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Dr David L O Smith, CEng, MIAgrE
I started my career in Agricultural Engineering in 1970 studying for a four years honours degree at the National College of Agricultural Engineering (later Silsoe College, Cranfield University), where I was President of the Students' Union and was one of the six students to do voluntary work in Kenya on an early SAFAD expedition in the summer of 1973. After graduation in 1974, I was then taken on as a Research Officer at Silsoe College to undertake studies, funded by the Wolfson Foundation, on the logistics of procuring surplus cereal straw for industrial use. Over two years, this work resulted in several refereed papers that set me on a good start for an academic life.
In 1976, I took up a Graduate Teaching Assistantship in the Department of Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State University, where I gained my MS degree. Two years later, I joined the staff (faculty) of the Department of Civil Engineering where I gained my PhD in Geotechnical Engineering and a post as Assistant Professor to teach and undertake research in soil mechanics. In undertaking the research, I developed and patented a low stress tri-axial apparatus to evaluate the bulk stress-strain behaviour of agricultural grain.
Upon leaving the USA in 1983, I took up a research post at the Scottish Institute of Agricultural Engineering, which was set in an idyllic location in Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh. Here, I developed a numerical soil compaction model as an aid to designers selecting tyres and axle combinations to restrict soil compaction, for which I still receive requests for more information. I also devised a method for assessing the strength of shallow, upland forest soils, which involved trenching around a felled mature tree and twisting the stump as in a huge rotational shear-box. I was quite pleased with my novel approach but the method was not pursued, as far as I am aware.
After only three years, when the future of the Scottish Institute was very uncertain, I accepted a lectureship at Silsoe College, Cranfield University, from where I had graduated 12 years earlier. At about this time, I gained my Chartered Engineering status (UK equivalent of PE in the USA) through the Institution of Agricultural Engineers. I taught a variety of engineering subjects (including thermodynamics, which I found particularly rewarding) and I continued my research on soil compaction and into soil tillage with the help of good research students. In 1988 I was invited to speak on mathematical models for soil tillage and soil compaction at a NATO-sponsored conference in Minneapolis.
Although I acquired tenure, after four years I 'moved across the road' to the Silsoe Research Institute (formerly NIAE) where I took up a post as a Principal Research Scientist investigating the flow properties of solid-liquid food mixtures; this may sound a long way from soil mechanics but I was contributing the aspect of particulate behaviour to a discipline more familiar with fluid rheology. This was fine, and I was privileged to work with some very clever chemical engineers from the University of Cambridge and Unilever Research. After about six years of this, all the research institutes in the UK were subject to a very severe, free-market-type scrutiny by Central Government and I spent a fascinating few months seconded to work directly for the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) to defend the interests of a sister institute, the Institute for Animal Health. Apparently, as I was quite successful at this, my own institute (which was particularly vulnerable) persuaded me into business development to try to bring in more commercial funding to supplement the strategic science money that was won annually from the Research Council. I think this was the most uninspiring job that I have ever had so when, after another few years, the opportunity arose to take 'early retirement' with a sizeable financial incentive I took it and left the research institute in 1999.
Sadly, the Silsoe Research Institute closed its doors early in 2006, and Silsoe College also closed that summer (the site is more valuable as a housing development than a university campus) and the vestiges of the courses and faculty were transferred to the main Cranfield University campus. The offices of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers have also moved to Cranfield so Silsoe, for so long the home of agricultural engineering in the UK, has become a dormitory village.
Having left academic life, I was not sure what to do next but, as I had enjoyed teaching at university and there is a severe shortage of science teachers in England, I explored teaching maths and physics at high school by taking a three day 'taster' course for mature people looking for a second career. It soon became clear that, to be qualified to teach in a state school, it was not acceptable to teach a subject at a high level because you were passionately interested in it and wished to pass on this enthusiasm to young people, you had to want to teach the 'whole child' potentially any subject from age 12 to 18. Fortunately, on the course I met someone who was similarly disillusioned but he had an idea for a business. Now, if I was to have made a list of 100 things I might do next, starting a business would not have been on it! Nevertheless, in 1999 Dixon Jones and I founded Receptional Ltd, which has proved very successful and certainly more lucrative for me than being in the academic world. There are now fifteen at Receptional, which is an internet marketing agency that promotes websites so that when people search for our clients' products or services on Google, for example, their websites should appear near the top of the list. From 2006, I have been reducing my day to day involvement with Receptional so that I may follow other interests.
Since 2006, I have also been working with a friend's horse riding holiday company, Unicorn Trails. As well as being a director, I go on exploratory rides to assess new locations and I act as an escort on larger group rides. For example, I accompanied 26 Irish riders raising money for charity by camping and riding Arab stallions on a trek of six days in the Anti Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert in Morocco and I accompanied a similar group to Wadi Rum in Jordan. My most recent adventures have included crossing the High Andes from Chile to Argentina, riding an Inca trail in Peru, crossing the Central Highlands in Ethiopia and an expedition to the Yukon in NW Canada (Read more about my adventures on horseback in captioned pictures).
In 2008, a friend and former colleague at the Silsoe Research Institute invited me to join the board of eCow, a company that specialises in the non-invasive monitoring of dairy cows.
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