Dr Delwyn Moller

Radar Systems Engineer Dr Delwyn Moller has taken her expertise to support research at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Remote Sensing Solutions, and more.

Not many people would consider themselves a “townie”, but that’s exactly how radar sensing systems engineer Dr Delwyn Moller describes herself. Growing up in a small rural town like Putaruru with a mother who taught at a primary school, a father who ran the local dairy, and alongside 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, she was “kind of on my own”, self-learning Maths and Science, the subjects she was most passionate about.

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 the latter was the route she was going to take. Her practical side won upon deciding she enjoyed the objectivity of engineering.

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

Her turning point in engineering came when during her final year project, a simulation of a short circuit on a power line with a protective relay. At that point, all the Mathematics and exams became “real”, and being able to build something that works was “just kind of magic… until that, I just had my head down to get my degree, and then I was planning to go off and be a ski bum”.

With those plans put aside, she started a masters thesis at the University of Auckland researching power transformer protection upon receiving a Women in Engineering Scholarship. As the only woman to graduate with an Electrical Engineering postgraduate degree then, she became the centre of much 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. High school and primary girls are often 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 female leaders emerging today.”

Her advice to young women studying engineering today is all to be self-confident. “I think what happens with a lot of girls is that you’re getting messages about what you can’t do. It’s just about not doubting yourself. I used to be quiet, sit at the back of class, and 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. It was a very hands-on programme where she had the opportunity to design and build field radars, as well as analyse the data. “It focused on research work, rather than coursework. You had exams 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”.

Her 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”.

Variety is a constant in Moller’s life. Among her accomplishments include holding a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, volunteers as a paramedic, and is a mother to young twins – and she approaches it all with an air of effortlessness.

“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, and 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 are dual citizens and still “really identify as Kiwi kids”. She’s not sure where the future of her work will take her, but is “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!”