Professor Chris Cook has seen the University of Wollongong transform from “a carpark, an oval, a pond and a couple of buildings” into a world-class institution.
When electrical engineering graduate Chris Cook arrived in Wollongong to check out where he would spend the next few years studying for his PhD, he was in for a shock.
It was the summer of 1973 and the cash-strapped student had hitch-hiked from Adelaide to Sydney before hopping a train down the coast. “When the train pulled in I asked a bloke for directions and he said, ‘there’s no university ’ere mate, you’ve come to the wrong place’,’’ he recalls with a chuckle.
Taxi drivers weren’t much help either but he eventually found his way to the Keiraville campus of what was then a college of the University of New South Wales.
“I remember seeing a coal-wash carpark and beyond that a nice oval, a pond and a couple of buildings. That was it,” he says. “It only had 3000 students and everybody was on first-name basis.”
Little did Professor Cook know at that stage that after completing his PhD he would later return to become one of the most outstanding and respected academics in University of Wollongong’s transition to world-class status.
I remember seeing a coal-wash carpark and beyond that a nice oval, a pond and a couple of buildings. That was it.Professor Chris Cook
His retirement this year from his position of Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences has deeply saddened the university community, as well as the dozens of PhD students he mentored who are now scattered around the globe.
“It’s time to step aside and let the younger generation have a go,” Professor Cook says.
He hasn’t decided yet on a post-retirement challenge but reckons he will figure it out while doing the outdoorsy things he loves, like bushwalking, cycling and mucking about with his six grandchildren.
Rural childhood ‘just having fun’
Professor Cook grew up near Ceduna on the Great Australian Bight in South Australia with his father, a teacher, his mother, a housewife, and his younger sister.
“I attended a one-teacher school which had 21 students who would all be collected in a four-wheel drive each morning from the surrounding properties. The town consisted of one general store and a jetty and we spent most of our time outdoors riding bikes, catching rabbits and just having fun.”
It wasn’t until high school, when he chose maths and physics without any clear direction where it would take him, that he starting thinking about careers.
“By the end of high school I was enjoying the lab work, the physics, the maths and chemistry so I enrolled in a science course at Adelaide University but at the last minute re-considered and changed to engineering,” Professor Cook says.
That could be seen as fate stepping in to right a wrong after a vocational guidance test in high school came back with the comment: ‘Whatever else you do, don’t do engineering’.
Life on the cutting-edge
“It was a good call to change because most of the world relies on electrical engineering in IT or electronics,” he says. “I always say to people when I give seminars nothing moves in a modern factory unless a computer controlled electric machine moves it. And virtually nothing works in a house, not even a tap, without a lot of engineering behind it.”
By the time he graduated in 1976 from what had become the University of Wollongong after it gained independence from UNSW in 1975, Professor Cook was not fussed with the idea of a 9-to-5 office job.
“In fact, I couldn’t conceive of any job that wouldn’t drive me around the bend, but I did want to travel,” he says. “If I was going to be driven around the bend I wanted to do it somewhere really interesting so I wrote more than 80 application letters to engineering companies all over Europe and Britain.”
If I was going to be driven around the bend I wanted to do it somewhere really interesting so I wrote more than 80 application letters to engineering companies all over Europe and Britain.Professor Chris Cook
One, Marconi Avionics in the UK, showed interest in interviewing him if he came over, so he and his pregnant wife, Dianne, rented out their house in Wombarra and hitch-hiked through Asia before arriving in England a few months later.
He got the job with Marconi, a division of General Electric Company (GEC), opening up a world of cutting-edge engineering technology.
“I was designing aerospace systems in their Flight Automation Research lab,” Professor Cook says. “When, for instance, companies like Boeing put out a tender for, say, a system that helps planes navigate in fog, then I was tasked with working out if it was possible to design a part for such a system, find out what would it cost, then build a prototype.”
After two years of terrible weather, the family returned to Australia, and Professor Cook commuted to Sydney to continue working with GEC in robotics for the manufacturing industry at a time when robotics was sweeping the world.
A timely return
In 1982, he returned to UOW as a lecturer in electrical engineering. “When you work in industry you have to solve a problem that week and you don’t really have time or funding to solve problems in depth,” Professor Cook says.
“That is what a university offers in its research and development programs, and that was the appeal.”
Along with teaching, Professor Cook wrote a successful business plan that attracted government funds to build an Automation and Engineering Applications Centre (AEAC), a non-profit company within the University.
“I was given leave of absence to run AEAC for nine years. It went from strength to strength and was the genesis of what is today by far the most comprehensive industrial robot and automation research group in Australia.”
Mentoring the engineers of tomorrow
In 1993, Professor Cook returned to academic life eventually becoming Head of School, Engineering Faculty Dean, and then Executive Dean. In all these roles he considers that a vital part of his job was career development for staff.
While he half-jokingly says most of the PhD mentoring is about “how on earth can we get you to completion on time”, he was often in awe of their work.
“The variety and creativity of my students is amazing,” he says. “For instance, I had one student, Ray Laine, who did a lateral-thinking PhD.
“Not only on the technical aspects of flood management but he also designed a software system that allowed members of the public to be more engaged in decision making rather than relying on council engineers to tell them what is good for them based on a superficial impact statement.”
Laurence Bate is another student who Professor Cook says produced work that pre-dated what is now quite common.
“Laurence’s thesis was about telerobotics, which included the delivery of things like medical services to remote areas where medical assistance is not otherwise available. He has since done wonderful work with road, rail and sea transportation systems.”
Dr Bate, who now runs his own consultancy firm in Sydney, says he will be forever grateful for Professor Cook’s support.
I try to repay Chris by offering that same sort of selfless guidance to all my upcoming engineers.Laurence Bate
“I try to repay him by offering that same sort of selfless guidance to all my upcoming engineers,” he says.
Professor Cook says while his career has been a fantastic journey, he is disappointed little changed over the years in regards to the low ratio of female students in engineering.
“That’s been my one big failing. We did everything we could to attract more women, as have most engineering schools, but it’s still only six-to-10 per cent. However, on a brighter note we started a biomedical engineering course this year in which 50 per cent are women.”
Challenging the balderdash
Professor Cook says one part of his academic career he had trouble reconciling with was whether or not to enter into public debates, like the recent stoush over settling on a national power policy.
“As electrical engineers we wonder sometimes if we should challenge some of the balderdash out there, but it’s very hard to encapsulate real wisdom in the five or six seconds you might have on radio,” he says.
“I’m never sure of whether I should feel guilty or, alternatively, responsible for not getting involved.”
Frustrating? “Yes, especially when I’m sure there is a bi-partisan approach that says technology is changing and these are the things that can be done, and let’s agree on a plan to transition to something.
“At the moment you can’t have an energy transition plan because there’s no set goal to where you’re transitioning to so we just all keep running around in circles. Industry doesn’t know what to invest in because there is no plan, and I think they are crying out for a plan just as much as electrical engineers are.”
A problem-solver wizard
Among his peers Professor Cook is recognised as a problem solver. When in 2014 the university cut a number of dean roles in the merger of the Engineering and Informatics Faculties, he became Executive Dean.
“Doesn’t matter if there’s all the good will in the world, with something like that there are always issues that pop up yet Chris managed to achieve unity,” says Associate Professor Rodney Vickers, Associate Dean of Education in the Faculty.
“I’ve seen him numerous times come up with solutions by just talking to people, often by bringing them in to his office for a friendly chat to calmly work through their issues.”
UOW Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE says, “Professor Cook has been a driving force behind the creation of one of the strongest EIS faculties in the world, recognised for the calibre of its student experience, research and interactions with industry. He has been an outstanding leader.”
The Faculty’s Executive Manager, Lorelle Pollard, says Professor Cook’s choice of farewell encapsulates his down-to-earth personality.
“I asked him what he wanted for his farewell and he said let’s have a barbecue at the workshop – no fuss, no standing on ceremony – that’s him to a tee.”
And will there be tears on his last day? “Oh hell yes!”