Category Archives: Staff stories

When is a chair more than a chair?

There are many places you can expect to find symbolism at a university; in books, in art, or on the University’s crest. Yet, when entering the Registrar’s office a few weeks ago, the Canterbury College Survey team discovered that the most symbolic item in the room was a chair.

In 2012, former Registrar Jeff Field purchased an Australian red cedar colonial hall chair at auction. The chair had once belonged to Canterbury College and was deliberately chosen to project a particular image for the new college by architect Benjamin Mountford.

When he began designing buildings for the College, Mountford wanted to hark back to the architecture of the great British universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Therefore, the original Canterbury College buildings were designed in the neo-Gothic style. To outfit his buildings, Mountford picked furniture that matched their style and grandeur.

Since their invention, hall chairs have been associated with grandeur. Initially, hall chairs were a mark that someone had household staff at their disposal, as they were meant for servants to sit in while waiting for their masters. Over time, integral arms were added to their design and hall chairs became symbols of status, acting like miniature thrones. The chair’s pierced designs amplify its grandeur and reflect the motifs commonly used in neo-Gothic buildings. Both the ivy featured on the back of the chair and the crosses on its arms can be found around the College’s crest on the Arts Centre Clock Tower building, which was once the Registry building.

It is incredible to see the artefacts like this can come full circle, even after nearly 150 years have passed.

We look forward to venturing out to more Departments over the coming weeks, so please do not hesitate to contact us if you would like to provide any information about heritage artefacts that could be included in this survey.

Amy Boswell-Hore, collection technician.
Natalie Looyer, collection technician.

Dr. R.G.T (Bob) Bennett 1930-2020

Bob Bennett passed away on Wednesday 16th September in Auckland just after his 90th birthday(7th September). Bob was an undergraduate in the then Department of  Physics and Astronomy( now the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences) 1948-51 and completed his Masters (1953)and Doctorate (1959) both at UC and had been on the staff since 1965. Bob retired in 1996 but was a regular visitor to the old Rutherford Building(West) for some years.

Jack Baggaley remembers Bob

When I arrived in Christchurch from London in February 1967 Bob
was the one who met me at the airport. He drove us out to the Rolleston Research Station. There, apart from a tour of the radar and antennas, he introduced me to Kiwi ways: amongst other advice – not to nibble the nearby grass (because of the possible hepatitis), and if I used a bicycle it was not the correct thing to tuck one’s long trousers into your socks (as in the UK) – but “in New Zealand we always use proper bicycle clips”.
Later I learned that this apparent rather officious manner
was certainly not at all typical of Bob but over the years I have endeavoured to follow that guidance.

arial picture of radars in open field.
The original Ellyett and Gregory field station near Rolleston. Both radars were later moved to Birdlings Flat.


He had a deep knowledge of many branches of science and he had this ability to manipulate in his head multiple variables and navigate to a conclusion. Although the age of the desktop computer had arrived – in his office on the 8th floor of the old Rutherford Building he could often manage with only his favourite well-worn slide rule. In the same room (and the electronics workshop) he would be found with soldering iron in hand producing some new wizardry of a circuit.
Bob had an important role (advising on bell tuning etc.) in keeping the Christchurch Cathedral bells in working order. As such he was a regular bell-ringer. When on Sabbatical Leave in the UK  Rutherford-Appleton Lab) – instead of, for example, meeting folk of the local community in the pub – he would seek out the bell ringing group of the area. On some occasions at UC travelling to the research site at Birdlings Flat and with me driving, Bob would sometimes be peering at a small notebook and glancing at him I would see his lips were moving: when I enquired about this (reading a poem Bob?) mannerism – he explained that he was committing to memory some bell-ringing sequence.
I am very grateful to Bob for his wisdom and his amazing knowledge of many aspects over a wide field of science and, as a colleague, his valuable guidance in our research. We in the Department enjoyed Bob’s many intriguing often funny accounts:  Bob had a gift for story- telling and his stories are legendry. He was very kind – he could be analytically critical but I never heard him utter an unkind word
of anyone or complain about anything. Bob was a cherished colleague of mine for more than half a century.
A Christchurch remembrance function for Bob is
planned for early 2021.

Remembering Bob – Grahame Fraser

Bob had the uncanny ability to recognise the basic physics in the various devices he encountered, such as church bells, electronic circuits or radio aerials.  Aerials ranged from the early improved Yagi-Uda arrays at the Rolleston field station to the unconventional diagonal geometry of the Birdlings Flat array for the stratosphere-troposphere radar.  The ST array had the predicted radiation pattern with a minimum of spurious side-lobes when calibrated against radio-astronomical sources.

John Campbell’s memories of Bob

I was very sorry to hear of Bob’s death, though it wasn’t unexpected. He was a good man. Robert Graham Temple Bennett was a Canterbury Student. He was an undergraduate 1948-51, handed in his MSc(Hons) thesis (On the Measurement of Meteoric Velocities by a Radio Method) in 1953 and his PhD thesis (The Diffraction of Radio Waves from Meteor Trails) in 1958. I first met him when he returned to Canterbury as a staff member. At the end of 1964, whilst waiting for exam results I was building a lamellar grating spectroscope, as one did in those days, for David Bloor as I (hopefully) planned to do a PhD under him on Fourier Transform, far infra-red, spectroscopy. Unfortunately Dave left late in 1964 after receiving a hard-to-turn-down offer from his old university, Queen Mary College in London. Bob arrived for the first term in 1965 and inherited me and a topic outside his field. I was most impressed with his quick grasp of the topic. Due to a letter being sent from England by sea mail (remember those days when it took 6 weeks or two months in transit?) I departed for a PhD scholarship at Queen Mary College within two weeks of its arrival, probably much to Bob’s relief.

image shows Bob Bennett pulling the rope to ring the bell at the Christchurch Cathedral 1980.
As Master of the Bells at Christchurch Cathedral in The Square, Bob rang to mark
the Queen Mother’s 80th Birthday, 4th August 1980.

Following my return to staff late in 1968 Bob became a good friend. To me as a young man physics was as simple as ABC. If I wanted to know anything I would ask Archie (Ross), Bob (Bennett) or Colin (Hooker). In many ways they were to me the last of the department-before-self men, and Bob was the last to go. He was very helpful with his time and knowledge. When I was running third year labs, Bob, who had no association with the lab, would often come in, start chatting with students, help them out of any immediate
difficulties or tell them some titbit from his vast knowledge relevant to their experiment. When I introduced afternoon- tea in the lab for the BSc students, Bob often came down for a chat with them if there wasn’t a special guest. When the BSc students held a graduation dinner, for graduating students, parents and selected staff at a
Greek restaurant, they selected Bob as the after-dinner speaker. It was an hilarious evening. From his arrival Bob joined in with the UC social cricket team which played Lincoln College annually. Bob
also played for the department against chemistry, later retiring to be umpire. These were excellent social occasions and we finished up at one or other staff club after the game. I remember Bob telling me that when he was at England’s Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory that one person brought in a carpet to make his room more cheery. He was told to remove it by the higher-ups because the carpet
was larger than his civil-service ranking allowed.
I also remember Bob telling me of his student days at Canterbury
when the department had only one telephone, in the professor’s
(Chalklin) office. One day there was a call for old Dr Macleod
(UC 1910-51), who was hard of hearing. The professor’s door
opened. “Dr Macleod” was called throughout the three storey building. Silence. “Macleod” thundered to the heavens. Silence. The door slammed shut followed the bellowed “Bugger Macleod”.
He had a great fund of such stories. No doubt some crackers will come to mind as soon as I hand this in. As Master of the Bells at Christchurch Cathedral in The Square, Bob rang to mark the Queen
Mother’s 80th Birthday, 4th August 1980.  I believe he held
several positions over the years at the Cathedral.
I have the happiest of memories of my association with Bob as a very
helpful colleague. Only slightly dampened by our last meeting in
the street some years ago when Alzheimer’s had taken over.
Shortly thereafter, he was shifted to Auckland to be closer to family.

Memories of Bob – Mike Reid

I remember Bob fondly and I particularly appreciated his calm, kind,
and helpful approach to Physics laboratories. I liked his practice of
keeping his hands behind his back when wandering the labs, which
had the benefit of not thoughtlessly messing up something delicate that the students were working on and also reduced the chance of electrocution. As a student in 1948, Bob was in first-year Chemistry laboratories with my mother, and over the years I had many fascinating conversations with him about what University life
was like in the 40s and 50s.

Emeritus Professor Jane Soons 1931 – 2020

Emeritus Professor Jane Soons shortly after receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Glasgow.

Described as “[achieving] in a male dominated world, without modelling herself on men,” UC’s first female Professor, Emeritus Professor Jane Soons was a trailblazer, and role model, for female academics and students.

One of the first PhD graduates in geography at the University of Glasgow, British universities overlooked her skills and expertise in preference of her male colleagues so in 1960, she immigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand to lecture at UC’s Department of Geography.

At UC, Jane found she had a more equal footing, and the opportunity to do everything her male peers could and would be expected to do.

A 2001 editorial from New Zealand Geographer highlighted Jane’s ability to bring people together.

“Jane’s students and colleagues readily recall her encouragement, support, kindness, hospitality and genuine interest in their work. In 1987, when the Department of Geography at the University of Canterbury celebrated its 50th Jubilee, she compiled a booklet of recipes contributed by visitors to the Department over the years… In its own particular way it encapsulates what colleagues, research associates and students feel about Jane: admiration for the breadth of her interests and the quality of all she does, recognition of the respect and affection in which she is held by geographers and earth scientists across the world, and appreciation of the humanity that underpins her life and work.”

Head of UC’s School of Earth and Environment, Professor Jamie Shulmeister was a close friend. He shared the following shortly after her passing.

“Emeritus Professor Jane Soons was the University of Canterbury’s first female Professor, appointed in 1971, and for a very long time was the only female professor at UC.

Jane taught and researched in geomorphology, and became known internationally for her study of the glacier-sculpted landscapes of the Rakaia Valley. She also made major contributions to our understanding of the glacial landforms of the West Coast and the movement of the Franz Josef Glacier.  She was a past President of the International Quaternary Association (INQUA) and convened the National Committee for Quaternary Research for the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Jane was a foundational figure in modern geomorphology in New Zealand, a mentor for many young geomorphologists, an enthusiastic lecturer and an amazing role model for generations of female scientists. She will be hugely missed by colleagues and ex-students.”

Over her career Jane received the David Livingstone Centenary Medal for Southern Hemisphere research in 1988, a Royal Society Silver Medal in 1994, a Distinguished New Zealand Geographer Medal in 2001 and more. UC appointed her an Emeritus Professor in 1992.

For more on the exceptional career of Emeritus Professor Jane Soons, follow the links below.

Alfred Noble Prize awarded for research paper on ‘Ferrari’ overpass

Congratulations to UC Civil and Natural Resources Engineer Professor Alessandro Palermo, who has been awarded the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Alfred Noble Prize for a 2019 paper he co-authored with UC PhD graduate Dr Mustafa Mashal (now Associate Professor at Idaho State University in the US).  

The paper ‘Low-Damage Seismic Design for Accelerated Bridge Construction’ discusses the experimental testing undertaken as part of Dr Mashal’s PhD. The project was part of a broader government funded programme (NZ Natural Hazard Programme) and led to the development of an innovative, seismically resilient connection at bridge piers (or columns) designed to sustain different levels of earthquakes without damaging the column. In a world-first the low-damage technology was used in the Christchurch Wigram-Magdala Link overbridge project, which opened in 2016. At the time Professor Palermo described the overpass as the “Ferrari” of bridges.

“The novelty of the paper is not just limited to the testing process. The paper also shows how that testing translated into a design solution that was used in a real-life bridge,” Professor Palermo explains.

When notified of the Alfred Noble Prize Professor Palermo says it was a nice surprise, especially coming from the ASCE – one of the most prestigious international associations in civil and structural engineering.

“I’m happy our paper was well-received by the ASCE. Since its publication, it was one of the most downloaded papers in 2019. This award shows the research we’re doing here in New Zealand is at the forefront of earthquake bridge engineering innovation.”

The award will be formally presented to Professor Palermo and Dr Mashal in October this year.



Professor Alessandro Palermo has been awarded the ASCE Alfred Noble Prize for a 2019 paper he co-authored with UC PhD graduate Dr Mustafa Mashal.  

Professorial Lecture Series

Celebrating Fresh Thinking:

Professorial Lecture Series

Join me in celebrating the very substantive contribution to academe made by Professor Mukundan Ramakrishnan and Professor Andreas Willig in the first presentation in the Professorial Lecture Series for 2020.

Date:               Thursday, 2 July, from 4.30 – 6.00 p.m.

Location:        E14 – Engineering Core

I encourage all staff and postgraduate students to attend this lecture, to actively support our new Professors, and take the opportunity to appreciate the fantastic research being undertaken in parts of the university we may be less familiar with.

Presentation details:

 “Digital Pathology Research in the NZ Context” – Presented by Professor Mukundan Ramakrishnan, Department of Computer Science & Software Engineering.

In the rapidly growing field of digital pathology, several new image analysis and machine learning algorithms are currently being developed for automated extraction and quantification of tissue biomarkers used in pathological evaluations. The application of digital technology in pathology has the potential to transform care of breast cancer patients through improved pathology workflow, early and accurate disease diagnosis and enhanced disease management.  However, despite numerous benefits digital pathology offers for routine diagnosis, its uptake in clinical practice in New Zealand has been slow.  Our research group (Computer Graphics and Medical Image Analysis group, Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering) has established strong research collaborations with anatomical pathologists specialising in breast cancer, and is at the forefront of research and development in this field in New Zealand. This lecture gives an overview of the projects undertaken by the group in the past few years, some of the key accomplishments, and the current state of research.  This lecture also looks at the challenges in the adoption of digital pathology implementation in clinical practice, and discusses how some of the emerging technologies could be used in future for the transition of digital pathology from 2D to 3D tissue specimen analysis.

“Past and Upcoming Research in Wireless Networking” – Presented by Professor Andreas Willig, Department of Computer Science & Software Engineering.

 In the first part of this talk I will focus on wireless body sensor networks (WBSNs), a technology in which a group of sensors is attached to the human body to collect vital signals. These sensors communicate wirelessly amongst each other, using standardized technologies like the IEEE 802.15.4 personal area network. It is of critical importance that this communication is reliable, but unfortunately WBSNs can easily experience interference from other technologies (like WiFi) or from other WBNs using the same technology. We will discuss results on the impact of interference and some ways to manage it.

The second part of this talk is more futuristic. In recent years, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have found numerous applications, e.g. in delivery of goods, aerial photography, asset inspection and other fields. So far, most of these applications have relied on single drones. There is now growing interest in going beyond this and to consider applications of collaborating swarms or formations of drones. We look into some of the communications / networking and coordination challenges that need to be solved to support networks of hundreds / thousands / ten-thousands .. of drones.

Professor Ian Wright

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research | Tumu Tuarua Rangahau