Soil Caricatures, Art, and Outreach: A Conversation with Lewis Fausak

What sparks your curiosity for science? What makes you dive deeper into the questions of how things work? Many of us enjoy different fields of science, with favourite questions or topics that keep us engaged. Maybe you have a fascination with a particular animal, dinosaur, or constellation in the night sky. But, do you have a favourite soil?

I, for one, never thought I would be the one to have a favourite soil. That is, until I came across a soil caricature of Solonetzic soil with the title, “Chernozem’s salty alter ego.” Solonetzic and Chernozemic soils are very similar and both found in the grasslands regions and Prairies of Canada, however Solonetzic has higher salt (Na+) concentrations. Suddenly, soil was not just what I brushed off from my shoes – it was…sassy.

What sparks your curiosity in science has a lot to do with who or what guides you through the topic. Scientists, teachers, and even pieces of art can act as guides to create connections and wonder to learn more. The artist of this pun-ny soil caricature, Lewis Fausak, is one of these guides. Lewis supports soil scientists of all ages at all stages: not only does he lend his expertise to university-level course development and research, but Lewis also introduces school-age children to the wonderful world of soil science through public outreach. The SciArt, or science art, that I came across on Twitter is just one of many ways he engages and guides science enthusiasts through soil science. I chatted with Lewis about his work and how he shares soil science through outreach activities and, of course, his SciArt.

Samantha Fowler (SF): Your position at UBC is quite unique – what would you say is the overarching goal you are trying to accomplish in your position?

Lewis Fausak (LF): In general, I am trying to make sure that the faculty feels supported for their teaching and research goals, and that we are providing excellent educational opportunities for students. Personally, I am trying to learn as much as I can from the knowledgeable mentors I get to work with. I feel really privileged to work in a faculty that supports their staff and advocates for learning and professional development.

SF: Are you excited to be able to mentor the next generation of soil scientists?

LF: Definitely! My Master’s supervisors are both incredible at sparking interest in soil science and applied biology in general. This spark is something I try to bring to any course I help with by creating videos [for soil science labs] and being a part of the Soil Science courses and Seminars. Helping out graduate students with their research – like learning to use new equipment, using protocols, or helping with stats questions – is also really rewarding, especially right now with everyone working at home there’s not as much community for them to lean on to do the research they need to finish.

SF: What motivates you to do this professional soil science work?

LF: I think first and foremost, Soil Science is fun! I was hooked the second I took my first course with Dr. Sylvie Quideau at the [University of Alberta]. I think the more people we can convert to Soil Science, the better. Soil Science is an integral part of everyone’s daily life; it’s the backbone of food security, food quality, climate change mitigation, nutrient cycling, and clean water. Yet, so many people have never heard of it, or might dismiss it as trivial. I feel it is our duty as Soil Scientists to elevate Soil Science and make it part of the mainstream. This is where my passion for research and learning comes from, as well as trying to creatively join the two in my science art.

SF: Part of your work is sharing soil science with non-specialists or non-scientists. What type of outreach activities do you do?

LF: The [Faculty of Land and Food Systems] at UBC is great in general at supporting outreach events. We’ve brought students from K-12 into the university labs to show them what soil is and why it is important. We try to make it fun and interactive: we use memes, share how soil is used in peoples’ lives, and show what careers in Soil Science can look like. I have worked with several instructors and volunteer grad students at the Delta, BC “Day at the Farm” event, hosted by the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, to organize different Soil Science stations to show how Soil Science is important on the farm, such as digging a soil pit to take a look at the horizons, a “mini-monolith” making station, and soil erosion demos.

SF: What is your favourite thing to do with a student to engage them in soil science?

LF: One of the most memorable experiences was a slaking demo. I took two soil samples, one from a well-managed field and one from a poorly-managed field, and put it in water in front of them. To watch the one from the poorly-managed field burst into a million pieces and fall apart instantly while the well-managed one stays together is amazing. I have had students, and even adults, argue, “you glued that one together” or “so, what did you actually do to that one to make it stay together?”. When no, these are just the practices (organic matter amendments, low tillage, crop rotation etc.) that will make sure your soil is well aggregated and won’t fall apart when submerged in water.

SF: If we’re talking about how you share soil science, we have to talk about your SciArt. What motivates you to do SciArt?

LF: Drawing and painting have always been a way to help me unwind, take my mind off whatever I am doing, or de-stress. It has been really therapeutic to have something like this to unwind, especially while quarantining and during COVID in general. I also get really excited when people connect what I draw and want to share it with others. It’s a great feeling to see people get excited about Soil Science because of something I created and help to open up those pathways of learning for people who aren’t as obsessed with soil as the rest of us.

SF: What are some of your favourite SciArt projects that you have done?

LF: My favourite SciArt that I’ve done is the one that started it all, the ‘Soil Science Tools’ pixel art. I had first made a watercolour version for a congratulations card for a friend. I had a few people get really excited about it, which was really encouraging. Then at some point I got really excited about the idea of pixel art and decided to ‘translate’ the image. It features common tools that Soil Scientists use everyday, including: a soil knife, classification book, trowel, shovel, core sampler, Munsell colour book, sampling bags, tape measure, pH kit, hammer and ring for bulk density, water bottle, and a magnifying glass. Apart from being fun for Soil Scientists to engage with, I think this image helps demystify what we do as Soil Scientists to people who might not be as familiar.

SF: For one of your SciArt project, you drew a series of “caricatures” of the soil orders of Canada – what was your inspiration for this project?

LF: The idea is sort of based on Pokémon or video games in general. In the world of Pokémon, you have these little monsters that evolve over time, and in soils you can have a similar thing. You can begin with a Regosol, for example, and depending on the climate, organisms, relief, parent material, and time – there can be a gradual change where they evolve into another soil type. As for how I decide what they will look like, I tried to take the diagnostic horizon for each order and make sure that was displayed in the character. For example, the Podzol has an orange rust colour, the Solonetz has a prismatic structure, and the Chernozem is dark with a granular structure in the A horizon.

One of Lewis Fausak’s most popular SciArt pieces depicting Hans Jenny’s classic model of soil-forming factors: climate, organisms, relief, parent material, and time.

SF: Do you have a favourite soil order?

LF: I absolutely have a favourite soil order – I grew up in a small town called Vegreville, AB, which is known as a region that has Solonetzic soils, so those are my roots. Also, Dr. Krzic once called them Chernozem’s salty cousin or something to that effect, which I immediately personified as a bitter cousin.

Artwork by Lewis Fausak; learn more about the 10 Soil Orders of Canada at soilsofcanada.ca

SF: Why do you think SciArt is important, in general and to science communication?

LF: I think any researcher will say this: it’s great to do exciting research and have those results published; however, if we aren’t able to successfully convey findings to government, farmers, and the general public, then the importance of soil will remain overlooked. I think SciArt and effective science communication can be a beneficial – if not a crucial – tool in bridging that gap to help people understand research, make science fun, and make it accessible.

Sometimes, I think that scientists can be pigeonholed into a certain role. Scientists are creative people, and humans need art as much as they need science. Recently, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations held a soil biodiversity booklet competition for which there were over 80 incredibly creative submissions from scientists all around the world. So, this notion that because you’re a scientist, you can’t be an artistic or creative person as well, is so antiquated and something we need to move on from.

“The Cabon Crystal Heist” cover, designed and written by Lewis Fausak, Jacquie Kwok, Teresa Porter, Franco López Campomanes, Paula Porto, and Chantel Chizen from University of British Columbia. This book received an honorable mention in the Food and Agricultural Organization or the United Nations #WorldSoilDay contest in 2020. The full book can be downloaded by clicking here.

SF: What tips do you have for others looking to share soil science through science communication?

LF: It’s important to know your audience and even then, try to keep it simple. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me, and I’ve had some blunders. For those new to it, there’s no room for error on Twitter so double checking all your facts is a must. Instagram is more forgiving but can be difficult to gain traction without nice images to look at. I have had some really great conversations with experts and non-experts about soil on both platforms. I think the reason people connect with my SciArt is that it’s fun for those familiar with soil to see something they care about so passionately portrayed, and for those not familiar with soil, I think my SciArt is a relatively accessible format to start to learn about soils, and it doesn’t hurt that the soils are cute.


About Lewis Fausak

Lewis Fausak has a Master’s in Soil Science (click here to learn about his research) and currently works as the Applied Biology Education and Research Technician in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. This interdisciplinary job description allows him to support a diverse group of soil scientists. He prepares labs and videos for applied biology courses such as Introduction to Soils, Soil Sampling, Analysis and Data Interpretation, and Horticultural Techniques, as well as assisting in research on topics like heavy metal contamination in urban settings and investigating ground penetrating radar with Dr. Les Lavkulich and Dr. Autumn Watkinson. Lewis’ SciArt can be viewed on his Instagram @adventures_in_soil.

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