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Sydney-based expert in the field of fracture mechanics helps the next generation of scientists in the Chinese mainland
For nearly three decades, Professor Mai Yiu-wing has occupied the same office at the University of Sydney"s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.
When he first moved in it was virtually empty. Today it is lined with shelves crammed with books, magazines, papers and bound copies of PhD dissertations from past students. On the floor, textbooks are stacked in neat piles.
It is a lived-in office, and much of his life"s work in fracture mechanics and materials science is contained in the many books and publications he has written and contributed to.
Mai is regarded by his peers as one of the most outstanding scientists in his field, having made a lasting contribution globally to the science of fracture mechanics and fiber composites.
Most people have probably never heard of fracture mechanics. But it is vital, for example, in determining metal fatigue in aircraft, ships, cars, bridges and other infrastructure, and even sporting goods.
Mai was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2008 and International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2011 — two of the world"s most prestigious science/engineering academies.
In Australia, he is a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and was named a Member of the Order of Australia in 2010 for his services to engineering, particularly in the fields of advanced composite materials and fracture research. He is especially proud of his involvement in the research and development of asbestos-free fiber cements using cellulose fibers to substitute carcinogenic asbestos fibers.
This past December, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, one of the highest academic honors that China bestows on a citizen of a foreign country.
Mai was one of 18 foreign engineers and scientists from eight countries — including Microsoft Corporation cofounder Bill Gates — elected as CAE Foreign Members in 2017.
He was recognized for his distinguished contributions to engineering mechanics and to the promotion of China-Australia exchanges and cooperation in technological sciences and engineering.
Mai said he has supervised more than 50 doctoral students, worked with numerous research fellows, and advised many visiting academics from China. Many of those have become firm friends.
"As an ethnic Chinese, I am very pleased my significant efforts in engineering and nurturing research talents for the Chinese technical professions and universities have been recognized by the Chinese Academy of Engineering," he said of his latest award.
Michael Spence, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Sydney, said: "The university is enormously proud of Professor Mai"s outstanding and lasting contributions to scientific and engineering knowledge, as well as his dedication to ensuring that the relationship between Australia and China is one of friendly collaboration defined by the exchange of ideas."
Mai will be inducted into the CAE at a special ceremony at the end of May that will take place in Beijing during the CAE general assembly.
Despite all the awards, Mai said life is an "accumulation of chance encounters from which opportunities happen".
He said if he were to have his life over again, he would probably have "done something non-technical".
"Perhaps I would have followed in my ancestor"s footsteps and become a calligrapher," he said, taking a large book from the shelf.
The book contains works by Mi Fu, a painter, poet and calligrapher born in Xiangyang, North China"s Hebei province during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
"Yes, I am related to him. I am the 26th generation descendant," Mai said with great pride.
He weaved through pages of calligraphy by his ancestor outlining the technical art of calligraphy.
Mai was born in the Hung Hom area of Kowloon, in Hong Kong, where his father worked in the Whampoa shipyards.
"It was a much different place back then," he said.
The shipyards that lined Hong Kong"s harbor have long gone, replaced by tower blocks.
From an early age, Mai showed little interest in engineering and leaned more toward the arts and literature.
"Back then we had two types of schools in Hong Kong — mostly grammar schools, and a few technical schools where you learned things like metalwork, woodwork, technical drawing, maths, physics and chemistry.
"From the early days, my father preferred me to go in the latter direction. The company (Whampoa Docks) had a primary school, Kowloon Docks Memorial School, for the sons and daughters of its workers, and naturally I went there.
"I told my father I wasn"t interested in technical subjects, but I went along with his wishes and eventually ended up doing engineering at the Victoria Technical School and the University of Hong Kong."
He was the third student to get a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Hong Kong.
Regrets? "No, not really. It has been an interesting life.
"I tell my students that their work is important to society. Yes, you can sit in an office and write papers that just a few people read but the real work in what we do is out there … in the real world.
"The research we do helps society and I think that is important to instill in young people."
He recalled the story of Aloha Airlines Flight 243, between Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii, in April 1988.
During the flight the aircraft suffered extensive damage after an "explosive decompression".
"The whole top half of the aircraft was literally ripped off," he said.
Miraculously the aircraft landed safely at Kahului Airport on Maui with just one fatality, flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing. Another 65 passengers and crew were injured.
"This was an amazing story at the time, but the investigation that followed found that it was multi-site metal fatigue that contributed to the accident.
"This is what we do in fracture mechanics. In the case of the Hawaiian accident it was metal fatigue."
Another area where fracture mechanics plays a vital role is gas and oil pipelines, he said.
The science of fracture mechanics started with Alan Arnold Griffith — remembered for his original work on stress and fracture in glass in the early 1920s.
What is the connection to Mai? "My PhD supervisor (Charles Gurney) worked with Griffith at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at the time," he said.
An Australian citizen, Mai"s roots are firmly imbedded in Hong Kong.
"I was born in Hong Kong, raised in Hong Kong and educated in Hong Kong," he said.
Although he now lives and works in Sydney, his job has given him the flexibility to spend time in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, helping the next generation of scientists and engineers.
"I also instill in them what Gurney taught me, and that was to think broadly in your research — think vertically and laterally.
"Gurney was not your typical engineer. He was an engineer and poet.
"We all need to have great mentors. Not to hold our hands, but to inspire us to reach our full potential," Mai said.
The University of Sydney has also been generous to Mai, allowing him to take sabbaticals to help establish universities in Hong Kong and in the mainland.
At 72, he spends more time now on the study of nanocomposites.
"Perhaps I don"t have to look at those long fibers anymore," he said with a smile.