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.











I haven’t been blogging for a while – and I have missed taking the time to jot down some thoughts on things that are happening in my various roles at the University.  The end of the summer has been a busy time – lots of grant writing, and preparations to bring in a new class of both undergraduate and graduate students.

This week I’d like to focus on our new group of postgraduate students in the Master of Energy program.  The program is an interdisciplinary program for students from Science, Engineering and Business.  The program had around 40 students in various phases of their degree right now.

This week I’ve really enjoyed meeting the new intake of students.  They are all extremely energetic (excuse the pun!) and have a real hunger for knowledge that they truly hope to “change the world” with.  The majority of the students came from overseas – and literally come from every corner of the globe.  We have students from North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific all in class together.

I travel a lot and believe that global problems – such as improving access to clean energy worldwide – are best solved through global collaborations.  We kicked those collaborations off at an icebreaker event last week where the students worked on building models of energy related devices (such as wind turbines) from some kit-sets.  I look forward to seeing what ideas the students build while they are with us.

I enjoy the fact that the staff and students I work with have tremendously diverse backgrounds but share a passion for common scientific questions.  I am also proud that NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade lists renewable energy as a priority area for their scholarship funding.  That means some of the students in our new cohort are supported through this scholarship scheme – which is then a mechanism for exporting Kiwi energy “know how” offshore.

Access to reliable/affordable electricity is transformative in society.  Most (but not all) New Zealanders can take that their access to grid-connected electricity for granted.  Locally I was part of a team late last year which reflected on the state of the nation (in particular in my section access to clean energy) as part of the Habitat III report to the United Nations.  Sharing ideas and experience via organisations such as the UN is important.  However our postgraduate program is like a mini UN on a daily basis!




Prof. Marcus du Sautoy said "Mathematics can often appear arcane, esoteric, unworldly and irrelevant."   In that New Statesman article Prof. du Sautoy then went on to counter that and outline his views on relevance and importance of mathematics.  (Aside - [If you're into mathematics/physics/Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - you may also enjoy Prof. du Sautoy's thoughts on why 42 is in the fact the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" published here.)

Like Prof. du Sautoy I believe mathematics offers us tremendous insight into the way the world works.  In the work we do in the Department of Engineering Science we describe the process of using mathematics to understand the world as "mathematical modelling".   So what is mathematical modelling? Wikipedia gives a definition of  "A mathematical model is a description of a system using mathematical concepts and language."   While I agree that's a valid definition - if we met at a cocktail party and I told you that was what I do, you may be politely looking for ways to break off the conversation (depending on your level of interest in mathematics).

The word "language" in the Wikipedia definition is however very important to me.  When I was at school I loved learning languages (and still do).  I studied French to 7th form (now called Year 13) and Latin to Year 12.  I frequently comment that for me mathematics is in many ways just another language.   The mathematical modelling process involves a translation of a problem that arises from a community, industry, science, government etc. into a set of mathematical statements that capture the relevant details.

Once translated into mathematical language do I end up with a set of mathematical equations that I can solve by hand (on paper)?  Not usually!  I sometimes say in jest that while I am a reasonable mathematician, I specalise in writing down equations I can't solve.   This means the modelling process typically includes a phase of translating the mathematics involved into a form that can be solved by a computer.  All going to plan the computer-based version of the model then becomes a "crystal ball" where the modeller can ask "what if?" questions to explore uncertainty (e.g. in a traffic flow model what happens if 50% more cars per hour travel on a certain road due to a special event in the area?)  To make meaningful predictions of the future behaviour of a system the model must be validated against previous observations of that system (e.g. if I want to predict future flow rates and temperatures in a geothermal well, my model should ideally be able to retroactively recover previous flow behaviour).

Finally modellers need to be able to address the "Why?" question ... why was the model constructed?  Does it provide a robust answer to that question?  Through the modelling process having an appreciation of the topic being addressed is very helpful.  Within the Engineering Science degree we allow students to build their understanding of various domains where modelling may be applied (from financial markets to environmental engineering) by having the flexibility to include electives from outside the Department throughout the degree.  We hope that makes them better mathematical modellers!







Like many New Zealanders I was (till July last year) the owner of an older car (I won't say how old!) that had a lot of kilometres on the clock.  When it came time to change vehicles I decided to "walk the talk" and buy an electric car.  I took the plunge and bought a second hand Nissan Leaf - and it was "love at first drive".  The car is very quiet, accelerates beautifully and is generally fun to drive. There's no petrol engine in the car, and it charges overnight (in about 6 hours) from a household plug (with a higher current "caravan" socket).  So does "driving electric" make sense?  There were about 1,250 electric vehicles registered in NZ when I bought mine - today there are more like 2,250 (see www.driveelectric.org.nz for current stats).  That means more and more NZers think it does make sense.

Nissan Leaf vehicles charging at a Vector charging station in Takanini. Mine was headed on a day trip further south that day.

I was pleased to see research published by EECA in New Zealand that confirmed the environmental benefits of electric cars.  They state:

"Across the lifecycle, pure EVs have around 60% fewer CO2 emissions than petrol vehicles. When we just look at the CO2 emissions from use, New Zealand’s high proportion of renewable electricity generation means EVs have around 80% fewer CO2 emissions when driven in New Zealand.  As the renewable proportion of New Zealand’s electricity continues to grow, the CO2 emissions from an EV will reduce further."

EECA's research also dispels concerns re net environmental impacts associated with lithium production for electric vehicle batteries.

So what's the catch?  The typically advertised range of my model of Nissan Leaf, with its 24 kWh battery capacity, is 125 km on a full charge.  That assumes driving on the flat on smooth roads etc. - so in reality I get less commuting range than that since we live at the top of a long winding hill.  I have a fairly significant commute so I charge the car every night at home.  What happened to my power bill?  I opened the first one with bated breath!  However the car's energy demands are relatively modest - so I traded filling up on a full tank of petrol every week, for an increase of $20 to $30 on my monthly power bill (I have a discounted rated for night rate electricity, and also have solar panels on the roof of my home that help charge the car when it's home at the weekends).

Colleagues in the Department are interested in supporting NZ's transition to more electric vehicles.  We've had a student project building web-based mapping tools that assess the viability of the use of an electric vehicle in Auckland for commuting taking into account speed limits and terrain (note that driving downhill regenerates charge in the car battery).  The tool is not quite ready for public use but I looked forward to seeing it deployed.

Companies such as Vector are deploying fast chargers that will charge a car like mine in 20 minutes or so.  Their chargers are currently free for public use, but that will change at some point.  The Government, via EECA are also trying to accelerate the transition to  electric vehicles, via the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund.

So, a longer post than usual, but I have a lot of love for driving electric!