Monthly Archives: November 2016

It's 28 days until Christmas so those of us who celebrate Christmas are likely to be thinking of gifts for people they are fond of.   Anyone who teaches however gives of themselves year round by offering their time, talent and energy to develop a new generation (of engineers in the case of myself and the staff in our Department).

Meaning of life

My role at the University brings the value of giving and philantrophy into focus.  Recently I have been out and about at school prizegivings - this year Waitakere College, and Whangarei Girls High.  At Waitakere it was my pleasure to present one the inaugural awards of the Clarke Undergraduate Scholarship (on behalf of the University).That award will be truly life-changing for the recipient who receives $22,000 per year for up to 4 years of study in a Bachelor of Arts program.  In Whangarei I presented a runner-up prize in a nationwide contest our Department runs (NZ's Next Top Engineering Scientist - with support from Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Orion). The depth and breadth of talent among the girls in that team was truly impressive.

The spirit of giving back is alive and well among the young people we play a role in educating.  One (of the many) examples of that is the tutoring work done by the NCEA campus group.  Many of their tutors and leadership team have come from the Department of Engineering Science of the years.  That group "is a not-for-profit, youth-for-youth organization promoting equality of opportunity in the New Zealand education system, by indiscriminately providing access to quality support for all students tackling external exams." 

Philanthropic projects can be great way to build community.  In 2009 I was part of "Team Well Engineered" who completed the Oxfam Trailwalker event - a 100km walk (i.e. each individual walking the whole distance, not as a relay!) which we finished in 30 hours and 49 minutes - raising over $5000 for Oxfam in the process.  We developed a reputation for "fun"-raising in the Faculty during our "fund"-raising.  Completing a challenge like that takes grit, but that's always useful in other arenas!

My work gives me opportunities to visit many communities - in NZ and beyond.  While travelling I like to do whatever I can to understand those communities.  My work in geothermal energy takes me to Indonesia quite often.  On a trip there last year I went on a guided tour with a small group into the "hidden" Jakarta - down dark alleyways into mazes of shacks where people live in poverty.  The visit was humbling.  I use it as "fuel" to keep working on various projects to support geothermal energy development in Indonesia - in the hope that access to electrcity can become more universal for it's people.

Hidden Jakarta



I had planned to write about other things this week.  But given the earthquakes in NZ recently seismic activity is on my mind!  I have had a long standing interest in the way the earth works - the fluids that flow within and on its crust, and the forces that conspire to shape and continuously remodel the earth's structure.  This interest may go all the way back my birth since the earth shook as  I was preparing to make my entrance into the world.  Four hours before I was born the hospital my mother was in rocked with a 6.6 magnitude earthquake (with an epicentre close to Owhango). A 3.95 magnitude quake happened just as I was delivered.

Fast forward several decades ... and the research my graduate students and I undertake applies a range of mathematical and computational tools to understand the earth.  Micro-seismic activity is one data set of interest.  Micro-seismic events generally have magnitude less than 2.  The Richter scale is a logarithmic one, so a magnitude 3 quake is 10 times larger than a 2,  a magnitude 4 is 100 times larger than 2, ... and a magnitude 7 is 100,000 times larger than a 2.  Such quakes are imperceptible by  humans and need sensitive geophysical equipment deployed in boreholes to detected.  However there are large numbers of these very small events which can make them a rich data set to explore.

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.One of my PhD students, Jongchan Kim, is working with micro-seismic data from a portion of the Wairakei geothermal field.  He's integrating it into a model that addresses fluid flow, heat flow and changes in mechanical stress in the field.  The micro-seismic data gives us insight into the permeability of the rocks involved, and the faults that exist in the reservoir.

Another PhD student, Jeremy Riffault (working wtih David Dempsey and I) is building numerical modelling approaches to help understand the micro-earthquakes which may occur during the development of enhanced geothermal systems.

Our shaky isles have some significant faults  (geologically speaking!). The recent quake activity shown below is challenging infrastructure, and has sadly caused fatalities.  However further north faults form an important component of the Taupo Volcanic Zone which provides the geological setting for most of the country's geothermal energy production.  That clean energy source produces around 16% of electricity per year.  So our faulted geology has its upsides!

NZ earthquake diagram

Map showing location of the M7.8 epicenter (star), M > 3.0 aftershocks up until 04:20 NZ time on the 18th November (n = 1,782). Credit: Google Earth/ GNS Science, CC BY 3.0 NZ




The last exam for the year took place on campus today.  So school's out for summer!  That does not mean the lyrics of the well known Alice Cooper song are drifting through the corridors.  Nor does it mean my staff and I are about to start a long summer break.

Research and innovation are part of the role academic staff have year round.  However when lectures and exams finish it's a prime opportunity to focus on research.  Summer is often a time to incubate and test new ideas.  Research directions that have promise may then be developed into funding proposals for external funding to support the work we do.  In particular there are deadlines for the Marsden fund during the summer.  That fund plays the very important role is supporting "blue sky research" driven by curiosity of the researchers, on projects where a commercial return is uncertain.  The return on such research can however be immense (for example Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin).


Marsden funding is competitive and highly prestigious.  Only 25% of proposals make it through the first round of evaluation.  Ultimately only around 11% of proposals succeed. The odds of success mean the application process is not for the faint-hearted!

In the latest round the Department of Engineering Science was very pleased to see one of it's senior lecturers (Dr Andrea Raith) awarded a $300,000 "Fast Start" Marsden grant for her work on solving multiobjective optimisation problems (MOPs), integrating ideas of problem decomposition and techniques to more effectively deal with complexity in MOPs.  That might sound abstract - however Andrea's work has significant applications in transportation, for example in deciding how to prioritise cycling infrastructure projects.