Finding Inspiration from Mother Earth

Geotechnical engineering (GTE) may not be as well-known as some other engineering disciplines, yet when Dr Johnny Chi-yin Cheuk came across a related course at HKUST, he knew that geotechnical engineering was the right discipline for him.

Soil mechanics is about the behavior of soils, and geotechnical engineering is the science that explains the mechanics of soil and rock as well as their roles in human development. It was the inspirational teaching of an undergraduate course in soil mechanics at HKUST that sets Cheuk on the path towards a career in geotechnical engineering. A geotechnical engineer deals with the analysis, design and construction of structures supported by soil or rock, such as foundations, slopes, embankments, roadways, tunnels and landfills.

Cheuk, who achieved BEng and MPhil degrees from HKUST and went on to do PhD at the University of Cambridge, is now working for leading engineering consulting company AECOM in Hong Kong as Director of Operations and Executive Director of its geotechnical division. AECOM’s major projects include the Central–Wan Chai Bypass, the Tuen Mun–Chek Lap Kok Link, the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point and the Hong Kong International Airport’s Third Runway Passenger Building. Joining AECOM in 2009, Cheuk was named Young Engineer of the Year by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) in 2013.

The road less traveled

Although initially geotechnical engineering was not on Cheuk’s radar, its introduction in HKUST’s undergraduate program immediately captured the attention and imagination of the young engineering student. 

“I only started learning about geotechnical engineering in my second year, when I took a course in soil mechanics,” he said. “I was very interested, partly because of Prof Douglas B Rigby. Good lecturers have huge and positive influence on students’ development of interest in the subject matters. Prof Rigby started from the very basics to inspire students about how interesting the behavior of soil can be. He also told us about all the intriguing problems to be solved.”

When Cheuk graduated with BEng in 1999, instead of going into structural or hydraulics engineering, he fell in love with geotechnical engineering. “In the end, I chose geotechnical engineering, partly because of the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

This strong interest motivated him for further studies. “Having decided to go for a research degree, I spoke to a lot of professors at HKUST. Prof Charles W W Ng once and again inspired me by reminding me about the interesting geotechnical engineering projects going on. I chose one of them, pursued MPhil at HKUST and got into geotechnical engineering through the research project.” Prof Ng is Chair Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, CLP Holdings Professor of Sustainability, and Associate Vice-President (Research and Development) at HKUST. 

“HKUST’s MPhil was the gateway that helped me start my career in geotechnical engineering,” Cheuk added. “Otherwise I might have chosen structural engineering. The program was the starting point of my geotechnical engineering career.”

“The program at HKUST helped lay an important foundation for my career since it involved a joint project sponsored by the Government. Since HKIE was also involved in the project, I got to know many seasoned engineers. It was a very useful experience. More importantly, I earned the precious opportunity to go to Cambridge for PhD immediately after.”

Growing Impact

The importance of geotechnical engineering has grown since Cheuk first entered the field, as more research has been done regarding how soil and rocks behave. It was still a new area of engineering inquiry in the late 1990s, and remains that way to some extent even now.

“Lots of questions are still open questions. It is slightly better than it was 20 years ago but geotechnical engineering is still a relatively new subject. This is because traditionally civil engineers would deal with soil or rocks, and thus geotechnical engineering is sometimes considered to be a minor subject.”

Where people live has had an impact on the role of geotechnical engineering.  “Since a lot of people live near hillsides, we need a special group of engineers to deal with geotechnical problems. The role of geotechnical engineers has become much more important in the last several decades.”

Cheuk believes his MPhil has been significant in many ways. “The training at the two-year MPhil at HKUST was very useful,” he said. “When dealing with a problem in real life, we still need to have some sort of research mindset, as traditional ways are not always the best.” Rather, he believes in being creative and innovative.

“I was trained to be critical,” Cheuk noted. “To deal with a technical problem, I need to think independently using the knowledge I have acquired. Having trained myself to search for new knowledge, I try to solve problems unconventionally.”

“It was HKUST’s scholarship and other strengths that attracted me to stay here for postgraduate studies. HKUST was still a very young and new university then, yet our professors were already well-known and many of them were leading experts in the world. Our facilities have always been fantastic. I had never wanted to go elsewhere,” said Cheuk with pride.