Faculty of Engineering


Alumni Stories

Here are some profiles of past students recalling their university days at the faculty and sharing how a career in engineering has shaped their life since graduating.

Radar Systems Engineer Dr Delwyn Moller


Delwyn Moller

Radar Systems Engineer Dr Delwyn Moller talks about her journey from a small rural town in the Waikato, to designing mapping systems that measure the effect of climate change on global sea levels.

Read more of Dr Moller's story here

Civil Engineer John Baker


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At 89 years of age, you might expect John Baker to be slowing down a bit, but that is certainly not the case. A Faculty of Engineering alumnus from the pre-Ardmore days, John has retained the quick wit and sharp intelligence that led him across the world in a varied and exciting career in civil engineering.

Development Manager Matt MacDougall and Content Writer Jess Finucane had the privilege of visiting John and his wife Laura at their home in Remuera, and hearing first-hand his account of his time as an engineer.

Having grown up on a farm in rural Auckland, John left school at 16 and enrolled in Pukekohe Technical College, with the hope of becoming a motor mechanic. As part of that course, students were required to complete a unit in engineering, and it was here that John’s love for the subject was born. Having decided that the metalwork and carpentry side of the mechanic’s course wasn’t for him, John asked to be transferred to the academic side of the course, and spent early mornings whilst his father was milking studying algebra, geometry, and business. After completing his diploma, the family moved to Middlemore, and John began his final year at Otahuhu College. There, he met a teacher by the name of Mr Thompson, who so inspired him with his passion for maths and physics that John decided that he was going to go on to study science and engineering at the University of Auckland, the first in his family to complete a degree.

Riding his bicycle to Mangere station every morning to catch the train in, then 17 year old John’s first few years of his degree were completed in the “old tin sheds”, what the students called the Strengths and Materials labs on Alfred Street. At the time, the University of Auckland was not in a position to offer the full engineering degree, and final year students were required to go down to the University of Canterbury to finish their qualification. John moved to Christchurch in 1947, having decided to specialise in civil engineering, and came back up to Auckland to finish his science degree in 1948.

It was during this final year that John met his wife Laura at Papatoetoe Dance Hall. He’d only intended to briefly pop in to the dance with friends, but Laura managed to persuade him to stay and tell her about his engineering degree. Of their meeting she says “I was the biggest flirt on earth, but after I met him I didn’t want to go out with anyone else, it was as simple as that”. After 66 years of marriage, it is clear to see that the couple are still very much in love, and they are looking forward to celebrating their 67th wedding anniversary next year.

After his graduation, John went on his OE to Canada with the hope of getting the opportunity to build bridges. Having been unsuccessful in this endeavour, he was then employed by the Canadian National Railway to work on a project with them. He spent 18 months there, building a line from Cranberry Portage to a nickel mine. After spending months trekking through the Canadian snow, John decided to come back to New Zealand and join the city council.

He then went on to forge a career in civil engineering that has spanned multiple cities, spending four years in Townsville, Australia building a railroad to Greenvale, and a year in Brisbane working for an engineering consulting firm.

With two young children, John and Laura decided to settle in Auckland for nine years whilst John worked at Auckland Council. His work then took the young family across New Zealand, from Christchurch, to Wanganui, and Wellington, as well as back overseas to Perth in Australia.

The couple then decided to settle for good in Auckland, and have spent the last thirty years enjoying a peaceful retirement in their home in Mt Eden, before moving to a serviced apartment complex in Remuera in 2013.

John’s varied and exciting career is testament to the passion he has for engineering, and the foundations he built whilst studying at the University of Auckland. A farmer’s son who “certainly didn’t want to be getting up at 4am every morning for the rest of my life”, John has established himself as one of the Faculty of Engineering’s notable alumni, and we were very lucky to hear him share his story.

We would love to hear more stories from other alumni of the faculty. If you are interested in being profiled in the next edition of Alumni News, please contact Development Manager Matt MacDougall at matt.macdougall@auckland.ac.nz

 

 

Alumnus Charles Ma


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University of Auckland Alumnus Charles Ma has extended his support for the Dean’s Leadership Programme, due to kick off in July.

Graduating from the University in 2014 with a conjoint BE(Hons)/BCom degree, alumnus Charles Ma began his career in engineering as a Project Assistant in the private equity firm Lily Investment. From there, he has gone on to become Managing Director of a multi-billion dollar project portfolio, with projects ranging from the 650 home Sugar Tree apartment complex in central Auckland, land development in Flat Bush, and the Auranga project, which is overseeing the construction of 1300 homes in South Auckland. Based in the Karaka Drury area, Auranga aims to build a new, urban community, where families can grow and prosper. As part of the project, at least 150 homes will be affordable housing, defined at 75% of the median Auckland house price.

Charles has extended his support for the Dean’s Leadership Programme, which aims to support the development of undergraduate students through internships with leading industry professionals, mentoring, workshops and networking opportunities. Undergraduate students who have shown leadership aptitude will be selected to participate in this program, with the goal of developing technologically literate, innovative and creative leaders to change New Zealand and the world for the better. Benefits for participants include improved career prospects via the Faculty’s industry networks, and a smoother transition into the job market due to their superior leadership skills and training. At a personal level, the program is expected to increase resilience, improve personal leadership skills, enhance communication and help students develop stronger networks.

A key leader within the engineering industry himself, Charles became involved in the Dean’s Leadership Programme primarily because of his belief in the value of engineering leadership. He is passionate about nurturing leadership within the engineering community, and establishing frameworks in which the leadership potential of young engineers is maximised. He is working closely with the development team to develop schemes and activities in which the participants of the program can flourish, and further develop their leadership skills.

The Faculty gratefully acknowledges the support that Charles has given to the programme, and are looking forward to seeing how his expertise will contribute to the development of the next generation of engineering leaders.

 

Alumnus Dr John List


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Alumnus Dr John List visited the Newmarket Campus recently and spent some time in the hydraulics lab with Professor Bruce Melville. Dr List graduated from the Faculty of Engineering with a BE Civil (1961) and ME Civil (1962). He is currently working in Pasadena, California as the founder and principal consultant of Flow Science Consulting Engineers. He has worked on high profile commissions, including developing the hydrodynamics of the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. 

Priyanka Shekar, Imagineer


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Imagineers create new products by combining creative ideas and concepts with science, technology, and engineering. This description fits in perfectly with Silicon Valley-based Priyanka Shekar's current endeavours–she is the co-founder and chief product officer of Grüv Music, a startup venture that allows everyone to make music regardless of their ability and training. 

Priyanka's expertise lies at, in the words of Steve Jobs, the "intersection of computing and liberal arts". Her belief that we are living through a new digital rennaisance rings true in her work in a young and emerging field. Read more about her in the Spring 2015 issue of Ingenio, the University of Auckland's official alumni magazine.

 

 

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Anil Hira, Regional Director


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From the Lower Hutt to working in some of the tallest buildings in the world, and now immersed in some of the most exciting projects as the Regional Director and Partner of BuroHappold Engineering in India, Anil Hira is truly a reflection of what is achievable with passion, hard work, and the right mentality. Read more about his philosophy and approaches to work here

 

 

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Glen Willcox, RAF pilot


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Ten years as an Air Force pilot in both New Zealand and the UK is paying dividends for engineering graduate Glen Willcox.

He was one of only three from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the UK selected to train as a test pilot - an elite role which involves testing the manoeuvrability and capabilities of new aircraft and technologies before they go into service.

The role of RAF test pilot is not given lightly. Glen was sent to the prestigious EPNER flying school in France, at a cost of one million pounds per student, to prepare for the position. Here he learnt how to fly more than 30 different aircraft, from the Airbus right through to Mirage 2000 fighters, even the Learjet and Canadair sea planes.

Glen graduated from EPNER in July and his first major task as an RAF Test Pilot will be to conduct flight trials of new Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft, which are equipped with technologies not seen in the field before.

“One of the objects of test flying is to find any potential problems before the front line crews find themselves in a difficult situation,” Glen explains.

“Anytime you fly it is potentially dangerous – especially when you are doing things that haven’t been tried before. But the preparation and training is so intense, the risk is reduced as much as possible.”

Glen completed a BE in Mechanical Engineering in the 1990s and shortly after completing his Masters of Engineering in 1997, pursued his passion for flying by joining the New Zealand Air Force.

His dream was cut short less than a year later when the New Zealand Government axed pilots in strike roles. Luckily Glen was one of 16 New Zealand pilots to transfer to the UK under a Commonwealth scheme. He has since served on ten tours of duty with the RAF, including to Iraq and Afghanistan. As an aircraft commander he captained a crew of 12 all around the world in both hostile and friendly environments.

Glen says his engineering degrees were the ideal grounding for a role that requires advanced technical, mathematical and mechanical knowledge, as well as the ability to be a manager and leader.

Glen is one of three Willcox siblings to study at the University. All have gone on to incredible success. Glen’s elder sister Karen, also an engineering graduate, is a Professor at MIT in the United States and this year made NASA’s astronaut shortlist. His youngest sister Bobby is a PhD student in the Department of Statistics and an analyst for the Silver Ferns.

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Oscar-winning alumnus Mark Sagar


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Weta Digital’s Mark Sagar has a passion for recreating the human face, whether on a screen or on a sketchpad.

It has taken him from a Mechanical Engineering PhD to key technical roles in films like Avatar and King Kong. Earlier this year, his contributions to the motion picture industry were recognised with an Academy Award.

Mark was one of four awarded a Scientific and Engineering Oscar for a lighting stage and facial rendering system, used to create realistic digital characters in Spiderman 2. It essentially helps computers make digital characters look real on the big screen, and was later used in Superman Returns, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Avatar.

The technique meant the subtle qualities of the skin, such as colour, texture, shine, and translucency, could be digitally reproduced in an entirely convincing way. Based on research by Paul Debevec, a professor at the University of Southern California, the lighting stage illuminates an actor’s face from 500 different angles, telling a computer how to light a digital version of the actor in any conditions.

The technical Academy Awards were held in Beverly Hills in February 2010, a few weeks before the glitzy televised Oscars ceremony. “It’s not nearly as glamorous at the main awards, but it was the most glamorous thing I’ve been to,” Mark says, grinning widely.

Mark completed a Bachelor of Science, and a PhD in Engineering at The University of Auckland. His research, completed in the late 1990s, was a landmark study in how to develop an anatomically correct virtual eye and realistic models of biomechanically-simulated anatomy. It was one of the first examples of how believable human features could be created on a screen by combining computer graphics with mathematics and human physiology.

“Combining computer graphics with something organic, the eyeball, was a fantastic place to start. The eye is the visible part of the brain. It’s the main interface with the world and the most challenging part of the face to make believable in a digital form,” Mark says.

His supervisors, Professor Gordon Mallinson, Head of Mechanical Engineering, and Professor Peter Hunter, Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), say Mark was a unique researcher because he had both outstanding artistic and mathematical abilities.

Mark was born in Kenya to an artist mother and systems analyst father. His mother taught him from an early age about the fundamentals of drawing faces. Before his PhD, he spent three years travelling the world sketching portraits before returning to Auckland to study.

“He came into a group that was pioneering mathematical modelling of biological functions, and he added an extra layer by thinking about how we could do it in the most visually realistic way, so it made sense to clinicians,” Peter Hunter says.

“You couldn’t do this research unless you were an artist,” Gordon Mallinson says. “It is almost like he had full use of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which is quite rare.”

Mark’s virtual eye was made for a surgery robot being developed by Peter’s brother, Professor Ian Hunter, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. After completing his thesis, Mark relocated to the States to join Ian’s lab.

“I’d been making eyeballs but I was definitely interested in extending this to faces. It was a natural progression, influenced by my portrait work. My goal was to make a completely photorealistic digital actor that people wouldn’t suspect isn’t real. I really wanted to push it as far as we could go,” he says.

Mark ended up in an MIT spin-out company, set up in Hollywood to realise the potential of their anatomically-based graphical animations to the film industry. One of their first projects was a digital animation of Jim Carrey’s face, pulling complicated expressions. It never made it to the big screen, but it was viewed by “everyone” in Hollywood, creating a buzz. The company went on to make short films, demonstrating the scope of what was now being achieved in digital animation, including a film called Young at Heart, which portrayed a young actress as a very convincing 80-year-old woman.

And then the dot-com crash came. It wiped out the production company; however Mark was able to move on to LA-based Sony Imageworks, where he applied the lighting stage techniques to his first blockbuster film, Spiderman II.

It was also where he returned to his main passion of recreating facial expression. He continued working on motion capture techniques, which essentially record an actor’s movements and expressions to create a computer-generated character.
In 2004 he relocated back to New Zealand, where he joined Weta and was given the opportunity to work on Peter Jackson’s King Kong. On this film he was able to push the boundaries of motion capture techniques much further in an effort to give a gorilla highly believable expressions and emotions.

“It wasn’t a speaking part, so capturing the subtleties in the eyes and emotions was critical to how that character came across,” Mark says.

“What I love about film is you get crazy problems like how to convert human expressions into gorilla expressions. No-one has ever had to solve that before. But if you get it wrong, people know straight away.”

A few years later the technology took another huge leap forward when Mark and his Weta colleagues started collaborating with James Cameron on Avatar. The possibility of working with Cameron pushed the team to make the motion capture system work in real-time.

“He wanted to capture actor’s faces during a scene using helmet cameras, and convert that information instantly into digital alien characters,” Mark says.

“The great thing about working with James Cameron is he knows when something can be achieved that’s never been done before. He understands that as long as the resources are put to one of his visions, it can be done.”

Mark says the blue-skinned alien characters in Avatar are so believable because a great deal of effort and attention went into the eyes. Every subtle contour of the eyelid and movement of the eyeball had to be just right.

“The success with Avatar is the shock people get when a very alien creature comes across in a natural way. They think ‘how did that get past that part of my brain?’ And in Avatar it’s not just the faces in the film; they’ve meticulously created an entire visual world - every blade of grass, the wind through the trees, the light bouncing off leaves – it’s incredible.”

Mark insists though that we are still at the tip of the iceberg. His goal remains to capture a sense of consciousness in his characters that is completely indistinguishable from a real human.

“At some point in the future we should have a decent enough computational model to create the external manifestation of consciousness. It's so cool to explore because it taps into what it means to be alive; people just know when something is alive or not.”

“The problem with film though is it’s a passive medium, and we could take this so much further, into new forms of entertainment, human computer interactions, and into the medical fields, helping surgeons with simulated patients; the possibilities are endless.”

To get there Mark hopes we can create more synergies between different fields, from psychology and human behaviour to biomedical engineering and the arts, with a common goal in mind.

“There are so many technologies that haven’t yet been applied to creating virtual humans, and with places like Weta and ABI, we have the creative excellence in New Zealand to do it really well.”

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High-profile businessman Chris Liddell

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At the end of last year, Chris Liddell not only celebrated his one-year anniversary with General Motors (GM), but also the company’s record breaking initial public offering. The offering allowed GM to burst back on the scene after being plunged into a government-led bankruptcy 18 months earlier. But just four months later he announced his resignation as Chief Financial Officer.

The distinguished engineering alumnus and high profile businessman left GM on 1 April 2011. He is succeeded in the role by fellow Kiwi and former vice president, finance and treasurer for GM, Dan Ammann.

Liddell feels he has achieved what he had set out to do in the role and does not want to be a CFO again, having performed the role successfully at two major companies, first Microsoft, and later at GM.

Liddell’s career has been quite a ride and although he was only at the company for a year, his stint at GM was a resounding success. He could not have predicted that launching an international career at age 45 would put him behind GM's wheel seven years later.

Liddell was at the top of New Zealand’s corporate ladder, as CEO of Carter Holt Harvey, when he decided to take on the role of CFO at Carter Holt Harvey’s parent company, International Paper, in Connecticut in 2003.

Liddell was faced with plenty of challenges when he arrived in America. “Clearly the scale of business is significantly different over here. Also, I went into a totally new environment where I had no background and didn’t know anyone – so lots of challenges!” Liddell says.

In January last year the high-flying alumnus known for his financial acumen took on a new challenge; leaving his secure and well paid job at Microsoft to work as the CFO and VC for GM. “Many thought coming to GM was a big risk, but it proved to be a good move. If you don’t take a certain level of risk, you can’t advance your competitors and you end up “with the pack.” You may not win 100 percent of the time, but taking measured, calculated risks often presents the biggest rewards – personally and in business, Liddell says.

“I love a challenge, and I love cars. GM offered me both!” As Liddell suspected the move did have huge rewards. He has proved himself to be a key player in corporate America and led GM to its strongest annual performance since 1999.

In 2009 General Motors filed for the fourth-largest bankruptcy in US history, the biggest for an industrial company. In a highly controversial move the US Government bailed GM out with US$50 billion in July last year.

A mere eighteen months later, led by the former Kiwi executive, GM was back making profits. Liddell and his team completed the world’s largest public share offer ever. The float raised NZ$30.1 billion. This rare piece of corporate good news meant the US Government could sell up a lot of its stake in the company, moving from 61% ownership to less than 30%.

“Being part of the turnaround and the landmark IPO was a once in a life time opportunity and I wanted to be part of restoring a great American icon to the great company it can be,” Liddell says. President Barrack Obama called a press conference stating that “one of the toughest tales of the recession has taken a step towards becoming a success story”. This has been backed by financial commentators who deem the company’s restoration as “near miraculous”.

Two years on from bankruptcy, GM posted 2010 results that astounded the public, with GM earning $4.7 billion for the year; the first annual profit since 2004.

He says his success at GM is “what you spend your career building up to”. Liddell was named Business Leader of the Year by the New Zealand Herald in 2010 and was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the 2011 New Zealand CFO awards.

Liddell says GM had done a lot of the hard yards before the bankruptcy.

“The old General Motors had made some big gains in recent years, including its leadership position in China, resurgence of its Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet brands and a product pipeline full of very competitive cars, crossovers and trucks.

“But the bankruptcy also allowed us to restructure our balance sheet and shed historical costs, and to create an entirely new company and put it on a path toward solid footing.”

Before gaining a footing on the international business stage Liddell, who is the son of a teacher and homemaker, attended Mt Albert Grammar in Auckland, where he was a Prefect, Dux and played in the First XV. Ever the sportsman he won an award for best all round sportsman at Grammar.

Liddell graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering with honours from the University of Auckland in 1979. He specialised in Civil Engineering. He also has a Master of Philosophy in Management Studies from Oxford University in England.

Liddell says his engineering degree gave him the skills to “break complex thoughts, data and subjects into pieces and understand their inter-dependency”.

“I find that is an essential step toward bringing meaning and insight to otherwise useless information. That’s how effective decisions can be made.”

The rugby obsessed expat is a patron of The University of Auckland’s fundraising campaign and awards university scholarships at Mt Albert Grammar. Liddell is a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Auckland.

He began his career working as an analyst at investment banker Credit Suisse First Boston, where he rose to become joint chief executive officer. From Credit Suisse First Boston he moved to Carter Holt Harvey and then to International Paper. Two years after taking on the role at International Paper he switched industries again, becoming CFO at Microsoft. Liddell was highly successful at Microsoft overhauling their financial systems.

When Liddell left tech giant Microsoft to take his role at GM he had a sterling reputation but no direct experience with the industry. Liddell says moving from Microsoft to GM was “exciting to say the least”.

“While some of the core elements of the CFO position are quite similar – specifically around managing the financial operations of the business – others are quite unique. At Microsoft there is a constant focus on innovation but a fair level of predictability. At GM, the business has an entirely different level of complexity.”
Liddell is an active member of environmental projects in New Zealand. He is a member of the trust that has overseen the restoration of Rotoroa, an 82ha island east of Waiheke.

Liddell describes himself as “a passionate and patriotic Kiwi” who was always pulled back to New Zealand.

“I come home to New Zealand quite frequently and try to maintain as strong a connection as I can. More time in New Zealand is definitely in my future, but it is hard to know exactly when,” he says.

GM donated $268,000 to the Christchurch Relief Fund, a move Liddell says wasn't because he is a Kiwi but one he did encourage them to think about.

When asked what his greatest achievement is Liddell proclaims “I haven’t had it yet!

“Seriously, I hope that I continue to have a positive impact on the world in some way.”

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