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James Thompson

Jim looking at soil samples with children


My research is about understanding the relationships between soils and landscapes. So I do work with geomorphology, hillslope hydrology and spatial analysis of geographic data. A specific area in which I work, we call digital soil mapping that uses spatial modeling to predict the variability of soil properties and types. I work pretty closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, like using soil information for conservation planning. One area that’s a focus of NRCS is ecological site descriptions and using relationships between soils and above ground vegetation to guide restoration activities.

If you weren’t working at WVU, what’s the most likely alternative?

Realistically speaking, if I weren’t working at WVU or some other university, I would probably work as a soil scientist within the federal government either with the NRCS or the Forest Service. Those are my close colleagues outside the university so I'm familiar with the work that they do; it’s both important to me as well as it aligns closely with my research and interests.

Moment you knew what you wanted to study?

That’s sort of a slow evolution, I suppose. I was always interested in science and in environmental science in general. When I first heard about the field of agronomy and soil science as I was looking at different colleges, it seemed to be a natural fit for my interests in science, particularly chemistry and environmental sciences.

Moment you knew what you wanted to do?

I guess I knew I wanted to be a professor when I was in my first semester of grad school at Ohio State, and I was the teaching assistant for a physical geography course. That was my first teaching experience; I hadn’t done anything like that before. There was one day where I was explaining something to the students in a lab. I was writing on the chalkboard and turned around to look at the class. They looked back at me, and I could just tell that they got it. They couldn’t understand something before and now they did. It was quite a positive, uplifting feeling for me that I could communicate effectively in that way. That’s what made me want to pursue an academic-type job.

Favorite part of social distancing?

I’m not sure if it’s so much the social distancing as much as being exiled from campus. Working from home, I’m happy I’ve been able to make the time to exercise a little bit more and eat a little more healthily. Finding a better balance between work and not work, just sort of taking care of myself and spending a little more time with family. It’s hard to say those are positives in the grand scheme of things, but making the most of it.

I think it’s been helpful to think about how much we interact with other people. You miss them when you don’t have those opportunities to see your colleagues, your students, your friends and neighbors. And it gives you pause to think those are really important connections that we have and to appreciate them more now that we don’t have them as much.

Least favorite part of social distancing?

From a professional standpoint, I’m just terribly inefficient working from home. I feel like I spend as many hours working and I just get less done.

I went to a funeral service for one of my relatives. It was almost like I had forgotten how to interact with people and read social cues. I’m an introvert and it was hard to have those more extroverted interactions because I’m out of practice.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I’m not sure I could easily leave Appalachia, but I think I’d want to live in Italy. I’ve had the opportunity to visit there both professionally and for personal travel. I’ve really enjoyed all aspects of my time in that country. I’d probably live in Tuscany or Umbria, the north central part of the country in the countryside. I think the landscapes are beautiful. It's a pretty good climate. It was just a relaxing place to visit. I like the ability to get on a train and travel and not having to worry about having a car.

Just for Fun

Favorite book: The Control of Nature by John McPhee

Favorite movie/tv show: The Good Place

Favorite Spotify playlist/band/song: Kings of Convenience, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Lord Huron, First Aid Kit

Favorite local restaurant: Terra Cafe

Favorite local activity: Visiting state parks and state forests like Cooper's Rock, Valley Falls, Tygart Lake, Blackwater Falls.