‘Nobel’ prize for Whithorn’s Alex

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The highest honour in the discipline of soil science, widely regarded as its “Nobel prize”, has been awarded to Whithorn man Alex McBratney, now a professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

The prestigious Dokuchaev award, given by the International Union of Soil Sciences at four-year intervals, recognises Professor McBratney’s outstanding research achievements. It is named after a late 19th century Russian scientist who did the seminal work in recognising soil in its own right as part of the natural ecosystem.

“I am thrilled and humbled by the award,” said Professor McBratney, who was educated at Whithorn Primary School and the Douglas Ewart High School.

“The vast majority of the work on which this award was based has been done here at the University of Sydney where I have worked for the past 24 years. I have always found the university to provide a firm foundation from which to develop new ideas and to project them to the world.”

Professor McBratney leads one of the strongest university-based research groups on soil resource assessment in the world.

“We have been fortunate that others have appreciated the scientific approaches we have developed here. Several of the questions we have worked on arose from difficulties I encountered in explaining concepts to undergraduates – largely because the concepts were poorly thought out and had to be recast,” he said.

“So I believe very strongly in the nexus between teaching and research – and in teaching-inspired research. I am grateful to the university’s staff and students for their support during all my years here – so many good, talented and helpful people. It’s a big family and one which I am proud to belong to, and to which I intend to contribute vigorously for the next decade or so.”

The award consists of an engraved medal, a certificate, an honorarium, and financial support to attend the presentation in early June 2014 at the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in Korea.

Professor McBratney is currently Pro-Dean of the Faculty, Professor of Soil Science and head of the Department of Environmental Sciences. He has published some 210 refereed scientific papers, holds Discovery and Linkage grants from the Australian Research Council and several commodity-based rural research and development corporations, the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the United States Department of Agriculture. He collaborates strongly with the CSIRO Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.

He is the chief editor of leading soil science journal Geoderma and serves on the federal government committee to develop a new soil research development and extension strategy for Australia. Professor McBratney is also currently fleshing out a multidisciplinary concept of global soil stewardship in collaboration with colleagues from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and the US Studies Centre.

Professor McBratney is the second Douglas Ewart High School pupil to receive the highest award for his work. Sir Alexander Mirrlees from Minnigaff was awarded the Nobel prize for his work in the field of Economics Sciences in 1996.