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UD Professor Donald Sparks has received the Duchaufour Medal given by the European Geosciences Union for distinguished contributions to soil science.
UD Professor Donald Sparks has received the Duchaufour Medal given by the European Geosciences Union for distinguished contributions to soil science.

Donald Sparks honored by European Geosciences Union

Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

UD soil scientist receives Duchaufour Medal

The University of Delaware’s Donald Sparks, Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair in Plant and Soil Sciences and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), has won the 2021 Philippe Duchaufour Medal given by the European Geosciences Union. 

EGU’s Soil System Sciences Division established the award for “distinguished contributions to soil science, defined in its widest sense.” 

Sparks has been a global leader in environmental soil chemistry for more than 30 years. The nomination cited Sparks’ “groundbreaking research on soil processes influencing plant available potassium levels within soils” and said “He has pioneered the application of chemical kinetics to soils and soil minerals, including development of widely used methods.” The nomination also cited Sparks’ “seminal papers on soil carbon dynamics,” and said that “Sparks has changed our understanding of and our approach to studying soils, providing a legacy of innovation and advancement.”

In his letter of support for Sparks’ nomination, Scott Fendorf, Huffington Family Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, said, “I have marveled at his ability to run a premier research program, chair a department for 20 years, run a research center, direct an institute, be a prominent leader in many professional societies, and yet be a superior mentor for his students and post-docs.”

Balwant Singh, professor of soil chemistry at the University of Sydney, Australia, supported the nomination, noting “Professor Sparks is one of the most influential soil scientists globally who is driving novel basic and applied research in his discipline.”

Sparks is only the second American to win the Duchaufour medal since it was first given in 2005. 

Matthew Siebecker, assistant professor of applied environmental soil chemistry, Texas Tech University, also wrote in support of Sparks’ nomination. “Don is an excellent choice for this award because he has carried out visionary science throughout his career. His work on the rates and reactions of heavy metal contaminants in soils has fundamentally changed the way we teach, research and understand their environmental fate.”

Sparks is the author of three books on soil chemistry and is the editor of 132 books, including 120 volumes of Advances in Agronomy. He is author or coauthor of more than 290 refereed publications and 62 book chapters. He has received nearly $100 million in research grant awards. 

He has received numerous other honors and awards. Among them, he is a Fellow of five professional societies and recipient of UD’s Francis Alison and Doctoral Student Advising and Mentoring Awards, the Soil Science Research Award of the Soil Science Society of America, the Geochemistry Medal of the American Chemical Society, the Liebig Medal of the International Union of Soil Sciences, and the Pioneer in Clay Science Award of the Clay Minerals Society. 

Sparks served the broader scientific community as president of both the Soil Science Society of America and the International Union of Soil Scientists. He also led the U.S. National Academy of Science’s standing committee on soil science. 

Sparks has supervised more than 60 master’s and doctoral research students, mentored more than 30 postdoctoral fellows and hosted 36 international researchers in his laboratory. 

Beyond the publications and grant dollars, Sparks’ legacy is the students and people he has helped and trained. Many of his former graduate students and postdocs have also become independent teacher-scholars.

Siebecker, who completed a doctorate and postdoctoral research with Sparks, said, “I think an important reason that has facilitated Don's enduring success is that he is a very kind, generous, and understanding person. Don's ability to empathize with students provides them with the space and time to think more deeply and critically about their research, which in the end allows for enormous growth in the student. Those traits make him an excellent mentor and effective collaborator.”

The Duchaufour medal will be presented at EGU’s virtual annual meeting in April, where Sparks will deliver a lecture. 

EGU is Europe’s premier geosciences union. It is “dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide.” 

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