When he isn’t surrounded by wide-eyed students elbow-deep in dirt or kicking around the alien landscape of a mine site with visiting researchers from China or New Zealand, you’ll find Jeff Skousen, professor of soil science and land reclamation specialist, in his office.
A maze of corridors in the WVU Agricultural Sciences Building will lead you to his door.
It will probably be open.
Drop by to ask him a question, and he’ll drop everything to answer it — even if it takes the rest of his day.
Skousen says that policy is the foundation of his teaching style. It’s one reason he can rattle off the names of nearly every graduate student he’s ever had. He can tell you where they are now, where they’ve been and what they’re doing in the world. And his students still look to him for his expertise.
“Two weeks ago I got a call from one of my former graduate students,” Skousen said. “He’s a manager at a state superfund site now, and he needed my help.”
The former student was Paul Emerson, remediation manager at Gentle, Turner, Sexton, Debrosse & Harbison, LLC, and a 2008 graduate of the WVU agronomy master's program. The location was Spelter, West Virginia, the site of a former zinc mine. And the problem was grass.
“They were having problems growing sod in the yards they were remediating. They wanted to know if it was an issue with soil compaction.”
Without hesitating, Skousen packed up his compaction tester and drove to Spelter to help his former student conduct a few tests.
Part of his job working with WVU Extension Service and the WVU Davis College is consulting on issues like this. But if you ask Skousen why he does it on a personal level, he’ll tell you, “it’s just really cool to see my students excelling in the world. If I had to choose one thing I really enjoy, just like with my own kids, it’s when I see them doing really well in whatever they chose to do. It actually feels pretty good that you’ve helped them build their skillset to the point where they are contributing citizens.”
For Skousen, that’s what his dual position as professor and extension specialist means. It’s one-part academic to three-parts communication. He prides himself on using his research to guide others — from future soil scientists to 4-H’ers to visiting reclamation researchers.
“As an extension specialist, you take the knowledge gained at the university level and you translate it into language, practices and procedures that can be done in the field,” Skousen said. “That’s why I love my job. Knowledge really is power. It really translates into innovation and into money. That’s a major purpose of a university. To translate knowledge and information into usable products and techniques that will help citizens.”
Bringing something as complex as soil science to life isn’t easy, but Skousen has a knack for tying even the most obscure ideas to real problems for his students to solve.
“I’ll tell them about something that happened to me just yesterday when I was at a field site and I had a certain problem presented to me,” he said. “‘Here’s what I saw. Tell me what you think,’ I’ll say. And I allow them to make the same sorts of decisions I was asked to make.”
Jessica Joyce, a 2013 graduate of the master’s program in Plant and Soil Science and an environmental technician for Moody and Associates, Inc., said that attribute sets him apart as a teacher.
“His classes were more like the
Today, Skousen is a big reason WVU leads the way in outreach and scholarship in the evolving field of land reclamation.
Specializing in technologies, chemicals and passive treatments for predicting or controlling acid mine drainage, water quality and watershed restoration, as well as many other areas of research, he helps put disturbed landscapes back to “a higher or better use: that requires the landscape being rebuilt, soil being replaced, the ground water and surface water restored and certainly not impaired. And a plant community put back on the site that meets the goals of the land owner.”
Over 30 years at WVU, Skousen has seen countless acres torn apart and rebuilt to nearly their original state.
“In the last 20 or 30 years, most people cannot even tell that an area has been reclaimed or that it had been mined. We’ve come a long way,” he said.
Part of modern land reclamation’s success, particularly in West Virginia, Skousen said, has been new technology, but an even bigger part has been opening the lines of communication.
“Mining and reclamation, in terms of when they happen, should be concurrent. If you don’t, you end up spending a lot more money at the end trying to correct things you should have done during the process,” he said.
“An important part of my job has been helping mining companies realize there’s money to be saved if you plan and prepare and do it right the first time.”
He has a similar way of setting his graduate students on the right path.
“I tell them when they come in that these are my expectations. I’m not here to hold your hand. This is your project. This is your thesis. I’m an advisor, a consultant. I’ll give you the project. It’s up to you to complete it,” he said.
Keene says Skousen’s mentorship allowed him to both find his passion and make interdisciplinary connections.
“One of the biggest challenges of graduate school is how much a student needs to learn and master within a two-year period. For me, Dr. Skousen was a great resource to use to help focus my project into something that I was interested in studying,” Keene recalled. “He put a high value on problem-solving and encouraged me to seek out the people and resources who could add expertise to make the whole project come together.”
For his work Skousen has a wall full of honors and recognitions — the William T. Plass Award from the American Society of Mining and Reclamation (the society’s most prestigious accolade); teaching, service and research awards from WVU; and recognition from the honor society of agriculture and from the Monongahela Conservation District.
He’s published and edited more than 150 articles, consults for state and federal agencies and continues to visit
China, Korea, New Zealand and Australia to share his 30 years of reclamation expertise.
Professor, award-winning scientist, researcher and mentor to dozens of students — Skousen has many titles. But he likes “teacher” most of all.
“They really are great people to start with. I have been exceptionally lucky that way,” he said of his students. “As teachers, all we can help them do is expand their abilities, hopefully enhance their creativity and ability to expand their minds and then send them off into the world.”