By Lynley Hargreaves 23/09/2015

Cather Simpson wants every child and parent in New Zealand to know the word photonics – and to consider photonics science or engineering as a career. An Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and Director of the Photon Factory, she’s worked on problems as diverse as robotic surgery and sorting dairy herd sperm by sex. Now as part of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, Associate Professor Simpson is working to give school children, and the general public, a glimpse of the future of laser manufacturing.  

You’ve already developed some very practical innovations. Can you tell me about how Engender came about?

Associate Professor Cather Simpson. Photo: Stephen Barker/Barker Photography. © University of Auckland
Associate Professor Cather Simpson. Photo: Stephen Barker/Barker Photography. © University of Auckland

A venture capital investor bought me a coffee and asked me if I could help with any of five big problems facing the dairy industry. The one that was best suited to our type of physical science research expertise was sperm sorting by sex. Dairy farmers would love to be able to choose the sex of their offspring – for milk production and herd quality. Right now there’s only one way to sort sperm by sex on the market. It damages the sperm and is quite expensive, so there’s a really big industry pull to develop an alternate technology.

When I walked back in the door of the Photon Factory, I challenged the first four members of our team that I saw to work together to come up with six ideas of how to sort sperm. They had 24 hours. Two of these ideas had legs, though one we threw out because we thought it would not lead to healthy cells. That was a good thing, because there is now a United States company struggling to use this idea. The final idea we spun into a company called Engender Technologies, with UniServices and the venture capital group Pacific Channel co-funding the first proof-of-principal study. That was in 2011, and we rapidly showed we could do the key steps individually. We filed a patent, and now we’re in the middle of our third fundraiser. After this it’s most likely that the technology will have to go offshore because New Zealand doesn’t have the capability to develop it into mass manufacturing, though we would be able to produce it here. It’s very exciting! We’re slated to be doing herd testing on commercial prototypes on site with them by mid-2017. Those original four students also will receive a portion of any profits the university earns through Engender Technologies.

Why was a venture capitalist taking you out for coffee?

The Photon Factory is a bit different from a standard research laboratory. It’s about taking a fiddly, high-tech experimental system and making it useful for a much broader range of scientists and engineers. We work with industry, other academics, and students who are doing research to earn higher degrees. We have high school students come in all the time to do science projects – we’ve even had an eight-year-old come and do experiments. This venture capital guy had heard about us and that’s why he called.

You’re looking at how to make laser machining more useful for industry – what kind of industries?

That’s a bit like asking what kind of industries could use a drill. Our companies range from a New Zealand company who sense and measure nanoparticles to a company in the United States that’s doing robotic surgery – this is a new kind of surgery which doesn’t leave a scar because a robot uses a tiny point in your belly button as a fulcrum point.

When lasers were first invented one of the guys who won a Nobel Prize was counselled not to work on them because they weren’t useful for anything. But lasers quite quickly became very useful – one of the first things that was invented was laser-barcode scanners for grocery stores, and now those are everywhere! Hundreds of patents were filed on laser-based technologies within a few short years.  Now, as an example, the laser has a role in production of over 100 of the components for the average smartphone. And we routinely use light as a way to transmit information through our fibre-optic network.

One of my main goals for outreach is that I would like every school child and their parents to know the word photonics and to know it is a valuable career path. The kids in our primary and intermediate school classrooms today are going to grow up in a world where “photonics” is just as familiar to them as “electronics” was when we were kids. They’ll be able to go to the hardware shop and choose from shelves of photonic components – not just LEDs, optical fibre and light activated sensors – to do DIY photonics. The potential uses are wide-ranging; one colleague of mine has hooked up a piano so that when you play a scale you get different colours of light. One of my favourite, albeit whacky, ideas is to use lasers to power elevators that can take you up into the atmosphere, or to provide colonies on the moon with power from Earth.

How are you reaching out to those photonic engineers of the future?

We’ve got a major event, Te Kōanga, rolling out at 8 museums across New Zealand right now.  Te Kōanga is part of our Illuminating-NZ project, which is generously funded through the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable funding stream at MBIE. With this project, we are talking to thousands of children through our regional New Zealand museums – from the Kauri Museum in Northland to the South Otago Museum in Balclutha. We particularly want to reach kids and young teens because studies show that most people decide whether they’re interested in science or engineering before they hit high school.

One of the most popular facets of Illuminating-NZ is our “Light Matters” kits. These kits contain experiments that kids, teachers and teens can do at home or in their classrooms. We are rolling out six of these during Te Kōanga, but by the end of 2015, we plan to have at least 20 different experiments up on our website ( We’ve home-made bioluminescence, kitchen optics and a “Reach for the Stars” astronomy kit. The “Light Matters” box turns into a spectroscope! The idea is that when you are done with your kit experiment, you can go to the website and get the “recipe” to refill your kit cheaply from stuff at a hardware store, supermarket or $2 shop. The South Otago Museum in Balclutha has something like 700 school students coming through this week – they’ll all walk out with a kit. I’m very excited about being able to reach students who don’t have the same access to resources as our bigger city schools.

Cather Simpson is one of the ten speakers for the Ten by Ten: Luminaries series of talks on different facets of light, in recognition of the International Year of Light, organised by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Talks will be given in Auckland, Hamilton, Napier, Rotorua, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Wanaka and Dunedin and all ten are being livestreamed on i-Film NZ Science.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

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