2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Jun Lee

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

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Jun Lee

President, SRI Design; BSCE ’68, MSCE ’69, PhDCE ’73,

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.

 

How did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

When I was graduating from high school, we had some recommendations from friends of my father’s who happened to be graduates of Michigan. I did apply at Michigan, but at that time they had a policy of not admitting foreign freshmen. I grew up in Hong Kong, and this was in 1964. So I had to find somewhere else, and they recommended Madison. So I applied to Madison and I also applied to Northwestern. Madison was the first to admit me, and Northwestern was kind of funny. They admitted me but they wanted my money before they would send the forms. So I said, ‘Wow, what kind of place does that,’ and came to Madison.

 

Why did you choose engineering as your major?

It’s a family tradition. Both my parents actually graduated from the University of Michigan in civil engineering. In fact, my mom is actually a structural engineer. So it’s part of the family history.

 

Who was your favorite engineering professor?

C.K. Wang was well respected. He was a famous professor who wrote many, many books. He was very technically savvy in the area of structural analysis. He also wrote books with other professors at the university who were quite famous. Another one that I respected a lot was Chuck Salmon. Chuck Salmon was a very practical design engineer. He taught design courses, especially in concrete. He was also very good in terms of linking the things that he taught to other analysis and so forth, and he was also well respected. The one that I respect the most is my major professor John (Jack) Johnson from Wisconsin. He was my major professor. That means that when I got my PhD he walked on stage with me. He was very practical. He was a practicing engineer who gave me a lot of practical advice.

 

What was your favorite engineering class?

To be very honest, I liked all of the engineering courses I took because they were all challenging. But there’s one course that was quite outstanding and away from the technical details. That course was called technical writing. I enjoyed that course quite a bit because it taught communications. It taught you how to communicate clearly. One of the problems with engineers today is that they cannot write and communicate.

 

When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat or hang out on campus?

My one favorite place was called Carson’s Galley. The reason for that is my girlfriend lived in that area, and I hung out in that area because they had good food after hours.

 

What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

My fondest memory is walking my sweetheart home.

 

What lesson did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?

Well, there are quite a few things. The first is that as a student you really have to work hard. You can’t take anything for granted. You work hard. Secondly, as a student, you need to understand the basic principles and think outside of the box. That to me is very important. Once you understand the principle, you can think outside the box rather than being hemmed in. One thing that I always relate to other people that’s very true is that when I got my BS degree I thought I knew everything there is to know in engineering. Of course that’s wrong. When I got my MS, I knew that there was something yet that I could learn. When I get my PhD, I knew that I know nothing. The knowledge that I had was so minute and the knowledge out there is so vast that relatively I knew nothing. That is really a very hardened truth in terms of learning. And the last thing that I will say is that the more you learn, the more humble you become. Our brain’s capacity is limited and there’s only so much time in a day and in a lifetime.

 

Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

There isn’t really one thing that I’m the most proud of, but rather a combination of many things. We’ve designed many, many buildings both at the university system and other places—at the Madison and La Crosse and Eau Claire and River Falls campuses. I’m proud of the fact that we’re very a versatile company, and that I can look at many, many types of buildings and be able to design them. We design steel buildings, monolithic buildings, et cetera. We’ve gotten recognition from the industry with awards. We’ve accomplished some firsts—there’s an education building in La Crosse that we used a precast product that spans 50 feet. That’s a very long span for a precast design, and it’s a first in any large building. Then we designed a 22-story precast building in Milwaukee, which I think is the tallest pre-cast building in all of Wisconsin. We’ve designed, going back quite a ways, a racecourse stadium Tehran, Iran. That again is kind of a first with a Wisconsin engineer designing a major structure in a very remote area of the globe. There are many other examples, which makes me kind of look at myself and I say, ‘Knock on wood. So far we’ve accomplished a little something.’”

 

Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

The person who contributed the greatest role in my achievements first and foremost would be my mom. She’s a structural engineer in her own right. The important thing is she’s also a pioneer in structural engineering in that she is the first woman certified structural engineer in the entire Far East. It’s very inspiring. And at the time she was a structural engineer she used slide rules—not computers, which makes her that much more inspiring. The second person would be my major professor Jack Johnson. The encouragements from my wife, Sandy, my dad and mom were also very important to me.

 

What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

I would say three things: one is work hard. Work really, really hard and learn everything you can. Second, think outside of the box. The third is, never lose your principles, whether it’s your own personal principles, your professional ethics, your professionalism, no matter how much the temptation is in the outside world. You have a certain principle to uphold and always hold that in front of you. That’s very important in a professional view.

 

If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

Really I wouldn’t choose anything else. If I had the wherewithal or the wealth and resources, I’d probably do development in the poor countries. You go to the poorest places and provide them with potable water or infrastructure and then provide them with a means to support themselves. That’s what I would like to do. Of course what is needed varies from place to place. In one place it could be engineers, and in another it could be agricultural expertise. One thing is I’d definitely be non-political. Politics and religion get in the way of everything.

 

What are your hobbies/interests?
I have several hobbies. Sports is one of my hobbies. We love watching football and basketball among other things. Myself, I play tennis. The other hobby, or passion, I have is music. I’m a vocalist. I sing all kinds of music: classical music, traditional music, Irish songs, Chinese songs, you name it, I sing it. I do perform from time to time. I normally have an accompaniment—somebody who accompanies me on a piano. Sometimes I collaborate with another vocalist.

Author: Engineering External Relations