Commencement 2017: Studious and Eager To Learn

Troy, N.Y. — In many cultures, name has meaning. Born in Xi’an, China, on a snowy day in February, Haoxue (Lily) Yan says that the literal translation of her first name means “white snow,” but it also means “studious and eager to learn.” Yan says that she always thought her parents were clever for coming up with that name. This spring, Yan will receive a degree in materials science and engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States during the 211th Commencement Ceremony that will be held on Saturday, May 20.

Yan’s first venture to the United States led her to Cleveland, Ohio, in 2011, where she attended a high school exchange program at the Laurel School. During her senior year, her interest in the materials science and engineering field was piqued during campus visits to several colleges, including Case Western and Carnegie Mellon. “I was fascinated by the physical sciences behind material properties and the fact that small tweaks can drastically improve these properties,” said Yan. She decided to attend Rensselaer.

“I came to RPI for its reputation and I stayed because of the people I met and the friends I made on campus,” Yan said. “I enjoy how academically focused RPI is and people are competitive in the friendliest way. You meet people here who push you out of your comfort zone and cheer for you when you achieve something.” 

At Rensselaer, Yan developed a strong interest in metallurgy, with a particular emphasis on research efforts in Cu-Zn-Al shape memory alloys, during her sophomore year. A shape-memory alloy (SMA) is an alloy that “remembers” its original shape and that when deformed returns to its pre-deformed shape in response to temperature, stress, and magnetic field changes. Today, they have been widely used in actuation, sensing, medical devices, and damping applications.

In 2015, Yan co-authored a publication in Scripta Materialia under the guidance of Ying Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Materials and Science Engineering. “The most well-known SMA is Ni-Ti, also called Nitinol; however, they are expensive and have average properties,” Yan said. “In our research, we are looking to find alternatives to Nitinol. Specifically, I worked with Cu-based SMAs, which are relatively cheap, to improve their mechanical properties through thermal processing. Our goal is to put some ductile obstacles along the paths where cracks develop.” 

Beyond research, Yan also carved out time to participate in several student organizations on campus, including Rensselaer Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE), Material Advantage (MA), the Center for Communication Practices (CCP), and the RPI Outing Club, among others. “Each of these organizations offered me something different. I joined CIPCE and CCP mainly to volunteer, tutor, and practice teaching. I enjoyed MA for the professional development experiences and leadership skills it provided me; and I also loved how involved we were with the Materials Science and Engineering department. Joining a club or an organization is like finding a family on campus. I met some of my best friends through these activities.

“I remember volunteering to support the Exploring Engineering Day (EED) program on my birthday freshman year,” Yan continued. “I was pretty upset that I wouldn’t be able to spend the day with family and friends from home. But when I showed up at EED, all the upperclassmen members of RPI Material Advantage surprised me with an ice cream cake and celebrated my birthday with me. It made me feel welcomed and loved; I ended up being really good friends with them and was involved in the group afterward.”

In an effort to pay homage to her culture and heritage, Yan also organized, when still a sophomore, the first department-wide social event to celebrate Chinese New Year and to introduce students and faculty members to Chinese culture. The event is now conducted every year, and students and faculty from other backgrounds have also shared aspects of their culture with the department.

Yan’s involvement in various organizations further created opportunities that allowed her to organize academic help sessions, industry speakers’ series, and professional conferences. Although she was majoring in materials science, she taught other mentors Arduino software programming and how to build circuits involving motors and sensors. To make the curriculum more interactive and appealing to students, Yan created a set of hands-on activities illustrating various concepts and principles.

In writing a graduate school recommendation for Yan, Pawel Keblinski, professor and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said that he first encountered Yan in the entry-level Materials Science for Engineers course during her freshman year. “Not only was she a top student in the class, but she also distinguished herself by her ability to formulate insightful questions designed to provide in-depth understanding of the material. Quite inspiringly, she always projected enthusiasm and a joy of learning, which made my teaching experience so much more rewarding. In the following years, I interacted with Lily in connection with her leadership role in the RPI Materials Advantage Chapter, which is perhaps the most successful undergraduate-driven professional organization on campus.”

Keblinski also noted the many honors and awards that Yan received while at Rensselaer. “She is a member of academic honor societies, including Tau Beta Pi (engineering honor society) and Alpha Sigma Mu (materials honor society), among others,” Keblinski said. “Her almost perfect GPA is only a part of the story. She really learns to know and understand the meaning, connections, and consequences. She makes the learning and teaching experience of people around her rewarding and satisfying by her inquiry. Consequently, she is the first choice to be an undergraduate TA for challenging lab-intensive courses. After a stop at a graduate school, she will be a great faculty candidate, if she chooses to follow such a career path.”

Following graduation, in the fall Yan will head to Boston to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and hopes to serve as a professor one day.

Watch a video of Haoxue (Lily) Yan:

Yan’s experience is an example of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer. The foundation for this vision is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration—working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions—to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer. Research at Rensselaer addresses some of the world’s most pressing technological challenges—from energy security and sustainable development to biotechnology and human health. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With over 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to