Interview with Zakiya H. Leggett, Ph.D: Nature Based Solutions – Centered on Soil Science

Dr. Zakiya Leggett is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University in the College of Natural Resources. She currently teaches Introduction to Environmental Science and Forest Soils. She conducts research related to forestry, soil ecology and eco-literacy. Her research has focused primarily on enhancing the productivity and sustainability of loblolly pine, one of the most common species planted in the southeastern US. Additionally, she is researching eco-literacy in undergraduate ecology and environmental science courses.
Lisa Cloete (LC): We know that you are a professor at NC State with an expertise in soil science. What’s your passion?

Zakiya Leggett (ZL): My passion is soil nutrient cycling; trying to tease apart how the above-ground systems incorporate into the below-ground systems and the nutrients are cycled back. I think since I have started looking at studying soil that has been the most fascinating to me.

However when you asked about ‘passion’ my kneejerk reaction was to say that people are my passion and that I really love working with students of all levels.

I also do some K12 volunteering and really enjoy those opportunities. My real passion outside of soil science is getting people, all people, excited about ecology. This summer I did a summer program with a group of high school students doing a green house study looking at soils so that they were able to put together a little research poster at the end of the summer and present at a research symposium.

I also have an environmental summer camp for girls that I conduct each summer. This is the kind of work that makes me tick.

LC: For BIPOC farmers, what’s the opportunity for combining Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Modern Soil Science?

ZL: This is a tricky question! I feel like a lot of what we are doing is traditional knowledge. I feel like we just couch it and pretty it up then put it in a scientific box and put a bow on it.

I have not spent a lot of time with indigenous farmers so this is all based on my perception of what it might be, that being, a lot of what they have being doing for years and centuries is what we are now writing up. For example thinking about the importance of cover crops or no-till agriculture.

I feel like our Native American Communities had already nailed this and to be honest if we had stuck with the traditional ways of how they were managing their land we probably wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. So the word ‘Modern Soil Science’ is kind of tricky as I don’t know if everything we are finding or discovering (quote/unquote) is brand new. I think we are just prettying it up, writing and putting some scientific lingo on it and publishing it.

That said, there probably are some innovative techniques that have been discovered that could be incorporated but I don’t know of anything specifically. There’s been conversations about fertilizer carry-over where in certain places you fertilize for longer periods of time looking at do you need to actually continue that fertilization?

There’s been research to show that some nutrients, specifically phosphorous, that can carry over from one rotation to the next and to the next rotation and so on. This is specifically for forestry but I presume it’s the same for some of our agricultural land.

LC: What role can N4J play in helping N4J farmers adapt to our changing climate?

ZL: I feel that education is really important. When I think about what some might consider disadvantaged land owners, I think that hearing from them first is going to be really important because us scientists (I know I am maybe talking poorly about scientists, as a scientist) often come in with the mindset of “I’m going to educate you on what we are going to see or what we predict we are going to see’ based on climate change.

I think then that a lot of listening has to happen based on the perspective that a farmer has for example seen that a growing season is lasting longer and has seen that they have been negatively affected by the higher temperatures.

Farmers can list what they have seen in their land and working in the field as it relates to climate change to help us with directing where we want to focus our research.

If I had a crystal ball and unlimited funds I would spend a good amount of time doing interviews and talking with farmers, especially some of the older farmers who have been working the land for decades, asking them what they have seen happening in the last 10 years especially as far as what the impact of the increased temperature and change in weather patterns has been, and then use that to direct where we want to spend our resources and our time when designing a research project to look at having an impact.

I think that N4J is in a good position to do some of that and then I also think about being able to take some funding to assist these landowners with adjusting their techniques and management styles to continue being productive (and thus resilient) even after climate change has continued moving forward.

I say continue moving forward because there is a good chance that it will.

LC: Thank you Zakiya for your time and we look forward to hearing more on all the exciting projects you are working on.


  • Lisa Cloete

    As the Creative Advisor and Lead Storyteller, Lisa comes to Nature for Justice passionate about restoring and protecting our natural world and with a wide range of experience in the creative world of storytelling. She has worked in the art industry, publishing, education and literary fields. She has also worked in Communications for an ocean-based NGO and run’s her own small social media campaign for beach clean ups in her city in South Africa.

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