Dr Henry Yang is an aerospace engineer based in California, currently serving as the Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Having authored over 180 scientific articles over his career, his current interests include developing bio-inspired materials, sensors, and actuators for building aerospace, mechanical, and civil structures. We are pleased to announce that Dr Yang is one of six new judges joining the QEPrize panel for the 2019 prize.
Which engineer has inspired you most?
Let me trace back to my early career, beginning with my appointment as assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University — right around the time Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I was honoured to become the Head of the Schools of Engineering after ten years, and Dean of Engineering five years later, while also holding the Neil Armstrong Distinguished Professorship. One of my first challenges as dean was inviting visionary leaders, who have very busy schedules, to serve on my visiting committee. I went to Neil Armstrong for help, and to my surprise, he agreed to serve — he served during my entire tenure of a decade. Neil was an original thinker and visionary leader; his wisdom and guidance helped define a fundamental core value of engineering education, research, and service for the next century and beyond.
Neil rarely agreed to public speaking engagements, so I was deeply honoured when he travelled to UC Santa Barbara for my inauguration as the new chancellor, 22 years ago. He spoke with sincerity and conviction about breaking boundaries, stretching the human perspective, and the importance of strength of character.
Just as Neil Armstrong has inspired me, he and so many other luminaries serve as an inspiration to our engineering community and our future engineers.
Why did you become involved with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering?
I am inspired by the unique mission of the Queen Elizabeth Prize: to celebrate the breakthrough impact of historic engineering contributions, raise the public profile of engineering innovation, inspire a new generation of engineers to address the challenges of the future, and honour the Queen.
What would be your advice to a young engineer?
I always encourage students to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them during their school years, from kindergarten through college. For college students, whether undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs, finding mentors and seeking opportunities to participate in original research are particularly important. A well-rounded education is a solid foundation for a future career and success. It equips students with the skills to continue learning on their own for the rest of their lives. To succeed in the global marketplace, young engineers — and indeed all graduates entering the workforce — will need to draw on a broad range of talents, including the ability to communicate effectively, to appreciate diversity, and to form productive and enjoyable collaborations.
A good engineer is worth many ordinary engineers. One must be full of curiosity, eager to learn, to search, and to innovate to meet the engineering challenges. Perseverance is a key to success. Communication skills are essential. An ultimate purpose of engineering success is to benefit humanity.
Why is it so important that we attract young people into the field of engineering? What motivates you to be an advocate for young engineers?
In addition to my administrative responsibilities as chancellor, I have made it a high priority to remain very active in teaching, research, and mentorship of students. I have guided 53 Ph.D. recipients, including 9 Ph.D.s since becoming chancellor, with two more completing this spring. I continue to teach an undergraduate engineering course each year, which I have also developed as an online course.
Teaching and research are my first love, and I am always energized and rejuvenated by my undergraduate classes and my work with my graduate students. I think it is important for students to learn from professors who are excited about research and who are at the frontiers of their fields. Engineers are problem solvers. Engineers create new things that never existed before. Engineers improve our quality of life.
What can we expect to see next in your field?
In aeronautical engineering, I see important work being done to address challenges in accommodating increased airplane traffic while maintaining and improving safety. I am inspired by the vision of “Anyone, Anything, Anywhere, Anytime” as we look to the next frontiers in aerospace technology, commerce, and exploration. This vision includes broad access to safe, fast, efficient, and environmentally sustainable air transportation of people and goods anywhere in the world, and beyond. In space technology, going to Mars remains a major challenge.
In my current research areas of interest, I see increased development of bio-inspired engineering materials, sensors, actuators, and biotechnology tools, with application to structures such as smart, resilient, efficient, and sustainable buildings and bridges as well as to aerospace, ground, and naval vehicles.