Episode 1: Water Moccasins and Other Great Scientist Adventures

Episode 1: Water moccasins and other great scientist adventures

Meet the scientists behind We Measure the World. Learn who they are, their past adventures, and what they ponder when they’re not building instruments that measure the universe.

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Our scientists have decades of experience helping researchers and growers measure the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

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Episode 2: How to be a vagabond and other life lessons

Meet the rest of the scientists behind We Measure the World. Learn who they are, their past adventures, and what they ponder when they’re not building instruments that measure the universe.


Episode 3: Making measurements on mars

Dr. Doug Cobos discusses challenges his team faced measuring water content and thermal properties on Mars, how NOT to burn down a NASA building, and much, much more….


Episode 4: How to be field ready

Veteran scientist and author Sara Vero talks about her upcoming book Fieldwork Ready and how to make sure you're ready for any surprise your field experiment throws at you.




Hello everybody and welcome to we measure the world, a podcast produced by scientists, for scientists.


unbeknownst to us, when we lifted up the, one of our colleagues was out there lifting up this tube, and the water ran out from the back into the rice that was standing there and it sounded for all the world like a water moccasin just shooting through. And my colleague almost jumped into my arms, just a bit. And we then realized it was just water out the back of the tube, but we were shaking for a good five minutes after that.


That’s a small taste of what we have in store for you today. “We measure the world”, explores interesting Environmental Research trends, how scientists are solving research issues, and what tools are helping them better understand and measurements across the entire soil, plant atmosphere continuum. Staying current on applied environmental research, measuring methods and more. Thanks for spending time with us. All right, let’s get started. Today, we’re going to meet the people behind “We measure the world”, a group of scientists who are passionate about measuring the environment. Their day job is to design new environmental sensors and improve existing ones for other scientists. Sensors they’ve developed are routinely used to gather data all along the soil plant atmosphere continuum. They even have a sensor sitting on Mars. More about that in an upcoming podcast. Today we’ll interviewed Dr. Doug Cobos and Colin Campbell. Also Leo Rivera, Chris chambers, Holly lane, and world renowned soil physicist and company founder, Dr. Gaylon Campbell. So for this first part, we’ve got doctors Doug Cobos, Colin Campbell, and Gaylon Campbell. And we’re going to start with Doug, who’s a research scientist and the director of the environment division at meter. He also holds an adjunct appointment in the department of crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University, where he co teaches environmental biophysics, Doug’s master’s degree from Texas a&m and PhD from the University of Minnesota focused on field scale fluxes of co2 and mercury vapor. Alright, Doug, so tell us about the most interesting project you worked on. Before you came to meter.


I suppose the most interesting project that I worked on was probably the mercury vapor flux project. So until that point, there had not been a lot of direct measurement of surfaced atmosphere mercury vapor transport, which that whole problem is, is pretty interesting because the diffuse sources of mercury vapor are known to contribute a lot to the mercury loading in the aquatic systems that then it gets converted to methyl mercury, which is bio-accumulates and it’s super toxic. And so trying to figure out where that Mercury is coming from, other than, you know, point sources, like coal fired power plants is pretty interesting problem. And so developing that relaxed, steady accumulation system was quite challenging. Because the mercury vapor analyzers are very slow response. And so having to work through the problems to be able to use a micrometeorological technique to accurately measure mercury vapor was was pretty fun.


So what made you decide to come to work at meter? And, and why do you like doing what you do?


Well, so the decision to come, to METER was pretty well a no brainer, I just finished up a PhD at Minnesota working on the mercury vapor project, and started a postdoc that, that john Baker had arranged, that was very nice to them to arrange. But with a postdoc, I mean, it’s pretty well understood that you are trying to bolster your resume in in preparation for moving on to the to the next position. And I’d had been interested in working for Decagon at the time, because I knew the folks, and and also interested in working in instrumentation in general. But then I got a call and I can’t remember if it was Colin or Brian, but the call went something like, “Hey, um we have a project to send a probe to Mars, you want to come work on it?” And so that was pretty much that, you know, when you’re when you’re weighing on one hand, postdoc or build a Mars probe, the bill to Mars probe flows to the top real quick.


So what’s your favorite thing about your job,


I have a lot of favorite things about my job, I mean, in I do very much enjoy working with, with good friends, but I also enjoy the work that we do. You know, coming from an academic and field research background, the the things that we do here, both in instrumentation design and instrumentation improvement, and the telemetry tools that we’re working on and the software pieces that we’re constantly developing. Those all make the field research job easier, and, and actually the lab instrumentation as well. I mean, the things We do here are a big boon to, you know, the folks that are in the position that I used to be in doing academic research. I mean, I believe that the the work that we do here, you know, bringing new tools and new instruments to the scientists, I mean, they open up new new veins of discovery. And so that’s pretty rewarding.


Any other fun stories you’d like to share and things you learned from them?


Kind of, we want to hear the rattlesnake story.


Well, so one of the interesting projects was one that, that Colin may also talk about that we work together on some co2, and water vapor fluxes in a couple of marshes. One was a salt marsh down by Corpus Christi in Texas, and another was a rice paddy near El Campo Texas, and both places were just littered with snakes. And there’s lots of poisonous snakes in Texas. And so, you know, we were always cautious and wearing snake boots. And but one time, Colin wasn’t there, I was working with a with a lady named Faith Ann down in the salt marsh, and we were doing some research in the marsh at night. And we were finally finished up with the with the research and we’re trucking back and there’s pretty well worn trail. And so I didn’t have my headlamp on and I’m just trekking out of the salt marsh and walkin’, and a rattlesnake lit up in the middle of the trail right in front of me. And it was, it scared the crap out of me turned on the headlight. And it was one of those South Texas big boys too, you know, big around is your arm easy. And he was curled up right in the middle of that trail. And I was just I mean, I just stepped right on it not have been in a world of hurt, she’d have been carrying me to the truck. So I’m just super happy that rattlesnakes have that rattle. They’re pretty, pretty nice creatures from that standpoint, that they give you a little bit of warning before they kill you. So that’s one thing that I learned is don’t walk through rattlesnake country at night with no light.


So I got I got a quick story. Also, along with that, that rice paddies are notorious for having water moccasins in em’. And we were driving around in that spring setting up the site. And, and we thought, you know, probably five or six water moccasins killed on the road, just by cars driving along in this way the dirt roads is, you know, not heavily trafficked. And so we, we are pretty careful about avoiding snakes, but we were out sampling the root zone of this rice Patty, with a big PVC tube, you know, a 10 centimeter diameter tube, and you kind of jam it into the ground, pounded down, and then lift it up and put it in a bucket. So we could go rinse the soil off and get the the root mass. And when you when you did that he kind of lifted the tube up and and and kind of banged it on a bucket to drop the the sample in. And unbeknownst to us, when we lifted up, the one of our colleagues was out there lifting up this tube, and the water ran out from the back into the rice that was standing there and it sounded it for all the world like a water moccasin, just shootin’ through. And my colleague almost jumped into my arms a bit. And we then realized it was just water out the back of the tube. But we were shaking for a good five minutes after that.


So why did you choose your specific field of research as opposed to another one?


I would love to tell you a story about you know how this was a lifelong dream and how I planned out you know my entire career from my elementary school and knew I was going to be a soil scientist and environmental biophysicist. But that is absolutely not the case. I actually got my undergrad at Duke in environmental science. And when I finished up my undergrad, I didn’t really have great job prospects. And so I ended up back in Bryan Texas, which is where I’m from, and applied for a job at the university as a technician in an environmental physics lab with Jim Heilmann. And I got the job because I could weld and because I went to Duke and Jim was a Duke fan. But as part of that technician, position, I had the opportunity to go to grad school. And this was about the time that I straightened up and decided I ought to do something with my life and started applying myself and actually paying attention in class and I’m like, holy cow. This is super interesting. And so that is how I kind of happened into into environmental physics, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since it’s been, it’s been super fascinating. One of the things that that I’m pretty bad about is bringing the environmental biophysics home with me or maybe good about actually and so my wife calls me the pocket scientist and, and this especially comes out when when we’re out backpacking or something, you know, I’m always preaching to the kids like no why would Why would you try and dry your socks there? Those aren’t the optimal drying conditions. You have to get some airflow across your socks because then the boundary layer conductance is is maximized, and you’re Gotta get way more drying and Oh no, you have to heat the socks and get them warm and get the airflow. Come on kids, no way. There’s no way you’re going to put your put your tent out in the open like that it’s going to get condensation all over it, you got to get your tent under the under the trees. or you’re going to end up with, you know, being super cold at night like, Oh, come on kids. And so that is the life of an environmental biophysicist, I suppose.


So does it ever get to a point where you obsess where, where you’re constantly seeing the world at an environmental biophysics level?


That, no I don’t think it gets that bad. I’m interested to hear Gaylons answer to that question, because because I’m imagining that he actually sees equations when he looks at, you know, natural phenomena. I stopped a little bit short of that.


So Doug, what’s the most promising research on the physical environment being done right now,


I am by no means an expert in this. In fact, I know almost nothing about it. But quantum physics are fascinating because they almost seem to defy the known laws of physics. And there are things there that are still at this point, unexplainable, right to science, and they’re real. They’re just unexplainable. And I think that advancing in those areas, you know, that’s gonna be really interesting to watch for the rest of my life, I imagine.


Alright, so moving on to Dr. Colin Campbell. Colin has been a research scientist at meter for 20 years following his PhD at Texas a&m University in soil physics. He also co teaches environmental biophysics at Washington State University, a class he took over from his father Gaylon more than 25 years ago. He’s currently serving as research scientist and vice president of the environment division here at meter. So Colin, you happen to work with Doug on his master’s project at Texas a&m. Did you guys run into any bumps in the road while doing that project? And how did you overcome those difficulties that you did face?


So Doug, and I researched down in the estuary near Corpus Christi, Texas. And I think it would be easier to say that what didn’t we run into in terms of bumps in the road, and not what bumps in the road we ran into, because that project was fraught with challenges. First of all, we had a program in our data logger that was over 40 pages long. And when we started the project, neither Doug nor I knew anything about data logger programming. So one of the cool things about the project was that essentially, Doug built the system from scratch, but based on a system that was built up at Kansas State University by a researcher named Jay Ham. And so we essentially copied that system, but had to harden it and prepare it to go into this estuary. And man, there were a lot of different things that were challenges for us. One of the most interesting ones was that putting these systems out in estuaries, you just don’t imagine all the things that might attack your system. And one of the days we went down to the site, and Doug and I regularly drove to four and a half hours down there and back probably once a week or once every other week. And one time when we got there that the data logger enclosure was completely filled with ants. And I don’t remember it being that long between, you know, one day when when we were there, and there were no ants and the day we got there, and it was completely packed full of ants. Trying to get around that problem trying to figure out the problem of power in the winter. We designed some pretty robust solar panels to make sure that things stayed working through the winter. But with those low solar angles, and limited sun time, we ran out of batteries essentially. And so one day we found ourselves carrying these lead acid batteries from interstate through the marsh, I think we went about two miles in in Boots as we are trying to keep our boots from flooding. And and with a battery in each hand. We kind of trade off every little while. And not easy to set down batteries in the middle of a marsh though. So those are some of the challenges we faced out there.


So what made you decide to come to work at meter? And why do you like doing what you do?


Well, after grad school, I was looking around for postdocs and academic opportunities. And, and at that time, it was a pretty tight knit family company. And my father had just retired from the university and come to work full time at METER Group and as I sat down and and thought about where I wanted to be two things came into my mind one one was I’d love to work with my dad who is an amazing scientist and and a lot of fun to innovate with. And also I really wanted to come back into this community of Pullman, it’s a small community but really educationally focused and forward thinking and and those are really the two things that that got me back here. I mean, there’s a lot of things that I love about meter. And and so glad I made that choice. But those were kind of the the top of the list for coming back.


And what is the weirdest thing about your job? Or rather, is there anything that makes you laugh?


I think the things that make me laugh most are just the people I get to work with. We’ve got an amazing group of scientists, and engineers and business people here. And these guys are hilarious. Especially Doug. Doug always has a good joke loaded up for all of us. And usually a good practical joke loaded up for all of us. I give a lot of presentations around the company and I gave a lunch meeting once and Doug put together a bingo card for employees without me knowing it. And so I got up, got up to give my presentation to 150 of the Meter, employees and, and little did I know that 40 in the audience had special secret bingo cards, for words, I love to use, like Wasatch plateau and variable rate irrigation. And so they were filling in their cards. And everybody was smiling for the first time in my presentation. In all the presentations I’ve give, people are engaged. They were smiling. They were waiting, you know, with bated breath on every word I said. And then I found out it was only because they were hopeful to win the bingo game.


So with all of those wonderful people, all the wonderful projects, what is your favorite thing about your job?


My favorite thing about my job here at Meter is just the opportunity to make a difference every day that I come to work. And I mean, now I have to do some administrative and some development. So those get combined together. But I love discovering new things and figuring out new ways to do things that did or better that didn’t improve, I think from my science background and things that I was taught just every day having the opportunity to make a difference in maybe somebody’s research, or if it’s one of our employees in their life to make them better to help them grow in a new way to innovate a new idea, or even to help people grasp a concept that they haven’t grasped before, like the idea of, of soil water potential or soil water tension that that METER Groups talked a lot about, lately, that the idea that we can really understand the comfort level in plants and being able to connect that to our own comfort level, like a thermostat and measuring temperature in our house these things, you know, discovering new ways to do things or new ideas, ways to present to people that’s what I think is my favorite part of the job.


So how has being a scientist changed how you view the world?


Well, it’s fundamental to solve physics, and particularly environmental biophysics, understanding with the way he transfers or the way mass transfers in a system, and understanding the engineering aspects of that. I mean, I can’t look at the world the same way I did before I understood these things. And when I go outside, I’m thinking about how he is going to conduct from my body and how much water I might lose by breathing water vapor out and how much I have to drink again, in these stupid things. It’s just a matter of our understanding these things kind of driving a lot of the choices that we make. And of course, I, whenever my children mentioned something, you know, I don’t need to wear a hat, we talk about the conductance of the head and how a hat changes, you know, and Come on dad, can you get over the science of these things? So yeah, I I don’t I see the world very differently than I once did.


You know science as a whole has a great deal of influence or, or impact on changing the world for better? How have you seen or more, How do you think science can help in you know, for instance, policymaking or, or other things that really impact people’s day to day lives?


We see a turbulent world right now where questions related to, to what’s real and what’s fake, continually come up. And I think the scientific process where we ask questions and and use the scientific method to answer them are critical to be able to avoid and crossover money, many of these concerns about what is true and what’s not true. And as we use the tools that we’ve been given to simply do our best to establish truth, we can move forward and be able to help in Policymaking or any other thing that depends on the scientific method to ask questions of, of what is right and what is wrong.


And with that, is there a best way or what are good ways to translate science to the late person to to communicate your findings, your results? Have you seen any good successes within that endeavor? Or any failures?


I don’t know that that I’ve particularly seen or even personally experienced one of those aha moments where I see that we’ve been able to cross that divide effectively, I see a real need for it. And it ends up being a real passion of what I in particular, I’m trying to do in some of these things that meter does trying to help people who may not have experience at a scientific level, understanding the benefits of some of the things that that we can measure, for example, but some of the things that that I’ve seen that work is simply try these things out on on students, let’s say or, or on people who don’t have experience in the sciences, and see how well some of these ideas Connect. And, and whether they can achieve people who aren’t experienced in this area, the aha moments saying, Oh, I finally get it I, I see that plants have a thermometer like experience in the soil with water that’s related to this weird thing we call water potential or soil water tension.


All right, if you could choose one question about the physical world that you could know the answer to, what would that be?


Here’s my perspective. In all honesty, I think about solving problems one step at a time. And so there are these great problems out there that I’d love to know the answer to. What is the extent of our of our universe, you know, and how many universes are there out there? But these questions can’t be answered in my lifetime. And so the key questions that I think about are things that relate to our own Earth system. How can we establish and continue to thrive here on this earth, with all the interplay between human input in and environmental needs, and being able to study and learn about that and be able to balance our worlds such that we can still have a society as we’ve grown up around and all of us experience and yet, safeguard and keep for the next generations? This beautiful environment that we’ve been blessed with? I mean, that that that’s the most important question, in my opinion, and it’s a step by step answer.


And we save some of the best stories for last. We will now hear from Dr. Gaylon Campbell, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on physical measurements in the soil plant atmosphere continuum, and the founder of meter. His book written with dr. john Norman on environmental biophysics provides a critical foundation for anyone interested in understanding the physics of the natural world. Dr. Campbell has written three books, over 100 refereed journal articles and book chapters, and has several patents. Hi Gaylon, tell us a little bit about the history of meter, which was formerly Decagon devices. And how it came to be.


Well, Decagon actually was started by my children. My wife, Judy, and I have, have nine children. And so as the oldest got to be teenagers, like, you can imagine that we were wondering about jobs for them and where they could earn the money that they’d need for schooling and other things. And we’d had some experience in the past with starting small companies. Campbell Scientific I was involved with that. And wiscorps and so duties said, it would sure be nice if you could just come up with something that the kids could make and sell that they could use to earn the money that they need for schooling and other things. And so now that was how Decagon was started. Campbell Scientific did the manufacturing. We started out with the thermocouple chronometer, sample changer and an ANA volt meter that would go with that. Campbell Scientific did the manufacturing. The kids put it together and did the marketing and customer service and other parts of that and the company grew from there. All of our children worked in the company various times in their lives. Some of them still work there. Our son Scott is the president of the company. Colin is, as you’ve heard the vice president in charge of the environmental part, our daughter, Tamsin was previously the president now works in finance and daughter Julia does marketing and technical writing.


You’ve been a research scientist and engineer at Meijer for over 20 years. Following nearly 30 years on faculty at Washington State University, over the years, you’ve worked with many wonderful mentors. So can you tell us a little bit about some of your mentors? And what they taught you?


There have been a lot them, one that certainly stands out is, is the man who got me interested in soil physics. I did my undergraduate training in physics at Utah State University, but, but I grew up on a farm. And so I thought it would be interesting to to learn a little bit about soils. So one quarter, I signed up for a soils class, the beginning soils class. And it just happened that the soil physicist, Sterling Taylor was assigned to teach the class that quarter. And so that was my first introduction to soils. Formally, at least, at the end of the quarter, Dr. Taylor came and asked if I’d like to work in his laboratory, and I eventually did that. So as an undergraduate student had the opportunity to do research and soil physics. Dr. Taylor was an amazing person, he died at a young age, after knowing somebody like him whose field was soil physics and environmental physics, it would be hard to choose anything else he made, it just the most exciting thing on earth. So that was unfortunate that we lost him. But even in, in the short career that he had, he did research and all of the things that I’ve followed for the rest of my, my life, from that time on all things related to soil plant atmospheric continuum. And so he was the one that sparked my interest in soil physics.


So with all of those great experiences those those decades in academia, what made you decide to leave academia and come to work full time at decagon devices, which is now meter?


Now that’s an easy question to answer. Our daughter, Tamsin was the president of of Decagon at the time. And she came to me one day and said, “My Vice President of Engineering is leaving. And I need somebody to take over that role. I’d like you to retire from the university and come go to work for me.” And I said, “Oh I think I’m too young to retire.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you find out? And then let me know.” So I went over to talk to the retirement officer, he had come to the University, about the same time I have, and I knew him fairly well, and, and I said, “Oh, how old do you need to be to retire?” And he said, “Oh, you can retire anytime you want.” He said, “in fact, if you had come here, two weeks from now, I wouldn’t have been here I would have been retired already.” So I retired from the university and went to work for my daughter.


What do you enjoy? What do you love about working at Meter?


I often think as I said, and look at the screens on my computer. What a blessing it is to be able to work in a job like this one screen will have a schematic on it, one screen will have some microprocessor code on it, other screen, and we’ll have some equations or something else that that is just so veried, to be able to do electronics to do programming to do science. And then probably more than anything to be solving problems that matter to people that the things that we come up with, increase crop yields, they reduce pollution, they make the world a better place to be in. I love working with customers working with the people who are applying our stuff. And I love working with other scientists. I mean, I just can’t imagine a more enjoyable job.


So over the last three decades, you’ve invented and helped invent many successful instruments to measure the soil plant atmosphere continuum. And this this is going to be kind of like a choosing your favorite child. But is there an invention that you are most proud of and why?


You know, that is a hard question because there have been a lot of fun things, the ones that are most fun, I think are the ones that involve some really fun analysis and some really nice science and equations. Also some really fun electronics, and then combining those things to solve some problem. One area that I’ve spent a lot of time in is using heated needles for scientific measurements. So use them for measuring thermal properties of soil, heat capacity, and thermal conductivity, and then can use those to get water content, you can measure your flow of sap in plants with the same kind of needles and the same kind of mathematics. The mathematics that apply is goes beyond the hardest mathematics that I know how to do anything with and then the electronics are also somewhat challenging. And then the kinds of problems that you can solve with with that. Another one is the ultrasonic anemometers. That started working with those back in 1977. To measure the vertical fluxes of things in the atmosphere, and Campbell Scientific, built those for quite a long time. And then more recently, we’ve started building ultrasonic anemometers for measuring the horizontal wind speed component. And again, it’s it’s demanding. The analysis is demanding the the circuitry is demanding the those are fun problems to work on.


How has being a scientist changed the way you view the world? Do you get caught up in as you’re going out with your family or just by yourself? You know, just looking around observing the world and seeing things through the eyes of an environmental biophysicist?


Well, sure, I was riding a ski lift one time, and notice that the wind was blowing across one of the pipes, one of the braces that held the seat up and, and the wind wasn’t steady it was was oscillating at a particular frequency. And it was neat to know if I was doing that that was the was from ice being shed off the net pipe. But on the other hand, my wife who also I mean she does have some training in science, but, but she’s just consistently a lot better scientists than I am, she does know the equation for heat conduction, but when she wants to know if something is metal, or styrofoam or something else, why she goes and measures the thermal conductivity with their finger. I never would have thought to do that, even though I know all of the equations that relate to that. So there people who are natural scientists, I think, some who are maybe into this to just know the equations, but not the applications.


Okay, final question. If you could choose one question about the physical world that you could know the answer to, what would that be?


I wish that I actually knew what the electrical conductivity of the pore water in soil is. I mean, that that would seem trivial to I suppose most physicists that think oh that something you can know without any work at all. But we work pretty hard at it. And we still don’t know that as well as we want to Earth what’s the water potential? in the soil? So even pretty simple problems we don’t have answers to and and there are surely a lot of days when I wish I knew the actual value or what the value of the thermal conductivity was of a block of soil. I mean, we can get a number out but whether it’s the right number, that’s the question.


All right, times up for today. And just a reminder, next week, we’ll publish part two of this interview where we meet three more Meter scientists. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us at meetup group.com. You can also reach us via Twitter through our handle at Meter underscore p and v. Our Environmental Research experts will be in touch with you to answer any questions or we can put you in contact with today’s guests. And you can view a full copy of the script in the podcast description. That’s it for today. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on “we measure the world”.

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