How one student brings soil science down to earth

Bo Collins’ goofy, profanity-laden social media presence makes scientific research seem humorous and relatable.

  • Collins photographs the plants in his study, both to monitor their progress and for his own satisfaction. “These are my little dudes,” he said. “I love watching them grow.”

  • Collins waters some of the plants being used in the cover-crop study. Going to the greenhouses to water and take care of the plants has become a ritual for Collins, who found that spending time with plants was therapeutic.

  • Collins drains the water and removes some leftover quartz sand from the roots of a cover-crop plant in the study. Pure quartz sand doesn't hold nutrients, so it provides a more accurate way of measuring the plants’ nutrient uptake.

  • Collins announces the winner of a T-shirt giveaway during a livestream on his page, @SoilScienceFuckYeah. He raffled off shirts for a year and gave away 52 of them, mailing them all across the globe. Winners have sent him photos of themselves proudly wearing their new shirts, out in the fields, in class and at their homes.

  • Collins steps outside for a quick smoke break and checks his phone after finishing another livestreamed T-shirt giveaway. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, can you send me a shirt?’ before, and my reply is always, ‘You gotta enter the giveaways!’ ” Collins said. “That’s what makes it fun for everyone.”

  • Some of Collins' homework for his soil and crop sciences degree. Difficult coursework — including classes that deal with topics like nutrient pathways and the physics of soil — is part of his daily routine.

  • Collins reacts to a challenging homework problem during a study session with some friends from the university's soil-judging team.

  • A Halloween costume with a face cutout showing Collins as a Hawaiian Oxisol soil layer sits on his couch next to a planning board for his soil science work. The name "Bo1" is a play on his first name as well as a certain type of soil, called an oxisol, that is found in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as the “B horizon” of soils.

  • Colorado State University’s soil-judging team meets in early October 2019. The team competes with other colleges across the nation, measuring soil quality, types and textures.

  • After the team returns from a regional competition, everyone meets to clean off the supplies and put them in storage until the next field day or competition. Here, Collins flips through the pages of a handbook used to classify soils and explain the differences in textures and composition, before putting it back into a bucket for storage.

  • Hundreds of sacks of onions sit in a field near Eaton, Colorado. High-intensity agriculture with high yields often comes at a high price for the soil involved; the heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and farming techniques such as tilling can result in nutrient depletion and wind erosion.

  • Two farmworkers monitor the removal of subsurface drip tape, used for irrigating certain crop systems. Subsurface irrigation tends to use less water than more popular methods, such as center pivots or furrow irrigation, but it can also have adverse effects. When tractors drive the exact same track year after year, for example, the soil becomes compacted.

  • A skid mark from a tractor leaves rubber residue on the hard-packed soil in a cornfield. Fields that endure repetitive tilling and maintenance — practices that are often controlled through the GPS technology in tractors — can quickly become so hard-packed that the soil resembles concrete rather than the soft, movable soil that productive farming requires.

  • In the lab, Collins works on sifting and sieving different types of soils so they can be formally analyzed for their nutrient-holding capabilities. After the study is completed, the findings may help farmers determine what kind of cover crops, if any, they want to plant in the future.

  • When he eats alone on campus, Collins enjoys spending time in the greenhouse. Outside of the classroom, the greenhouse is where he spends most of his time on campus, whether he’s studying, working or just relaxing.

  • A bottle of nitrogen for a soil study sits on the top shelf of Collins' refrigerator at home. The nitrogen is a special isotope used to track nutrient uptake by cover crops.

  • Collins takes a quiet moment for himself at home after a dose of his anti-depressant medication. Every day, he works to find a balance between his schoolwork, lab work and personal life — and that includes taking care of his mental health.

  • A photograph of different soil types taken by Collins is on display in his living room, with each circle representing a different type of soil.

  • Collins washes soil from a sieve while working in the lab on campus. He spends a large chunk of his time in the lab, helping with studies and preparing samples for the study’s coordinator to analyze.

  • Collins sits for a portrait in the greenhouse after caring for the plants one evening. “We need soils,” he said. “They give us our food, clothes and help do things like filter our water and air.”


 

“This shit is just like the soil found on Mars! Someday we may be farming this shit, how cool is that?” Bo Collins exclaimed, displaying a bag of blush-colored soil for his Instagram account. A senior undergraduate student in the Soil and Crop Sciences program at Colorado State University, Collins has 2,000 or so fans, who tune into his livestream from as far away as Chile, Iran and Australia. They scour his page in search of entertaining memes, research project data, and updates about his life. A photo that shows him gazing happily at a soil sample is captioned “Happy Friday Soil Homies! I hope SOIL brings as much contentment to your lives as it does to mine. SOIL IS LIFE.”

His project, @SoilScienceFuckYeah, is a conglomeration of Instagram photos showing Collins and his peers, often out in the field, accompanied by expansive landscapes, trees and wildlife — intermingled with boisterous videos and crudely drawn cartoons. Partly by sharing the often-overlooked field of soil science with an audience of bloggers, meme-lovers and online conservationists, Collins is achieving something that many students during the COVID-19 pandemic are struggling with: maintaining his mental health while pursuing his education.

In his academic work, Collins helps research ways to utilize cover crops — which help retain nutrients in soil and prevent wind erosion — in large-scale industrial agriculture operations. Scientific research doesn’t operate within a vacuum, though, and Collins’ homegrown brand of goofy enthusiasm complements the work that he shares with his audience.

“Soil science is the coolest fuckin’ science. CHANGE MY MIND.

Collins creates his own cartoons — often roughly drawn stick figures whose speech bubbles are filled with expletives — using Paint, a primitive computer program. In one, a character with round black eyes and black squiggly hair sits at a table with arms akimbo, his right hand grasping a steaming coffee mug. A sign challenges the passersby: “Soil science is the coolest fuckin’ science. CHANGE MY MIND. The art might be primitive, but the social and scientific undertones are entirely serious. On @SoilScienceFuckYeah, you get equal doses of science and humor.

For many students this year, the loss of a physical community coupled with the challenge of pursuing a degree virtually has taken a heavy toll. Collins has learned to balance the time he spends online with a focus on his own mental health. “Before coming back to school, I had literally climbed mountains, skydived, been a professional scuba diver, lived abroad on my own for five years, had started and ran a small farm business,” he said. “But I’d say nothing has been more difficult to manage than the work-school-life balance as I’ve pursued my degree.” 

“I haven’t been very active on the Insta page for a while given all the shit that’s been going down,” Collins said over a text message in December, “but I still intend to keep it up.”

Forrest Czarnecki is a freelance photographer with a focus on environmental and identity-driven storytelling. He is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Follow him on Instagram.

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