I had the pleasure of hearing Sacha Judd speak at Creative Mornings in Auckland recently.  A snippet from her talk that has stuck with me is

We’re all equally passionate. Our passions aren’t treated equally.

I admit that to fully understand the context of Sacha's talk I had to dive into Google and work out who Harry Styles is (since I am not always a popular culture whiz!).  After the talk,  I started to think about the passions that young women may have, and how this relates to whether they are encouraged to pursue study, and a career, in engineering.

Imagine a young woman who is a skilled dancer - ballet, contemporary, hip-hop etc. - or was a gymnast.  She would have an intuitive understanding of force, momentum and rotational inertia etc. developed from perfecting spins, jumps, turns and balances.  But how do we value that dancer or gymnast's passion and skill when suggesting a course of study?  Do we encourage her to explore the mathematics and physics of how objects move and deform?

Rosalind - solo performance - Wallace Trust gardens, 2011. Photo credit Ruth Ames.

Dancers build success out of failure.  If you dance (or do gymnastics) it's best done without a fear of falling/failure.  That trait turns out to be something I think is very useful in life and in higher education.

Imagine a young woman who is a talented musician, who embraces music theory, but can also bring a score to life.  What we encourage her to do as she chooses a course of study?  Her innate knowledge of sound and frequency could position her to build signal analysis skills.  Who knows, she could one day become part of the team at Soul Machines who bring avatars to life.

Imagine a young person who is a culinary star - baking pavlovas that never fail, and meat that is cooked to tender perfection.  (Hmmmm - my vegetarian self does not quite understand the last phrase!).  Could their knowledge of the delicate science of egg whites, or the chemistry of the Maillard reaction (loved by carnivores) mean they should see themselves as a future chemical engineer, specialising in the food of tomorrow?

What does society say to a talented netballer, who has given their all on the court and earned a knee ligament injury?  Future Physical Education teacher?  Her journey through scans and medical imaging, braces and rehab could equally inspire us to suggest a career in Biomedical Engineering

Let's all commit to treating other people's passions equally.  Our world can only be better for it.





One of my favourite public speaking engagements so far this year was a seminar I gave to doctoral students in our Faculty who were interested in learning more about the leadership aspects involved in an academic career.  During a doctorate students are naturally immersed in their own research projects where their personal level of effort is a key driver for their own success.  In my talk, I tried to outline that developing a successful academic career, especially at a senior level, is much about enabling the success of others.

So what does leadership look like?  That may not be a question many of the audience had thought about.  Some people associate leadership with outgoing, charismatic personality types.  I assured the students that such a personality type was definitely not a requirement! (and is not me).  I reminded the quieter members of the audience that introverts make great leaders.

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

Normally my lecture theatre presentations to students are laden with mathematics and Greek symbols. However this presentation was "mathematics- free" and instead focused on people and values.  My slides walked people through our Department lobby with concrete examples of how things in the lobby reflect the values I hold, e.g.

  • a honesty box where I sell fruit as snacks (which I fund personally) - trust matters
  • an honours board - to celebrate staff and student success
  • photos of the Department's founders - because we value our heritage
  • a flier supporting the University's "zero tolerance" for discrimination of any kind

My focus on people included advice to aspiring leaders that they should develop their skills to:

  • build and grow relationships with a range of stakeholders
  • find ways to be comfortable when things get uncomfortable
  • be a change agent
  • be inquisitive - ask why
  • appreciate and value the support of others (like I did below!)

I enjoyed the questions students asked after my presentation.  One perceptive one was "How do you protect yourself when dealing with other people in stressful situations?"  Another insightful one asked how I manage conflicts of interest since I interact with such a wide range of people and organisations.  Questions like that meant I could see "cogs turning" in the audience and am optimistic that the University will produce doctoral graduates who embrace leadership as part of their future.

I started my day - like many New Zealanders - up earlier than usual to watch the America's Cup racing.  As an engineer I find the technology and aerodynamics involved fascinating.  However I also enjoy the human factors involved - in particular the display of grit and resilence involved in Team NZ's win.    The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines resiliency as

Capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

I think it's fair to say Team NZ showed true resilience in recovering from their stunning pitch pole incident in the Challenger series.  Image from stuff.co.nz

Definitions of grit normally involve a combination of perserverance, committment and passion in achieving long term goals.  There was no shortage of grit in Team NZ's achievement!

Grit and resilience are topics of interest in the higher education community as well.  These traits are being shown to be important in academic success.  In an earlier post I've described myself as being someone who is good at failing.  As I get ready to lecture first year engineering students for a few weeks next semester I am thinking about how I can support students to embrace "failure", to take risks, and to learn from their mistakes.

I lecture part of  a introductory computer programming class.  One way I'll be embracing the possibility of failure is by writing code "live" in class.  I lecture in large theatres (500+ students) so it is in many ways live theatre.  Not always demonstrating code examples by using pre-prepared files is a risk.  My fingers fly over the keyboard as I type and talk, and with 1000 eyes on me a fumble is ever possible!  However as Margaret Perlis says "The supremely gritty are not afraid to tank, but rather embrace it as part of a process."

The other attribute I would love to encouarge in my students is a growth mindset.   Programming isn't easy for everyone.  So the teaching team aims to create an environment where students have a chance to practice and develop their skills, as opposed to believing their ability in the subject is innate and pre-determined.  Seeing students tackle the challenge that programming poses is exciting.  Learning to code well oftens means making a lot of mistakes (coding "bugs") but being gritty about tackling them.  Over the years I've seen some great examples of students who started the class not thinking they had significant pre-existing skill in the subject, but by being open to growth went on to get A+ grades in the course.

I can't sign off without acknowledging that Team NZ had two graduates from the Department working with them on the shore team in Bermuda - Elise Beavis (the youngest performance engineer in any team at age 23) and Steve Collie.






Image from www.nasa.gov

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

I suspect this quote resonates with many students and staff in the Department of Engineering who enjoy tackling complex problems.  Space exploration is one of the most complex problems there is.  In this post I'd like to profile some connections our Department and its students have to aeronautics and astronautics.

Firstly I'd like to extend my congratulations to Professor Karen Willcox who is a Professor in of Aeronautics/Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Karen holds a BE in Engineering Science (and graduated from the degree the same year I did).  In this year's Queen's Birthday Honours I was thrilled to see Karen awarded an MBE recognizing not only her contributions within Engineeering, but also in Education.  She was part of the "Task Force on the Future of MIT Education" which produced a report which tackled issues including the need for graduates to have strong communication and collaboration skills, development of a flexible curriculum, online learning, and future financial models for the University,

The Faculty also recently hosted Dr Pete Worden, retired Director of NASA's Ames Research Center.  He gave a public lecture during his visit and visited the Auckland Space Systems program.  Students in the space systems program (incuding students from Engineering Science) have been competing in a contest to "identify a societal need, and design a solution using a CubeSat, a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, 1kg cube".  Not an easy mission!

My own research work focuses on computational earth science.  So  I was excited to hear the winning Space Systems team were addressing a geologically driven problem.  They aimed to detect disturbances in the ionosphere that may be related to earthquake processes.  In 2010 the Demeter satellite found disruptions in the ionosphere during the Mount Merapi eruption.  I firmly believe that exploring space can help life here on earth.  I'll also be excited to see New Zealand's role in space grow as Rocket Labs moves closer to a successful launch from Mahia.

So while Engineering Science may not be rocket science, it's definitely a discipline which is equipping people to with skills and knowledge to explore space!




I love learning more about what our students do and create in life after their graduation.  As part of that process we host two evenings per year where companies who wish to recruit our Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering students make presentations to our students.  This year's events were really exciting - if I didn't already have an Engineering Science degree I'd be wanting to sign up!

The companies presenting were a mix of large NZX40 listed companies, through to consultancies, through to a growing mix of vibrant mix of start-up ventures who are growing exponentially.  One of the most unsual start-ups is Soul Machines.  They work on avatars with emotional intelligence.  "Emotional Intelligence is at the heart of forming engaging interactions with people. By adding El to our avatars, it also gives them the ability to connect and engage users on an emotional level. Our avatars can recognize emotional expression by analyzing facial expressions and vocal expression in real time." (from www.soulmachines.com)

How do Soul Machines take us to this brave new world?  Dr Mark Sagar, the founder of Soul Machines speaks about some of that technology in a TED talk here.

Mark gave that talk in late 2014 - at that stage he was based at the University of Auckland.  Fast forward to late 2016 and Soul Machines had been formed and had attracted $US 7.5 million in venture capital funding.  The company's unique blend of expertise is now creating avatars that are set to revolutionise the way we interact with computers - for example in a project the company has with Australian government where Cate Blanchett is providing the voice for an avatar which will support disabled Australians.

I think it's awesome that one of our Biomedical Engineering degree graduates from last year's class now has a job title of "Avatar Engineer".  She's part of the journey Soul Machines are o to bring us emotionally intelligent technology.

Yesterday was the May graduation ceremony at the University.  The vibrant procession of staff and graduates moving down Queen St (Auckland's main street) is always a fun sight.   It's a wonderful opportunity to meet friends and family members who have supported our graduates on their journey through their degrees.  The day ends with the formal presentation of degrees on stage at the Aotea Centre.  I was seated at the side of the stage and could see almost all the graduates "grow an inch taller" as they proudly walked across the stage to receive their degrees, to applause from the audience in a theatre that seats over 2,100 people.

Graduation robes

For me graduation is chance to reflect on the difference we make in the life of our students.  After all that is a big part of what "gets me out of bed" in the morning.  However I know the process of getting a degree is not easy - so is it worth it?

Universities NZ researched the value of a degree in 2016.  They found:

“A typical university graduate will earn around $1.6m more over their working life than a non-graduate.  This is much higher for a medical doctor ($4m), professional engineers ($3m) and information technology graduates ($2m), but is still high for arts graduates – with an average earnings premium of around $1m to 1.3m (depending upon subject)."

Those numbers definitely imply the effort to get a degree in engineering will (on average) significantly improve the financial circumstances of our students over their lifetimes.  Hopefully that thought can act as "light at the end of the tunnel" for students facing financial difficulties during their degrees.    Students at the University of Auckland in financial distress should consult the resources here for information on hardship grants and the AUSA food bank.





In a Q&A session at a student run event a couple of years ago I was asked to answer the question "Name one thing you're really good at".  Most of the audience knew me, either in person, or knew about my reputation/job titles.  I assumed they were expecting me to name a skill that has propelled me through my career.  It was not a question I was anticipating or was particularly prepared for - however in a public "lightbulb moment" I answered that I was good at "Failing".  The room went quiet.  You could hear a pin drop as my audience started to process my one word answer.  I let that word sink in for a moment and then elaborated.

Firstly I discussed the fact that I talk to all sorts of students in all sorts of situations.  Some have just "failed" a test or exam and are drawing all sorts of conclusions about what that implies.  The fact I am a Professor does not make me immune to "failure".  My own student transcript is full of high grades.  However my mark on my very first University test was definitely not in A+ territory.  If I had I let that define me life would have been very different!  I'd skipped first year University classes in a "direct entry" program and started University study at second year level.  I used the low mark on my my first test as fuel to figure out what it would would take to truly succeed in that environment.

Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.

The version of my CV which I would normally share when applying for a grant, promotion or an award lists a whole range of academic/professional successes - papers published, grants won, awards received.  However what most people don't get to see is the file folders of unfunded grant applications, the paper reviews where I could readily believe the reviewer must be referring to someone else's paper, or the award nomination material for awards that went to other deserving applicants.

The iceberg illusion

The successes on my CV are however built on a string of "failures".  Telling a group of students that I am good at failing was a statement about the resilience needed to pursue an academic career.  Being "good at failing" means that I've always made a point of learning everything I can from situations where the outcome may not have been defined as a perfect "success".  If success is an iceberg, then the failures that most people don't get to see are below the waterline - and are invisble to most people.  For some thoughts on creating a "CV of failures" check out this post on the GradLogic blog.

I'd encourage anyone in an academic environment to embrace failure!

“The Iceberg Illusion” illustration is by Sylvia Duckworth used under Creative Commons license.





This post is a guest post from Dr Andreas Kempa-Liehr, a data scientist who is one of the newest members of academic staff in the Department of Engineering Science.

Decisions under uncertainty

The only certain thing about the future is its uncertainty. Yet we are making decisions for the very next future, both in our private life and the business/engineering processes, we are responsible for. The enablers for these decisions are our very individual skills, which we have learned from interactions with our environment. This kind of knowledge can be interpreted as our very personal, intrinsic model of the environment, which we are using for solving problems. It comprises both our expectation of what is likely to happen and the understanding of how to achieve the desired outcome.

The problem is that people are not very good in making decisions under uncertainty, which might be boiled down to the following quote of Amos Tversky, who worked with Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman [1] on the discovery of systematic cognitive biases:

“The evidence reported here and elsewhere indicates that both qualitative and quantitative assessments of uncertainty are not carried out in a logically coherent fashion, and one might be tempted to conclude that they should not be carried out at all.” [2]

Does this mean, that objective algorithms should be able to make better microdecisions? Yes, but for implementing them one needs a clear understanding on what the meaning of better is (Domain Expertise) in order to develop models for predicting the information needed for doing better (Data Science) and models for making decisions from the provided information (Operations Research). The critical part is the mathematical interface between predictive model and decision model, which should not be a single number of a predicted outcome (point estimate) but a probability for each possible outcome given the actual circumstances (conditional probability distribution). The important point is that conditional probability distributions allow to systematically take into account the uncertainty of the predictions such that cost-optimal decisions under uncertainty can be made.

Automating Micro-Decisions

Have a look at the following slide, which has been captured from a presentation of M. Michaelis given at the 4th Big Data & Analytics Congress [3]. It shows the out-of-stock rate of 10 stores, which had their replenishment processes being switched to a data driven approach based on conditional probability distributions for expected sales. In the beginning the suggested replenishment orders could be altered by staff, but after a transition period the processes were switched to full automation. The slide is in German, but the diagram speaks for itself: It shows the plummeting of the out-of-stock rates after switching to fully automated replenishment orders.




[1] D. Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

[2] Amos Tversky and Derek J. Koehler. Support theory: A nonextensional representation of subjective probability. Psychological Review, 101(4):547–567, 1994.

[3] Mark Michaelis. Case Study Kaiser’s Tengelmann: Prognoseverfahren im Dispositionsumfeld.






One of my favourite things about the month of March is welcoming the new group of Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering undergraduate students into the Department.  Their energy and enthusiasm is always refreshing.  As usual at the end of the second week of semester everyone piled onto three buses for a field trip. The trip started with visits to companies who employ our graduates.  We often catch up with former students (now launching successful careers) on those visits.  We all ended up Rotorua (after a great visit to Contact Energy's Wairakei geothermal plant in Taupo).

This year I added a new component to the trip with a visit toTe Puia.  The group were welcomed onto the Te Puia marae, enjoyed a cultural performance and a hangi dinner, and then witnessed the awesome sight of the Pohutu geyser discharging as the sun set.

Once we returned to the backpacker accommodation that was home for the night I talked to the students about why the Te Puia visit was part of the trip.  As the students start their journeys through our degrees I want them to remember that NZ operates under a principle of partnership - through the Treaty of Waitangi.  We talked about the fact the Contact Energy and the Tauhara North No.2 Trust work as partners on the geothermal developments the students had seen that morning.

Kia mau Ki te whenua (hold fast to the land).
Whakamahia te whenua (make use of the land).
Hei painga mo nga uri whakatipuranga (for the future generations).

We talked about the key role of engineers in supporting sustainability - an example of which is the computer modelling work done in the Department of Engineering Science that considers the geothermal resource underlying the city of Rotorua.  That model helps understand the impact of the closure of private bores in Rotorua which allowed the important Pohutu geyser begin to flow again.

For the next few years our new students will face the challenge of building their knowledge of a set of mathematical and computational tools that can help understand natural systems (as well as manufactured ones).  However one challenge I would like to see engineers and geoscientists embrace is broadening their insights to acknowledge and value Matauranga Maori.  Dan Hikuroa recently discussed this in a geological context on Maori TV - pointing out that events attributed historically by Maori to taniwha may well be attributable to earthquakes.   There's definitely insight to be gained if everyone - regardless of their cultural heritage - integrates all forms of knowledge of the processes and forces that shape the earth.  Those processes give us geothermal energy reservoirs which sustain us, and earthquakes which we must be resilient to.




The Geothermal Institute are currently hosting a group of Indonesian and Phillipino geothermal energy professionals (from a wide range of disciplines) for a 4 week project management course.  This course is being as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsored initiative.  On Day 1 I wanted to "break the ice" (though the group are warm and friendly) and get the course participants working in teams.  The course has plenty of time for "techy" group work so instead of a task with a geothermal focus I set everyone the "Marshmallow" challenge.  This requires a group to build a structure to support some marshmallows using (dry!) spaghetti, and adhesive tape.  Some versions also offer the participants some string - but none was to be found in my kitchen cupboards the night before!  An outline of the challenge set up can be found here.

Some of the structures that resulted look like this.

Clearly specifying requirements matters in any project.  I had forgotten to mention that the structures needed to be freestanding - so this group cleverly took their structure to the ceiling.

Group dynamics in the marshmallow challenge is the subject of a TED talk by Tom Wujec.  So how do teams of various kinds do?  Unsurprisingly it depends on the skills, and the mix of skills in the team.  Tom Wujec's talk compares the performance of teams with different backgrounds in this graphic.

When I revealed this image to our course participants they found the first few bars entertaining!   Personally I enjoyed seeing the finding that teams which are a mix of CEOs and Executive Admins outperforms teams which are only have CEOs.  The organisation and facilitation skills Executive Admins bring are a very important part of delivering on the project goal.  I know the work I do really benefits from the professional staff around me who diversify the skill mix in the Department and the Institute.

But why did the young children do so well?  They experiment and prototype naturally - allowing them to test assumptions.  That supports innovation and creativity.  For more thoughts on being curious culturing creativity there's further discussion and advice here.