Dedication leads to Tonga’s first Computer Science PhD

By on 16 Aug 2016

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Seventeen years ago, the Y2K bug was making headlines around the world as programmers worked frantically to update their systems to prevent a potential crash on 1 January 2000.

It was during this Y2K rush that Etuate Cocker, a network/systems engineer at Spark New Zealand, who originally hails from the Kingdom of Tonga, remembers becoming interested in a career in computer science.

“During that time there were only a few Tongans that held a Computer Science degree and yet no one was able to fully understand the problem of Y2K or whether it could cause chaos for businesses in Tonga,” says Etuate. “Even though the Y2K bug was not a real problem, it was at that moment that I decided to study Computer Science so that one day I could be able to solve future complex problems for Tonga.”

Over the next 11 years, Etuate bounced between IT jobs and university, completing an undergraduate degree in Geographical Information Systems and a Masters degree in Computer Networks. In 2011 he left his role as a Systems Analyst at the Government of Tonga to begin his journey towards a PhD in Computer Science.

“I switched to Computer Science to fulfil my dream of being the first Computer Science PhD graduate from Tonga.”

For the following four years, Etuate worked tirelessly alongside his supervisor, Ulrich Speidel at the University of Auckland, to develop a global platform to collect and archive satellite transmission data for other researchers to perform active measurements on.

“One use of our data is for Internet content providers (e.g. Google or Akamai) to assess the suitability of hosting content servers in Pacific Island countries,” Etuate says.

“Another component of our research looks at solutions for improving good input in the transmission of data across high latency satellite connections. So far, we have established a platform and tested TCP over Network Coding (TCP/NC) in Niue, Tuvalu and in the Cook Islands.”  (A project which received support from ISIF Asia and Internet NZ).

You can read more on this project in Ulrich’s blog post – Is your satellite link oscillating?

Advice to aspiring Computer Science students

In comparison to other Pacific nations, Tonga has one of the highest literacy rates (99%) and claims to produce more PhD’s per capita in the region. However, Etuate recognizes the extent of his achievement and hopes it will foster more Computer Science PhD students from his homeland as well as other Pacific nations.

Etuate offered the following when asked what advice he would offer other young Pacific students considering a degree or PhD in computer science:

“In my opinion starting a PhD is a big decision for Pacific Island students and you may need to consider the following:

  • There will be endless nights of research for solutions to problems. This can be very stressful and you have to put a lot of effort in. You could end up nowhere, but that’s all part of the process.
  • It requires lots of focus and dedication and there is always pressure to acquire alternate sources of income to pay for rent and support a family. With regard to the latter, I would like to thank my wife Keti for all the support she provided when I had to travel, while working full time and caring for our three kids (Harry, Luisa, and George).
  • It may take three to four years of sacrifice. However, it feels good to cross the finish line.

“Overall, this work has taught me to be patient, think critically and never give up despite the difficulties that I encountered along the way, including being away from my family.”

Etuate says there are plenty of opportunities for Pacific Island students wanting to complete a PhD with most New Zealand universities offering scholarships for Pasifika candidates.

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One Comment

  1. Andy

    I think this is the most important:
    “There will be endless nights of research for solutions to problems. This can be very stressful and you have to put a lot of effort in. You could end up nowhere, but that’s all part of the process”.
    Because nights are really endless.

    Reply

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