Professor Derek Abbott



University of Adelaide

Professor Derek Abbott was with the General Electric Company (GEC), London, UK, (1978-1986) and has since been with University of Adelaide.

He is a professor with interests in multidisciplinary applications of electrical and electronic engineering, and is an Honorary Fellow of Engineers Australia and a Fellow of the IEEE, USA. He won a Tall Poppy Award for Science (2004), the David Dewhurst Medal (2015), the Barry Inglis Medal (2018), and the M. A. Sargent Medal (2019) for eminence in engineering.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
About six years.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I got into engineering by accident.  When I was 17 years old, I sent out 50 application letters to a range of companies looking for a cadetship to sponsor me through my university years. I only got two replies, and it was the General Electric Company (GEC) that accepted me. The rest is history.

I realise now in hindsight the essence of what makes me tick is detective work. I could be equally happy being a historian or in any occupation that requires research.  The process of carrying out research is the ultimate form of detective work. Any form of engineering requires problem solving, which is a form of detective work.  So, whilst I got into engineering, by accident, it throws problems at me that require patience, dogged persistence, and research, which are my areas of strength.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
I’ve worked on many diverse projects, but my biggest program is in developing biosensors using terahertz frequencies. My aim there is to be able to scan DNA or proteins on biochips at a high throughput rate. The ability to read biochips quickly benefits society in terms of screening for diseases on a large scale and also opens the door for customized medicine, where drugs are tailored to the individual.

I also work on energy policy and the question of transitioning to renewables. All efforts in this direction have incalculable benefits for society in terms of clean air, sustainability, and improved economics.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
Because I perform fundamental research, in a sense everything I do is challenging, as I’m always working on things that have not been done before. I thrive on challenges and manage them by subdividing each project into many small tasks, so I’m never overwhelmed. So, in that sense I never see them as big challenges.

What I actually find challenging are not projects themselves, but specific mathematical techniques that might be used during a project. The more challenging the math problem is, the more interesting it becomes for me. In my opinion, the toughest intellectual challenges are those that use probability theory. Calculations involving probability are very easy to get wrong, and that’s precisely why I like them!

It is through struggling with questions of probability that I’ve led my group to publish scientific papers showing that it is possible to win by mixing losing strategies. Another surprising result we have published is that the probability of something being true can sometimes decrease with more confirmatory evidence. We’ve also found that random shuffling can surprisingly reduce disorder, under certain circumstances. It is these paradoxical phenomena that delight and fascinate me.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
In terms of hardware, I see waste, planned obsolescence, and non-recyclability as issues that need to be urgently tackled for a sustainable future. With the boom in deep learning, the Internet, and surveillance technologies, questions of ethics, privacy, and security are critical.

There are no ‘quick fixes’ to the above questions and the level of discussion needs to be raised.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
I find it exciting how engineering not only impacts society now, but how it sets the pace and shapes the future. It is engineers who have made the world an interconnected place, and my hope is that as this progresses it will increase cooperation and hence peace.

It’s also interesting how engineering progressively penetrates other fields. For example, biomedical engineering, deep learning, and bioinformatics are making huge strides in the area of medicine. There are opportunities for engineering to penetrate other fields such as law and finance; rather than codifying regulations and law in a spoken language, they could be structured in the language of software. This removes ambiguity and streamlines compliance checking, and each time a new rule needs to be added later to the edifice, its implications can be first modelled by engineers.

Who is your engineering hero?
I have none, and it is probably for the same reason there is no Nobel Prize in engineering. The fact is that significant engineering advances are done in large teams, and it requires thousands of incremental achievements in small steps to go from a big vision to an actual working solution that can go to commercial production. Every engineer that contributes one of those steps is critical to a project’s success.

So perhaps a better question is to ask which engineering project itself do I consider to be the greatest.  It’s a matter of taste, but personally I am in awe of a civil engineering project, namely, La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, in Barcelona.  I think it is probably the largest and most intellectually demanding of all engineering projects.  Whenever I visit there, I feel it is completely mind boggling and that it is like something out of Alice in Wonderland manifested into physical reality.

Image: courtesy of Professor Derek Abbott