Inaugural Lecture

3 September 2014

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof Göbel, ladies and gentlemen – molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. Professor Matthias Göbel, Head of Department of Human Kinetics and Ergonomics, is one of the more recent entries on this list.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

Matthias was born in Darmstadt, Germany, the town which holds the official title "City of Science” as it is a major centre of scientific institutions, universities and high technology companies. Being interested in all kinds of technology since his teenage years, he studied towards an Engineering Degree in Electronics.  After completing his Masters at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1988, he submitted 14 job applications to different companies, and he received 13 job offers. However, during all the interviews he realised that he was not prepared to spend 20 years of his life developing a new generation of cell phone every six months or to collect a half a million frequent flyer miles a year while managing the construction of train control stations around the world.

Recognising that in future, technology itself would probably not be the most important factor, but rather the way how humans can make use of technology, he became increasingly interested in studying the interactions of humans and technology. He took up a lecturer position at Berlin University of Technology to prepare for a PhD in Ergonomics. However, before completing his second year, his Professor was appointed at Aachen University of Technology, and he offered Matthias a post as Senior Lecturer setting up a new research lab at the top Engineering University in Germany. There Matthias established a Human Factors analysis laboratory, generating funds for five to 10 researchers, mostly in the area of traffic systems and human computer interaction. One patent on haptic feedback for computer mice and a stereoscopic radar screen that has been used on American aircraft carriers stem from this time. Due to a heavy work load producing between five to 15 papers per year and being asked by his co-supervisor to condense a draft script of 230 pages of rigorous science with extensive self-developed integral equations to no more than 100 pages, the completion in of his PhD was slightly delayed and he eventually handed it in almost six years later.

In 1998, Matthias returned to Berlin University of Technology where he was appointed to a position equal to that of Associate Professor. There he pioneered research in the work in hospitals and the ageing workforce, which has subsequently only became popular in first world countries in recent years. Six years later he made some theoretical contributions on managing the complexity of work design by integrating science and humanities schools of thought in a common modelling approach. This topic, which is currently hyping in the UK, was, very much influenced by Dr Swantje Zschernack, Senior Lecturer in the HKE Department. Concurrently to his teaching in Aachen and Berlin Universities he was an Associate Lecturer at the University of Applied Arts and Science in Pforzheim, Germany, lecturing Ergonomics to first and second year students studying Industrial Design for eight years.

Then one day, he received an email from a former colleague who spent a few months at Rhodes, urging him to apply for a vacant Professorship position at the HKE Department, as he considered this to be the ideal place for him. Having visited Namibia and South Africa a year before and being annoyed by the repeated temporary contracts that are common practice in German academia, Matthias decided to apply for the position. After having been offered the post of Professor and Head of Department, Matthias also received an offer from a South-Korean University. Prioritizing the South Africa option, he spent a few months in Seoul as a Visiting Professor while his South African work permit was being processed.

Matthias eventually arrived at Rhodes in 2006, one week before lectures started, finding himself in an almost empty office with a computer with not much more than Windows software on its hard drive in the adjoining office. A rather bumpy start for technology wunderkind!  However, with the help of his co-workers the HKE Department prospered and during his seven years as head, the number of postgraduate students and publications increased by more than three times compared to the years before his arrival. Matthias says that in some areas, such as the study of Human Fatigue, the Department is today amongst the leading research institutes in the world. In 2011 the Department organised, with him as Chair, the 10th International Conference on Human Factors in Organisational Design and Management at Rhodes. Participants from 25 countries, amongst them the executive committee of the International Ergonomics Association attended. Many co-operations exist between the HKE Department and the local automotive industry, the food industry and many others. Past students are studying and working at prestigious overseas places, such as Leeds, Loughborough, and Oxford - if they haven’t remained at Rhodes. 

Matthias holds a strong passion to make Africa a better place. Being somewhat alien he says by coming to South Africa only in his early 40s, he has the experience of a European and an African career, and some insights to the Asian academia and work life. He is passionate about people learning from one another, despite all the cultural challenges that may come with such an approach.  One of the ways he encourages this is by travelling overseas with his postgraduate students, particularly with those who have never left this country, exposing them to research and industry facilities in the rest of the world. In a few days from now, he will leave with three of his postgraduate students to visit Airbus and other aviation companies and research institutes in Europe engaging in interior design and production.  Matthias is convinced that there is an ingenious way of integrating both the African culture with the European efficiency resulting in an enhanced economy for us one day.

Matthias is the recipient of several grants, is the inventor of two patents and was awarded the Junior Scientist Award of the German Ergonomics Society in 1993.

He has supervised 18 PhD and more than 50 Master students.

He has published four books and has 24 book chapters to his name and 37 publications in accredited and peer-reviewed local and international journals with a further 104 conference papers and other proceedings.

Given the particular focus of his research, Matthias is Chair of the Professional Certification Board of the Ergonomics Society of South Africa since 2007,

Co-chair of the Technical Committee ‘Human Factors in Organizational Design and Management’ of the International Ergonomics Association since 2005, Founder member of the Psychophysiology in Ergonomics Association, member of the South African, and German Ergonomics Society, member of the Scientific board for ‘Work with Computer Systems’ which is the technical subcommittee of the International Ergonomics Society, member of the task force AK 811.0.4. Ergonomics for Equipment and Devices of the German Standardization Organization, member of the Product Ergonomics Task Team of the International Ergonomics Association; and also active on many editorial boards of international journals.

He is also very committed to this institution and currently chairs the Rhodes University Ethics Committee.

Matthias has four children between the ages of three and seven years, all born in Port Elizabeth but living in Germany today. He says he now has the opportunity to catch up with the frequent-flyer miles he declined to collect in his early career. 

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Matthias Göbel to address us.                His lecture this evening is titled "The scientific study of human work – serving humanity, economy and society".


Last Modified: Wed, 12 Nov 2014 16:34:20 SAST