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Foundation soil scientist farewelled

Professor J Keith Syers,
Foundation Professor of Soil Science and
Foundation Director of the Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre, Massey University.

An afternoon tea was held recently at Wharerata at the Manawatu campus for friends and associates to pay tribute to retired Professor J Keith Syers, BSc (Hons) PhD (Durh), DSc (Cantaur), FNZIC, FRSC, CChem, FRSNZ, who died in Thailand on July 15.

In 1972 he was appointed foundation Professor in the newly established Department of Soil Science at Massey University and, at age 32, was the youngest professorial appointment that the University had made at that time.  Professor Syers was a key academic leader at Massey until his departure in 1985.  He built an active research-led department and with the establishment of the Fertilizer and Lime Research Centre in 1983 (of which he was the first director) developed strong industry/university relationships which remain important to this day.  In addition to making significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge on fundamental aspects of soil chemistry, early research grants secured throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s enabled Massey to conduct leading-edge applied research, with many researchers, postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows investigating (among other things) the impact of agriculture on water quality and the evaluation of reactive phosphate rock as a direct application fertiliser material.  This research has had a major impact across the agricultural sectors of New Zealand and contributed significantly to international knowledge.

During his time with Massey University, Professor Syers served on a wide range of New Zealand committees, including the National Research Advisory Council’s Primary Production Committee (1972-1978), participating in the Hill Country Working Party (1976-1977) and the Phosphate Fertilizer Use Working Party, which he chaired (1978), and the National Committee on Problems of the Environment (1975-1978, serving as chair between 1976 and 1978). He was a member of the Council of the New Zealand Society of Soil Science, serving as President from 1980 to 1982, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Massey University Agricultural Research Foundation (1977-1978, 1981-1985).  During this time, Professor Syers was also active internationally, holding Visiting Professorships at the University of Georgia (Athens, USA), where he spent a sabbatical leave in 1978-1979, and Zhejiang Agricultural University (Hangzhou, People’s Republic of China), and serving as Senior Vice-Chairman of Commission II (Soil Chemistry) of the International Society of Soil Science (1982-1986).

As head of the Department of Soil Science at Massey University from 1972-1985, Professor Syers was responsible for the establishment of a highly productive academic unit and the launching of many careers in soil science.  He instilled a tremendous camaraderie in people both within and beyond the workplace.  The afternoon tea gathering at Wharerata was an opportunity for friends to gather and pay tribute to a great soil scientist and to remember how he has influenced their lives.  Tributes were given by Paul Gregg, Richard Syers, Mike Hedley, Nick Tripe, Associate Professor Dr Sukhgij Ysothonsreekul (who travelled from Thailand for the occasion), Vince Neall and Mike Floate (in absentia).

After leaving Massey Professor Syers held several senior academic positions at the University of Newcastle in the UK, until his early retirement in 1999 when he was granted Emeritus Professor status.  Having previously serving a secondment to the International Board for Soil Research and Management in Bangkok, Professor Syers returned to Thailand to take up the post of Professor of Natural Resources and Vice-President for International Relations at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.  Between 2004 and 2009 Professor Syers moved to Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand to the position of Dean in the School of Science and assisted the development of a Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Management.  Professor Syers also acted as an advisor to the President at Mae Fah Luang University.  In 2009 he returned to Naresuan University to be a Consultant to the President and Distinguished Specialist for Language and International Affairs, a post he held at the time of his death.  Throughout this time Professor Syers was very active in soil science research and was involved with writing reviews, editing books, and arranging review meetings, particularly with the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, the International Fertilizer Association, the International Potash Institute, and the World Phosphate Institute.

Professor Syers contribution to Thai academia was recognised with the honour of a Royal Cremation Ceremony, the highest honour one could receive, even for a Thai national.  His funeral service was held at a temple in Phitsanulok, Thailand for seven nights and the royal cremation was carried out on July 23 with more than 200 people attending.