Skip to main content
Y. Austin Chang and his wife P. Jean Chang
March 5, 2020

Materials science remembers long-time chair Y. Austin Chang

Written By: Jason Daley

In December 2019, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering remembered one of its most distinguished faculty in a ceremony that celebrated both the Y. Austin Chang Archives and the Y. Austin Chang Professorship, awarded to Assistant Professor Dawei Feng.

Yong-Shan Austin Chang retired in 2006 and passed away in 2011. The event was a reminder that the long-time chair and highly respected researcher left a remarkable imprint on the department. “I think Austin was always a scholar and wanted to do right by his students,” says Professor John Perepezko, who often collaborated with Chang. “That’s why he was revered and appreciated.”

Chang’s road to Madison was not an easy one. Born in 1932 in China’s Henan province, Chang grew up in the shadow of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that later merged with World War II. While his father was off fighting at the front, Chang was raised in Bali village by his mother, Sou-Ean, who kept him hidden from Japanese soldiers and from Chinese Communist forces, which were intent on kidnapping Chang for ransom. For years, the family lived in a traditional earthen shelter with no electricity or running water and frequently hid in nearby hills, corn fields or attics to avoid enemies. The family also survived the famine of 1942 and 1943, which killed an estimated 2 to 3 million people in Henan.

P. Jean Chang and Dawei Feng
P. Jean Chang presents the Y. Austin Chang Endowed Professorship to Assistant Professor Dawei Feng. Credit: Todd Brown.

Though she herself was illiterate, Sou-Ean insisted on educating her children, hiring a teacher to instruct them. They had no money for pens and paper or books. Instead, they learned by scratching Chinese characters into the dirt. Chang’s younger sister, Wan-Ru Chang, remembers that even then her older brother was a thoughtful teacher, guiding his siblings’ strokes as they learned to put together their characters.

In 1945 his father returned from war and insisted that his children receive a formal education and attend university in the United States. In 1950, at age 17, Chang emigrated to the United States, enrolling at Baylor University before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He completed his master’s degree at the University of Washington in Seattle before returning to Berkeley for a PhD in metallurgy. After a few years in the aircraft industry, Chang began his academic career in 1967 in the materials science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before moving to UW-Madison in 1980.

It was a legendary career. Chang’s research in metallurgical thermodynamics was known for its rigor and reliability and laid many of the foundations of the discipline. In 1996, he founded a company called CompuTherm, currently based in Middleton, which develops software and databases for thermodynamic and phase diagram calculations that researchers and industry rely upon to this day. He published hundreds of influential papers and co-authored a textbook on materials thermodynamics with W. Alan Oates. Chang was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, among dozens of other honors and awards earned throughout his career. Many of the plaques and mementos acknowledging his awards were donated by Austin’s wife, P. Jean Chang, as part of his archives in the Materials Science and Engineering Building.

Chang served as chair of the department from 1982 to 1991, helping to guide it through a difficult transition from metallurgical and mineral engineering to a broader focus on modern materials, a move he championed despite his specialty in metallurgy. Professor Emeritus Max Lagally notes in a tribute that one of Chang’s legacies was bridging the divide between traditional metallurgists and new faculty working with novel materials. Both sides respected and relied on Chang’s work in thermodynamics and both found in him a leader willing to listen to their concerns.

“It is fair to say that Austin played a key role in making our department here at UW-Madison what it is today,” writes Professor Don Stone in a remembrance. “Part of the contribution is the line of outstanding young faculty we’ve hired in recent years bringing us into the new materials areas. But that extends to our individual research enterprises which have been enhanced, immeasurably in some cases, by our interactions with Austin.”

Chang had an equally profound impact on his individual students, and earned many major teaching and mentoring awards. Professor Sindo Kou is just one of many people whose career was directly impacted by Chang’s mentorship. Kou emigrated from Taiwan to Milwaukee in 1972 to pursue his master’s degree with Chang. He remembers how encouraging Chang was when he brought up new ideas and how he kept him apprised of what other professors in the department thought of his work. That, he says, was unusual and extraordinarily helpful in helping him seek out the best recommendations when applying to PhD programs. “I know that other students there all liked him a lot, and he also helped them in their applications,” says Kou.

Chang helped Kou outside the classroom as well. With no driver’s license, Kou had limited access to life beyond his Milwaukee neighborhood. “I just went between the lab, the room I rented, and McDonald’s,” he says.

But Chang invited Kou and other students to weekend cookouts in Milwaukee’s parks with a group of professors from China and Taiwan. “He let us join his social group. We were able to enjoy the park and they paid for the cookout,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have done that.”

That generosity continued when Chang recruited Kou to UW-Madison in 1983. The two collaborated on many projects, and Chang shared his software and thermodynamic databases with Kou, who studies the microstructure of welding. “Since then, I’ve used his software in maybe 60 percent of my publications,” says Kou. “It’s had a big impact on my career.”

Professor Dane Morgan, who worked for several years with Chang and collaborated on many papers, remembers him as intensely curious and immensely generous. He was able to integrate several seemingly contradictory character traits, recalls Morgan. “He had an open-minded curiosity combined with very strongly held convictions, a profound humility combined with immense intellectual understanding and leadership, a warm and peaceful demeanor combined with a demanding schedule and amazing productivity, and an immense generosity combined with intense drive to accomplish new things,” says Morgan.

Though Dawei Feng never had a chance to meet Austin Chang in person, he is grateful to be named first recipient of the Y. Austin Chang Professorship and hopes to carry on Chang’s legacy. He says the professorship spurred him to learn more about Chang. And, after reading a recently published Chang biography, Immortal Mentor, and viewing his archives, Feng says he feels a kinship with the man. “He came from a very hard situation, and surprisingly made it to the States and became a very successful professor, overcoming difficulties here as well,” he says. “My situation is much better, so that kind of encourages me to cherish my current situation, and to become a better scientist, better mentor, and better teacher.”