Alison awardee helped initiate composites teaching, research
Alison Award winner: Tsu-Wei Chou in his laboratory
While in graduate school at Stanford University, Tsu-Wei Chou made a life-altering decision, one that affected not only him and his family but hundreds of University of Delaware students. He decided to teach.
"It was a very big move," he said. "While most of my friends at Stanford went into industry, I wanted to find a teaching job. I thought teaching was a noble profession, and I enjoy doing research and interacting with students."
That decision has proved a good one. Chou, who is now UD's Jerzy L. Nowinski Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has won recognition in the field of engineering for his teaching and research. He will receive UD's Francis Alison Award as an outstanding member of the faculty on Nov. 29 at a dinner in Clayton Hall honoring UD faculty holding named professorships, being hosted by President David P. Roselle.
His road to UD began half a world away in Shanghai, China, where he was born. After graduating from National Taiwan University in 1963, Chou earned a master's degree at Northwestern University and went to Stanford University for his doctorate in materials science.
In the spring of 1969, a conversation with a visiting faculty member at Stanford caused Chou to visit Delaware.
"While I was in sunny California," Chou said, "we had a visiting professor in our department, Jerold Schultz [C. Ernest Birchenall Professor of Chemical Engineering] from the University of Delaware. I saw him in the hallway occasionally. One day, he showed up in my office and said he had heard about me. He said he wanted to talk to me about an opening in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at the University of Delaware."
Later that day, Chou and his wife, Vivian, looked through an atlas and located Newark, Del. That spring, he visited the campus.
"I was impressed by the people I met in mechanical engineering and the materials science program," Chou said. "I enjoyed the trip. By my second visit, I had already decided to take the position."
He and his wife arrived in Newark in September 1969. That fall, Jack Vinson, H. Fletcher Brown Professor of Mechanical Engineering, initiated the first course at UD in the then little-known field of composite materials. The following spring, another composites course was added by Chou.
"I was interested and liked new ideas. I had never had a course in composites in graduate school, and there was hardly any textbook on the subject of composites at the time. So, I considered it a good challenge," he said.
"For several years, we cooperated in teaching that first course in composites," Chou said. "That was the beginning, and we didn't realize then the impact of our activities on composites research and education at Delaware."
By 1974, UD established the Center for Composite Materials, led by Vinson, and Chou was one of the center's charter faculty members.
Today, UD is recognized as a world leader in the field.
"As a result of our teaching of composite materials, Jack Vinson and I have written quite a few books on the subject, all based on our research results at Delaware. I also have learned so much from my students and my research associates.
"At the beginning of my teaching career, when I taught my first composites course, I would go to lectures and I was only one step ahead of my students. That was indeed very challenging," he said. "However, the opportunity of rapidly transferring laboratory research to classroom teaching made the experience all the more exciting."
Today, much of Chou's interaction with students involves work with graduate researchers, and key to that interaction is the advisement and communication that take place outside the formal classroom setting, he said.
"I'm very close to my researchers," Chou said. "I often volunteer my advice regarding research projects and their careers. What is most satisfying is when I am able to succeed in bringing a student with no knowledge of how to do research to a level of maturity and confidence. This is not an easy process. I derive much satisfaction when I see a student who had difficulty performing basic scientific work succeed with my help and encouragement."
Chou admits that he is demanding and expects his students and researchers to work as hard as he does.
"I'm also willing to give them a chance to try and to fail and to learn from their failures, and through that process improve themselves," he said. "I always encourage them to set the highest goals in their professional careers. When they say they can't do it, I want them to prove to themselves that they can."
As a result of his guidance, many of Chou's former students and researchers stay in contact with him. "Many of them are my friends now," he said. "They are good friends, really. I often receive cards, letters and e-mails from them. Some, even now, seek my advice and turn to me for encouragement."
Today, Chou's area of study focuses on materials science and applied mechanics, a field that researches the macrostructure of polymer, metal and ceramic materials. Through an understanding of macrostructures, researchers try to improve existing substances and create new materials. Nanocomposites are his most recent research focus.
A sought-after visiting professor, Chou has lectured and conducted research at a number of institutions around the world, including Argonne National Laboratory, British Science Research Council, University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, National Commission for the Investigation of Space in Argentina, U.S. Office of Naval Research in London, German Aerospace Research Establishment, Tongji University in China, Tokyo Science University and Industrial Research Institute in Japan.
An honorary professor of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Northwestern Polytechnical University in China, he is the recipient of the Charles Russ Richards Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Distinguished Research Award of the American Society of Composites.
In September, Chou was named a fellow of the American Society for Composites at the society's 16th annual technical conference. The status of fellow is conferred only on those, according to society guidelines, who are "distinguished members who have made genuinely outstanding contributions to the composites community through research, practice, education and service."
He is author of more then 250 archival journal papers and book chapters, as well as several books on composite materials. He is the North American editor of the international journal, Composites Science and Technology, and he serves on the international advisory board of several publications in composite materials.
While attending an international composites conference in China recently, the national English-language newspaper, China Daily, ran an extensive feature article on Chou, discussing his life, family background and research, noting his successful career and his composites research and teaching at the University of Delaware. The accompanying photograph showed Chou in conversation with Zhu Guangya, honorary chairman of the China Association of Science and Technology.
Chou and his wife have three children, Helen Linderoth, a Cornell University and Georgia Tech graduate and industrial engineer; Vivian, in medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago after graduating from Stanford University; and Evan, who recently earned a degree in computer science at Stanford. He has a Himalayan cat, Mimi, a birthday present from his children.
To relax, Chou said he travels with his wife and enjoys photography, Chinese music and literature. He also collects stamps, but they are not as well-organized as his photographs.
"I am the official photographer of the family, the resident historian," he said. "It started when I was in college. I enjoy taking pictures. I have about 14,000 of them, but my wife organizes them for me."
by Ed Okonowicz
Photo by Kathy Flickinger