URI junior wins regional soil judging competition

Watertown, Conn., resident says contest will boost job prospects

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URI junior Jared Cianciolo (standing left) and the URI soil judging team compete at Penn State. (Photo courtesy of Jared Cianciolo)

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 9, 2016 – Jared Cianciolo, a University of Rhode Island junior from Watertown, Conn., won first place in the Northeast Collegiate Soil Judging Competition, besting students from a dozen universities from Maine to Ohio and Maryland. URI placed third in the team competition, which was held at Pennsylvania State University.

“It was very surprising to hear my name announced as the winner,” said Cianciolo, who is majoring in environmental science and management. “I thought I had made a few boneheaded mistakes. I’m still kind of amazed by it, but I’m also really excited.”

According to URI Professor Mark Stolt, the advisor to the URI team, soil judging is a contest to correctly identify, evaluate, classify and describe the profiles of soils from pits dug into the ground. Students must climb into five-foot deep pits to identify the soil layers or horizons, describe their properties, classify each soil according to the USDA soil taxonomy, and evaluate their uses. The team and individuals with the most accurate evaluation win.

“Every hole is different, so every time you’re out there you’re seeing something new and something cool,” said Cianciolo, noting that soil judging “has an academic vibe to it. The atmosphere isn’t hostile. Everyone is there to learn and have fun.”

URI has a long record of success in soil judging competitions. In three of the last six years, a URI student won the individual title at the National Collegiate Soils Contest. URI won the national team championship in 2011 and placed fourth in 2013 and second in 2014.

This year, Cianciolo was the only student on the team who competed a year ago, when the team placed fifth in the regionals. He is excited that this year’s team will advance to the national contest in Illinois in April.

“There’s a bunch of soils there that I’ve never seen before, so that will be really exciting,” he said.

Cianciolo became interested in soil science at the end of his freshman year when he conducted research in Stolt’s laboratory. He is continuing that research this year by working on two very different projects. In one, he is mapping the underwater soils of the Niantic River and Niantic Bay in Connecticut, which will help to identify wildlife habitat and determine the best places for commercial and recreational activities.

“If the area has a really disgusting, black mayonnaise-like bottom, for instance, that’s not a good place to establish your oyster aquaculture operation,” he said.

His second research project involves assessing how sand deposited into a salt marsh on Block Island by Hurricane Sandy is affecting the underlying soil, a project that may have implications for mitigating the effects of sea level rise.

After the National Collegiate Soils Contest next spring, Cianciolo is hoping to secure a summer internship at a private environmental engineering firm to see what it’s like to be a soil evaluator or project manager. He said that soil scientists are in demand because ”whenever someone is buying a piece of land, they need to know what the soils are like. That determines what they can do with it.”

The URI student thinks his soil judging success will prove beneficial when he begins interviewing for internships and jobs.

“It seems like the majority of soil professionals have a little bit of college soil judging experience,” he said, “so I’m sure it will help me.”

As he looks toward graduation in 2018, Cianciolo is considering enrolling in graduate school.

“From those I’ve talked to, none have regretted it,” he said. “It’s a way to build my resume and build my knowledge in specific areas. The only problem is that I’m not sure what those specific areas are just yet. As of now, I’m just trying to learn as much as possible, meet as many people as possible, and do as many things as I can.”