Iowa City Press-Citizen: Professor Revs Up Interest in Autos

Sunday, September 10, 2006

By Kathryn Fiegen
Iowa City Press-Citizen

When Kyung Choi was growing up in Seoul, South Korea, many parents wanted their children to become one of two things: a doctor or a lawyer.

His mother wanted him to be a doctor.

Choi, a University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver professor of mechanical engineering, said he knew what he wanted to be ever since he was a child, and it was not a doctor. He was fascinated with mechanical systems, especially in cars.

"When I was a senior (in high school) I said, 'I am not a doctor. I don't want to cut people's bodies,'" Choi said. "I told my mother, and she accepted it."

It would be years before he could fulfill his dream. He was good at math, so he enrolled in the physics department at Yon-Sei University, a prestigious private school in Seoul. He graduated in 1970 from Yon-Sei with a bachelor's degree. Choi said after that he had to remind himself what he really wanted to do.

"I said, 'No, I am not interested in physics. I want to be an engineer,'" he said.

He looked around and found the mechanical engineering program at the University of Iowa.

"That is the sole reason I came to the United States," Choi said.

While getting his master's degree in mechanical engineering, Choi said his academic adviser insisted he keep studying math.

"My math background, when I was getting my master's, was quite advanced," he said.

The result of that equation was a doctorate degree in applied mathematics.

"I got to this engineering position in an unusual way," he said. "However, at the end, I ended up being a mechanical engineering professor here."

In 1990, he became a full professor at UI, a position he said he enjoys. He teaches three courses, ranging from entry-level to advanced.

"The most important thing in educating students on difficult concepts is not letting them get scared," he said. "Engineering is viewed by many as hard to understand."

Liu Du is a UI graduate student of Choi's in mechanical engineering. Du said Choi does a good job helping students in difficult subjects.

"His lecture is very good," Du said. "He speaks very clearly. We can ask questions, and he gives us a lot of time to ask questions."

Choi said his research is also very important to him. His office walls are lined with awards from the university and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. This week, ASME will give him a prestigious Design Division Award.

Choi said vehicle design is what really interests him. Not in an artistic way, but in a way that is safe, light, durable and affordable. He developed software to automate this kind of design process, which is why he received his most recent ASME award.

When a car is manufactured, the thickness of its outer plates cannot be measured precisely, he said. Because car companies will have to absorb the cost of a defect through warranties, Choi said the software could save them money.

Quality also is very important, he said.

"Quality sells the car," Choi said. "I'm more interested in designing a high-quality car for a cost of, say, $20,000."

He doesn't always apply this knowledge to his own car purchases.

"I drive a very old, 11-year-old Honda," he said, laughing. "(The purchase) was not because I believed in the car's design."

Right now, he is working with the U.S. Army to develop new vehicles for transport and combat. He said the tenets of safety, durability and reliability are even more important in a war zone.

"The reliability of an Army vehicle is very important," he said. "Driving here, when your car breaks down, it's more on an inconvenience. In the Army, it could be the life of a soldier. If your Humvee breaks down, you're nothing but a sitting target."