Monday, 9 April 2012

Eulogy (Andy Philpott)


Andrew Pullan was born in 1963. He was dux of Aorere College in Mangere, won a University Scholarship, and completed a BSc at Auckland with first class honours in mathematics. Andrew joined the Engineering Science Department as a PhD student of Ian Collins in 1985. After receiving his doctorate in 1988, he spent a brief period working for Winstones/Fletcher Challenge, before returning to the University as a lecturer in 1989. Andrew then moved quickly up the academic ranks culminating in a personal chair in 2006.

Professor Mike O'Sullivan commented in his eulogy at Andrew's memorial service that Andrew never smoked cigarettes, nor drank alcohol, or coffee, or tea. Despite this virtuous existence, Andrew was an excellent mathematician. He made many mathematical contributions to bioengineering - I will mention one. This was his research on inverse problems - in simple terms, how can one estimate values for the hidden electrical data inside the human body from measurements taken on its surface? This is not only a problem of instrumentation, but involved some deep mathematics involving the estimation of under-determined systems. In Andrew’s own words, “It is impossible to recreate the electrical state of each cell in the heart from surface electrical recordings, no matter how many surface recordings are available…multiple configurations of cellular activity can give rise to the same ECG signals”. The contribution of Andrew and his team was to use highly detailed mathematical models of human anatomy to narrow down the possibilities.

Andrew’s research began with the heart, but in later years focused on the stomach and intestinal tract, winning him a James Cook Fellowship in 2003, and a Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2009 for his pioneering work in this area. It is clear that he was destined for even higher honours, and his death is a great loss for the New Zealand scientific community.

Andrew's inaugural professorial lecture was a tour-de-force. A large monitor displayed electrical body measurements of Andrew himself, obtained in real time as he paced around the lecture hall. I now regret that this lecture was the only one of his that I saw in person, for he had a reputation with our students for being a fantastic teacher, engaging them with entertaining demonstrations, often at his own expense. He regularly appeared in the Engineering School's top 5 lecturer awards, and attracted the brightest graduates as PhD students. Andrew was an enthusiastic and generous PhD supervisor, and his students willingly repaid this generosity by helping him with his legendary house renovations.

Andrew was a hero of our Department, Engineering Science. Although he did most of his research in the Bioengineering Institute, his loyalties were to the Department, and he was a champion of the Engineering Science degree. I never thought to question him about this, but I suspect that one reason was that he could see the opportunity provided by the degree to students who are very clever but, like himself, come from less privileged backgrounds.
As Head of Department from 2008-2010, Andrew committed himself to the task of promoting the Engineering Science degree throughout the country to maximize the potential for all students to benefit from the same opportunity that he had enjoyed. He created "New Zealand's next Engineering Scientist" Modelling Competition, which is carried out each year in over 100 New Zealand secondary schools. It offers scholarships (now called the Pullan Prize) to the winners and serves to attract some of the country's brightest mathematical talents to our programme. Along with his research, I think that this will be remembered as one of Andrew's great contributions to the University.

Andrew was a fitness fanatic, and was extremely competitive. Way back in 1989, I introduced Andrew to Ron Paterson from the Law Faculty, and the three of us used to run together after work. We used to try and break the record for a Hobson Bay pipeline run. After being told that Ron and I had done it in what we thought was a spectacularly unbeatable 35 minutes, Andrew went out the next evening on his own and proudly announced a time of 33 minutes, which was never bettered. Through Ron, Andrew established friendships with a lot of the Law faculty in the University. This might surprise some of you, as Andrew would not have been perceived as having much in common with lawyers. But I think that people like Mike Taggart and Julie Maxton could instinctively recognize Andrew's intellectual pedigree, and they all became Andrew's close friends. On top of this Andrew was very entertaining, and great company.

Andrew was a thoroughly decent human being. He was a devoted husband to Patti, and proud and supportive of his children Zeke and Xanthe. Andrew showed great kindness and generosity towards his friends, colleagues and students. He was a very courageous man in all respects. Senate will remember that he stood up for what he believed was right, without concern for his reputation.

Andrew died of a metastatic melanoma. He was hopeful of the success of a new BRAF drug discovery; his blog describing the ordeal of this treatment was called "Andrew's recovery". To help fund the treatment, David Ryan set up a trust which received contributions from Andrew’s friends from all around the world. The treatment appeared to be working well, though Andrew was in considerable pain. In early March, it was discovered that the cancer had mutated, and that the treatment would no longer work. He went into Mercy Hospice and died on March 7. He was 48.

Andrew's memorial service at the McLaurin Chapel was attended by nearly 600 people, and his death was mourned by many more, from all around the globe. The Department, School, University and country has lost a brilliant mind and a unique personality. Patti, Zeke and Xanthe have lost a loving husband and father, and those of us who knew Andrew have lost a true friend. We will all miss him more than I can say.

Note: This eulogy was delivered by Prof. Andy Philpott, Department of Engineering Science, to a meeting of the University of Auckland Senate, on April 2nd, 2012.