Mike Van Ham, SYLVIS Environmental

In junior high school Mike Van Ham, now president of SYLVIS, took a career class.  He answered a series of questions and the teacher cross-referenced the answers to identify the appropriate occupation.  He had to do the test twice.  The first occupation was “ambassador”.  Mike figured out what an ambassador did, but no one could tell him where to go or how to become one.  The teacher asked him to do the same test again.  The second time the teacher informed him that he should be a mechanic. And so he started down the path of repairing automotive engines.

Mike no longer spends his days repairing automotive engines, but this early interest inspired him to find out more about how things work, outside of the automotive shop. He funneled his energy for discovery, combined with a lack of enthusiasm for high school, into exploring different landscapes in his parent’s Dodge Colt (which he liked to imagine was a 4x4 truck). In these landscapes he discovered his real passion is ecology – soil and plants, and in particular, trees. This passion led him, eventually, to biosolids.

Read how Mike became part of the biosolids world and what he envisions for the future of biosolids, in his own words, below. Responses have been edited for clarity and abridged for length. 

Why does this matter to you?  
My grandfather was an avid gardener and extremely frugal.  He would often say that “A weed is just a plant that we have yet to understand and appreciate its true value”.  I believe that our sustainability (however you want to measure it) is ultimately dependent on the innovative management of the “waste” products we create.  Biosolids are a product made with intent, have inherent value and are a tool to address a myriad of environmental challenges. 

How did you end up working with biosolids? What was your first job in the biosolids industry?  
My days exploring inspired a love for ecology and forestry, so I returned to school to study forest ecology to become a forest warden. As part of my graduate research I was conducting a large forestry field-scale research project to understand the role of moisture and nutrition as determinants in optimum tree growth.  It was a complex replicated factorial design of slope position (soil moisture), fertilization (chemical urea), competition control and spacing over several stand ages.  In several younger stands something other than nitrogen was limiting growth.  To completely eliminate any nutrient deficiencies I needed to apply not just nitrogen but all the plant essential nutrients in the appropriate ratios.

In an academic field trip to Washington State, I toured long-term forest fertilization experiments with a stop at University of Washington’s Pack Forest.  There was a crazy professor spraying biosolids on trees with remarkable growth response on dry rocky (moisture deficit) soils.

I returned to Vancouver and found that there was a huge inventory of biosolids stockpiled behind many of the wastewater treatment plants.  I went to the regional district with a proposal to conduct a multi-year forest fertilization research project.  In my first biosolids job I was paid a stipend to learn about biosolids, how it could be used to grow plants - and then share this knowledge.  I think I still have that job…

van hamWhy have you continued to work with biosolids? 
Understanding biosolids and biosolids management spans multiple disciplines – earth sciences, biological sciences, and social sciences.  Just think about the range of knowledge within the discipline of biosolids production and management: from wastewater treatment plant processes to soil, water, and plant sciences through to social sciences.  And then think about all the different types of stakeholders we work with – and the diversity intrinsic in their knowledge and understanding.  The opportunity to learn is amazing and then we get to apply this knowledge to make the earth a better place.


What has changed the most over your career in biosolids management?
The change from sludge and sludge disposal to the production of biosolids and growing realization of biosolids as a tool to solve environmental challenges.  The changing focus from “biosolids safety” and “minimal risk of an adverse impact to human health and the environment” to biosolids use with intent to impact human health and the environment – for the better.

Some things you may not know about Mike…

What’s your dream job (in or out of the biosolids world)?  
I love learning, discovering new things, sharing knowledge and applying knowledge to make things happen. Always learning and growing knowledge is cool.  The application of knowledge, however, is super cool.  Maybe even sexy… I think I have my dream job - in the biosolids world!

What’s something most biosolids folks wouldn’t know about you?  aquarium
I have many large aquariums (200 gallon plus) in my basement.  In each I have recreated cool aquatic ecosystems – complete with water chemistry, light quality and duration, substrate, fish and plants.  The current ecosystems include Lake Malawi – an African rift lake, the Amazon river delta, and the Chalakudy river (southern India).  The Chalakudy river is my newest ecosystem - one of the eight "hottest hot-spots" of biological diversity in the world – including 98 endemic species of freshwater fish.

What’s your best Biofest memory?
In a very early Biofest there was a workshop activity to explain nitrogen dynamics and biosolids application rate calculations.  Selected conference attendees were the “nitrogen processes” (eg. mineralization, nitrification, denitrification) and several were “nitrogen sinks/storage” (eg. clay exchange sites, soil biota, plants).  All these people had costumes to define their function.  On the floor of the meeting room the biosolids nitrogen cycle was presented with masking tape arrows and boxes.  The remaining attendees became different “forms of nitrogen”.  Drs. Chuck Henry and Craig Cogger moved the forms of nitrogen (people) through the cycle.  They would change forms, get tied up in the soil, leach or volatilize.  The ultimate goal was to match the nitrogen inputs from biosolids to that of the plant – a role played by Mr. Kyle Dorsey, WA state regulator.  He was very leafy (both yellow and green) and resembled a cross between a corn plant and the Jolly Green Giant.

Hold on - the question was a best “geeky weird Biofest memory” - right?

And last but not least, thank you to all the biosolids experts that have inspired Mike -  and the rest of us, and some wise words for those just starting out. 

Who did you learn the most from over your career?  
Tough call – I am always learning and not dead yet.  Academics key thus far are Drs. Chuck Henry, Sally Brown, Hamish Kimmins, and Cindy Prescott.  Friends and colleagues include Jonn Braman, Craig Peddie, Ken Lee, Ray Collier, Dan Thompson and Dan Klingspon.

What do you wish you’d known when you first began your career?
In thinking about “what you want to do” in your career I wish I had learned earlier that you should really dig deeper to understand the “why” behind the “what”.  Understanding “why” fuels your passion, creates opportunities and can’t help but pull amazing people into your life.