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Astani Department Symposium Celebrates the Legacy of Environmental Engineering Pioneer

Former students and colleagues from all over the world gathered to share memories of Teh Fu "Dave" Yen (1927-2010), and present research inspired by his example
Madhuri Shekar
October 27, 2010 —

In memory of Teh Fu (Dave) Yen (1927-2010), the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering hosted an International Symposium on Advances in Sustainable Environment at USC on October 21, 2010. At the event his widow, Elizabeth Hsiao Yen, announced a new scholarship fund named after the eminent Viterbi School researcher.

Professor Teh Fu Yen (1927-2010)

The symposium was a celebration of Yen’s legacy in environmental engineering, featuring presentations by scientists, engineers, academics and students that he had inspired, with speakers coming from all over the U.S. as well as Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea.

Dean Yannis C Yortsos of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering opened the symposium with a moving tribute to Professor Yen’s life and career. Yortsos remembered Yen, who passed on January 12th this year, as a brilliant visionary who emphasized the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in the sciences and engineering.

In his nearly five decades of service to USC, Yortsos noted, Yen never once took a sabbatical year. In addition to his contributions to scientific research and new technologies, he was also a published poet in English and Chinese.

Astani Department Chair Jean-Pierre Bardet followed with his personal memories of Dr. Yen. "Dave loved his students and his students loved him," said Dr. Bardet. "He was always available and always ready to help the department in its time of need."

Yen’s widow, Elizabeth Hsiao Yen, a Senior Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thanked the Astani Department, the Viterbi School, and the speakers for making the symposium possible. She also announced her donation of $100,000 to establish a scholarship fund in memory of her husband, with an additional $20,000 given by Emeritus Professor George Chilingar.

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Elizabeth Hsiao Yen, Chair Jean-PIerre Bardet, and Dean Yannis Yortsos at the memorial symposium for Teh Fu Yen (photos by  Erick Joel Hernandez)

The range of research being presented at the seminar varied from high-concept theoretical problems to the pragmatic engineering issues that affect our everyday lives, all under the umbrella of environmental science and engineering.

“Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide: The Methanol Economy,” presented by Alain Goeppert from USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, tackled the problem of our rapidly depleting fossil fuels, and the latest developments in potentially using methanol as a viable energy alternative.

According to Goeppart, the biggest problem at the moment with optimum energy usage is storing energy. “If it was easy to store energy,” said the researcher, “we’d all be driving electric cars by now.” Goeppert also noted Yen's long and close relationship with the Loker Institute and its principal researchers, Surya Prakash and Nobel Laureate George Olah.

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Dr. Yen announced a scholarship fund named after her late husband at the symposium


Water -possibly our most precious natural resource -- and one that is in sharp scarcity particularly in the state of California -- made up a primary focus and concern of the assembled scientists and engineers. Several presentations focused on the issue of recycling wastewater and thus enabling optimum use of available water resources.

Shu-Jung Lin, President of Applied Catalyst Technology, Inc, Taiwan, spoke about a revolutionary new catalytic oxidation processes used to recycle wastewater output of cooling towers, to reuse either in the same towers or for other industrial purposes.

Donald C. Phillips Professor Chin-Pao Huang of the University of Delaware, a prominent figure in the world of environmental engineering, spoke on advanced oxidation processes for the remediation of impaired water.

The presentation of Kai Dunn, a Senior Water Resource Control Engineer for the regional Cal/EPA Regional Water Quality Control Board, sparked a special interest. It was about the discovery of hexavalent chromium pollution in the groundwater in the town of Hinkley, CA and its subsequent clean-up, the real-life case upon which the movie Erin Brockovich was based. 

Symposium program: click on image to view pdf

Hung-Li Chang, an engineer from the Cal/EPA Air Resources Board, provided an alternate perspective from the world of policy and regulation in environmental issues. Engineering and policy must go hand in hand, he said. “The reason our country takes the lead in the environmental battle is because of our efforts in regulation and in management.”

Chang earlier spoke about how Dr. Yen had profoundly influenced his career and research. “I learned two things from Dr. Yen, which I wish to make clear,” he said. “First is the importance of interdisciplinary study. Any student or professional from any field can help the cause of environmental protection and development through an interdisciplinary approach.

"The second is that we need passion to fight for a cleaner environment. This is not just a job. Dr. Yen truly cared about the environment, and the importance of that passion is what I learned from him.”

Finally, Jonathan Kwan, one of Yen's earliest doctoral students, flew in from Texas and gave a closing remark at the request of Mrs. Yen for the last session of the symposium before Dr. Bardet delivered the final remarks.  He summarized three qualities that he learned from Dr. Yen to help his entire life and career so far: curiosity, flexibility and determination.

Chia-Yu (Iris) Yang, another longtime Yen associate and former student served as the organizing coordinator for this symposium and closed Mr. Kwan's remarks simply, "I think that spoke for most of us who had the opportunities to learn and share our life with Dr. Yen."