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Fabian Fernandez

Assistant Professor—Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition University of Illinois

BS Agronomy from BYU

Ph.D. from Purdue University

Where do you work? How long have you worked there? What do you do?

University of Illinois, main campus. I’ve worked there for 2+ years; I am an assistant professor with main responsibilities on Extension/outreach and research on soil fertility and plant nutrition

How is your profession related to Environmental Science?

I seek to enhance farmland productivity. To do so, fertilizer additions are necessary. Nitrogen and phosphorus are very important for crop production, but can also negatively impact the environment. I conduct research to find ways to enhance productivity while reducing the negative impact of fertilizers on the environment.

What are the most rewarding aspects of managing your career?

Trying to make the world a better place. Being able to provide useful information to producers, agriculture consultants, crop advisors, and agriculture industry people to help them improve the sustainability of farming. I also enjoy helping graduate students.

How has your BYU education benefited your career and would you recommend any specific course background for your field?

BYU has had a tremendous impact on my career. I benefited from very good instruction and an environment where students are important and the education of students is highly valued. In other universities where the focus is more on research, I believe students often do not get the quality teaching/learning experience I had at BYU. Taking chemistry and biochemistry along with many of the soils and plant courses has served me very well in my career in soil fertility and plant nutrition. As hard as it was to take all those undergraduate chemistry classes, I am glad I did. I come across people that work in different aspects of crop nutrition that do not have the chemistry and soils background from their degrees and wish they had it. I think it is so important to take those core courses that will help you understand the bigger picture and allow you to integrate what you really like to study with everything else that is part of the whole system.

What changes do you see or expect in your profession in the near future?

The need to feed, clothe, and fuel the world while keeping a healthy environment is a growing concern at all levels from the government of nations down to the small farmers, and individuals living in urban areas. These are very exciting times to be in the fields of agriculture and/or environmental sciences. Unfortunately, there are not enough professionals being produced by the universities in the US and many other developed countries. There is one thing you can be sure of, you will not suffer from unemployment if going into an environmental sciences degree!

There is a common misconception of lumping environmental science with environmental activism. How can our department best address this perception problem with our students and employers?

I think the best way to do that is by not being an environmental activist! What I mean is that outsiders that are looking into the department need to see concrete signs that the department provides sound sciences and teaching in the environmental arena. Sometimes when we focus too much on one aspect, we start to see the world in a very narrow frame of mind. If students are trained by faculty members that understand environmental issues within a much broader base than the environmental aspects alone, students will learn that environmental problems are not, in most cases, due to negligence, but rather they occur because of the complexity of the system. We need to have instructors that understand that producing food, fuel, feed, and fiber, or anything else will have an environmental impact. Students [need to] understand that people involved in agriculture production or other systems that can have an environmental impact are satisfying demands for what they produce and in so doing they are not deliberately trying to destroy the environment. As an example, while the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture might pose an environmental concern, if we were to eliminate its use, it could actually result in greater degradation to the environment. This is because marginal lands, not in production now, would have to go into production to maintain the current amount of grain production. The bottom line, have a well rounded program that presents the study of environmental sciences in context and not in isolation.

How can students best network within your profession in order to gain employment or internships? Does your company have internships that may be of interest to our students?

Attending national/international meetings such as the tri-society meetings (ASA, CSSA, SSSA). Go to interview tables and contact professors with programs of interests. Be proactive, know about their programs, and show them your interest.

Does your company have internships that may be of interest to our students? Who should they contact?

The Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois has scholarships and assistantships available for students that have shown promise to be serious students and potential contributors to science.

Do you have any general advice for our students or our faculty with regard to your profession?

To students, enjoy BYU. It is a very unique opportunity. I think sometimes it’s easy to take for granted all that is available to you as a student while you are there. Get as much education as you can, and be the best you can. It is amazing how many doors are open to those that do well in classes, are alert, and have enthusiasm for their studies. Also, take advantage of the many opportunities available to do research while doing an undergraduate degree. This opportunity is unheard of in many places.

Would you share a favorite memory of your BYU professors?

I have many fun memories traveling with Dr. Terry in Mexico and Guatemala. One of the funniest memories I have was helping him get on the scrawny pack horse the archaeologists had at Piedras Negras, Guatemala . In our 3-hour walk journey out of the rainforest to return to the States we took turns going on the horse. When Dr. Terry’s turn came, one of us helped him get on the horse while two of us were on the other side helping the horse not to tip over.

Environmental Science & Sustainability in the News
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May 18, 2020 09:58 PM
ESS professor Zach Aanderud and his team of students use cutting-edge molecular methods to track COVID-19 in municipal wastewater.
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ESS undergraduate Natasha Griffin has presented at conferences in Europe, ridden in a helicopter and visited both the North and South Poles to figure out how humans are affecting the Earth.
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April 08, 2020 10:36 AM
ESS PhD student Sara Sayedi wanted to use science to improve policy in her home country of Iran, but politics limited her work in the public arena. Now at BYU, she is influencing policy at a global scale.
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BYU team investigates ecosystem resilience to wildfire, linking plants, streams, climate, and society
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Professor Sam St. Clair from the Environmental Science & Sustainability program takes the vitals of one of North America's keystone tree species.
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January 16, 2018 10:00 PM
ESS professor Ben Abbott presents a new tool to fight nutrient pollution. Streams can be “sensors” of ecosystem health, allowing both improved water quality and food production.

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September 11, 2018 10:00 PM
Dance professor Keely Song and ESS professor Ben Abbott teamed up to promote BYU's free UTA passes to students, employees, and their families.
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July 03, 2020 03:29 PM
While at BYU, Dr. Gary Booth taught a wide range of subjects. Students and faculty alike appreciated Booth and his impact on the college.
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July 23, 2020 09:56 AM
After reading 115 studies on COVID-19, ESS faculty and students published non-technical report on the effectiveness of masks at slowing the spread.
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June 27, 2013 10:00 PM
If Utah’s quaking aspen appear to be quaking more than usual this summer, the trees have reason to tremble, says a Brigham Young University biologist. In dappled forests across the West, aspen trees are battling deadly killers from heat stroke to bud-nipping predators to tree “heart attacks.”
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March 17, 2020 11:10 AM
ESS professor Ben Abbott co-authored a study in Nature on the permafrost climate feedback. Working with an international team, he found that abrupt permafrost collapse could double carbon release.
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June 10, 2019 10:00 PM
A new study in Nature Geoscience led by ESS professor and students found that the global water cycle is incorrect even in modern papers and textbooks. 85% of diagrams show no people, despite human domination of water at a global scale.
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June 29, 2020 02:18 PM
Professors and students from Environmental Science & Sustainability lead research projects from Antarctica to Alaska.
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February 03, 2019 10:00 PM
The solution to nutrient pollution could be right below out feet. Literally. New study reveals the active and dynamic world of groundwater microbes.
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By Carlee Reber
June 05, 2019 01:06 PM
Will we show up in the geologic record in millions of years? The Anthropocene suggests the answer is yes: collective human impact on the environment will leave a definitive mark in future bedrock.
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