NIADOC WEEK: Cultural connection a rocket fuel as engineer reaches for the stars

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
4 Min Read

When your engineering work is so out of this world it ends up on another planet, it can be pretty hard to keep your feet on the ground. 

But staying grounded and keeping in touch with his culture has been the secret behind the success of Indigenous statistical engineer and now clinical statistician Tui Nolan. 

The proud Gudjal man, who grew up in Sydney, has spent his career building advanced machine-learning algorithms for some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, such as NASA and Cambridge University. 

The 37-year-old’s work with NASA to help engineer a more reliable rover capable of navigating the surface of Mars is arguably his star achievement so far. 

“One of the major issues for Mars rovers, in general, is that they get stuck in sand,” he said. 

“So it was my role then to develop an algorithm whereby it could roll up to a sand dune, extract a certain amount of sand from the ground and do some analysis, and my algorithm can tell it whether it can traverse that body rather than having robots that get stuck…” 

Holding a Master of Science and PhD in Statistics from the University of Technology Sydney, Tui’s mind-boggling work in machine learning has been used to forecast housing market trends, build limbed robots to aid recovery in disaster zones, and even tackle health concerns for the immunodeficient during the pandemic. 

But being an admirable role model for his people and staying connected to his roots has played just as important a role in Tui’s career as the awards and honours he has received. 

“Now that I’m living abroad, I feel like practising culture and being a part of my culture is something that really keeps me grounded,” he explained. 

“I enjoy the problems I am working on, and understanding the bigger picture of my role is really something that has driven me to continue down my career path” 

Gudjal man Tui Nolan
Proud Gudjal man Tui Nolan says practising his Indigenous culture is what keeps him grounded while navigating his challenging career.

Now working with international pharmaceutical company Abbott, Tui is utilising his statistical engineering skills to construct more accurate glucose monitoring equipment for diabetic patients – without the need for a finger prick test.  

He is also mentoring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as they transition to university through the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science, Aurora Education Outreach, and the Galuwa Science Experience at UTS. 

Tui’s career achievements have now seen him selected as a finalist in this year’s NIADOC Week Awards, where he is nominated as an Innovation Award finalist. 

The Naidoc Awards will be live on ABC TV this Saturday evening.

NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair, Dr Aunty Lynette Riley says those chosen were representations of the values of NAIDOC, which is proud to showcase the achievements and contributions of exceptional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country.

“The people who have been nominated and recognised as finalists in all our NAIDOC categories epitomise the ongoing fight for rights and demonstrate our ongoing excellence,” she said. 

“I am in awe of all our people’s strengths and perseverance and congratulate them all for keeping the fires burning.” 

NAIDOC Week is a time to celebrate the culture, history and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

The National NAIDOC Week Awards take place this Saturday ahead of NAIDOC Week which takes place from June 7-14. 

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.