Monthly Archives: December 2016

My thoughts this week start from an email a student who has just finished a conjoint degree sent me recently.  The subject line was "Thank you for 5 years of awesome!"  She'd really enjoyed the time she had spent in the Department and acknowledged the culture in the Department that aims to ensure students have an outstanding experience while they are with us.   In turn working with those students means the roles our staff have can offer a lot of job satisfaction.

Thinking about 2017 I want to explore how to use the skills, knowledge and energy of staff and students here to help build New Zealand into a country that is more "awesome" for all concerned.  Once we return from a summer break we'll be moving into a round of bidding for government research funding through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).  The Ministry stated an aim in 2015 "to support an increase in real median household income of 40 per cent by 2025, from $1,300 (in 2012) to $1,800 per week".

Supporting that target MBIE have three objectives:

  • more competitive businesses – doubling labour productivity growth and increasing the real exports to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio to 40 per cent
  • job opportunities for all – achieving an ongoing unemployment rate below 4 per cent
  • affordable housing – a lower ratio of housing cost to income.

MBIE acknowedges these objectives are ambitious, and they challenge any organisation seeking research funding to provide a program of work that supports these objectives.

An example of work being done in Engineering Science to address these challenges is our participation in the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge.  The Department is engaged in Portfolio 4 of the challenge which "aims to enable organisations to combine analytics techniques and new ICT methods to create value from large quantities of data through better processing, presentation, collaboration and decision-making tools."   Portfolio 4 is led by Professor Andy Philpott.  It has a spearhead project known as R five which is "a collaborative modelling effort looking at the effects on New Zealand businesses of randomness, risk, rivals, remoteness and resource limitations."  The project includes a particular focus on Māori capacity development (led in the Department by Assoc. Professor Andrew Mason).

The Faculty of Engineering has recently signed a new partnership with the Federation of Māori Authorities and looks forward to building closer ties between engineering researchers and Māori enterprises.

So with MBIE bids firmly on my list of "homework" for 2017 I will sign off for 2016.

Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,


The Department of Engineering Science hosts undergraduate degrees in both Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering.    I enjoy seeing examples of how the natural world can offer solutions to traditional engineering problems.  Much of my own work is in geothermal energy and one example in that industry is the bioreactor at Contact Energy's Wairakei plant that removes hydrogen sulphide from cooling water used in the plant, before the water is discharged to the Waikato river.  In the bioreactor the cooling water flows through 378km of pipes in which sulphur-oxidising bacteria floursh and remove 80% of the hydrogen sulphide.  The bioreactor is a world first, and was New Zealand Energy Project of the Year in the Deloitte Energy Awards.


At the University I enjoy seeing the developments that come out of the Auckland Biomimetics Lab, hosted in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and run by Associate Professor Iain Anderson.  The work done in the lab involves

"drawing inspiration from nature to develop new technologies. Living organisms and natural phenomena have certain behaviours and properties which let them exist in harmony with the surrounding environment. By understanding these natural processes, we are developing technologies to venture into new territories."

One of the lab's projects is building a human powered racing submarine (known as "Project Taniwha") which they race in an international contest each year.  This year the team won the overall trophy, as well as awards for being the most reliable submarine and the best non-propeller powered submarine.  The team are the only Southern Hemisphere team.  Curious how such a vehicle works?  It's pedal-powered, with a diver inside who breathes from a dive tank.

“We also got the reliability trophy because we didn’t abort once in 18 runs around the circuit,” says Iain. “That’s about five kilometres underwater. New Zealand has proven to the world that Taniwha is a top sub with a top team.”

“They were very impressed with our innovative bending tail on the sub that takes the place of a rudder,” says Iain. “The rear section of the Taniwha bends back and forth like a fish and enables the Taniwha to turn without a rudder.”

The Taniwha is a great mix of creativity, determination, and Kiwi enginuity - with some inspiration from nature.  If you're visiting our Department (at Uniservices House, 70 Symonds St) you will see it on display on the ground floor level.  I know there's not a huge market for human power submarines ... however the Biomimetics Lab also applies it's expertise to a range of other ventures with commercial impact, including a spin-out company called Stretchsense which develops wearable technologies.


New Zealand has the dubious honour of having the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world.  As a New Zealander I am not proud of that.  Overall the number of New Zealanders who take their own lives is normally larger than the number who die in road accidents.  As a community we discuss the road toll freely, but choose not to discuss mental health as openly.  I want to join others who challenge this taboo.

I am very mindful of the stresses and mental health difficulties all University students face. The young people in the Department of Engineering Science are not immune from the difficulties of navigating financial struggles, chronic health problems, bereavement, relationship difficulties, questions of identity and more.  Those challenges seem to be increasing - as is my awareness of the potential for incidents of self-harm.  I have an open door policy with students and over the years have had students disclose some fairly mind-boggling circumstances - naturally confidentiality means I will not expand on the details.   We're one of the smaller Departments in our Faculty and have a strong sense of community.  We aim to proactively check-in with students if we see any signs of mental health issues that go beyond the realms of normal student life. I am grateful for the support of Faculty's student engagement team who help support students in a range of ways.   The University of Auckland also has an excellent health and counselling service.
Mental health

Engineers are problem solvers - and I am pleased that two staff I work with have devoted some energy to the problem of youth mental health.  Dr Mike O'Sullivan Jnr and Associate Professor Cameron Walker have been working with the Adolescent Health Research Group to help analyse data from the Youth 2000 series of surveys.  Recent work conducted a final year research project by an undergraduate student (Jung Shaan Lee) working with Mike and Cameron used modern statistical tools on the Youth 2000 data set and identified three key themes associated with depression in young people - having poor family relationships, feeling unsafe or out of place at school, and experiencing difficulty accessing mental healthcare.  Jung Shaan's work helped shed light on the interconnectedness between multiple factors and has already attracted the interest of mental health professionals working in the Adolescent Health Research Group.  I think that's a great use of some engineering expertise.


In an emergency situation (in New Zealand) please call the Mental Health Crisis Service on (0800) 800 717. This is a free public health service. The crisis teams are part of the Community Mental Health Service and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For free mental health counselling please call Lifeline on (0800) 543 354, 24 hours a day.