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  • IN FOCUS: Engineering Student of the Year Yayu Monica Hew follows her American dream of a career in space physics

IN FOCUS: Engineering Student of the Year Yayu Monica Hew follows her American dream of a career in space physics

Yayu Monica Hew arrived at University of Texas in Arlington (UTA) to follow her "American dream" of studying aerospace engineering and physics - a degree course unavailable at home in Taiwan. Her ambition was to work in the space industry. However, soon afterwards she realised - as a foreigner - she would have to work that bit harder than many of her classmates for recognition, funding and plum internships.

Despite scoring maximum grades on every exam and assessment, she says she found her first two years at UTA "kind of challenging and frustrating - a lot of options were restricted to US citizens". However, she soon "accepted the fact that it was something I would just have to overcome". She decided to "enter as many academic competitions as I could to get good exposure".

It is a tactic that paid off. Her research efforts have been published in multiple papers and presentations at forums sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics among others, as well as several university gatherings. Her presentations at the regional AIAA Student Paper conference were awarded first place in 2011 and 2012.

About to start her fourth and final year, she has two jobs in addition to her regular studies - but these are not the usual waitressing or bar-keeping jobs that help pay the bills for many undergraduates. Hew makes money from tutoring and as a research assistant. It was her efforts on a key research project, more than anything, which impressed the Boeing judges.

The judges recognised Hew's "outstanding student achievements in the classrooms, extracurricular organisations and, in particular, the research laboratory". Working with a professor colleague, she has developed, built and tested an ultra-low power wireless strain gauge system for remote monitoring of structural integrity. The technology can be powered by a small photocell, and could lead to monitoring systems being deployed at a much lower cost than before.

Remarkably, Hew also finds time for sport. She performed the martial art taekwondo at a high level until she became injured, and now competes in fencing and badminton. Before progressing to study for a PhD in Europe or the USA, she hopes to take a year off to work with the Taiwanese version of the Peace Corps on engineering projects in Africa.

Ultimately, Hew wants to pursue a career in space physics, working for a private spaceflight company in the USA or on China's space programme. Her inspiration and role model, she says, is a former UTA student, the Indian-American astronaut Kalpana "KC" Chawla, one of seven crew members who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.