Carmen Ugarte | C-U Women Outdoors

Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our local RuggedOutdoors community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Carmen Ugarte, a Soil Scientist and Research Specialist at the University of Illinois with a passion for gardening and farming.

Name:Carmen Ugarte

Soil Scientist/Research Specialist in Sustainable Agriculture/Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES); University of Illinois

Carmen Ugarte was born and raised in southern Bolivia. She received her B.S. in Agricultural Engineering from Zamorano University in Honduras and her MSc and PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences from the University of Illinois with a focus on soil biology and ecology.

Carmen has been working in NRES using a variety of approaches to understand how farming practices influence soil biology and function. She also strives to generate information that is relevant to farmers and practitioners. 

What does the “outdoors” mean to you?
My work takes me to the outdoors on a regular basis and that generally translates into time spent setting up research trials and/or collecting data. During the summer, you would also find me gardening.

If the weather is nice on a Saturday, what can we find you doing?
It all depends on my schedule, but I could spend time doing some fall cleaning on my vegetable garden or simply going for a run. 

Your research focuses on understanding the effects of soil management practices on soil quality and function. In layman’s terms, can you tell us a bit more about what that entails?
I think of soil as a fundamental component that supports life on earth. For example, soil provides support for plants to grow, it provides structural support for the infrastructure we build, it regulates water flows, and provides habitat for soil organisms. Soils are very dynamic ecosystems; they respond to natural and human-induced changes. Understanding those responses is essential to implement best management strategies that help us protect or maintain this natural resource. 

We hear a lot about sustainability these days, but not a lot about preserving our soil quality. What is something everyone can do to help keep our soil quality healthy and functioning the way it should?
Maintaining soil quality is fundamental to achieve sustainability. A very simple thing to do is to keep the ground covered to avoid soil losses due to wind or water erosion and to increase its content of organic matter. In addition, when you keep the ground covered with vegetation, you might also be supporting pollination services. Other practices like the use of compost or mulch also help increase soil organic matter which in turn influences other important soil properties. 

What drew you to this area of research?
I come from a farming background. My family owns a small peach farm in an area in Southern Bolivia that is surrounded by small farming agriculture. Aside from extreme weather conditions, farmers there, are challenged by issues associated with severe land degradation. While being part of that landscape, at a very young age I was motivated to pursue a career in agriculture and environmental sciences. 

Champaign-Urbana is surrounded by rich farmland. How much of your time is spent outside working with our natural resources in this area?
During the growing season, I visit collaborators we have across the state. In my current position, I’ve been developing long-term partnerships with the farmers, which enables us to conduct on-farm research. We view this as an approach that promotes feedback between farmers and researchers, and leads to the successful adoption of technology.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
To be persistent. 

What’s at the top of your bucket list?
There are many things/places in my bucket list including a visit to Vietnam or the Salt Flats in Bolivia.

Is there anything you're working on/a project that you are a part of that you're most excited about right now? 
The following URL will take you to a description of a large collaborative effort that I am working on. The project links all the components of the food systems. We conduct research on the agronomic and crop breeding ends as well as on food quality spectrum — in other words, our research provides research from “field to table”: