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Emeritus Professor Keith Smettem

The UWA Institute of Agriculture

"Success and satisfaction come from doing things that interest you and interest others. Be persistent and never give up exploring new ideas and posing new questions."

Professor Smettem joined UWA in 1994. In 2006, he established the State Centre of Excellence in Ecohydrology and became the Research Director. From 2008 to 2010 he was Head of Environmental Systems Engineering. Professor Smettem’s early research focused on the physics of preferential water and solute transport in porous media. He later broadened his scope to cover research in Ecohydrology, including impacts of climate change on Forest Ecohydrology and carbon sequestration by agroforestry in degraded land. His Doctor of Philosophy in Hydrology (Sheffield), was followed by a post-doctoral appointment at Sydney University and 10 years with CSIRO where he became Officer in Charge of the Division of Soils in Townsville.

Professor Smettem’s research is widely recognised internationally and he has been a visiting distinguished Professor at Stanford University and Oregon State University and a visiting Professor at Southampton University, Birmingham University, Tianjin University and Bonn University. He has also been awarded a British Royal Society Travel grant and was a visiting international expert at INRA (France) and the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology. Professor Smettem has published over 170 refereed papers and book chapters and is the (founding) Editor in Chief of the international journal Ecohydrology. He is a past president of the Australian Society of Soil Science.

During his 14-year career at UWA, Professor Smettem supervised over 40 research students to completion, many of whom have gone on to research positions in universities, CSIRO and State and Government Departments in Australia and overseas.

He continues to represent his discipline internationally though involvement on several journal editorial boards, as a session convenor at international conferences and reviewer for international funding bodies. He has been one of the four proponents and coordinators of a recently completed international UNESCO -UNITWIN collaboration in Ecohydrology.

Most important experiences while at UWA

I joined UWA in 1994, after 10 years research with CSIRO. Tremendous academic freedom at UWA and ongoing positive interactions with outstanding students have been deeply satisfying components of my academic career. Appointment as Head of Environmental Systems Engineering and setting up the State Centre of Excellence on Ecohydrology were two highlights at UWA.

Ongoing interaction with The UWA Institute of Agriculture continues to provide an enriching experience and opportunity to continue exploring research avenues.

Where did you think you would end up, when you began your career?

I came to Australia in 1982 as a post-doctoral fellow in Soil Physics at Sydney University and the CSIRO subsequently sponsored me to stay in Australia. Although primarily continuing in Soil Physics research I became increasingly interested in the interactions between water and energy balances and feedbacks with ecosystems. If I had been asked this question in the mid-80s I would not have envisaged the changes in direction that can accompany 'what if?', interest-driven research questions.

What are some of your most significant achievements?

It is pleasing that both earlier fundamental soil physics research on water flow and transport processes and later work on forest ecohydrology and climate change remain highly cited.

Helping my students define their research and become leading academics and researchers has been particularly satisfying, with several now at professorial level at UWA, at overseas universities and others at CSIRO and leading international and State agencies.

Acting as founding editor for the journal Ecohydrology was both satisfying and significant in that it established as presence for the discipline.

What has been the most interesting aspect of your career?

Interacting with colleagues and students from around the world has been an ongoing source of inspiration, challenge and personal development. These interactions have inevitably led to new questions, new research hypotheses and ultimately, new research projects and papers. The fact that you can do this with people you like working with is one of the great bonuses of Academic Freedom.

Developing entirely new courses at UWA was both interesting and challenging. No one should ever underestimate the time and resources required to develop a new course!

Where are you planning to go from here? Are there new interests you are looking to get involved in?

Interest-driven research never really stops because 'what if?' questions always emerge. My plan is to continue with ongoing collaborations both in Australia and overseas while allowing more time for family and hobbies.

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