Y. A. Liu, Frank C. Vilbrandt Professor of Chemical Engineering, has been named as an Alumni Distinguished Professor by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors for his commitment to his students and colleagues as an adviser, counselor, and friend.
Liu has demonstrated sustained excellence in scholarship and teaching since joining Virginia Tech’s faculty in 1982 at the invitation of then-College of Engineering Dean Paul Torgersen. “He is an esteemed member of his department, the college, the university, and global communities that benefit from his contributions,” the board said in its awarding of the professorship.
“My most important teaching philosophy is to challenge students to maximize their potential and achieve a higher level of excellence in both their school work and their future career, while providing them with all the necessary tools and support,” Liu wrote in his personal statement for the nomination. “Although my courses ask much of our students, they typically accept my difficult assignments and demanding work load because I make myself available to them for questions and consultations whenever necessary.”
The Alumni Distinguished Professorship is a pre-eminent appointment recognizing faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the instructional program of the university, and in so doing, have touched the lives of generations of Virginia Tech alumni, according to the Office of the Provost.
During his 30-year academic career at Virginia Tech, Liu has achieved international recognition for his promotion of sustainable development and environmental stewardship. He and his graduate students have made significant contributions in the areas of energy and water savings, and design and optimization of polymer, biodiesel, and petroleum refining operations. Together with his students, Liu has published nine books and some 120 research papers.
Since the 1980s, Liu has worked in industrial outreach during his university breaks, promoting sustainable development in Virginia industries and developing countries.
While serving as a senior advisor to the president of China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, the largest energy and chemical company in Asia and a global top three chemical company, during a 2004-05 sabbatical, Liu led the development of water-saving engineering and investment proposals throughout the company’s 45 refining and chemical subsidiaries. This effort resulted in an investment of 1.8 billion Renminbi (U.S. $284 million) in 2005-08 to implement the proposals, a reduction of 568 million tons in freshwater consumption per year.
He also led engineers at the refinery and ethylene plants of Formosa Plastics Group in Taiwan, a global top seven chemical company, to achieve similar water savings. He has worked closely with American-based corporations, such as Honeywell Specialty Materials, based in Morristown, N.J.
It is this unique partnership with industry from around the world that allows Liu’s students to apply design skills to projects that represent actual problems faced by engineers. This approach provides students with first-hand experience of the challenges associated with “real world” design.
This experience is a major strength of Virginia Tech’s chemical engineering design education. Liu has received stellar teaching evaluations, and engineering students have twice honored him with the university's Sporn Award for excellence in engineering teaching. Additionally, he has inspired his students to win top awards in the Chemical Engineering National Design Competitions eight times.
His honors and awards are numerous. In 2010, Liu received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from Tufts University. He received the Chemical Manufacturers Association’s National Catalyst Award for teaching excellence in 1986. The American Society for Engineering Education twice honored Liu, with the George Westinghouse Award for excellence in engineering education in 1990, and the Fred Merryfield Award for excellence in both teaching and research of engineering design in 1993. He was recognized in 2000 with both an Outstanding Faculty Award from Virginia’s Governor and a National Friendship Award from the Premier of People’s Republic of China.
Liu has been hailed by Virginia Tech administrators, faculty, and students alike for his dedication in serving for more than two decades as the faculty advisor of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, which boasts more than 1,000 members.
An ordained Baptist minister, Liu, together with his physician wife, have worked closely with local churches and the Virginia Tech Cranwell International Center to regularly help international students with their personal problems and medical needs.
“I believe having Y.A. join our faculty was one of the best things I had done for this university in the past 30 years, especially for the education of our undergraduates,” said Torgersen, former dean of the College of Engineering from 1970 to 1990, and president of Virginia Tech from 1993 until 2000.
“Y.A.’s dedication to his students is unmatched, and his impact on their lives and careers cannot be overstated,” said John Walz, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “Each year I receive numerous emails from our recent graduates telling me how valuable both his course and his advice were to them. And when I meet with our alumni away from campus, Y.A. is always the first person they ask about.”
In person, Liu is humble of the honor. “Often my happiest moments every week are receiving letters, emails, and phone calls from former students,” he said. “Their continuing cheering and encouragement, together with the strong support I receive from the university administration, is the most significant factor in all I have achieved in my career at Virginia Tech since 1982. I continue to be a most blessed and fortunate person.”
Liu earned a bachelor’s degree from National Taiwan University in 1967, a master’s degree from Tufts University in 1970, and a doctoral degree from Princeton University in 1974; all in chemical engineering. He started his career at Auburn University in Alabama in 1974, before joining Virginia Tech.