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Professor NY Chang reflects on 45 years at CU Denver

Chang_NYQ: How long have you worked for college? Did you anticipate this being where you would spend your career?

A: In August 1975, I joined the University of Colorado Denver when it was still called Denver Center. My classmates at The Ohio State University envied me, for they all wished to come to Colorado. It has been over 45 years, and I am the oldest and most senior faculty in the college. I had never thought that I would stay for so long, but I never planned to go anywhere else. It is now time to retire and to transfer the baton to a younger faculty.

Now I would like to share my story with you, my dear colleagues. Upon my arrival in Denver after a breathtaking trip from Columbus to Denver, I dropped my Ford Pinto towing an extended U-Haul trailer at the hotel near the Capitol. Then, I joined an ongoing civil engineering faculty meeting on the CU Boulder campus. They were all surprised that I made it to the forum. I was the seventh faculty in the civil engineering department and the lone geotechnical faculty. Much hard work was needed to formulate and establish the geotechnical engineering program. I had to teach two required undergraduate classes a semester plus, at times, two graduate classes with four courses in a semester. Later a couple of adjunct faculty came to rescue.

Teaching and research took no less than 80 hours a week with no TA or start-up fund. I was a bit scared at my first graduate lecture where I met a 57-year old graduate student, because I thought he must know more than I did. But after the first week, I felt much better because he was genuinely interested in learning. Another interesting story in the early years involves an undergraduate student of about 40 years old. He kept telling me that he would go to work in Alaska to make more money. But I found that he studied for nearly another 10 years before he finally graduated and, hopefully, left for Alaska. I was very impressed that so many married persons were trying very hard to learn and improve their income. Over the last 45-plus years, I met many engaging students like the above.

Q:  What has been your favorite thing about working at CU Denver/College of Engineering?

A: Upon joining CU Denver in 1975, I found that harmonious collegial relations among all engineering faculty: seven in civil, and nine in electrical with accommodating dean and chair. They were indeed accommodating, particularly in reviewing my research proposals. This, paired with the hard-working students, is my most favorite thing about working at CU Denver and the College of Engineering. I experienced the leadership of all the college deans. Our current dean, Martin Dunn, is the youngest, energetic, and most visionary. Within his short tenure in the engineering college, he demonstrated his devotion to lead the college to the next level of excellence. I will enjoy working with him in the capacity of Professor Emeritus.

Q: What is your best memory as a faculty member?

A: Facing the pressure of growing the geotechnical program, I knew that I needed some lab space and graduate students. But first things first, I needed to write proposals for research funding to support graduate students. So, I kept writing proposals, Chair Ernie Harris kept reviewing them, and Dean Paul Bartlett kept perfecting them. Do you know that my first seven proposals were all funded, and, overall, my proposal funding rate is about 70% to date? I think that I have been just lucky. The Graduate School dean in the university’s early days told me one time, “NY, why everything you touched became gold?” I wrote a proposal on sanitary landfills field treatment for highway support funded by the Colorado Department of Highways.

I had no graduate students when I started at the Denver Extension Center. Through hard work in teaching, research, and service, I eventually established a robust geotechnical engineering program. In 1981, Professor Jon Wu joined the program and contributed a great deal to the program development. I am very sorry about his passing and miss him a great deal. He is a gentleman, all by himself, and never bothered anybody.

The geotechnical program grew from no graduate program to a sizeable one. The geotechnical lab space grew from no space to one room, two rooms, and four rooms before engineering moved across Cherry Creek to the North Classroom Building around 1986. One day Dean Bartlett asked me, “NY, do you need more lab space, any plan for the lab expansion? I think we might move into a new building across the Cherry Creek.” I was in shock but was also very happy to learn the news of a new building. I told him, “Yes. I will provide you a drawing for the new lab in three days.” Incidentally, a few weeks prior, I sat down with a few graduate students and jointly, we mapped out the plan for a new geotechnical laboratory. One of the graduate students happened to have a BS degree in architectural engineering. Three days later, I delivered the new lab plan, named “Geotechnical and Structural Laboratory,” as a shared lab with a high ceiling and a structural floor for large-scale tests. It is housed in North Classroom 1805. From this, I learned that it is always a good idea to be prepared for a future opportunity.

Q: Was there a particular student or experience that made a lasting impression on you?

I would like to share just two more cases, among many. Jason Reiva (in early 1990???) was in a blue jean with numerous patches of different patterns, long hairs, and bushy beards. He was pacing back and forth in the hallway leading to the civil engineering office. I asked him, “Young man, could I help you?” He kind of hesitated a bit and slowly uttered a few words, “Yea, I am attending CSU and am studying music with a specialty in guitar. I am not sure if I could make enough money to feed myself. So, I wondered if I could major in some kind of engineering and, meanwhile, keep my hobby in guitar.” I told him, ” What a noble cause! You certainly could. Come in, and let’s chat.” After 45 minutes, I made a friend and learned a great deal about him and his girlfriend’s relationship. At the end of our chat, I told him, “The college has four departments. You ought to make appointments to meet the other three chairs to ask for their advice.

A couple of weeks later, he showed up at the department office, and I asked him, “Had you talked to other chairs yet?” He said, “No. I did not, for I decided to major in civil engineering.” Well, those 45 minutes were well spent. I found that he was a brilliant student. One year afterward, the faculty voted him the outstanding junior in civil engineering to be honored at the engineering banquet. One day I met him in the geotechnical lab and asked him, “Hi, Jason, are you going to the engineering banquet?” He said, “I am sorry, Dr. Chang. I can’t go because I don’t have a suit.” A few days later, I told him, “Jason, here is $300 for your suits. It is not a loan. It is my gift for you, and you don’t need to pay me back. Go to your girlfriend, and she will help with the suits from the Lord and Taylor.” So, he did attend the banquet and eventually graduated with honors.

After his junior year, I introduced him to work as an intern at the Black and Veatch, a mining geotechnical company. He started to work 20 hours a week, then before the end of the fall semester, the company wanted him to work 30 hours a week. Before his graduation, the company offered him a fulltime position. Years later, he sent me a letter that said, “… Dr. Chang, you are better to me than my father. …” I just choked with appreciation and thankfulness. I took my teaching seriously and told students, “I love you all, and, if you don’t do well, it is my fault.”

Next is about a recent doctoral graduate, Brian Volmer. He asked me if he could take a 3-hour independent study class from me for he needed three extra hours to graduate in the fall, 2010 (?) I agreed and said, “You can work on designing an apparatus for large-scale deep foundation model tests, and come to see me when you have any questions.” So, he left with the assignment. For nearly the whole summer, he didn’t come to see me until I met him and asked him about the progress. Not long after, he turned in his report. I was so impressed by the report’s quality, and I asked him, “You earned an A for the excellent work you presented. Would you like to pursue a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering?” He said, “I would think about it and give you an answer in a few days.” After discussing with his parents, he told me, “Yes, I would like to work with you toward a master’s degree after I complete my bachelor’s degree.” He finished an excellent MS thesis, and we co-authored a peer-reviewed ASCE paper.” Then, I asked him, “Would you like to expand your work toward a doctoral degree?” After a lengthy discussion with his parents again, a couple of weeks later, he told me, “Yes, I will work with you toward my doctoral degree.” With that agreement, he began his venture in the PhD wonderland. He defended his dissertation in fall 2019. While pursuing his PhD, he designed and fabricated two major large-scale geotechnical model test apparatuses, Goliah Pipe and Tiger Cage. The former is for drilled shaft model tests and the latter for general geotechnical model tests. He is exceptionally talented and always listened attentively to my advice. I was so blessed to be endowed with the opportunity to work with this gifted student. This is why I love teaching and stayed in education for so long. There are more, but on this topic, I will stop here.

Q: Throughout your time at the college, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen?

A: Some milestones for engineering growth are described here.

  • The expansion of CU Denver engineering to have an administration independent of CU Boulder engineering facilitated its development into a college with four departments, civil engineering, computer science and engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. The engineering move in 1986 from the East Classroom to the North Classroom provided office and laboratory and spaces for the growing college, including the Geotechnical and Structural Laboratory.
  • In 1992 the Coordinated Civil Engineering Doctoral Degree Program was established with the Civil Environmental and Architectural Engineering on Boulder campus when I was the civil engineering chair. This doctoral program allowed the department to recruit excellent faculty.
  • Further, in 2012 (???), the Engineering and Applied Science doctoral degree program was established when Marc Ingber was engineering dean. This PhD program allows the recruitment of many outstanding faculty and students. The establishment of the Bioengineering Department in 2010 led to the significant growth of engineering college. It also fueled the cross-discipline research, particularly for electrical engineering and mechanical engineering faculty.
  • The Center for Geotechnical Engineering Science (CGES) was established in 1990 and housed in North Classroom 1805. Many research projects sponsored by the Colorado Department of Transportation were submitted through CGES with excellent laboratory facilities, including two large-scale model test apparatuses.
  • The industry-sponsored teaching and research laboratories are incredibly encouraging, including the new Trimble Technology Lab, facilitated by the colleagues from the CEM program led by associate professor and program director Caroline Clevenger. This demonstrates the close collaboration between the college and the industry in the Denver-metropolitan area.

Q: How has engineering education stayed the same, and how has it changed throughout your career?

A: When I started teaching at CU Denver, there were no PCs, and no mainframe IBM computers were available. I had to go to the Boulder east campus to perform my numerical analysis. The invention of the desktop PC, the laptop, and cell phones really revolutionized communication and computation. IBM’s mainframes are out of business. Now we can take our laptops to any corner of the world and teach or compute from wherever we are. Now we can teach classes from home through Teams or Zoom platforms. This has enhanced outreach and online teaching. Our college needs to take advantage of this technological advancement and broadcast our classes and seminar to different corners of the world. This can resolve our enrollment problems, but the administration needs to make it easy to register and reduce tuition. The establishment of the bioengineering program and expansion from two to five departments were the most significant college changes. The construction engineering and management program’s establishment is the most significant change in the civil engineering program. Under the leadership of Dean Dunn, the engineering college can ride on these changes to prosperity and significant expansion.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: Upon retirement on January 5, 2021, based on the proposal by Dean Dunn and Chair Rens, I will become an Emeritus Professor allowing me to teach classes and advise graduate students. I am committed to helping three doctoral and around 10 master’s degree students to complete their degrees. I will be writing proposals and journal papers as usual. All faculty have to teach online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am glad that the availability of online teaching extends my teaching longevity. Due to the unexpected and sad passing of Professor Jon Wu and my scheduled retirement in January 2021, urgently, the civil engineering department needs to hire another geotechnical faculty. Per my retirement agreement with Dean Dunn and Chair Rens, I will form and chair the search committee to search and hire the best geotechnical faculty on the market. I will continue writing journal and conference papers and research proposals and writing a book on earthquake-induced soil liquefaction and journal papers. Finally, I will enjoy my time and travel around the country and the world and probably fade away around 2025.

Q: Any advice for faculty who are just getting started?

A: Quietly work hard, keep abreast of the direction of advancement of one’s specialty area, and continue to write proposals and papers. “Publish or Perish” is the warning advice I had faithfully followed in my early time. I have successfully secured external funding to support my graduate students, 20 PhD, and numerous master’s graduates. So, good luck to all my dear friends!

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