"Engineering is not an easy discipline. Things may be difficult but not impossible if you work hard and put your mind towards a topic that you enjoy. It can be a very rewarding career. You get to investigate and try to solve real-world issues."
Dr Yuner Huang, Lecturer and Researcher, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Dr Yuner Huang has been a lecturer in Structural Engineering at the School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, since July 2015. She obtained a BEng (Hons) in Civil Engineering from the University of Hong Kong in 2009, and received her PhD from the same institution in 2013. She currently teaches courses on steel Structures and structural engineering design.
Yuner specializes in structural engineering. Her research interests focus on material characterisation, buckling, and fatigue of steel structural components, including sectional properties, columns, beams, beam-columns and connections. She has experience using experimental and computational (finite element) methods in solving research problems. Yuner is also leading and involved in research projects on offshore renewable energy structures, life-cycle analysis and circular economy for built environment, and structural resilience in natural disaster under climate change.
What inspired you to get into engineering, is it the same thing that inspires you today?
When I was younger, I remember reading an article that described engineers and those working in engineering as a “motherhood” that “took care” of the world and provide a better “home” to people living in the world. As engineers, we are taught to identify and try to solve some of the issues facing our world in different scientific fields.
I will always remember this article, because it got me thinking about how I might want to improve the wellbeing of people by being an engineer. It also changed my mindset slightly, as the use of the word “motherhood” got me thinking that both men and women could be a part of the engineering world and improve things in different areas.
Tell us a bit about your career and studies in engineering up to this point; what you enjoyed and what have you found most challenging?
Everything in engineering can be challenging! This is what I have enjoyed most about my studies and career as an engineer. Taking on the challenges is what drives me to keep working towards solving some of the engineering problems in the world today. There is no one answer to solving many of the questions and issues we face in the world today, and we need to keep open-minded and work with experts from different disciplines.
During my undergraduate studies in Hong Kong, I was working on a group project in construction materials. The group project aims at providing solutions for Hong Kong Government on waste problems due to construction and demolishing (C&D). The topic itself is challenging, as Hong Kong is a very congested city with a population double of Scotland (7 million people).
As a group, we realised that this “engineering problem” could not be solved solely by engineers, as it was also related to political, social and economic aspects. Our group was awarded a scholarship from Hong Kong Utility Research Centre and Hong Kong Institute of Utility Specialists for the group project, and we were very proud of it.
It was during this project that I realised engineering is a very interdisciplinary field. If we want to solve real-world problems, we need to work together across multiple disciplines. Today, this project still continues to influence my thinking when approaching solutions for my own research. It taught me to always think about the bigger picture when it comes to attempting to investigate or solve any engineering problem.
As a lecturer, I also thoroughly enjoy being able to interact with students in the university. I enjoy seeing them succeed at their goals, and develop their skills to become the next engineers.
Can you explain your research “in a nutshell?”
Think about the “Three Little Pigs” story. (1) If the pigs are given a new material that was not traditionally used in buildings, how can they build a strong house with such material? (2) The first two pigs build their houses with “green construction materials” (straw and timber), which impose much less of an environmental burden than construction with bricks. Can we make the first two houses stronger by revising their construction method?
My research focusses on investigating structural design methodologies, and enabling structural integrity of buildings constructed by non-conventional materials (mainly advanced metallic materials, sustainable materials and hybrid structures). My research facilitates the development of design guidelines for engineers to use these materials in future construction, mainly buildings and bridges.
What attracted you to a career in research and academia?
During my final year as an undergraduate student in Hong Kong, my thesis project was part of a larger research project. This gave me an opportunity to work within a research team, and to experience research life in the academic sector. The experience pushed me towards further developing my academic merits and do a PhD. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career in research and academia.
What do you enjoy most about research and academia at the School of Engineering?
I have found the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh a friendly workplace. All of my colleagues are supportive, and the School has great support for new academics to help them plan and progress in their academic career. For example, when I first entered the school, I was assigned a career mentor. To this day, I still have regular meetings with my mentor to talk about my career development.
What career advice would you give to aspiring students, particularly young girls, wishing to pursue a career STEM?
Go for it and try to enjoy it. There is always going to be challenges along the way. Engineering is not an easy discipline. Things may be difficult but not impossible if you work hard and put your mind towards a topic that you enjoy. It can be a very rewarding career. You get to investigate and try to solve real-world issues.
What career advice would you give to undergraduate and postgraduate students wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?
There are many levels of research and academia. You may be doing something different each day. Research, lecturing, tutorials, and attending conferences. It is not an easy job, however, there are so many different aspects to a job in academia that you can enjoy.
You must be prepared to work hard, and enjoy the area that you want to research or teach. The skills you can learn as an academic will be very valuable to you at any stage of your career, if you chose to work in industry at a future point as well.