Dr Sione Ma’u

Maths lecturer Sione Ma’u explains how sometimes lucky breaks in life can provide you with plenty of opportunities that you might not have expected.

Dr Sione Ma’u
Dr Sione Ma’u, Mathematics Lecturer

Malo e lelei.

I am a lecturer here at the Maths department. Although I only started in the role last year, I studied here at both undergraduate and postgraduate level - completing my bachelor’s degree in physics and both my master’s and doctorate in maths.

Sometimes in your life you have opportunities but, for whatever reason, you don’t take them. Sometimes things just happen and you end up in a situation that you didn’t really expect – it’s kind of like a series of lucky breaks. As it has turned out, maths has given me a lot of opportunities for travel.

I was born and raised in Tonga to a New Zealand mother and Tongan father. My mum moved to Tonga to teach at Queen Salote College, a school for girls run by the Free Wesleyan Church. The church also ran a boys college, Tupou College, which is where my dad taught maths.

In the interest of better educational opportunities, my mum sent me to live and study at Wesley College in New Zealand. While at Wesley, I applied to join the NZ Air Force because of an interest in flying. The interview went well and I was invited to apply but, even after a reminder from one of their officers, I just never got around to it. So after gaining University Entrance and Bursary, I moved in with family in Howick and studied here at The University of Auckland.

While I did my bachelor’s degree in physics, it was maths that felt the most natural to me. I decided to complete a master’s degree in math and it was then that I met my wife, Sugiarti. We had actually met at an Islamic centre but I found out that she worked with AUSA Catering and, once I knew that, we begun to see more and more of each other. We married in 1999 and now have two children, Nuraini ‘Ofeina, my nine-year-old daughter and Zakaria ‘Alofaki, my six-year-old son.

My doctorate was in pluripotential theory in mathematics, under the supervision of Norm Levenberg – an American who was teaching here for a while but is now a Senior Lecturer at Indiana University. When I finished my PhD in 2003, my wife and I moved to Indiana so that I could take up a one year internship with Norm. During this internship that I successfully reapplied for the New Zealand Science and Technology Postdoctoral Fellowship which meant funding to stay and do research in Indiana for another three years or so.

We returned to New Zealand at the end of my fellowship before moving on to Fiji, where I had found work as a Lecturer at the University of the South Pacific. It was my first time in Fiji and, to a certain extent it felt a bit like returning home, like I was returning to the Pacific, it was the first time I had spent any great length of time there aside from a few short trips.

My family enjoyed Fiji. It has a unique culture and it was an enjoyable time of my life. But, like my mother did for me, we made a decision to move so that our children would have better educational opportunities. Three and a half years later, we returned to New Zealand and I returned to the University.

I am very appreciative of this job. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the challenge of being able to explain maths to students in a way that everyone has something to take away from my class.

There’s also the research element to this job that I enjoy – it is a research-oriented career. In maths there is a certain freedom of thought. In other fields that are closer to the real world, like economics or medicine, new ideas can generate controversy because they have real world implications. Maths doesn’t come with that sort of baggage – it is simply accepted if it is seen to be true; the discussion that develops is about whether or not it is actually useful!

Being able to talk about the theory lends itself more to the “artsy” side of maths – you have to be able to present your ideas in an accessible way, in a way that people not only want to understand your way of thinking but are able to apply it in their own context.

Teaching my own daughter, who is in year five, about maths presents a very similar challenge. I have to make it interesting for her in a way that she sees the patterns and learns how to apply the strategy outside of the context I taught her.

If I was to start preaching it, to her or to anyone, and just gave out numbers and formulae, they would turn off and the message would be lost. But if you can plant the catalyst, the interest in knowing why and knowing more, then you might start to see comprehension and understanding happen.