I've been away from the blog for too long - and I have been missing it - so I am back in the blogosphere, and hope to be blogging again regularly.  So here's some pent up thoughts ...

"As I put on my makeup" (those who know me well will know those are not words I put in a sentence often!) recently I started to think ... about perfection and imperfection.  It dawned on me how comfortable I am with my imperfections.  I was reaching for a stick of concealer to mask one of several small scars in my face, since I knew my evening might involve cameras and bright lights (that's another story!).  However staring at the scar in the mirror got me thinking about a TED talk I'd watched earlier that week by Reshma Saujani.  She'd been involved in an outstanding program which teaches young women to code.  She says:

We immediately see in our program our girls' fear of not getting it right,of not being perfect. Every Girls Who Code teacher tells me the same story. During the first week, when the girls are learning how to code,a student will call her over and she'll say,"I don't know what code to write." The teacher will look at her screen,and she'll see a blank text editor. If she didn't know any better, she'd think that her student spent the past 20 minutes just staring at the screen. But if she presses undo a few times, she'll see that her student wrote code and then deleted it. She tried, she came close, but she didn't get it exactly right.  Instead of showing the progress that she made, she'd rather show nothing at all. Perfection or bust.

I teach young people to code in my role as an educator.  These days I only make "guest" appearances in hands-on labs for first year computing classes  ... but I would be truly disappointed if the students I teach (any of them) preferred to show me a blank screen in a lab session to avoid sharing their imperfection, as opposed to showing me code they knew was not perfect.

Embrace imperfection

Getting back to me and my scars - my body has been patched up over the years with over 100 stitches externally (and more internally), plus bio-compatible "super-glue" etc. in my face.  However I choose to see those scars as signs of strength and of life - I do not fear them being seen in my face and up arms (since I tend to "roll my sleeves up" both figuratively and literally).  Now whenever I glance at my scars I'll be thinking about how to get others to embrace imperfection, in the classroom and beyond.



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While I was studying at Stanford the terms "fuzzy" and "techy" were common labels for students studying social science/humanities versus physical science/engineering.  Those labels persist today as described in this piece from a current Stanford student (Gwynn Lyons).

Stanford University

Gwynn says

By choosing to study the humanities, I have said “yes” to humanity, in all its grandeur and success, as well as its abject failure.

As an engineer that quote resonates with me too.  I believe engineering, as a profession has said "yes" to humanity as well.  Admittedly the contributions engineers make are typically expressed in a different form than someone who has studied linguistics.  Though boundaries are continually blurring.  One superb example is the MPAi tool being developed by a team including Assoc. Prof. Catherine Watson from the University of Auckland's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  MPai enables users to hear the correct pronunciation of a Māori word, record and analyse their own pronunciation and get feedback on what is right and what is wrong.

I believe that kind of binary distinction (fuzzy versus techy) between people and their choice of study or work isn't useful.  For innovation to proceed in ways that benefit all of society then pathways to engage with creating systems and technologies must be open to all - regards of whether someone prefers to read Python code or Plato.  A recent development on campus that has a similar philosophy is the new Unleash space.

The Unleash Space is your space for creating, playing, making, inventing, experimenting and doing at the University of Auckland. It’s where you can find and build your community. Together or individually, you can build things, come up with ideas and develop them, prototype, test and have fun doing so, in a welcoming collaborative environment.

I am truly excited about the potential that the Unleash space has to continue to bridge the fuzzy techy.  I hope to see Arts students learning to program Arduinos, and students of the so-called "hard sciences" working with soft materials.


I haven't been blogging for a while - partly due to a technical glitch behind the scenes that meant I was shut out of my own account on the site - and partly due to the fact I was riding in the University Recreation Centre's "Tour de Gym", an event in which participants ride 10% of the Tour de France on stationary bikes. Mornings are often time to think and write ... but on 21 days out of the 23 day event (two rest days involved!) my thinking was being done on a bike while clocking up over 350 km.

I confess I won the solo women's division of the event this year (and last year) and am the proud owner of a "yellow jersey" as a result.  This is the only time of year I am a particularly committed cyclist.  I don't cycle on the road at all these days (though earlier in life I used to do up to 80 km a week commuting).  However I do get to spin class a couple of times a week if I can.  There at least there's the encouragement of an instructor (thanks Matt!), and a driving musical beat to keep everyone's legs moving!

Yellow jersey from http://i2.kbobject.com/tdf-190016.jpg

So what did I think about during 9 hours and 24 minutes or so of pedal pushing at an average speed of over 37 km/hr?  All sorts of things ... many of them related to them related to what it takes for anyone to explore their potential - whether as a researcher, studying, or as a leader.

Don't count yourself out before you start

I had wondered about taking on the challenge of the tour for some time, but had assumed it was something that only other people, fitter people, younger people, or people with more time should take on!  I'd given in to the temptation we all have to think we couldn't or shouldn't do something for reasons that are artificial and convenient.  When I teach I want all 1000 students in my undergraduate class to believe they can achieve outstanding things - regardless of whether their background differs to the person next to them.

Persistence matters!

In last year's event, another rider (a worthy opponent) posted faster times than mine every leg for the first 7 legs in a row.  My only goal last year was to finish in the best time I could possibly ride, regardless of how anyone else performed.  Deciding to be the best I could be helped me "find another gear" ... and then win every one of the next 14 legs of the 2016 ride.  The same applies when studying or working as a researcher.  Some of the most satisfying moments arise after days, weeks and months of persisting to overcome hurdles.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable

Saying "yes" to pedalling hard while your legs are saying "no" means finding ways to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  For anyone in a leadership role that's a crucial skill to develop.  Leaders have to engage in difficult conversations and take actions that challenge them.   Time spent on the bike is a good reminder of that (at least the seating in my office is more comfortable!)

I'd encourage anyone who wants to be an outstanding researcher, a top student, or to lead a high performing organisation to find and tackle challenges in different domains.  Sometimes the things we learn and remember in one space (e.g. while sweating it out on a bike) can be quite applicable elsewhere.









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.