Students starstruck by visiting NASA scientist

Former Baulkham Hills North Public student Carolyn McGregor shared her inspirational journey through maths and science to space research. Pascal Adolphe reports.

Students and adults posing for a photo. Students and adults posing for a photo.
Image: Professor Carolyn McGregor with Baulkham Hills North Public School principal Graham Holmes and school captains Samuel Zhou, Devayan Naidoo, Amber Dawson and Isabelle Lim.

Professor Carolyn McGregor confesses she was a “‘geek before it was fashionable”.

The Baulkham Hills North Public School alumnus has carved a stellar career as a computer scientist working in health informatics, a field in which she is now considered a world-leading expert.

Professor McGregor was the star attraction at her old school’s Education Week festivities, where she addressed students with an inspiring message to follow their passion, while also encouraging them to consider a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

“No matter where you have come from, you have to trust in your own ability. You have to follow your own desires of what you’re naturally interested in and pursue it,” Professor McGregor told students.

“Not all of you will go on to work with artificial intelligence and do what I am doing. But whatever you do, be true to yourself and work to find what you’re passionate about.”

Professor McGregor’s pioneering work in the creation of a computer program that monitors the health of babies eventually led her to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), where she has adapted her program for astronauts to manage their health during the planned manned mission to Mars in 2030.

NASA chose 2030 for the Mars mission because the planets would be closer together at that time, she said.

Professor McGregor was drawn to the subjects of maths and science during her time at Baulkham Hills North Public.

“I loved doing logic puzzles,” she told students.

“But what we didn’t have at the time was clarity in what those (STEM) subjects could lead to and the doors it could open. We learned science out of curiosity and maths was by repetition.

“Fortunately, in high school, I had some teachers who opened my eyes to some of the careers available. In my work, what I’ve been able to do is use my training in maths and finding patterns and logic to be able to build computing systems.

“I hope I’ve inspired you to keep going with maths or to give maths another try and consider careers in STEM, because I’m very interested in helping people and I want you to understand that you just don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse to help people, animals and the environment, you can be someone in STEM as well.”

A champion of public education, Professor McGregor completed her schooling at Muirfield High before attending university.

“As I was going through university - and ‘as an educator - I noticed that students in public education, they are allowed to be motivated to learn themselves,” she said.

“They’re not driven and guided in a way to just pass the HSC exam. There’s much more of a fostering environment to actually learn to be self-motivated to learn.

“What that means is when you transition to university education you have that framework to understand that you need to put time in yourself. You need to find that right way yourself to study.”

Professor McGregor was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2014 for her service to science and innovation through health care information systems. She was awarded the Advance Global Australian Award for Technology Innovation in 2015.

She also holds the Canada research chair in health informatics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

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