Thomas Smith

so happy to have made it to the final 2 days! keep those questions rolling in.

Favourite Thing: Well I must admit, I like setting fire to things (but only when we know that it is safe to do so). We burn small patches of forests, or heathland, or the bush in Australia, all for science!



I went to school in Aston, Birmingham from 1996 until 2002. I then studied at the University of Sheffield between 2002 and 2005. After working in a school for a year I returned to King’s College London for my masters degree (2007-2008) and my doctoral degree (2008-2012)


GCSEs, A levels in Maths, Music, Geography and General Studies, plus an AS level in French, BSc Geography, MSc Environmental Monitoring Modelling & Management, PhD in physical geography, I’m also qualified to count pollen and have a firefighting qualification in the tactical use of fire!

Work History:

I worked at Park View Business & Enterprise College in Alum Rock, Birmingham, and I’ve had teaching jobs at the London School of Economics, and now I’m a lecturer at King’s College London

Current Job:

Lecturer in Physical & Environmental Geography


King’s College London

Me and my work

I travel the world in search of wildfires so that we can learn how wildfires affect climate change and the quality of the air we breathe.

Wildfires are no longer natural events. Throughout most of the world, fires are being set by humans to clear land for farming or hunting. As a scientist I’m really interested in this because these fires are another form of pollution. The smoke from these fires contains greenhouse gases and lots of other nasty gases that can cause people to have breathing difficulties, or in the worst cases, it can cause people to die. My job is to measure these gases so that we can understand their impacts on our climate and our health.

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My Typical Day

There is no such thing as a typical day! which is the best thing about my job as a scientist :)

My days are split between the office (a bit boring but essential), the lecture theatre (where I teach), the lab (where I burn stuff), and the great outdoors (where I also burn stuff).

The most exciting days are spent doing fieldwork. My work has taken me to the Rocky Mountains in Canada, to the outback of Australia and to the rainforests of Borneo. A typical day in the field might be spent setting up equipment, making measurements of the weather, packing up equipment, and occasionally we will actually burn a small patch of forest or bushland. The fires are well controlled and a lot of effort is made to ensure that the fires do not get out of control and burn more than a small patch of land. In the next two photos, you can see what a typical day in the field might look like:


A typical day in the lab is usually spent setting up equipment, and then setting fire to some soil (peat) and waiting a long time for it to finish burning! Whilst the soil is burning, we suck the smoke into a scientific instrument that can tell us what gases are in the smoke. In this photo you can see me trying to ignite some soil using a blow torch!


Whilst the fieldtrips and lab days can be fun, I do spend a lot of my time in my office. This time might be spent analysing data collected in the field and in the lab, but also writing reports about my findings. It’s very important to write about your work, so that others can learn and build on your findings.

What I'd do with the money

I would build a prototype gas analyser that could be used by fire fighters who work at wildfires

Wouldn’t it be great if fire fighters could also do their own research? One problem with my work is that I’m not always available to attend wildfires because I have other important jobs (like teaching students!).

One solution could be that we could give fire fighters their own measuring equipment that they wear on their protective clothing. The equipment would need to be small and low-cost.

I have some experience in building my own sensors (the photo below shows my office plant that sends a tweet whenever it needs to be watered). I could build a prototype sensor that would be sensitive to some of the important gases for my research, the measurements could be automatically uploaded to the internet using mobile phone networks and could even send the fire fighter’s location. If it works I would run a trial of the sensor with my fire and rescue friends in Northumberland.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

explorer optimist messy

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What's your favourite food?

Pizza, thin and slightly crispy

What is the most fun thing you've done?

The most fun thing was being helicoptered into the middle of a wildfire for fieldwork, our only protection was that there wasn’t much vegetation to burn where we landed!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I had no idea!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, it involved flammable liquids and communion candles, I probably shouldn’t say much more than that.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Geography (especially the fieldtrips)

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

The best thing you can do as a scientist is help improve decisions, my best example of this is that the Australian government changed their land management policies as a direct result of our fieldwork.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My step-dad inspired me to work in the outdoors and to study geography, becoming a scientist was an accident!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Anyone who has questions about the world around them is a scientist, so whatever I might have ended up doing in life, I would still be a scientist at heart, like everyone else.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

to present a TV programme; to publish a children’s book on wildfire; to become a crazy old professor

Tell us a joke.

1. If it is green or it wiggles – it is Biology. 2. If it stinks – it is Chemistry. 3. If it doesn’t work – it is Physics.

Other stuff

Work photos:

In the field (Northern Territory, Australia):


Digging up soil to burn in the lab (Brunei):


Flying around in helicopters:


Visiting wildfires in Sumatra (Indonesia:


In the office!!