On the morning of 15 May last year, John Ryan was driving to work along the main highway in Aleppo, Syria, when four armed men stopped his car. After a brief exchange, they robbed it from him at gunpoint, leaving the Irish soil scientist unharmed but badly shaken by the side of the road. Within hours, he was emailing friends and colleagues to let them know he was okay, but in his dreams afterward he wasn’t so lucky: Lying in a pool of blood, Ryan looked on helplessly as his wife and daughter screamed. Their imagined pain was the last straw. By month’s end, Ryan was readying to leave Syria and the international research center, ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas), where he had worked for 20 years.
The Syrian civil war was well under way at the time, and most of ICARDA’s foreign staff had fled the escalating conflict weeks earlier, making Ryan’s choice to stay perhaps seem foolhardy. But anyone who knows Ryan, knows this: While his tenacity has unquestionably put him in danger at times, it has also allowed him to have a real and lasting impact on the Middle East.
“Many scientists have contributed to the developing world through occasional visits or by collaborating from a distance,” says Denis Curtin, a New Zealand ASA and SSSA member who has known Ryan for nearly 40 years. “One thing that makes John different is that he has chosen to live and work in the developing world his entire career.” As a result, Ryan has acquired “unbelievable knowledge” of the region’s soils, crops, environmental concerns, and culture, says ASA member Hayriye Ibrikci, Ryan’s long-time collaborator at Cukurova University in Adana, Turkey. And this, in turn, has put him in a unique position to help the Middle East’s hungry and poor.
“His research has undoubtedly contributed to the increases in outputs of cereals and other crops in the region over the past two decades,” Curtin says.
Ryan holds another rare distinction: He’s one of the few who’ve been named a Fellow of ASA, CSSA, and SSSA, and he’s won international service awards from all three Societies. Yet, his scientific excellence only explains part of his influence, say his colleagues; the rest stems from his unfailing kindness, generosity, and integrity. “John has considerable personal prestige and character. Here in New Zealand, the Maori word mana is used to describe such people,” Curtin says.
“I believe the respect John has earned comes from his dedication to quality research, his astounding publication record, and his willingness to do what he feels is right, no matter what the risk to his career or person,” adds Brenda Buck, an SSSA Fellow and University of Nevada–Las Vegas geology professor, who first met Ryan at the World Soils Congress in Thailand in 2002 and considers him a friend and role model.
Similarly, Kansas State University agronomist and ASA and CSSA Fellow Jim Shroyer “just hit it off” with Ryan when the pair worked together in Morocco in 1988. They’ve stayed in touch ever since. Asked to explain why they clicked, and Shroyer says simply: “That’s the deal with John.”
From Ireland to Lebanon—and Back
Ryan grew up on a small farm in rural Ireland in a family that was “relatively poor,” he says. It was also the late 1940s and early 1950s—a time when few Irish students went to university or even high school unless they came from wealth. But Ryan had smarts and drive. He became the first person in his family to graduate from high school and then won a scholarship to University College Dublin, earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and a Ph.D. in soil science. “I always loved soils,” he says. “There was something about soil that was so … magical. The smell of the earth and why plants grew the way they did.”
His next dream was to travel. So, after finishing his Ph.D. in 1971, Ryan went to study at the University of Arizona in Tucson on a Fulbright scholarship. The U.S. environmental movement was just beginning, and it opened him up to the world of the environment, he says. He also met and married his wife, Barbara, and earned a master’s degree in agricultural education. Then one day in 1975, a visiting dean brought news of an assistant professorship in soil science at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and Ryan was encouraged to apply. “So, to make a long story short, after a few months, we ended up in Lebanon,” he says.
The decision would define his career, but the beginning was hardly smooth. Just as he and Barbara arrived in Beirut, the Lebanese civil war started “with a little bit of trouble here and there,” Ryan says with understatement. Soon, however, the fighting was so intense that AUB was forced to close, and the couple left Beirut with barely more than “the shirts on their backs,” he says. They returned when the university reopened a few months later and then decided to stay despite the continuing conflict.
“We were always ready to leave again,” Ryan says, “but we ended up spending 11 years there altogether.”
Meanwhile, most of AUB’s other Western staff had left for good, and when Ryan returned to the agriculture faculty, he became a one-man show. “I was department head, the only staff member, I taught every class, and I inherited 26 graduate students—and I finished them all,” he says with a laugh. But, he adds seriously, he believed that if his Lebanese colleagues had to continue teaching amidst the war, then he should, too.
“I had the idea—and maybe it was naïve—that I would not go while they picked up the slack,” he says. “And I stuck to that principle.”
One of the students who witnessed Ryan’s commitment first-hand was Samira Daroub. Now a professor at the University of Florida, the ASA and SSSA member first met Ryan as an undergraduate in one of his soils classes at AUB. When she later decided to pursue a master’s degree in soil science, Ryan was her first choice for an adviser. He was also among her only choices. “He was one of the few professors who were still teaching at the university at the time, which was good for me because I really wanted to get my degree,” Daroub says.
“It was great of him to stay,” she adds, because “it opened doors for me.”
One thing that helped her immensely later on was the rigorous training in soil analysis she received from the scientists who worked in Ryan’s AUB lab. “One of John’s staff members, from Afghanistan, he taught me everything I know about soil testing—everything,” she says. So skilled did Daroub become, in fact, that when she arrived at Michigan State University for her Ph.D. a few years later, her adviser Boyd Ellis put her to work in his lab: running samples, training people, and overseeing other students. “And that was all from the initial training I received in John’s lab from him and his staff,” Daroub says.
Daroub was also fascinated by the special fertility problems, such as phosphorus and micronutrient deficiencies, that plague Middle East soils and constrain crop yields. So, at the same time she learned lab techniques, she eagerly absorbed Ryan’s teachings on soil fertility and crop nutrition—teachings made all the more valuable because they came from his own attempts to understand and overcome these problems. “He knew first-hand what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “So, I got a lot of practical knowledge along with the theory.”
Ryan wasn’t just molding his students’ scientific minds, however; he was also creating an “enduring legacy” in their hearts, adds Curtin, who worked with Ryan at AUB in 1977 and 1978. “He took a keen interest in their well-being beyond the lecture room,” Curtin says. “Many of them were from neighboring countries, and he made every effort to ensure they settled in and thrived in their new environment. Remember, Beirut at the time could be a very challenging place for newcomers.”
Then, in 1986, what had been merely challenging became impossible. After 11 years in Beirut, Ryan had grown used to the bombings and gunfire. He learned to walk close to walls to avoid any bullets—and the occasional mortar shell—that might fly over them. But when armed men began coming onto campus to kidnap the few remaining Westerners, Ryan and Barbara—now with a young daughter—knew they must leave. So with a heavy heart, Ryan resigned from the university and took his family to Ireland.
Building Teams and Advancing the Science
Thus began a “therapeutic” time for the young family, Ryan says. He and Barbara purchased a small farm next to his brother’s family farm in the Irish countryside—the same one where they live today. Ryan then spent some time back in Arizona, where he had a visiting professorship. But he wanted a more permanent position, so when a job for a soil scientist opened up at the Dryland Agriculture Applied Research Project (DAARP) in Morocco—a joint project of USAID and five American universities—Ryan grabbed it.
Quickly he threw himself back into the work he’d started in Beirut. With his colleagues on the project, he mentored young scientists from throughout Morocco, teaching them how to conduct sound research and helping them establish a network of research stations around the country. Eventually, the team developed some 80 Moroccan scientists, says Shroyer, who worked on DAARP for year before his son’s health necessitated his family’s return to the United States.
Meanwhile, Shroyer, Ryan, and the other DAARP staff conducted their own research—which, thanks to Ryan’s gregariousness and intellectual curiosity, was always a highly collaborative affair. “That’s John,” Shroyer says. “He likes to build teams. He doesn’t like to work alone. He’ll bring three, four, five people together on a project, and he may do most of the work. But he makes everyone feel like they’re part of it.”
In Morocco, too, Ryan worked for the first time directly with the rural poor, teaching farmers how to apply nitrogen fertilizer responsibly to boost crop yields. It wasn’t easy. Most of the local farmers were illiterate, forcing Ryan and his colleagues to devise clever ways to demonstrate visually what they couldn’t explain to the farmers on paper. But Ryan relished the experience.
“I really got my hands dirty, as it were. I wasn’t an academic anymore, just teaching in a classroom,” he says. “And for the first time, I realized that in a country that is rich, you can also have terribly poor people.”
In 1992, Ryan moved to ICARDA and his influence spread even farther. He traveled widely in the region, training students and scientists not only in Syria, but also Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and central Asia—and then Australia, South Africa, and China. After realizing that many soils at the region’s research stations had never been adequately surveyed, he surveyed and classified them himself according to the American soil taxonomy system. He also surveyed the region’s soils labs about their analytical methods, sending them back reports so that they could improve the quality of their data and lab management protocols.
And all the while, he wrote and wrote and wrote. With Ibrikci alone, Ryan has published nearly 25 review and research articles, their collaboration fueled by the similar soils in Syria and Turkey—and the Turkish coffee they consumed during marathon writing sessions in Ibrikci’s campus office in Adana. Ryan’s interest in education also prompted him to write training manuals, which were translated into Russian, French, and Arabic to reach lab personnel all over North Africa and the Middle East. He helped many scientists at ICARDA and elsewhere write up their own findings. And most recently, he’s been pulling together all the Middle East data he can find into comprehensive reviews of topics such as rotational trials, and phosphorus, nitrogen, and micronutrient deficiencies.
All this activity has earned him an extraordinary publication record. But his drive to publish has less to do with scientific accolades than with his concern that someone will come along later, think the work hasn’t been done, and do it all over again.
“That’s the problem with international assistance: People come for a short time and they go, and there’s no institutional memory,” Ryan says. “So, reviews are the institutional memory.”
Uncommon Caring and Kindness
When Ryan speaks today about his time in the Middle East, his own memories have less to do with papers than with people: his students and colleagues, dear friends like Ibrikci, and the people of Aleppo. After war broke out in Syria, for example, Ryan recalls how delighted the local butcher and others in the neighborhood were to learn that Ryan was staying. “People were happy to see me,” Ryan says. “They would wave at me.”
Then, of course, he had to inform everyone—the butcher, his landlady, the man who cut his hair—that he was leaving after all, bringing many tears. “I tend to be an emotional person, but it would make you emotional, all of it,” Ryan says. “But if you’re not a sensitive person, then you have no business being overseas. You must always see everyone as a human being.”
That uncommon caring and kindness extended even to animals in the streets, Ibrikci adds. She remembers how during Ryan’s and Barbara’s frequent visits to Adana, Ryan never failed to bring the choicest chicken breast, fresh from the market, for the stray dogs that lived on campus. Likewise, one of Ryan’s last acts before leaving Syria was to pack up a stray cat he’d grown desperately fond of. After four months in quarantine, she’s now getting used to the damp and wet of Ireland.
Ryan and his wife are settling in again to their Irish home, as well. Gardening and fieldwork on the farm’s 25 acres occupied much of Ryan’s time this winter (along with a successful surgery to prevent glaucoma). He has planted well over 200 trees on the property and what must be “thousands of bulbs,” he reports. He has also pruned his orchards—apple, pear, and fruit—as well as the soft-fruit garden, and the roses.
In the meantime, he’s getting back to his profession: writing articles and reviews, serving on journal editorial boards and the IFA Norman Borlaug Award evaluation committee, and planning for the IUSS Congress next year in Korea. In April, Ryan traveled to New Zealand for the International Symposium on Soil and Plant Analysis. He might also consider overseas work again one day, but likely only on a short-term basis, he says. “The lure of the garden, trout fishing, and my family will keep me grounded here.”
Ryan’s days, in other words, are full—and yet his abiding attachment to Syria means his thoughts stray constantly to the people who are suffering terribly there as the civil war continues. Sometimes Ryan even wonders if what he did there was for naught, whether his long career means anything in the face of bombs and guns. “I’ve ended up with a terrible dilemma,” he says sadly. “I thought I would be leaving the Middle East feeling that everything is better now. There’s peace and the region is going to better.”
Others would say, though, that he needn’t worry. In the students and scientists he has trained, the soils he has surveyed, the papers he has written, and the people’s lives he has touched, Ryan is still very much present in the Middle East. And he has made a difference.
“It just shows you,” Shroyer says, “what one person can do.”