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Know the West

How one student brings soil science down to earth

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

 

“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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