Monthly Archives: September 2017

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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

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.