the life and musings of a uni student

just-before-i’m-finished reflections.

So close and yet so far… It’s the time of term where my coffee cup is empty for the third time, it’s 2am, and my fingers are protesting at the thought of another paragraph.

This time though, I’m almost relishing it, because at the conclusion of this blog post, the completion of just one assignment is standing in between me and graduation.

The assignment I completed 10 minutes ago was to do with Mount Erebus, my favourite accident (if it’s not too off to call an event where 279 people die a ‘favourite’ anything). It’s a case study full of mysterious optical illusions, conspiracy, betrayal, far-off places, miscommunication, shady characters, a family torn apart, and at least one very well-spoken fellow who isn’t afraid to call another fellow’s work an orchestrated litany of lies. I honestly don’t know why someone hasn’t made a fantastic drama/action movie out of it yet.

The sad part of it is that while all these dramatic and interesting things happened, there was a much more pervasive, subtle and dangerous contributor to the Mt Erebus disaster, and it was the organisational and safety culture within Air New Zealand at the time. I used the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) to have a look at the disaster and it seems that the organisational climate tended towards poor communication and little responsibility for actions, and the organisational processes were poorly designed, documented and coordinated.

I’m not sure how these general attitudes started, but they are something that generally manifest as a top-down culture. One thing leads to another: an important detail is miscommunicated because everyone should know what’s going on… the computer doesn’t alert anybody to an error… there’s odd weather that is conducive to whiteout… and BAM, plane meets mountain.

Before I started this course, I thought of human factors as a much smaller category than it is. It includes so much, as most things come down to people and their reactions, decisions, designs and work. I dove into the first assignment and got carried away in finding out all these new ideas and tools and studies… you know you’re somewhat of a geek when you’re up past midnight getting excited about theories of distributed cognition analysis.

I even had a bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment when my brain opened up to something I knew in theory but never really ‘got’ or understood how to find in real life: the theory behind HFACS suggests that something has to happen at every level – there’s apparently no such thing as an unsafe act without an organisational influence that somehow connects to it, and there are tools around to help investigators find that link and put their finger on exactly what it is. Having such an in-depth look at HFACS did however remind me to carefully evaluate and know the limitations and gaps in the tools that  I use, because so far, nothing is perfect.

Going into the future as a professional following this course (and this program), I will remember to look at the people in the equations, and not just in the sense of ‘did they do their job correctly or not’, but to look at their circumstances, training, rosters, management, culture and more. Even further than that, I will remember that having humans able to make choices in a system can be a priceless, efficient, good quality which could save the day, as well as being able to make choices that can produce accidents.

But before I can think too much about being a professional, I have to finish this program… I guess I’ll post when I know what it feels like to be one of the very first Bachelor of Accident Forensics graduates!

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of mistakes and miniature cars and making it better next time.

Coming to the close of the second last semester of the program, I know that I’ve learnt an indescribable amount over the last two and a half years. It has been hard work at times, and there has been a lot of ‘going with the flow’ and ‘being the guinea pigs’ as part of the package of being the first cohort through the Bachelor.

However, I’m of the opinion that all of these experiences have shaped me towards being a better investigator. Gotta write a massive report in less than 24 hours? No problem. This project is a first and nobody knows what to do? Don’t panic, I’ll figure it out as I go. Group assignment? Ah, realistically it can only go up from here!

Jokes aside, university is less about rote memorisation of information than it is about understanding concepts, and making mistakes and not making them twice, and learning how to learn and communicate, and making connections with the right people, and developing the attitudes and mindset of the professional you need to be.

One of the biggest learning experiences lately (especially in the learning by making mistakes category) has been this term’s crash lab report.

My scene - a fun little contest between a Commodore and a Forester.

My scene – a fun little contest between a Commodore and a Forester.

I volunteered to go first at the crash lab, and I should have done a little more preparation leading up to the lab. I was  thrown going in- other experiences with witnesses were a slightly tamer (read: I literally was hit in the head by a witness who was being a little too enthusiastic at this lab). I was briefed poorly and not told who I was representing or what authority I had, and strong personalities in my investigation team made me doubt my judgement and processes, but I think given more preparation and the chance to do it over again, I could have handled the various situations much more decisively.

I didn’t have too many problems with the other crash lab activities- mapping was a breeze (unlike previous times) and I’m confident that it would have been easy to make an accurate scale map from my sketch map. Photography was a walk in the park (or a stroll in a shed, if you want to be accurate). I event-treed and Haddon Matrixed my way through the presentation, and even did a snazzy snippet of physics to work out how fast one of the cars was going and to validate a witness statement.

Getting down and doing the actual report was where I ran into most of my challenges. I struggled with not quite knowing what to pursue as ‘part of the simulation’ and what to leave as ‘not part of the simulation’. It occurred to me that there shouldn’t have been tyre marks on the road since the car was equipped with ABS, but was told that they were basically there to give us an idea of the accident sequence. In a similar vein, the paperwork for one of the cars was registered to a different name than the ‘owner’ told me. There was a lack of ‘people’ and ‘documents’ to be able to chase up; if it was a real investigation I’d have the company car sent to a mechanic and the ABS system checked, I’d talk to a few managers to get a picture of the safety culture, I’d check previous driving accidents at the mine or in that area to see if I can find any similarities that might point to a deeper problem… the list goes on. I should note that I did attempt to chase up many of these issues, but had communication problems with the person providing the simulation documents.

The photograph log was not correctly filled out originally (the reference numbers on the log might have been how much image space was left on the memory card, not the photo numbers themselves), making for some confusion and hassle later on. The map measurements were also confused somewhere – I attempted to make the final map to scale and found I was now in possession of a 3cm long car. I played with numbers, known lengths of the cars and estimations until I found a solution that was very likely to be correct.

The event tree also proved to not be the easiest thing in the world. At the crash lab, I effortlessly listed off lines of enquiry, but as the investigation continued, more and more of them were eliminated as causal factors and the accident became more and more clear cut. This was further complicated by the fact that I felt I was investigating on behalf of the wrong company: the driver of the company car was doing almost exactly nothing wrong apart from not being an authorised person, and there was technically nothing wrong with the intersection although it could have been better signed. Meanwhile, the other driver was practically a study in what not to do whilst driving and an employee of an awfully negligent and basically terrible company which could have made for an event tree with more branches than a forest. Since the report is addressed to the company, I needed to keep the investigation mostly relevant to them, as much as I’d have loved to dive into the sordid tangle of the other company’s policies and practices.

While I’m glad I had the prior experience from helping write ICAO format reports in New Zealand, I found myself wishing I was investigating an aircraft incident since that would be more in my comfort zone! I struggled with more of this assignment than I want to admit, really.

Oh well, sometimes mistakes make for the best learning of all.

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hello third and final year!

Ah, procrasti-blogging once again.

My excuse this time is that before I get into the second week of the third year, I should definitely resurrect this blog so I can say I blogged the whole way through uni (mostly every time I really needed to be doing something important… but let’s not say that too loudly).

Since the last time I posted, here are some of the highlights:

  • Procrastinated and ended up doing assignments in a silly amount of time
  • Had four tiny puppies running around the house.. so many potential and actual systems failures I could write a book. It would involve lots of poop.
  • Eventually survived second year!
  • Was offered an internship to New Zealand and a scholarship to cover accommodation from CQU…

Which brings us to the point of this post. I am currently all snuggled up in 10 degree Wellington trying not to think about how it’s my last week here after two months of pure wonderfulness (if you discount the weather).

In the last two months, I have quite literally been living my dream job – accident investigation, witness interviewing, on-scene procedures, report writing, analysis, safety research, learning the two million (or so it seems) acronyms that aviation people like to throw around, being part of a team that makes coming to work fun and exciting and hilarious, and I’ve been absolutely in my element.

…I don’t really want to go home.

It really has been an amazing experience. I’m now absolutely more sure than ever that this is the job for me. I’m not bothered by anything I was worried about, such as fainting at the sight of the deceased or hating the day to day work. I’ve gotten some absolute pearls of wisdom and knowledge on so many topics from so many people who share my enthusiasm for safety investigation and its outcomes.

I’ve determined that there actually is a really good reason for a lot of the courses in the degree! (I’ll admit I felt like a terrible person grinning whilst reading an autopsy report, because I did Anatomy and Physiology and I TOTALLY understood what was being said.)

I’ve never ever learned so many things in so short a time. It’s been mentally taxing for sure, but so rewarding to eventually ask not so many questions and grab my aviation dictionary less, and speak confidently about a range of topics I knew nothing about three months ago. Absolutely not trying to toot my own horn, but looking back it seems I worked my little butt off… and yet it was fun the whole way.

The one thing I have realised that’s somewhat put a damper on my party is that all the investigators I know have 10 or more years experience in a relevant field before becoming an investigator. The thing is, it’s never been done this way before: taking someone with an (apparently) natural investigative nature and an academically-trained mind, and giving them experience… As opposed to the mode that’s been followed up until now – taking someone with experience and then training them as  an investigator. I have absolutely no idea whether I’ll need to go and study engineering or become a pilot now, which scares me a little.

My mental image of my career progression has gone from a clearly defined path with an uncertain end, to a specific end (THIS) with nebulous grey stuff between me and it, like when Marlin and Dory stop at the edge of Sydney Harbour.

I can’t speak whale, so I guess all I can do is dive right back in and just keep swimming!

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more than half way!

So folks, it’s time for my overview of what the next term holds. I’m significantly more excited about it than last term (see previous post) and although I’m starting a week behind, even the catching up is proving to be fun.

This term is full-on, with four subjects:

  • Accident Forensics – complete with a crash lab residential school, this course is more of the real, down-to-earth practical stuff. We will learn more in-depth about subjects that were only previously touched upon (fire, forensic engineering) and some whole new worlds (meteorology and medical). It’s safe to say this one is going to be awesome!
  • Investigation Domain Contexts – At first, I was a little daunted by the sounds of this one, but as I realised what those words actually meant, I became VERY excited. As far as I gather, we’ll be having a look at accident investigation principles and techniques specific to road, rail, air and industrial- that means (hopefully!) skid marks and train tracks and plane controls and all of those things, which I’ve just been dying to learn about.
  • Risk Management and Safety Technology – It’s no big secret that I haven’t been a major fan of workplace health and safety subjects (understatement of the year!). However, this one looks quite pertinent to accident forensics, more interesting and less boring and kill-me-now. It’s also external, so I can work at my own pace.
  • Social Research Methods – This one I’m a bit iffy about, but I don’t really know enough yet to pass judgement. I’ll definitely keep an open mind and try to do my very best, whatever it ends up being like.

That’s it for now, I need to get back to catching up on all of the above!




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the wrong and right of university

(This was a post written during the end of last term, and I was waiting to publish it until the term was well and truly over. However, even having had plenty of time to cool off over writing it, I still feel the same about the subject.)



For a moment just then, I finished a particularly academic-sounding, complicated, rubbishy sentence in my engineering assignment, sat back and was proud of it. And then it occurred to me: something is very very wrong with this picture.

You see, in this assignment (which is basically the whole course), you have to mark yourself based on a bunch of group reports and ‘reflections’, justify it and convince the markers that the mark you’ve given yourself is the mark you deserve (thereby not really making them do any marking at all). Apparently in order to do this, you have to complicate a sentence that sounds a little bit like this: Articulate an appreciation of the complex nature of engineering activities including ill-defined situations and problems involving uncertainty, imprecise information, and conflicting technical and non-technical factors.

What does that even mean?!?

Couldn’t it just be said like this?: “Understand that engineering is not always straightforward.”


This assignment sums up everything that I believe is wrong with some university education. It teaches you very little about the subject, and instead teaches you how to write utterly beautiful rubbish in perfect prose to convince everyone that you do know about the subject. In this way, you graduate as an excellent justifier and not much else.

Einstein is quoted as saying “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

Don’t get me wrong here. This does not represent all universities, or all subjects, or all lecturers (but unfortunately, a lot of them).

Some people out there really do get it. My usual lecturers, the mother and father hen of my degree, are passionate about real learning and students showing that they actually have learnt something and know how to think in a way that reflects our profession, be it in simple words or perfect English or mindmaps or photos or blogs. Pressure is not put on us to perform well in only one assignment or once-off exams, they’re interested in seeing us progress and get more and more excited about our industry and area of study. These are the kind of people that deserve much more recognition than they get, because they are true teachers and put in the effort to make sure that we don’t just hide behind academic words.

To be honest, I should be doing this engineering assignment instead of complaining about it. But I’m counting down the days until this subject is over and I can actually concentrate on really learning something- from people who care that I do so.

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why are accidents still happening?

This is the topic for an essay I’m in the process of writing. I’ve been pretty stumped for a while, unless you count the following exchanges with at least 5 people:

Me (jokingly): Soooo, why are accidents still happening?

Person: Because people are silly/dumb/stupid.

Me: Yeah, kinda got that part. (see here.)

The problem is that I need to explain that in an academic way, using 2000 or so words. It *is* an excellent question.

OHS tends to bring out any latent homicidal/suicidal tendencies in me, but I’m all for it- if the Hierarchy of Controls or risk assessments or the Work Health and Safety Act or Regulations or various hazard rating methods made the world a completely safe place to work and live, I’d be singing praises for years to come. The problem is that everything we’ve got is a broken system, in the very best case, a system that’s not adequately equipped to deal with the, uh, idiosyncracies (achooidiocy) of the human race and the fickle beast called chance. Not only do we have a broken system, we have broken ways of showing that our systems are broken. We appear to be incapable of even showing in a universal, working way that our systems are broken!

I’m sure I’ll work this essay out, and let you all know, but for the moment, the only conclusion I can come up with is that humans are too darn good at breaking things.

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breathing space and being a real investigator.

A full week after finishing the res school, I’ve just had my first opportunity to take a deep breath and stop my mad adrenaline-and-caffeine-powered panic. I managed to get back from Bundaberg, finish an online essay response quiz, write a reflective paper, go to a 16th and a bridal shower, work a 10-hour day, and cajole a team of first-year engineers to do a half decent job of a 24-page group assignment. That group assignment, by the way, was submitted at 3:53pm today, for a 4pm cutoff.

That’s right folks, world’s best time management skills right here.

Aaaaaanyway, res school was amazing! It was everything I thought it would be, and more. My classmates are amazingly fun and decent people, I made some new friends with the first years (and actually met some people other than my family who read this blog)! And all this wonderful-ness is not even taking into account the investigations themselves: a crane accident, a car crash and a bottling machine accident, all very well set up.

yeah, I work that poncho! ;)

Even the rain couldn’t stop me leading this investigation… I’m pretty sure I got the coolest one!

My fears were completely unfounded… I was worried that I’d hate it, but I didn’t want to leave at the end! I also didn’t want to come back to engineering. It’s the subject from hell: a double credit course, with one 100% piece of assessment, composed of four group assignments, taught by facilitators whom nobody understands, with scheduling issues… Every other subject is pure goodness and light in comparison!

At least coming back from the res school, I feel like I’m not just a uni student studying investigation any more, but an accident investigator in training. If I knew exactly when the next one was, I’d be counting down towards it, and the one after it, and after that is graduation and hopefully my first day as a real real investigator.

I’ll leave you with this…

...I was really just tired...

caution world… here I come!



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gumboots and crash kits!

As of this moment, I’m 2 sleeps away from our first res school and the first chills in the brand new crash lab, eeeeeeee! Although, 2 sleeps is a bit of a questionable measure, apparently we’re road tripping at 4am to get there, what a great start to the day…

Having resorted to prancing around in my steel-toe gumboots (which TOTALLY go with the pink lacy dress I’m wearing) – I think it’s safe to say that I’m excited.

The crash kit is mostly assembled apart from a few last bits, and I can’t wait to put it into good use. However, none of the physical stuff is going to help me if I don’t have my mind in gear- tonight and tomorrow are set apart to revise, so when I get thrown at a scene and told to ‘do your thing’, it comes as second nature.

I am SO unbelievably excited not only to actually feel like a real accident investigator, but to meet all of my classmates face to face. These people that I’ve argued with, laughed with, been confused with and come to learn some amazing things with, will be as eager to learn and be there as I am.

I’m fairly sure I won’t come back from the crash lab hating my career choice.

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who’s up for round 2?!?!

Me, evidently. My desk is clean, I have cute matching notebooks and my coffee loyalty card is ready to go… it must be the start of Term 1.

My holiday (short as it was due to term 3) is almost over. Sigh. All the same, I’m looking forward to getting back to it. It looks like I could even be persuaded to join in the O-week festivities!

Here’s the overview of my next four months or so:

  • Investigative Methods Practice- the second-year equivalent of a class that I absolutely LOVED last year, we had some great discussions and the assessment tasks were actually fun. Another plus is the lecturer, the same one I talked about here.
  • Accident Phenomenology- another somewhat familiar class, but of course learning about new and fascinating events, models and practices. Same lecturer as above- should be a great term!
  • Engineering Skills 1- oh heavens. This one I’ll have to admit I’m a little scared of. I can’t help but read the course coordinator’s emails in an Indian accent. Add to that a massive workload and very time-consuming lectures and tutes, and only one massive assessment piece…  if anyone needs me I’ll be in a fetal position following any mention of engineering!

In any case, this term will be a challenge, and I love challenges. Stay tuned for adventures and epiphanies!

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hardcore forensics…

So I’m in the middle of a lecture about fingerprints, and I can safely say this is the coolest summer subject I’ve ever done (and the only one)! Most of the time I’m either getting my mind blown at how COOL of a subject this is, or lamenting that most of my favourite TV shows are ruined for me now, because the ease and magic computer-waving that they do is so laughable and fake. I guess I’ll be able to sympathise with my boyfriend now, who scared me slightly by breaking out in uncontrollable laughter at the ‘computer magic’ when we were watching an episode of Bones together.

Oh well, I guess I had a good run. And at least I know what they’re referring to in Bones (thank you, Introductory Anatomy and Physiology)!

It’s not all bad.

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