Between Land and Water

Environmental studies professor Janet MacFall finds ecological clues in the soil of riverbeds.

As the last barrier between land and water, the soil in a stream or riverbed holds vital information that is key to understanding how to improve the quality of waterways and agricultural production.

Janet MacFall, professor of environmental studies and biology, spends a lot of time on the Haw River in Alamance County, N.C., looking at the relationship between different soil organisms and their ecological roles. The research requires MacFall and the students she mentors to wade into waterways with large soil augers that grind into stream banks to get soil for testing. The samples are processed in a lab the same day to determine how the activity and ecology of the microbes in the soil changes with environmental conditions such as erosion.

By studying the microbial ecology of stream and riverbed soils, MacFall gains a better understanding of past agricultural practices that influenced the soil quality. The results are important because the microbial community is the last protective barrier to keep the stream and river water clean. It’s valuable information for both the academic world and conservation practitioners.

I want to help students leave Elon with a different vision of the way their lives can be and the choices they can make. It’s not just about being a scientist. It’s about the way they engage with society, how they make choices about where they live and how they live. I want to help students broaden their perspectives and to be leaders and stewards of the environment.

MacFall plans to expand her research and will look at the microbial processes in agriculture soils to see what types of agriculture techniques change the microbial ecology of the soil for more sustainable quality crop production.

Joined Elon’s Faculty:

  • 1996


  • Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Master of Science in Botany from the University of Maryland-College Park
  • Bachelor of Science in Biology from Juniata College

Recently Published Work:

  • MacFall, J.S., J. M.  Lelekacs, T. Le Vasseur, S. Moore, J.  Walker.  2015. “Toward resilient food systems through increased agricultural diversity and local sourcing in the Carolinas.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Science.  DOI 10.1007/s13412-015-0321-1
  • MacFall, J.S., D. Welch, P. Robinette. “Factors influencing bank geomorphology and erosion of the Haw River, a high order river in North Carolina.”  PLOS One Oct. 10, 2014, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110170
  • MacFall, Janet, S. Moore. 2015. Laboratory Manual for Environmental Science. Published by the Kendall Hunt Publishing Co. (Currently only in use at Elon, but will be edited this year for a national audience.)