Choon Fong Shih knows how to handle extreme stress. As a researcher specializing in fracture mechanics, he solved a seemingly impossible problem: how to analyze the cracks that develop in very tough metals when they are subjected to intense pressure, to characterize how resistant those metals are to fracture. And as president of not one but two major universities over the course of his career, he has led institutions through times of radical change and growth—and even inception. In all of his work, he is optimistic, visionary, and cool under pressure.
Born and raised in Singapore, Shih earned his PhD in applied mathematics at Harvard in 1973. His advisor John Hutchinson, Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering and Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics, Emeritus, at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, notes that Shih’s work in characterizing fracture resistance was critically important for nuclear reactors and other industrial applications. “It was a key problem at the time,” Hutchinson says, “because there was great concern about the safety of nuclear power plants, and that was at the heart of it. He did some very important work in that period, and it’s work that’s still used.”
Upon graduating from Harvard, Shih served as head of the Fracture Research Group at the General Electric Research Lab before joining the faculty of Brown University, where he taught for fifteen years. Another of Hutchinson’s graduate students—Zhigang Suo, PhD ’89, now the Allen E. and Marilyn M. Puckett Professor of Mechanics and Materials at SEAS—was just starting out on his academic career at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when Shih was at Brown. “He was like a big brother for me, when I was a young assistant professor,” Suo recalls. “He was already a big name, and he took me under his wing. We wrote many papers together. I always told him the happiest moments in my research career were working with him. He makes people around him feel that what they are doing is so worthwhile.”
In 1996, Shih was recruited to serve as founding director of Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and as a professor at the National University of Singapore; five years later, he was appointed president of the university. The news came as a surprise to Suo and many others who knew him. “At that time, we never saw him becoming a major administrator!” Suo says. “He’s so focused on research. But he’s always been a people person, and he was genuinely happy at his job.”
Hutchinson confesses that he too was surprised when he first heard that Shih had been appointed president of the National University of Singapore. “Fong was a very easygoing person, and so I really wondered how he was going to take to being president,” Hutchinson recalls. “Well, it turned out, he was a natural. He took to it very easily. He gets on extremely well with people, and he has a knack for being creative at whatever he’s doing.”
Shih undertook a visionary transformation of the National University of Singapore, helping the school develop its reputation as a global research leader. His extraordinary leadership led to his appointment in 2008 as the first president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, a brand-new university that Shih helped create from the ground up. He recruited the faculty, nurtured the student body, and set the university on a path to success.
James Rice, Mallinckrodt Professor of Engineering Sciences and Geophysics, admires Shih’s leadership. “It’s just a tremendous benefit to Saudi Arabia to have this campus, and to have had Fong as the first president, because he has fantastically good judgment in recognizing quality in people,” says Rice. “He’s had such an influential life, first as a young engineering scientist who did very important work for major problems in the energy area of that era, and then as a university administrator and even as a developer of new universities. He’s a great leader.”
In 2013, Shih returned to the National University of Singapore to serve as University Professor—a fitting homecoming. Throughout his career, he has been fond of telling the story of the Atlantic salmon, a fish that leaves its freshwater home to seek adventure in the vast ocean, before swimming back upstream and returning to its original waterways. Like the salmon, Shih has led a life of global ambition, extraordinary adventure, and true dedication to the places he calls home. We are fortunate that Harvard is one of those places.
Choon Fong Shih, for your essential contributions to the field of fracture mechanics, which have promoted safety and technological innovation in the energy sector, and for your university leadership, which has brought educational opportunity and inspiration to so many, we are proud to award you the 2018 Centennial Medal.