Dr. Deborah Chung (BS '73, MS '73) graduated as one of the first four female undergraduates at Caltech, and is the first female to graduate from Caltech with a major in Engineering and Applied Science. After Caltech, Chung received her PhD degree in Materials Science from MIT. Chung held the National Grid Endowed Chair of Materials Research and is currently Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
Chung is a pioneer in the field of multifunctional structured materials and is best known for her invention of smart concrete, a material in which short carbon fibers are added to concrete so that stress and deformation can be easily detected even before cracks appear. Additionally, Chung has authored or coauthored over 600 archival journal papers and 10 books, including Piloted to Serve, a memoir of her mother, Rebecca Chan Chung, who was a U.S. World War II veteran with the Flying Tigers and a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. Chung is ranked 14th among 177,931 materials researchers in the world (living and deceased), according to a Stanford University citation-based study of 2020.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Deborah Chung: I'm a materials scientist. I try to look at how materials behave, and how the behavior connects to applications. So, I'm interested in both the science part and the engineering application part.
I invented smart concrete, and that is still what I'm most known for. Smart concrete is concrete that can sense itself without any sensor. The concrete is itself a sensor; you don't need to embed or attach any sensor to it. They call it "self-sensing" and that has opened a new direction for smart structures research.
I've been involved in other topics too, like dissipating heat from microelectronics to facilitate microelectronic cooling, which is a big problem in the electronics industry. I've also been involved in developing materials for shielding electromagnetic radiation, particularly microwaves, which turn out to be a serious problem for electronics because they can cause various malfunctions.
I try to look at the science, and it turns out that each of these fields are interdisciplinary. Because of that, they are not receiving the attention that they deserve. For instance, microelectronic cooling is the number one headache for microelectronics, but people tend to shy away from it because it's not their cup of tea.
It's partly because of my broad education at Caltech that I am able to go between disciplines and contribute to areas that are very important yet neglected.
ENGenuity: What aspect of your Caltech education has impacted your career the most?
Chung: The solid foundation in science and the broad knowledge of the science base. That broad foundation enables me to learn things on my own. For each of the various fields I've been involved with, I had to learn on my own. It's not something I learned from any course. Having that broad educational base from Caltech enabled me to learn new fields and jump out of my comfort zone. Jumping out of the comfort zone is very important in research, because if one stays forever in one field, the chance of making a breakthrough is limited. Jumping out takes guts as well as willingness to learn.
Another impactful aspect from my Caltech education is the research experience that I first tasted when I was a student. I just fell in love with it. I wasn't doing very deep research—I was just an undergraduate—but that was enough to get me very excited because research means pushing the frontier of knowledge. With research, there is something that nobody in the world knows and you're going to figure it out. That is very exciting to me. So many decades after Caltech, I remain just as passionate about research.
ENGenuity: Is there a particular class or professor at Caltech you remember the most?
Chung: One of the classes I really remember in particular was from Professor Carver Mead [Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus; BS '56, MS '57, PhD '60] on integrated circuits. I took that class in 1972. To have such a class offered at that time was way ahead of the game in terms of education—it's the cutting edge of education. I treasure the experience at Caltech because it not only offers solid education of the basics, but it offers cutting edge education as well.
The research experience that Caltech provides for its undergraduates is another unusual thing. The tasting of research really gets one excited about science; it's not just learning and courses. When you feel like you're in the driver's seat of science, it gives you a different point of view.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Chung: One bit of advice is to pursue research with attention to the basics of science. A lot of the time, and especially in the current research climate, research is driven by networking. Doing research with basic science breakthrough is getting less and less attention, and I think that's not a very good direction for the health of science and engineering in general.
I do science because I love science and I want to pour my heart out in terms of science. But nowadays, I don't think people experience that feeling; they do science because it's connected to a certain way of getting funding or getting a business started – and the whole direction is oriented in terms of money. Money is important, obviously, but to have money drive one's interest in science is not quite ideal.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to pursue science?
Chung: Back when I was a high school student, I was very much excited about science because of the first moon landing in 1969. This was toward the end of my high school days, and I watched it on TV—the first man landing on the moon and talking, and we can listen to him! I was in Hong Kong then, but at that time I told myself that I've got to go to America to study science.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Chung: My favorite stories are in the Bible. The creation story is very much reflective of science. Some people think that the creation story in the Bible is against science, but I think it's the opposite. In Genesis, one of the steps of the creation is to arrange the sun, moon, and stars in space so to have the years, the seasons, and the day and night. In a sense, that's exactly our twenty-first century understanding.
ENGenuity: Do you have a favorite destination?
Chung: Since COVID, I have not thought of traveling much. South America is an area that I would like to see more. India is another place.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Chung: What satisfies me is to know that I have discovered something impactful to science – not just making a gadget. Knowing in my heart that I have made a true scientific discovery brings me satisfaction.
ENGenuity: Is there a project that you're most proud of in your career?
Chung: In the past few years, I have studied the dielectric behavior of conductors. Electrical conductors, because of their high conductivity, have very little resistance. As a result, the electric field inside a conductor is small, so people have neglected the polarization that can take place in a conductor. Polarization means there's a separation between the positive charge center and the negative charge center. An electric dipole is formed, and that dipole formation is known as polarization. People have neglected that polarization, thinking that it must be negligible because it's a conductor with little resistance. However, I have found that actually it does polarize. The polarization has to do with the electrons interacting with some of the atoms, and this interaction causes the plus and minus ends of the dipole. This is fundamental science, but it turns out to be relevant to applications, because having a dipole is energy—one can have energy built into a conductor. Metals are all conductors—carbon fiber, graphite, and steel are conductors. To be able to use such metals for energy is something that boggles the mind.
The energy from structures, such as steel, is a revolutionary concept of energy, and that's what I'm working hard on these days.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Chung: Thinking about research is one of the things I think about often when I sleep. Then, when I wake up, I have ideas about how I should steer the research next. I enjoy the new directions of thinking that I usually have after waking up.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Chung: To pursue what is in my heart. It's not just thinking, but also writing, conveying ideas, and teaching my students so they can follow the path of research accordingly.