Faculty of Engineering

Dr Delwyn Moller

Delwyn Moller

Not many people would consider themselves a “townie” growing up in a small rural town like Putaruru, but that’s exactly how radar sensing systems engineer Delwyn Moller describes herself. With a primary school teacher for a mother, a father who ran the local dairy, and five brothers and sisters, Moller describes her childhood as the epitome of a basic Kiwi upbringing.

A high achiever from the start, she excelled in mathematics, and completed her bursary a year early. She describes her high-school career as very self-focused – in a small rural school there wasn’t always a class for her to go to, and she was “kind of on her own”, self-teaching her passions of maths and science. There was always an expectation that she would carry on to university, with the majority of her siblings having completed further education. Unsure of what she wanted to study, she began a combined engineering and architecture course, and initially thought architecture was the route she was going to take. Her practical side won out, after deciding she liked the objectivity of engineering.

“It was kind of a safer deal for me, rather than the subjectivity of studio, and having your creations assessed. It was one less professional year in engineering, so I was like, oh, okay, I’ll do engineering. But it was really just something I fell into”.

Moller says her turning point in engineering came when she did her final year project – a simulation of a short circuit on a power line with a protective relay. She says at that point all the maths and exams became real, and being able to build something and have it work was “just kind of magic - until that I was just head down to get my degree, and then I was planning to go off and be a ski bum”.

Skiing plans put aside, she began a Masters thesis at the University of Auckland based on power transformer protection after receiving a Women in Engineering Scholarship. The only woman to graduate from Electrical Engineering in her postgraduate degree, she was the focus of a lot of attention. “I didn’t really get what the fuss was about, I didn’t think anything of it. I think I was just clueless enough to just go ‘I can do anything I want to do’”, she laughs.

Having female role models in STEM careers is something Moller identifies as key to encouraging young women into engineering. She supports outreach activities, in particular schools programmes, where young women are able to meet successful female engineers. “I think it starts before university, in high school and primary when girls are discouraged from doing STEM. I think that the role model part makes a big difference. They show that it’s okay, it’s cool, it’s exciting. For me, I don’t know that I had that, so it’s great to see the emergence of female leaders today”.

Her advice to young women studying engineering today is all about self-confidence. “I think what happens with a lot of girls is you get all these messages – oh you can’t do this or that. It’s just about not doubting yourself. I used to be quiet, sit up the back, not ask any questions because I thought they might be dumb. Now I ask the dumb questions, because there’s a lot of people sitting there not asking them, and a lot of the time it’s not dumb at all!”

Moller’s strong practical focus led her to pursue a PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A “very hands-on” programme, she had the opportunity to design and build field radars, as well as analysing the data. “It was very focused on research work, rather than coursework. You had exams you had to pass, but if you were getting straight As you probably weren’t spending enough time in the lab! It wasn’t typical of US research programmes in general, but I came out with a very unique, well-rounded education”.

Moller’s exposure to radar engineering was to form the basis of her work today, as Principal Systems Engineer at Remote Sensing Solutions in California. She works on radar remote sensing, with a strong environmental focus. Her remote sensing technology is being used to more accurately measure global sea level rise, and map the planet for fresh water. “I enjoy the multi-disciplinary nature of it – I get to work with mechanical engineers, scientists and the public, so I get to do a huge variety of things”.

A huge variety of things indeed, with Moller adding helicopter pilot, a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, volunteering as a paramedic, and being a mother to 9 year old twins to her extensive list of accomplishments. It’s hard to imagine how she fits everything into a day, but it seems to come effortlessly.

“I morph it all together. Some people need a boundary, they go to work, then come home, but I don’t. It all washes in together. I tried having that boundary and I was just miserable. So I’ll work evenings, I’ll work weekends. I tend to be bursting when there’s a deadline or something, I’ll put all my time and effort into it. But I love the flexibility I have. I’m able to pick up the kids from school most days and spend that time with them, then they go to bed and then I go back to work”.

Although she is based in California with husband Dr Brian Pollard, who developed radar technology used to land the Mars Curiosity Rover, she has a strong connection to New Zealand. Her children, Lena and Baxter, are dual citizens and still “really identify as Kiwi kids”. Although she’s not sure where the future of her work will take her, she’s “very open” to a return to New Zealand one day, and follows the development of her alma mater with keen interest. “I’m so excited to see what’s happening with the University of Auckland, I love the multi-disciplinary nature that’s happening there now. It’s competitive to get in to engineering now, which is really exciting – it wasn’t like that in my day!”

So where to from here for this multi-talented engineer?

She’s always had trouble with question, because she never knows what’s coming next.

“One thing I can say is that I persevere and keep going. I’ve found a niche, a place I fit, with something I’m good at. I’m working with people who respect me, some of the best scientists in the world so that’s very gratifying. So I’m going to keep working, and see what happens from here. I like to make things happen, to keep things moving forward, see results and success and be surrounded with that. I’m not sure what form that will take yet, but I like to stay open”.