William Pan, collaborative soil scientist and mentor, looks back on 36 years at WSU

William Pan, retired from Washington State University after a 36-year career in soil science.

William Pan, a soil scientist, research leader, instructor and mentor who helped develop sustainable Pacific Northwest farming practices and crops, retired this winter after a 36-year career at Washington State University.

Trained and educated at land-grant universities, Pan throughout his career has sought out projects that crossed disciplines and benefited farmers, the economy, and the environment.

“You have to work holistically to make progress,” he said. “There’s a whole range of things I never thought I would grasp, from crop insurance to transportation, but that’s what ended up happening. And that’s what led to success.”

Born and raised in the upper Midwest, Pan encountered soil science as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Originally interested in biochemistry, Pan found soil science an intriguing bridge between the universe of crops and plants, and the processes happening beneath the surface. In 1984, he landed a newly created soil science position at WSU, and spent the rest of his career here.

When he was first starting in the field, Pan remembers that crop and soil scientists “were a bit siloed; there wasn’t a lot of crossover.” That soon changed, as research projects drew him into an expanding arena of crops, practices, and considerations.

Soil scientist Pan has mentored or employed more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students during his WSU career. He encourages students to think critically and explore their own ideas.

Pan’s special interest has always been in nitrogen, a key chemical that powers the growth and fruition of plants, but can also leach out of the soil and pollute water.

At WSU, he studied nitrogen efficiencies in wheat agriculture, finding answers to help balance crop yields with a healthy, fertile ecosystem.

“We made good progress,” he said. “Our team was able to quantify where a lot of efficiencies and inefficiencies come from.”

As director of the Washington State Biofuel Cropping Systems Program for a decade, from 2007 to 2017, Pan supported colleagues studying canola, an oilseed crop and an excellent nitrogen scavenger and soil-saver. The program helped increase oilseed acreage as much as 10-fold over the decade.

“I chalk that up as one of our major accomplishments,” he said. “I was able to apply my own research interests, but also support others who were investigating all sorts of aspects, such as weed control and honey bee habitat.”

William Pan in wheat field
At WSU, Pan explored the value and innovative uses for wheat straw.

Pan studied the use and value of wheat straw to the soil, and was teamed up in University of Washington-led research on straw as a supplement for paper pulp.

“It’s an ancient process with some new twists,” he said. His team learned that the pulp’s lignin-rich byproduct, applied back to soil, could balance out the loss of organic matter.

For a decade, Pan led USDA-funded research on ways to mitigate climate change’s effects on Pacific Northwest agriculture. Examining diverse production regions and crops from canola to winter peas, he helped find strategies to preserve the soil while preventing climate emissions.

Over the last four years, one of his major focuses has been as president-elect, president, and past president of the Soil Science Society of America.

Agreeing to serve, “I wanted to make sure our soil science programs are strong, give back to the society that helped foster my career, and shine a bit of a national spotlight on WSU soil science,” Pan said.

He presided over the society’s first standalone meeting, and served at its first virtual meeting last year, highlighting strategies addressing climate change and commitment to diversity.

Pan, visiting with a scholarship recipient, takes part in the 2018 CAHNRS Honors gala. He and wife Vicki McCracken are strong supporters of student scholarships at WSU.

Pan has employed well over 150 undergraduates and graduate students, mentoring one or two candidates for advanced degrees every year.

“I am proud of how those students have gone on to succeed in their endeavors,” he said. “What’s surprised me is the number who have chosen to stay in Washington, or who have gone away and then decided to come back to play leadership roles in Washington agriculture.”

Pan and his wife, professor and current Associate Dean Vicki McCracken, were named 2018 Philanthropic Faculty of the Year by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. They were honored for their longtime support of student scholarships, and have since have created a new scholarship supporting diverse and economically disadvantaged plant and soil science majors.

In retirement, Pan plans to step back for a time, but may eventually play a supportive role in Extension or research.

“I’m really excited for the future,” he said. “We’ve got great people in eastern and western Washington. Soil health has reached the forefront of WSU priorities.”