“It’s important to get students out of the lecture hall and into the lab, where they can take a problem and think creatively to come up with a solution.”
When engineering student Correy Tong was in his second year of an engineering degree, Cather suggested he try writing William Cowper’s 18th century poem Apology to Delia: For Desiring a Lock of Her Hair onto a lock of hair.
Correy accomplished the challenge using a femtosecond laser, which can emit light pulses lasting a millionth of a billionth of a second.
A poster on his work won the prize for top student poster at a conference the following year, despite the fact that Correy was competing against postgraduate researchers.
Correy conducted his research at the Photon Factory, set up by Cather at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science. Cather and her team - many of them undergraduate students - have attracted millions of dollars in commercial contracts by using advanced laser technology to solve high-profile problems in businesses such as the dairy industry.
Cather is an American physicist and chemist who has won one of New Zealand’s top teaching awards, as well as national and international research awards.
She aims for her students to be independent and self-motivated, and encourages them to work collaboratively by organising activities such as ‘convince your neighbour’ sessions and ‘problem of the day’ exercises.
“The science and engineering students I teach carry out cutting-edge research,” says Cather.