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UC Berkeley's top graduate excels in non-traditional field of civil engineering, with environmental emphasis
02 May 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Four years ago, Christine Ng expected a bumpy transition as she moved north from Ramona Convent Secondary High School, population 500, in Southern California, to the University of California, Berkeley, where lecture classes can be three times the size of her high school's student body.

But she adapted and so excelled that during UC Berkeley's upcoming Commencement Convocation on Wednesday, May 9, Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl will present the 21-year-old major in civil and environmental engineering with the University Medal, awarded each year to the campus's top graduating senior. Candidates for the award must graduate with a grade point average of 3.96 or higher.

Most of her classmates are male, as is the field of civil engineering. But Ng, president of the campus's branch of the Society of Women Engineers, is trying to inspire young girls to become civil engineers through her visits to local schools, where she said she does outreach work to "make engineering more alive."

Ng is a Chancellor's Scholar and member of Tau Beta Pi, an honor society for engineering students, and Chi Epsilon, an honor society for civil engineering students. In September, she was awarded the Bechtel Engineering Scholarship by the College of Engineering. The honor is based on scholastic performance, student leadership and potential for success.

Ng attributes her academic success and 3.992 grade point average to "just being persistent," along with heeding advice to manage her time well and work hard.

Professor Alex Pines, who taught Ng's Chemistry 1A class in the fall of 1997, recalled that she earned an A+, a rare achievement in the very demanding course. "Performance at this level in her first year of college indicates an exceptional intellect and broad and consistent excellence across a spectrum of activities including the mastery of new concepts, problem-solving and experimental laboratory practice," he said. "All aspects of her performance were superb."

Samer Madanat, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Ng's faculty adviser for four years, applauded Ng's "remarkable ability to excel at everything she does" - coursework, research and leadership in student organizations. He also said she has an unusual intellectual maturity for a student at her stage and combines these two key attributes with a pleasant personality and contagious enthusiasm.

Currently, Ng belongs to a class project team that is researching environmental and economic implications of tourism that is under the direction of Arpad Horvath, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Consortium on Green Design and Manufacturing. "She is a superb individual, precise in her course work and innovative in research projects," Horvath said. "I have not known an undergraduate more prepared for graduate school."

Ng, who applied and was accepted to nine universities when she graduated from high school, will be off to MIT in the fall for graduate school. She plans to combine the technology of civil and environmental engineering with business and public policy, something she said most engineers are typically reluctant to do.

"Now the decisions are pretty much made by the bureaucrats, who don't understand the engineering," Ng said about projects to build roads, dams, water systems and other structures.

Stressing environmental aspects of engineering also is important to Ng, who said she thinks it is good for the environment and good for business "to go beyond compliance."

Upon arriving at UC Berkeley, her father's alma mater, Ng immediately joined the campus section of the Society of Women Engineers and is now its president. She is undaunted by the fact that approximately 80 percent of the students in the College of Engineering are male, and that about 70 percent of those in the civil engineering are male.

"Men and women are different, but that's actually an asset," Ng said.

Ng, whose father is in banking and whose mother is a paralegal, had planned to be an architect until a high school biology teacher nudged her to enter an engineering design contest, and she found her niche. Civil engineering touches all parts of society all over the globe. "I really like the idea of going into a field where anywhere I go, I would be needed," she said.

Choosing UC Berkeley was easy after visiting each of her prospective choices, Ng said.

"The Berkeley environment is just very alive, even on a weekend there's something going on," she said. "I just liked the energy the campus had, and it's a unified community, not just a campus."

The College of Engineering is "almost like a miniature university on its own, it's a lot more personal," she added. Students in the college immediately are assigned an adviser who works closely with them, unlike some colleges where students don't get advisers until their junior year.

Ng immersed herself in campus and community life and culture from the outset. From attending design classes and poetry readings to watching dance performances, taking Shakespeare in summer school and listening to music recitals, "I have a lot of little communities everywhere," she said.

Ng, who lived all four years in the Foothill residence hall, became a member of the Faculty Committee for Undergraduate Studies, a group that explores new courses proposed each semester for the College of Engineering. It was a great way for her to meet professors and students, she said.

She organized the Senior Class Gift Fundraising effort this year for the Berkeley Engineering Fund, launching the first Web page to make donating easier and more suitable to the Internet-literate student of the 21st century, she said.

Ng has rebuilt homes for the needy on campus Christmas in April projects, volunteered at Cal Day and trick-or-treated for cans for the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

For fun, Ng said, she dabbles in numerous extracurricular activities, from swing dancing to ice-skating and jogging. "I'm not very good at a lot of things," she said, "but I seem to do them anyway."