Mary Beth Adams’ parents made her get a job when she was 14 years old, so she chose to work with the Youth Conservation Corps on a wildlife refuge for the summer. That’s when she decided she wanted to study forestry. There was no turning back for this Seymour, Indiana, girl.
“I enjoyed just knowing how the world works and what things are called,” she recalled. “I remember my first soil pit and discovering a fragipan, a cemented layer in the soil. It’s a funny word, you have to admit.”
Now Adams serves as a mentor for young women entering a male-dominated field. She took a sabbatical in 2012 from her job as a research soil scientist with the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, to be a visiting research associate professor with the WVU Davis School of Natural Resources, becoming a mentor to many and helping to forge new relationships across the WVU campus.
“She’s helping our faculty, particularly our new faculty, by introducing them to seasoned researchers from different colleges and departments across WVU, like biology, geography and soil science,” said Professor and former WVU School of Natural Resources Director Joseph McNeel. “She is really focused on collaboration and new opportunities.”
McNeel said she has especially had a major impact as a mentor to women in the field.
“She has worked to make people more aware of special events that address women’s issues. She is a strong supporter of Association for Women in Science programs and provides details of special events sponsored by that professional association to the faculty on a regular basis,” he said.
Adams has taken Charlene Kelly, a new faculty member in the School of Natural Resources, under her wing and worked with her to identify and apply for grants and contracts. “She has also introduced Dr. Kelly to a number of scientists on campus who could be possible collaborators with her,” McNeel said.
“Having Beth as a mentor was truly inspirational, especially during national scientific conferences to watch as she interacted and led the conversations with other soil scientists and ecologists at the top of their field,” Kelly said. “She and her colleagues have opened a lot of doors and minds for aspiring scientists in the field.”
Adams is a two-time graduate of Purdue, having received both her bachelor’s and master’s there in forestry and soil science, and she completed her studies with a doctorate from North Carolina State. Most recently, she received the Purdue University 2016 Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award.
She did her postdoctorate work at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, studying the carbon economy of plants. Her sense of discovery, however, and her knack for organizing didn’t stop after earning her degrees.
“One of the most satisfying things that I have done is help to create a network of experimental forests and ranges in the Forest Service,” she said.
The Forest Service has more than 80 experimental forests and ranges, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the people who run them had ever gotten together to develop a network to better address big-scale questions. And it was because of Adams and a few of her colleagues. Now the group is looking at the effect of climate change and land use on managing forests and range lands.
It was McNeel, after a tour of the Fernow Experiment Forest near Parsons, where Adams conducts most of her long-term research, who asked Adams to strengthen the already strong relationship that the Forest Service had with WVU through engagement with her.
“She adds a completely new dimension to our forestry ‘toolkit’ as a forest soils specialist,” McNeel said.
In 2012 she lived at the WVU Research Forest and wrote grants, conducted studies and guest lectured for a semester as a visiting research associate. That relationship continues today, with Adams working with graduate students, engaging with faculty and enabling relationships.
Last semester she worked with young faculty and students to do a seminar series at the Forest Service lab in Morgantown.
“It’s been a really good collaborative relationship,” Adams said. “I tend to be a little more high energy and full of curiosity, and the faculty and students at WVU have high energy and curiosity too.”
Adams also serves as a liaison with the Fernow Experimental Forest outside of Parsons, 4,700 acres of federal research forest set aside in 1934 with long-term research projects that date back to 1948.
“We measure everything,” said Adams, who has experiments at the Fernow Experimental Forest that started 25 years ago.
Her research includes a Long-Term Soil Productivity study, which is part of a networked study being conducted in the U.S. and Canada.
“I specialize in long-term research,” Adams said. “It’s important to do these long-term experiments, and it’s important to make sure they are done right.”
For Adams, being a woman in forestry and soil science with a successful research program makes her “a little unusual.”
“My thing is to make sure that somebody pays attention to the women in natural resources,” she said.
She tries to mentor young women, volunteers as a mentor at WVU and at Purdue and tries to ensure that women in her sector get the attention they deserve.
“I hope to carry forward her abilities as a female mentor in a historically male-dominated field and encourage younger females to find their confidence and know that they, too, can belong and have an important voice in their science,” said Kelly.
Adams had a tremendous influence on Kelly’s career, serving as her Ph.D. advisor, and even now mentoring her as a new female faculty member in the School of Natural Resources.
“She provided excellent opportunity to work at the Fernow Experimental Forest, always providing great insight into the projects, and still allowing for a great deal of academic freedom to explore the science on my own terms,” Kelly said. “She continues to be an instrumental and vocal supporter of my work and capabilities.”