By Meg Maffitt
Director of Strategic Development
The Water Center at Penn

The Water Center and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences are pleased to announce Maura Slocum, Earth & Environmental Science PhD Program, as the recipient of the Kirpich Research Award for 2021. Dr. Alain Plante, Professor and Undergrad Chair in EES, is Maura’s advisor.

The Philip and Billie Kirpich Research Award aims to help tackle one of the world’s most pressing issues – water management for food production in developing countries. The award will support Maura’s research with soil carbon sequestration in Accra, Ghana. The ultimate goal is to improve soil health through increased soil organic matter (SOM), which improves soil water retention and leads to increased crop yields.

Please join us in congratulating Maura on this award.

Upon completion of her research, Maura will present her findings at a Water Center program and through an article which will be shared on multiple platforms.


Soil organic matter (SOM) is key to the food-water-energy nexus. SOM is a critical contributor to soil health for sustainable agricultural production due to its ability to retain water and increase crop yields.

Anthropogenic Dark Earth (ADE) soils contain much greater amounts of SOM than adjacent unamended soils (AS). ADE soils are created through long-term intentional human inputs of organic materials such as plant litter, vegetable food waste, middens and pyrogenic (fire-derived) matter, but the transition from amended to ADE soils is not clearly understood. African Dark Earths (AfDE) have recently been studied by Western science and represent compelling end-member systems for understanding the mechanisms and processes of SOM stabilization in tropical soils.

Therefore, Maura’s work will identify and quantify mineral and organic properties contributing to SOM stabilization mechanisms and the role of microbial communities in driving carbon cycling in these soils. She will pursue three research questions addressing the physical, chemical, and biological properties of African dark soil and will explore the mineral properties, SOM characteristics, and microbial activity in AfDE as compared to AS.

Studies have shown that increases in SOM generate increases in plant-available water. Even during temporary droughts, high SOM and subsequent aggregate formation can absorb and hold water and deliver it to plants. African Dark Earths may be a tool local communities can use to increase food security and the resilience and sustainability of their agricultural systems, while also supporting removal of atmospheric carbon to address climate change.


Maura Slocum is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth & Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her B.S. in Environmental Science and Sustainability at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Maura served as an Agroforestry Extension Agent with the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa from 2016-2018. Maura serves on various committees within the department and in the greater Philadelphia area to address inequities facing women, non-binary, and underrepresented minorities in STEM.