Obituary of Dr. Susan Wu
Dr. Ying Chu Lin “Susan” Wu, a pioneer for women in aerospace and energy research died at home in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. She did and will continue to inspire many, especially women who aspire to pursue careers in science and engineering or who choose to challenge the status quo. She broke ground as a woman in aerospace, making contributions in her field of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), while also teaching and raising a family. She was 87, although 88 by Chinese reckoning where people advance in age at the New Year.
Dr. Susan, as she was often called to distinguish her from her husband, “Dr. Jimmy” Jain Ming Wu, overcame numerous obstacles to emerge from China and become the first woman to receive a doctoral degree from the prestigious Graduate Aeronautics Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in 1963. Her career abruptly switched to energy conversion research in MHD when after graduating she needed to find health insurance coverage to repair a heart defect threatening her life.
Susan became an award-winning pioneer in MHD, eventually leading the program in coal-fired MHD at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. She often testified before Congress to explain United States progress in MHD as well as collaborative efforts with the U.S.S.R and other countries.
In 1988, after publishing over 100 papers and winning numerous awards and accolades, Susan was determined to take on a new challenge – getting back to a childhood vow to make a contribution in aerospace. She decided to leave her tenured professorship at UTSI to start a second career as a businesswoman running Engineering, Research, and Consulting, Incorporated. She brought the same sensibilities and concern for treating people based on a fundamental belief in equality and basic human dignity. ERC, Incorporated, is presently headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama.
Susan was born in Beijing, China on June 23, 4718 in the Chinese lunar calendar to Lin Chi-yu (father) and Kung Kuo-jun (mother). In the year 1932 A.D., Susan was born on July 26.
Her mother Kuo-jun was a strong woman, raising Susan under difficult circumstances. Kuo-jun studied law because she wanted to fight for women’s rights after growing up under tremendous inequalities during China’s feudal era. She passed a strong sense of her courage and sense of duty to her oldest child, Susan.
Susan grew up in a time of great civil unrest and war. Japan started occupying parts of China by 1931. The two countries were at war by the time she was five; the war later became part of World War II, which engulfed China in fighting. Susan’s family fled to Qingdao to escape the intense fighting in the interior country. Despite warnings to stay under cover, she would run outside when the American bombers flew overhead. Watching them fly past in their fight to help free her country, she vowed to become an engineer so she could one day help her country defend itself.
When WWII ended, fighting between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists re-erupted, prompting Susan’s family to flee again in 1947, this time to Taiwan, where she enrolled in ninth grade and captured the heart of one young man, Jain Ming “James” Wu. He abandoned his plans to study medicine, determined to stay near Susan as she pursued her dream to become an engineer.
Susan and James both enrolled in mechanical engineering at National Taiwan University in 1951. In a pattern repeated often in her life, she was the only woman in the program. After graduating, Susan and James were both determined to pursue advanced degrees. There were no advanced degree programs in Taiwan at the time, so their focus turned towards the United States of America.
Susan won the Amelia Earhart Fellowship from Zonta International to attend The Ohio State University in 1957. Susan and James were still unmarried; married couples were not allowed to leave Taiwan. Ever a dreamer, James followed her to the United States with $100 he borrowed from a friend but was unable to get any financial assistance at OSU. Instead he went to the University of Minnesota.
James succeeded in gaining admission to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1958 and enrolled that fall. He persuaded Susan to marry and join him in 1959 at Caltech. Susan stayed in school while having two boys, while James stopped school and went to work to support the family. She became the first woman to get a Ph.D. in aeronautics at Caltech in 1963. Following her graduation, Susan underwent open heart surgery to repair an atrial septal defect. At the time, the surgeons told her they were confident they could repair the defect. They put her chance of survival at less than 50%. Even though she survived, her heart gave her problems for the rest of her life.
After James went back to school and received his Ph.D. from Caltech, they both got job offers: Susan from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James from Stanford University. Instead, they took faculty positions at the only school to offer a married couple jobs, the University of Tennessee Space Institute in Tullahoma. In 1969, Susan had her daughter, Karen.
After a successful career in magnetohydrodynamics, Susan abruptly changed gears to go back to her childhood vow in aerospace. In 1988, she was 55. By her calculations, she decided she needed at least ten years to make a meaningful contribution in a new career. Susan joked that no company would hire a middle aged aeronautics engineer with no experience so she did the logical thing, start her own company. ERC, Incorporated started in her basement that year.
Susan followed the same instincts in business that she held in life:
- Do your best to excel.
- Treat others with respect and courtesy.
- Help the people around you.
- Share what you have, even if what you have isn’t much.
Those beliefs became hallmarks for ERC and established the company first in Tullahoma and later in Huntsville, Alabama, where she and James moved in 1998. Of her many accomplishments, Susan may have been most proud of starting a company that lived and breathed her values and continued what she had learned from her mother. She could see and feel people working and living with those values, and she could see that she was again making a positive difference in the world.
At home, Susan loved to cook with her family and play with her grandchildren. She loved to teach them mathematics, as well as how to make dumplings when the whole family would get together. She enjoyed learning and thinking, devising a radial periodic table of the elements after a stroke forced her to retire in 2000. Susan and James started going on ‘geek’ cruises, devouring lectures and ignoring most of the destinations with the exception of a visit to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. Susan delighted in exploring the world from her computer, often emailing family and friends her discoveries.
Ying Chu Lin Susan Wu lives on in the hearts of her family, her students, ERC, and the many people she influenced and helped. She is survived by her husband of 61 years, Dr. Jain Ming Wu; her children: Karen, Albert and his partner Francisco, Ernie and his wife Magali; and grandchildren: Molly Lawrence, Jack Lawrence, Lucy Lawrence, Si Chiang Wu, and Ming Li Wu; her sisters, Wei Chu Su Lin, Wung Choo Lin Ling, and Lin Wen Chu; her brother, Shu Teh “Richard” Lin; and many nieces and nephews. Her family will miss her greatly.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to either of the following organizations.
The Amelia Earhart Fellowship from Zonta International. Susan was the only three-time winner of this fellowship. Her first award in 1958 enabled her to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State University.
The Alzheimer’s Association promotes research in finding a cure and support for the families and victims of the disease. Susan was diagnosed in 2014 with Alzheimer’s Disease. She worked hard to continue pushing ahead despite the disease, solving Sudoku and word puzzles endlessly to keep her mind sharp.