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Profs in the fast lane

No professors in an ivory tower, these four NTU profs could have been sports champs in another life, as Derek Rodriguez discovers

The prof who’s making waves

  • PHOTO: STEVE CONTI
  • PHOTO: ADAM SWITZER
  • PHOTO: AMIN SHAH
  • PHOTO: AMIN SHAH

Assoc Prof Adam Switzer

Before life as a scientist, Assoc Prof Switzer from the Asian School of the Environment lived a strikingly different life as a professional surfer. At 15, he took part in his first competition and won it. By 17, he had progressed through the amateur ranks and joined the Australian professional surfing tour. In his heyday, he graced the cover of a major bodyboarding magazine and coached several national champions and other professional surfers. Today, he still hits the shores with his students as an expert on tsunamis, storms and other natural hazards in coastal regions.

Life’s a beach

As a child, I lived in a beautiful little town called Windang on the southeastern coast of Australia. My life revolved around surfing at the beach and swimming or fishing at the nearby lake. I started surfing when I was about 12. That season, the waves were breaking right on the shore and were much more suited to a type of surfing called bodyboarding so I started doing it.

Broken but not defeated

Bodyboarding at a top level is dangerous. I’ve broken my nose three times, fractured my skull, dislocated both shoulder numerous times, broken my wrist, received countless stitches and had several surgeries. I nearly drowned a few times too. I still have niggling neck and back injuries, but that’s life and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Making waves with science

The only class I enjoyed in high school was science. One teacher in particular, Stuart Delandre, was very passionate about science and surfing and he showed me that they can be intertwined. I still keep in contact with him. I studied chemistry in university but I was ready to quit by the end of my first semester. Then I took a geology class and my brain exploded! I remember standing on the shore and listening to the lecturer talk about how the waves eroded the rocks, and the physics and chemistry of the phenomena.

Breaking theories

My knowledge of waves and how water moves around on beaches and reefs has been invaluable to my research. If you surf, then you truly know the power of the ocean. If you don’t, then the equations of motion and the models of sediment movement are difficult to conceptualise.

Once, I was at a conference where a prominent professor was talking about how waves break on reefs and move boulders around. When he finished, the convener turned to the audience and said: “Adam, is that how waves break on reefs?” I replied: “No, definitely not anywhere I’ve surfed.” And the professor said: “Perhaps I should take up surfing. It might improve my science.”

Catching waves abroad

Singapore has no surf but Bali and Lombok are not too far away. There are other places too, but I’d rather keep them secret. I don’t really get out there much these days because of my injuries and poor eyesight. Unfortunately, my mind still thinks I’m 25, but my body always reminds me I’m almost 50.

Family of surfers

The surfing community has a real family feel. Sharing a love for the ocean really bonds us. Bodyboarding is also an underground style of surfing and bodyboarders are a close-knit crew. I still get together with my original surfing friends and we have a community of 17,000 or so “Vintage Bodyboarders” on Facebook, which has reignited the love for the sport in many of us who are over 40.