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Founders of Environmental Biophysics Series: Sterling Taylor

Gaylon Campbell’s first experience with environmental measurement came in the lab of Dr. Sterling Taylor at Utah State University, where he was asked to make water potential measurements in order to understand plant water status. What he learned with Dr. Taylor became the start of four scientific companies and gave Dr. Campbell the tools and the confidence to become one of the world’s foremost authorities on physical measurements in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.  Here’s what Dr. Campbell had to say about his association with Dr. Taylor:

Sterling Taylor 1918-1967 Image: dlscience

Sterling Taylor 1918-1967 Image: dlscience

Who was Sterling Taylor and why is he considered one of the Founders of Environmental Biophysics?

Sterling Taylor was professor of Soil Physics at Utah State University.  He did his undergraduate work at what was Utah State Agricultural College, and earned his PhD at Cornell University. He worked on both theoretical and practical problems in soil physics.  His practical work focused on research in the area of plant-water relations and irrigation management.   Dr. Taylor worked out water potential limits for both maximum and reduced growth rates of crops. The irrigation limits tables that he put together are still used in today’s handbooks.  His theoretical contributions were on linked transport and applications of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to soil physics, which he was working on at the time of his death.   Dr. W. H. Gardner, a soil physicist of the time, called the amount of work Dr. Taylor and his students did “unparalleled” and noted that attendees at regional conferences often had to carry Taylor’s “weighty reports” home as overweight baggage.

Corner of a bound note book

Attendees at regional conferences often had to carry Taylor’s “weighty reports” home as overweight baggage.

What was your association with him, and how did he influence your life and your science?

Sterling was a kind of second father to me and to many other young scientists.   He loved to help boys and teach them what their potential was.  At that age, I didn’t have any idea that I could do anything in science. The first assignment he gave me was to set up an experiment to measure the simultaneous movement of salt and water in soil.  I had no idea what I was doing, and it was a challenging project.  It would be challenging for me to do it right now!  But he’d give me ideas about how to do the next thing, I’d try to do it, and eventually I got some data that he thought was useful.  He did some analysis of it, and that’s how I learned to measure electrical conductivity and salt concentration in water and soil.  Sterling’s lab is also where my brother Eric and I learned how to make thermocouple psychrometers and other instruments for environmental measurements.  Those insights led directly to the start of Wescor and Decagon.  Campbell Scientific, Juniper systems and others eventually came from those beginnings.

Dr. Taylor was also a very patient man. He made a precision constant temperature bath out of an old washing machine.  It had an agitator in the middle to stir the water while cooling it with coils around the outside of the tub.  It was a wonderful setup, and he took a lot of pride in how well it worked.  He came into the lab one day while I was making some modifications to it.  I was drilling a hole through the outer jacket around the Freon(™) coils where the refrigerant ran.  He said, “Now be careful if you’re drilling holes through that thing so you don’t hit the coils”.  And I said, “Yes, I’m being careful.”  But I wasn’t.  The coils were a couple of inches apart, and I thought, There’s no way I’m going to hit one.  I didn’t even get a ruler.  I just eyeballed it, drilled a hole, and hit the tube dead on.  I couldn’t have hit it more perfectly if I’d measured as carefully as I could. All the refrigerant came hissing out, and I thought he would hear it over in his office.   He probably did hear it, but he didn’t come out to see what was going on.  One of the hardest things I ever did in my life was to go in and tell him I’d drilled a hole in his refrigerant tube.  He just said, “Well…I guess we’ll have to get some new refrigerant.”  He was just patient, and knew how to work with young people.

Student Examining a Textbook Reading the Pages at a Desk in a Classroom

I made a career choice to be a teacher and have students.

But that wasn’t the only way he influenced me.  As it came time for graduation he gave me some advice that had an enormous impact.  Once when I was trying to choose between soil physics and medical biophysics he said “do you want to be a little duck in a big puddle or a big duck in a little puddle?”  I decided on the little puddle.  On another occasion, I was wondering what kind of soil physics position would be best.  One of his former students had gotten a job at an experiment station near Kimberly, Idaho, and I thought that would be ideal.  He observed, “Those can be fun jobs, but if you go to a position like that you just don’t have any offspring.”  That resonated with me, and I thought, “I would like to have offspring.”  So I made a career choice to be a teacher and have students.  It was wonderful to have had that kind of advice at that critical time.

What do you think we missed because he died so early?

It’s interesting to think about scientific contributions and other types of contributions people make.  One of my sons gave me a book of science cartoons, and one of those cartoons shows a couple of scientists talking together. One of the scientists says to the other, “Isn’t it sad to think that everything we come up with now will be disproved in 20 years?”

It just shows you what a transient thing our work is. We think it’s so important, but the important contributions that Sterling made were the numbers of people that he influenced so profoundly.  I’m not the only one he was a second father to.  Sterling Taylor had a huge family of students.  Many went on to prestigious institutions like CalTech (California Institute of Technology), making important contributions over their careers.  And they trace it back to Sterling’s influence on them.

How can scientists today emulate the great man that he was?

I think it would be to not take science so seriously but to take interactions with their fellow travelers seriously. There is a quote by Clayton Christensen from an article in Harvard Business Review on how to emulate what Sterling Taylor was. Christensen says, “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.  I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

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