the most important thing is not about counting research papers or funding dollars, but connecting with others on a personal level and honoring their role in your life. I’ve always loved NMSU because they put people, especially students, first.”