From dust to dust – Gale dedicates life to soil science

The impact of her 25 years-worth of service and dedication to the University of Tennessee at Martin, its students, the community and to scientific research can be found sitting in baskets on the coffee table in Dr. Paula Gale’s home. Each letter and card of appreciation from students, colleagues and friends detailing the influence she had on their lives has brought an unexpected amount of joy to the retired soil scientist as she reflects on her career as a UT Martin faculty member.

While Gale originally studied soil science to work in lab research, a chance to team-teach a soils class while completing her post-doctorate work in Florida led her to a career in higher education she never imagined she would enjoy so much.

“(Teaching) just kind of grew on me. The more students I worked with, the more I liked it,” said Gale. “My favorite part of teaching is the students. They have always been fun, just watching people figure something out or get excited about something. You know, I can take a group of students out and get them excited about a hole in the ground. … That’s the fun part about soils is there are those easy entertainment opportunities.”

As a scientist, Gale has dedicated her life to educating students on the importance of soil and has encouraged an entire new generation of soil scientists to discover for themselves the passion she found in her research. Her love of the subject, which encompasses some of her favorite things: the outdoors, chemistry, math and research, is evident in each class she teaches.

“(Soil) is the foundation for everything – we are born from dust, and we will return to dust! Even though we have contact with it every day, it is one of the last great frontiers,” Gale explained.

The exploration of the “last great frontier” has found Gale, and often times her students, in incredible places to discover soils not found in West Tennessee. From Japan to New Zealand to San Antonio and Rhode Island, Gale is sure to gather soil samples where she is allowed to and incorporates it into her classes to enrich each lesson she teaches. She says her most memorable trips with students always include soil judging competitions where they receive hands-on training.

“My favorite thing to do was soil judging because we were outside for the whole week in the fall. The weather is gorgeous, you’re working sunrise to sunset outside. I always look up during that week and go, ‘Gosh, I’m paid to do this!’” Gale said. “It was always fun traveling with students while soil judging. A lot of those trips we have a lot of good stories from.”

While she has traveled the world, including 47 of the 50 U.S. states, she says her favorite soil, just like her home, will always be found right here in West Tennessee.

As the first tenure-track female faculty member in the UT Martin Department of Agriculture, Geosciences and Natural Resources, Gale says she is thankful for the support of the university while overcoming challenges as her confidence in her teaching style and her students grew. However, the biggest challenge Gale has had to face began in 2011 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer that had metastasized.

After a decade-long fight and numerous diagnoses, Gale says learning to rely on the support of her students, colleagues and the university helped her realize what she was capable of achieving. Having dedicated students working in the soil lab and fellow faculty members helping her continue teaching encouraged her during the hard times and helped her prevail.

“My biggest challenge was probably underestimating myself or my students. There’s been lots of opportunities even with cancer. I’ve been battling it since 2011, but the university has been great as far as supporting me through the different hurdles that we’ve had to go through with this. Even my colleagues outside of the university have helped me get things done that I had needed to do. So really, I was probably my biggest limitation thinking I couldn’t do something,” said Gale.

“(I realized) that there were people to help me. I’ve got a quote written on my bulletin board upstairs, and it’s something like, ‘Lord give me the strength to let others help me,’” she continued. “There are times when we can be leaders, but there are lots of times when we need other people’s help; that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned.”

Now that Gale has fully retired from teaching because of continued health complications, she hopes the 25 years-worth of students she has taught at UT Martin have ultimately become productive and respectful citizens who recognize the importance of soil, regardless of if they pursued a career in agriculture or not.

“It’s fun to see them get jobs in the field, but it’s just fun to see them being good citizens, too, starting a life of their own,” Gale said.

Through the abundance of letters and cards she has received from her students and colleagues, Gale is able to see what kind of lives they have made for themselves and her direct impact in them through her influence and inspiration as an educator and friend.

“These letters… They just say so much. I had no idea,” Gale said. “Oh, I’ve gotten more than I ever dreamed of. I hope it was fun. That shows in these letters.”

As Gale continues to receive and read the heartfelt letters from those in her life, she is thankful for the opportunity to reminisce about the career she loves and the people who have made it memorable.

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