Student Spotlights

Simon Chen

simon chen

Simon Chen’s volunteer labor for the Habitat for Humanity led him to study architectural engineering while an international study abroad experience intensified his career goals.

Volunteerism led senior Simon Chen to study the mechanics of buildings. Throughout high school, he worked with Habitat for Humanity helping to construct affordable housing for people in need.

Earlier this year, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recognized Chen as one of its 2013 New Faces of Civil Engineering – College Edition.  He was selected as one of several talented college students from across the US who’s academic and extracurricular achievements demonstrate their promise as future engineers and leaders in their profession. He is also the winner of the ASCE Civil E Film Award - watch video.

What is your major and area of focus?

I am currently in my 5th year at UT, working towards a dual-degree program in architectural engineering and architecture. I plan on graduating in Spring 2014 with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Architecture. With my architectural engineering degree, I am specifically interested in structural engineering and plan to become licensed in the future.  

What brought you to our department?

Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity has shown me the life of philanthropy and the profound impact I can achieve as an engineer. Aside from my technical experiences, my interest in fine arts has taught me the importance of creativity and a value in the freedom of expression. My background and interests led me to pursue a career in creative problem solving with structural engineering, and combined with the prestige of the department, brought me to find the UT CAEE department.

What is your background?

I spent my younger years in New Jersey and moved to Plano, Texas in 3rd grade. For many years, I played violin in the school orchestra, and I grew up with an interest in the arts and the freedom of creating pieces of work. I also grew up in a family of engineers and am drawn to problem solving and excelling in math and science.

 I attended Plano East Senior High School where I joined the math club, Mu Alpha Theta, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and played violin in the Plano East Chamber Orchestra, which was named TMEA String Honor Orchestra for multiple years. These extracurricular activities had stimulated my interests in the areas of Engineering and Architecture, which I have been pursuing ever since.

Please describe your role in student engineering organizations at UT and why you chose to get involved.

As a member of the student chapter of the ASCE, I became involved with civil engineering-related activities that are both instructive and exciting. My interests in steel design and structure encouraged me to participate in the Steel Bridge competition. I learned how to design a bridge with Microstation and analyze the bridge loads in STAAD.Pro, which are two popular computer programs used in the industry today. I also helped with the fabrication and assembly process of the bridge for the 2013 competition in El Paso.

During the spring 2013 semester, I was selected as the ASCE secretary and helped promote and maintain national ASCE membership. Also as secretary, I helped to organize and run meetings, maintain a large collection of test resources, and revise the ASCE Annual Report. As an involved member in this organization, I was able to hear a diverse group of speakers who are in the professional field, helping me clarify my purpose and direction of my degree.

During my time in school, I also played a role in Projects for Underserved Communities, partnering with Bechtel Corporation for their Legacy Project in the small city of Soyo, Angola. The community was in need of drastically improving its educational facilities. The local elementary school lacked lighting and no clean water supply. Students were forced to travel miles to the nearest well to transport back to the school.

As a student myself, I believe in the importance of learning, and it is unfortunate that these children were missing such a fundamental opportunity. Working on a team, I helped facilitate efforts to renovate of an existing elementary school, design a community pavilion, and construct a children’s playground.

As students, we applied knowledge learned from a classroom into a real project. Using AutoCAD and other drafting software, I helped create construction documents on the design of the pavilion and playground equipment that were submitted to Bechtel for approval.

With these experiences, I realize the complexities of the world.  This gave me clarity and more direction in term of what I hope to accomplish with my engineering degree.

What do you like about the department?

Coming to the department has made a huge impact in my life. After my first year, I struggled with many challenging classes. I came to enjoy the challenges of the difficult courses and that they pushed me outside of my comfort zone and taught me the importance of a strong problem solving mindset.

I quickly learned that the prestige was not a title easily given to the department. Struggling academically has helped motivate me to work harder, reminding me that nothing is given to me and that achievements must be earned.Fortunately, I met many peers with similar struggles who were also eager to learn and willing to help. This was another aspect that I enjoyed about the department since becoming acquainted with other peers who share similar interests and a strong work ethic.

Aside from bringing great minds together, the department has also introduced me to the variety of career focuses ranging from water resources to mechanical and electrical equipment design. I believe this increases the CAEE student’s awareness of the different disciplines interacting under the same roof.

The reputation of the department is also quite impressive. With prominent research from distinguished faculty, the CAEE department experiences a breadth and depth of resources that most other colleges don’t enjoy. Many of the renowned CAEE professors have excelled in their respective fields, becoming prominent figures in engineering. By visiting with these instructors, I am able to take away many lessons and gain a great deal of insight. Students should learn to take advantage to learn from the best in the field.

What do you like about Austin?  

I love the amount of events and attractions that Austin offers throughout the year. Many people flock to Austin during huge events such as Austin City Limits, SXSW, or Austin Film Festival. Recently, I took my dog to the 15th Annual Mighty Texas Dog Walk, which held Guinness World Record of the largest organized dog event. Thousands of dog owners from Austin congregated at Auditorium Shores and walked along the trail with festivities throughout the day.  

I respect the amount of initiative that Austin takes to become a more sustainable city. Grocery stores have reduced plastic bag waste by offering only reusable shopping bags for customers, which can decrease the amount of landfill. The infrastructure and public transportation in Austin has shown a lot of development in recent years.

The Capital Metro bus system, along with an increased potential of the light-rail train, offers much convenience for commuters without a vehicle. Many of the major roads cater to the biking population with a designated bike lane. These options can help reduce the vehicle congestion in the city and reduce carbon emissions, making Austin a greener city.

What do you do for fun?

When I am not stuck in the classroom studying or finishing schoolwork, I definitely take advantage of living in such a bustling city by checking out local events. I love exploring the city during large events such as SXSW or Austin City Limits. One time, I stumbled across the ESPN X-games event in front of the capital where they set up a half-pipe and a live concert for BMX bikers and skateboarders to showcase the local talent.

Throughout college, my personal interests took the back seat to my education, but I tried to maintain my musical aptitude and became involved with the University Orchestra for several years, playing the violin. I also enjoy exploring the natural beauties of Austin, running along the Greenbelt trails or kayaking across the waters of Town Lake. On weekends, I can choose between hiking up Mount Bonnell, climbing up the trail to overlook Pennybacker Bridge, or swimming at Hamilton Pool.

When friends visit the city, my favorite place to take them is to the local food trucks. Because I love food, especially weird and original dishes, the food trucks are definitely worth exploring since they have such an uncommon mix eclectic of food. The Austin night-life is also quite exciting and my favorite place to enjoy drinks is at the bars on Rainey Street.  

What would you like to do with your degree once you graduate? Future goals?

I would like to pursue a career in creative problem solving dealing with the support of atypical building forms since I believe that elegant designs require elegant implementation. With a freedom of design in the structure of the building, I hope to achieve interesting structures and revolutionize the role of a building’s structural system as the form-motivator. Buildings should celebrate their structure instead of conceal the interior workings.

In the future, I also envision myself traveling the world and exploring social situations in different areas to design and create innovative solutions to help urbanization and develop self-sufficient communities.

Advice for incoming students?

My advice for future students is to get involved in many organizations to find out your interests (or disinterest) in a career. However, just as important, you should put yourself out there, developing relationships in social situations.

This time in school is for discovering your passions as well as developing relationships with others who carry similar motivations and interests.  This can lead to long-term relationships. For many students, including me, college was a tough transition from high school, and it is important to keep in mind that success comes from hard work and genuine curiosity.

Choosing a major is the first step towards chasing your dreams, but it is most certainly not the last. Be prepared to keep an open mind on what you learn and don’t be intimidated to ask questions.