Alumnus Awarded PhD 30 Years After Securing MSc from UKZN
Dr Richard Smart was awarded his PhD in Agricultural Economics from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) three decades after he left the then University of Natal (now UKZN) with an MScAgric degree in Agricultural Economics and Pasture Science.
Smart, the only child of a farming family, grew up on an extensive sheep and cattle farm in Steynsburg, Eastern Cape, which inspired his interest in agriculture. He enrolled at UN to study a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1988 after matriculating from St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown (now Makhanda).
He majored in Agricultural Production, which exposed him to integrated crop, animal, and grassland sciences as well as agricultural economics.
Smart excelled academically, winning the JD Scott medal for the top final-year student in Grassland Science. His final-year project with classmates Mr Allister Banks and Mr Rob Adam was named the best farm plan in their class.
While Smart always planned to return to farming, he wanted to learn more and, with Professor Neil Tainton’s support, developed a master’s study combining agricultural economics with pasture science, enabled by bursaries and scholarships he received. He was supervised by Mr John Klug and Mr Mark Darroch.
Smart’s recollections of his time at UN included a final-year all-night “work-a-thon” in the third-floor computer LAN of the Rabie Saunders Building on the Pietermaritzburg campus followed immediately by a “dawn” lecture, and future Dean and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Albert Modi, then a master’s student, assisting with biometry classes alongside Mr Harvey Dicks. He also fondly remembers his three years in the William O’Brien residence.
Smart was a member of the Agricultural Faculty Students’ Representative Council, the athletics club, and a committee member of the University’s tennis club, playing in the local tennis league for UN.
His MScAgric, which involved using data from sheep grazing trials at the Kokstad Research Station earned him a cum laude pass in 1993.
Smart’s career took him to Witbank (Emalahleni) in Mpumalanga where he worked as an assistant scientific officer for a mining company where colleagues included fellow UN alumni Dr Mark Aken and Dr Brent Baxter. By 1996, he had repaid a major portion of his student loan and returned to Steynsburg to farm crops and livestock for 14 years - part of that time alongside his father who passed away in 2004.
Smart applied biological farming principles and collaborated with consultants in the Eastern Cape conducting enterprise analyses as a basis for improving businesses from economic and ecological perspectives.
Smart enjoyed the farming lifestyle despite its isolation. Meeting his now wife Claudia Barth, a freelance conference interpreter, led to his relocation to Germany in 2010 and the eventual sale of his farm.
Smart spent much of his first year in Germany full-time at a language school to learn German and then returned to his academic roots in late 2011 to work as a research assistant at the TUM Center of Life and Food Sciences in Munich. Under Professor Justus Wesseler, he focused on the socio-economic impact of the regulation of transgenic crops and supported Wesseler in launching a master’s programme in Life Science Economics and Policy, becoming the programme co-ordinator.
Smart contributed to research including two book chapters and analyses of the time taken for approving genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the United States and European Union (EU), and of the voting patterns of EU member states on the approval of GMOs.
In 2014, Professor Johannes Sauer took over the master’s programme and its intake grew steadily. Requiring a PhD to continue working in academia, Smart enrolled in TUM’s targeted doctoral programme in 2015, simultaneously completing an online certification in technical communication.
An academic at heart, Smart benefited from the soft skills aspects of his doctoral training and the years of “real-world” experience between his master’s and PhD studies. He was able to transfer most of his publications to his PhD study while his final piece of research involved tackling a complex dataset with the aid of a course in the R statistical tool and the mentorship of Dr Amer Ait Sidhoum.
In 2017, Smart joined Beckman Coulter Diagnostics, a clinical diagnostics company, as a technical writer. He is now the supervisor for its technical documentation department in Munich.
Despite the challenge of doing research after hours, Smart completed his doctoral thesis last year on analysing regulatory-induced economic challenges on the adoption of transgenic crops by examining selected cases. All five research chapters are published in peer-reviewed publications.
For his academic development, Smart credited many people including UKZN’s Tainton, Klug and Darroch as well as Professor Martin Fey and Professor Jeff Hughes. He fondly remembered Banks and the now late Adam. He acknowledged PhD supervisors, collaborators, and mentors including Sauer, Wesseler and Ait Sidhoum, as well as Professor Jennifer Thomson of the University of Cape Town, Professor David Zilberman of the University of California, Berkeley, and former colleague at TUM Dr Matthias Blum.
Words: Christine Cuénod