May 24, 2015
For Caitlin Hodges, a master’s degree student in ecology, it’s all about the soil. One class about soil in her first year set her on a path that has taken this third-generation Bulldog from the campus lab to halfway around the world.
Master’s in ecology
University highlights, achievements and awards:
I had low motivation applying to multiple colleges as a high school senior. I was encouraged to look at more “reach” or “safe” schools, but I knew 100 percent that I wanted to go to the University of Georgia, and I thought that all other schools I saw fell short when compared to UGA. The culture, community and charm of Athens, along with the fantastic opportunities afforded undergraduates, attracted me to the university. Well, that and that I’m a third-generation Dawg, which offered me very little choice in attending anywhere else! I got the great news in November, and I was set to embark on the most personally, academically and professionally formative experiences of my life.
At orientation I met Bill Miller, a professor of soil science, the soil judging team coach and someone who became one of my academic mentors. I was incredibly lucky to have the flexibility to take Dr. Miller’s “Intro to Soils and Hydrology” class my first semester on campus. It was fantastic. The more I learned about soil, the more I wanted to know, and at the end of that first semester I came to the decision that I could spend my life thinking and learning about soil. The interdisciplinary nature of soil science enticed me; chemistry, biology, physics, geology, along with applied sciences are thrown together into a dynamic world that has huge implications for ecosystem function.
Second semester freshman year I took Aaron Thompson’s “Soil Chemistry” class. It was another life-changing experience, as it pushed me to think even harder about soil and it introduced me to my research mentor (Dr. Thompson). At the end of the year he asked me to join his lab as an undergraduate research assistant. Of course I said yes, and under his mentorship I have done some awesome research in beautiful locations. My undergraduate research peak was undeniably my trip to Hawaii the summer after my second year to conduct research on soil iron redox gradients on Haleakala Mountain in Maui. Research on soil iron aids us in better understanding soil nutrient cycling and soil carbon dioxide emissions. My studies have the potential to better elucidate the role of soil in global climate change. I enjoyed doing research with Dr. Thompson so much that I decided to stay in his lab for my master’s degree.
My second year on campus I joined the soil judging team. Even though we did not perform well that first year I was on the team, it was with them that I really found my “clique” and got to nerd out over soil without people looking at me like I was a loony. In fact, my nerdiness was encouraged and appreciated. In my third and final year as an undergraduate, the soil judging team placed third at the regional competition, which qualified us for the national competition in Pennsylvania. Due to my individual achievements at the national competition, I qualified for a spot on Team USA for the international soil judging competition in Jeju, South Korea. I even got a team USA sweatshirt!
Going to Korea was an amazing experience. Once there, I met with my teammates and coaches from universities all over the United States. Diverse students from around the world convened for the competition. It was a full-on international soil party! The mood was congenial and noncompetitive as we mostly enjoyed meeting others who also enjoyed our obscure passion. However, when it came to the competition, Team USA did not disappoint; we won first place overall.
I achieved my undergraduate degree in three years and finished as a First Honor graduate. After graduating in three years, I figured that I might as well stay in Athens and finish a master’s and undergraduate degree in the same amount of time that it takes many others to finish just their undergrad. I chose to continue my research with Dr. Thompson through the Odum School of Ecology. Odum is an internationally recognized school with a vibrant community of students and faculty that create an engaging and fun culture of which I’m glad to be a part.
As a graduate student I have been an assistant soil judging coach, a lab teaching assistant for the “Intro to Soils and Hydrology” class, and continued with some very exciting research on soil iron. I love having the opportunity to impart some of my enthusiasm for soil to other students. I am looking forward to my remaining time at UGA, as I am sure that it has many more life-changing experiences waiting for me.
Blessed Trinity High School
Graduate research assistant
Family Ties to UGA:
My grandpa, dad, mom, brother and sister all have or are currently attending the University of Georgia.
I chose to attend UGA because...
The Bulldog tradition runs deep in my family, and I could not think of a better place for myself.
My favorite things to do on campus are...
Nerd out about soil with other students and professors!
When I have free time, I like...
… practicing yoga, walking the greenway with my pup, Jack, and catching some live music at one of the awesome venues in Athens. I also love to eat good food.
The craziest thing I've done is...
… travel to South Korea for the International Soil Judging Competition by myself. Before I met up with the rest of my teammates in Jeju, I had an overnight layover in Tokyo and had to make arrangements for all of my travel on my own. I felt more than a little trepidatious prior to leaving, but I found solo international travel to be an empowering experience that I would definitely suggest for everyone.
My favorite place to study is...
… on my couch at home nestled between my dog and my cat.
My favorite professor is...
I wish that I could choose all of the professors that I’ve had while a student at UGA because they all have contributed to my development as a student and researcher. However, I can narrow my choice down to two: Bill Miller and Aaron Thompson. Dr. Miller was my first contact at UGA in soil sciences, and it was he who encouraged me to join the soil judging team. He is a great teacher who truly cares about his students. The fantastic and life-changing opportunities that I had to travel the world to learn about soil can all be attributed to Dr. Miller. Dr. Thompson is another amazing professor who I think should also be recognized. He is my current major adviser, and it is he who fostered my research interests as an undergraduate. His helpful guidance as a research mentor helped to form me into the inquisitive graduate student that I am today.
If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with...
… Benjamin Franklin. He was the Revolutionary War era’s equivalent to a rock star. He seemed like a highly motivated and bright man who also knew how to have fun. I think that he would have some insightful advice, but also be an engaging companion for an afternoon.
If I knew I could not fail, I would...
… impart knowledge of the importance of soil on the people of the world (it is the International Year of Soil!). A major conservation opportunity has been lost with the lack of soils education. Soils contain many of the world’s future medications, have the capacity to mitigate climate change, are the home of much of the world’s undiscovered species, have the capacity to purify contaminated water, and can support enough crops to feed the world. However, we are losing or depleting this amazing resource at an alarming rate. The majority of the United States, and the world, have little knowledge of the amazing capabilities of soil. If I knew that my campaign would make a difference, I would love to teach on the importance of soil.
If money was not a consideration, I would love to...
… travel the world for a year. I know it’s a terribly cliché answer for a college student, but I think that it’s much easier to gain appreciation and respect for those in different situations from your own with international travel. Like I said in one of my previous answers, I found travel wonderfully empowering, and I would love to achieve that mind-space again.
After graduation, I plan to...
I’ll most likely apply for a Ph.D. position in soil science.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be...
… road tripping to and competing in the national soil judging competition with my teammates and coaches. It was a fantastic way to end my undergraduate career with some of my best friends studying a subject that I truly love.