From learning quadratics to surveying in Rarotonga - with Student Award winner Matt Payne

Matt Payne is one of three winners of the ACE New Zealand Student Award for 2021. He is in his final year of a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) majoring in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Auckland. He talks to us about his pathway into engineering and his internship with McConnell Dowell in Rarotonga.

Matt Payne

Why did you choose to study engineering?  

I’ve always been intrigued by construction. When I was young, I was convinced I would be designing and building homes when I left high school. I really enjoyed woodwork, metalwork, and design and visual communications classes, but realised they didn’t match my other aspiration of going to university.  

I applied to study urban planning and property, seeing them as degrees that were close to my passions. But then an influential teacher told me to consider civil engineering – all the construction I could dream of, but with a much higher complexity. 

I’d enjoyed science, but the thought of tackling calculus was a daunting one, especially considering the competitive nature of university entrance. It was worth a shot though, and before I knew it, high school was over, and I was working the summer holiday in an aircraft maintenance hangar in Hawke’s Bay. I remember it being an absolute scorcher of a day when I received an email from the university saying I’d been accepted into all three programmes I’d applied for. But with those choices laid out in front of me, I knew I couldn’t let all that time spent solving quadratics go to waste. 

I think my pathway into engineering was fate challenging me to go beyond my own expectations. I’m glad to say that as of this year I have successfully achieved that goal. 

Matt Payne

Can you tell me about your internship at McConnell Dowell?    

I was given the opportunity to move to Rarotonga for three months, working as an assistant land and construction surveyor for McConnell Dowell on the Te Mato Vai Project. It involved the installation of new water treatment facilities at 10 different sites to provide clean, treated water to the island. Previously residents would have to boil their tap water or fill drums from UV stations along the main road. 

As an assistant surveyor, I carried out and assisted with surveys throughout the many stages of construction, including topographies, set-out, as-builts, and settlement monitoring. Then on the rainy days I put my CAD experience to good use, producing and submitting drawings of that data.  

This was my first time working on a civil engineering project, and it was a challenge to wrap my head around the many active sites. But I soon learnt that as a surveyor you get to experience all the stages of construction in the space of a single day. I was effectively given a crash course to the entire project’s scope within the first week and refined that understanding during the rest of my time there. This was perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the experience, and I can’t recommend surveying enough to anyone who may be in the same position I was. 

The McConnell Dowell team was incredibly welcoming and more than willing to help me get the most out of my time with them. I’m also incredibly grateful to have worked alongside such a knowledgeable and patient surveyor, who was always happy to answer my ridiculous amounts of questions.  

What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?  

Having now spent three years working in surveying and CAD while finishing my degree, I’ll soon move to a new project and into an engineering graduate role working on earthworks and roading.  

Over the next five to ten years, I want to gain broader experience of a civil engineer’s role and will then look towards a position in construction or project management. 

However, surveying has had an enormous impact on me over the past few years, and I have a great appreciation for the technology, workflows, and level of detail the role involves. For that reason, I could also see myself spearheading a land development business where my engineering and surveying experience, and my love for beautiful houses, can all come together.  

Can you tell us more about yourself outside of engineering?  

I grew up on a dairy farm outside of Dannevirke, so moving to Auckland was a big change but it opened a whole bunch of new opportunities. Since then, I’ve taken up paddle boarding, snowboarding and ocean swimming – give me almost anything to do in the snow or sea and I’m there. 

I also like trying new things, primarily to discover things I enjoy doing, but also to learn about my friends’ and family’s interests. I’m currently teaching myself to animate, learning the basics of creating MIDI music, and even doing some research on photography. And I’m a diehard fan of Lord of the Rings and all things Marvel. 

What would you say to anyone thinking about studying engineering?  

It may just become one of the most rewarding challenges you ever undertake. It’s not going to be easy, and you’ll need to learn concepts that can feel daunting at first. But if, like me, you want to understand more about how the world works, this is the way to get there. 

There’s no rush to finish your degree, so take it at your own pace and be sure to pick up some work experience along the way. I found the key to understanding concepts taught at university was to see them in practice on a work site. 

What advice would you give to other students thinking about applying for the ACE New Zealand Student Award?    

You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, so give it a try. My only advice would be to set your sights on it as early as you can. You’ve got plenty of time to formulate your work report, and if you can start writing with the intention of submitting it, the quality will naturally follow. Use the feedback you get given along the way, and above all else, have confidence in your abilities. You’ve already come this far. 

Meet the other 2021 Student Award winners