Digging into urban soils

May 11, 2020

Perla Carmenate started exploring the science of agriculture in high school after reading a book about space travel.

The book, “Shades of Earth” by Beth Revis, features a character whose mom is a scientist studying the soils and agriculture of another planet while traveling through the universe. That fascinated Carmenate, who graduates on May 9 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy.

“She was a scientist, who would take plant and soil samples from a new planet to study and compare it to the agriculture on earth and the spaceship,” Carmenate said. “I just thought that was so cool and I followed that into agronomy which over time has led me to study soils and as I refined my major, I decided to pursue urban soils.”

For Carmenate, agriculture is similar to a beautiful painting composed of several layers.

“Agriculture is complex and involved in everything we are – what we wear, our beauty products, foods we eat, and even what we put in our vehicles,” Carmenate said.

Soil is an important part of the painting, Carmenate said, especially in urban areas where large tracts of land have opened up after deindustrialization. Understanding and working to improve these soils is important in providing green space, gardening opportunities and a healthy watershed.

“I’m specifically interested in urban soils because there is a lot we don’t know,” Carmenate said.

Carmenate said she’s had a variety of experiences at Iowa State, but has always had the support of professors and administrators.

“I am over-the-moon grateful for the people who have supported me all the way through my college career,” Carmenate said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the wonderful people in the Dean’s Suite and offices like Dr. Theressa Cooper, Audrey Kennis, Elizabeth Martinez-Podolsky, and Dr. Howard Tyler.

“I am also grateful for the professors in agronomy and food science that I’ve built relationships with. They helped provide clarity and motivation when I needed it the most,” Carmenate said.

After graduation, she plans to work on campus in an agronomy soils lab. Then she plans to attend graduate school on the East Coast. Her long-range career plan, she says, “is to empower and lift up black and brown communities in large cities through agriculture and reclaimed green spaces.”

“Black and brown communities have been disenfranchised in many forms since the beginning of the United States,” she said. “This behavior continues to happen today and even bleeds into the production, consumption and education of agriculture. For the last two years, the percentage of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students who are multicultural students has maintained at roughly 12%. The numbers need to be higher. As someone who has been affected by these numbers, I want to use my experience at Iowa State to engage multicultural people in agriculture throughout my entire career.”

Carmenate added, “My passion is to build intentional relationships through agriculture. I want to be engaged in local food systems in urban areas and empower marginalized communities by focusing on food security, land management and public relations, and through university extension.”