Date of Birth: 17 Aug 1938
- Nelson Street Boys’ R.C. School, Port of Spain
- Queen’s Royal College, Port of Spain
- BSc (Honours) Civil Engineering, Loughborough University of Technology, UK, 1962
- PhD Structural Engineering, Manchester University, England, 1966
- The Fenrick De Four Award for Engineering, NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Award for sterling contribution to Disaster Management in Trinidad and Tobago, The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management, 2011
- Award of Career of Excellence in Engineering, The Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad & Tobago, 2007
- Certificate of Merit, The Commonwealth Engineers Council, 1996
- Award for service to the Faculty, The University of the West Indies Faculty of Engineering, 1987
- Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship Award, 1986
- Fellow, Institution of Civil Engineers
- Life Member, American Society of Civil Engineers
- Member, Caribbean Academy of Sciences Fellow, Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago
- Fellow, Institution of Structural Engineers
- Registered Engineer, Board of Engineering of Trinidad and Tobago
Over 80 peer-reviewed publications
Independent Chartered Civil and Structural Engineering Consultant and Project Management Consultant, Trinidad and Tobago
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
The Caribbean is a particularly challenging region for construction, dogged by the threat of earthquakes, floods and hurricanes. Historically, Caribbean builders have used materials and practices that provide little protection against the damage to the built environment by these natural forces. Dr Myron Wing-Sang Chin is a civil engineer, educator and disaster management expert whose work on plastic design theory and BS 968 steel has helped to establish global design standards. For over three decades, he taught more than a thousand civil engineering students at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine who have gone on to be leading professionals in the field. He has applied his engineering expertise to the development of CUBiC, the Caribbean Uniform Building Code, a region-specific template which has informed national building codes across the Caribbean.
NIHERST interviews Myron Chin
Q: What was unique about your childhood and family life?
A: Well, I was born during the war years in Macqueripe. We were six boys and three girls. From time to time, the air raid siren would sound and we all had to go into an air-raid shelter which still exists today. Both my parents came from China. My mother was my father’s second wife since his first wife had passed away. He sent for her based on a picture he had seen of her and to this day, I still have the ticket with which she came to Trinidad on the Canadian Pacific Steamships Ltd R.M.S. Empress of Russia on July 13, 1934. I’ve been to China several times myself. I’ve visited my mother’s village and went to see the Great Wall which is fantastic. The engineering is amazing! We later moved to Santa Cruz. I won an exhibition from Nelson Street Boys’ R.C. to go to Queen’s Royal College and I did well. Even when helping out in the shop, I would study.
Q: Did you want to become a civil engineer from a young age?
A: Originally, I really wanted to do medicine abroad, to follow in the footsteps of a schoolmate of mine. But my father was a shopkeeper with nine children to take care of so he couldn’t afford that. At the time, Shell Oil Company was offering engineering scholarships in mechanical and civil engineering. So it was purely by chance, not so much choice, that I eventually became a civil engineer having obtained a scholarship from Shell Oil Company to do so. Thankfully, four of my five brothers also got scholarships in their fields. I came back to work with Shell and then a year later I got a Commonwealth scholarship to go to Manchester University to do my PhD.
Q: Despite civil engineering not being your first career choice, you were still tremendously successful in it. Can you give us a summary of your work and the breakthroughs you had?
A: I suppose I could classify my work in four areas. The first would be the continuation of my PhD research in the plastic design of steel structures. The second would be on building codes and standards. The third, after joining UWI in 1972, was to develop continuing engineering education. And then the fourth is disaster management.
Q: What is plastic design?
A: According to plastic theory, phenomena called plastic hinges occur in a structure. These are sections in steel beams that undergo permanent deformation when the yield stress is attained. Plastic design allows you to save up to 20 per cent less steel than the previous design method, elastic design which focuses on working stress levels. This theory was developed by Baker, Horne and Heyman at Cambridge University during the Second World War as a means of coping with steel scarcity when designing air-raid shelters. After it was developed, Professor Horne moved to Manchester and I had him as my supervisor for my PhD studies. Out of my PhD work, my supervisor and I published a booklet entitled Plastic Design of Portal Frames in Steel to BS 968. This is one of the first set of design charts for the plastic design of pitched roof portal frames using BS 968, a stronger steel developed in the early sixties. This is now the most commonly used steel in building structures throughout the world.
Q: So were you the first person doing further research on it?
A: A team at Manchester first investigated it. My research showed it was ductile enough, and today it is common practice. Plastic design remains more economical. This was one of the topics I introduced to my students at UWI. As I mentioned earlier, the second area I focused on was in the development of codes and standards for the region. Between 1982 and 1986, I was the project manager for the development of the Caribbean Uniform Building Code, better known as CUBiC, funded by the United States Agency for International Development and the Caribbean Development Bank. I worked with Tony Gibbs from Barbados, Alfrico Adams from Jamaica and Al Wason from Barbados. Regional governments still use it as a model for national building codes, but many things have changed since 1986 and a revised CUBiC is overdue. That task of updating is being undertaken by the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality (CROSQ). The updated CUBiC will include new codes and methodologies for hurricane-force winds and earthquake forces. In 2002 I was team leader of an Association of Caribbean States (ACS) funded project on updating building codes of the greater Caribbean for wind and earthquakes. Trinidad and Tobago is now trying to develop its own national building code based on the
International Building Code (IBC) which uses the latest procedures for design.
Q: Why have a national code if we have the regional or international one?
A: For administrative reasons, the regional building code has not been applied across the region. The Jamaicans are using a variation of the IBC, adopting it as a base code and preparing an application document to reflect the particular conditions of Jamaica. For example, in the IBC the seismic hazard maps would be related to the United States, so we had to replace those maps with those applicable to the Caribbean region. Similarly, for hurricane force winds we need wind speeds for the Caribbean, not the United States.
Q: Is any particular island more likely than others to suffer a natural disaster?
A: No. All the islands are subject to both hurricanes and earthquakes annually. Despite our efforts, building practices continue to be subpar. The only solution is to continue to educate our builders, engineers and allied professionals in proper building techniques, codes and standards. The CUBiC was produced in 1986 – 28 years ago – and although it finds limited use in most islands, building code requirements are not enforced, and are thus ignored. For example, we advise against building houses with un-reinforced hollow clay blocks. With the slightest earthquake, those un-reinforced walls will collapse, as I showed my students in the 1997 Tobago earthquake. Yet if you drive around today, you still see houses with unreinforced clay block walls, so a small shake can bring them down.
Q: Just wondering – is your own house is disaster proof?
A: I just moved into a townhouse right in St Augustine and I looked at what the builders were doing. They followed small building guidelines thoroughly, both the block masonry and the roof design.
Q: Of the many disaster sites you have visited, did any stand out as professionally enlightening or otherwise?
A: I visited Mexico after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 and, to me, that was the most revealing one in terms of earthquake damage. I was actually in Belize doing a workshop on the CUBiC when the earthquake struck and the Secretary of the Belize Association of Professional Engineers and myself took a flight into Mexico City. It was the first time in my life that I saw such damage to high rise buildings. A lot of the buildings were constructed in an old lake bed and during a quake, behaved like a bowl of Jello. For certain buildings, the natural frequency of vibration of the building coincided with the period of the shaking soil. When that happens, you get resonance, the building shakes more than it would otherwise and, eventually, the building will collapse. You can avoid resonance by putting in what we call base isolation or dampers in the building such as pendulum weights – so the period of the shaking of the building is different from that of the ground. We are yet to have a base isolated structure in Trinidad and Tobago. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, there are several schools and hospitals that are base isolated. You can also retrofit with base isolation.
Q: What about the other areas of your work- continuing education for engineers and disaster management?
A: Having spent six years in industry before becoming a full-time academic in 1972, I recognised that practising engineers often didn’t have time to read journals and keep up to date. So I submitted a proposal to establish a continuing education committee in the Faculty of Engineering, UWI, which I chaired for 19 years. We mounted numerous continuing engineering education short-training courses, seminars and conferences. During the period 1976 to 1988, I also served as a member of the UNESCO International Working Group on the Continuing Education of Engineers and Technicians, and from 1989 to 1995, I was a member of the Executive Committee and Council of the International Association for Continuing Engineering Education. In 2005, I became director of the National Emergency Management Agency when the director was posted to Washington and the hurricane season was coming. A hurricane was threatening to hit Trinidad, and we had to advise the then Prime Minister [Patrick] Manning to send people home early to secure their homes. As a result, there was a horrendous traffic jam since everybody decided to leave early and it caused chaos. The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management is now working on a mass evacuation plan for Port of Spain since the current one needs fine-tuning.
Q: What aspect of your work are you most proud of and why?
A: I am especially proud to have been able to impart my knowledge to over a thousand civil engineers who came through UWI from across the region. Most are doing very well in the public and private sectors. One student, Cromwell Goodridge, became Minister of Works in St Lucia. Nearer to home, another, Colm Imbert, became Minister of Works in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of my graduates became successful consulting engineers in their own firms.
Q: What was your time at the Seismic Research Centre like?
A: I was invited in 2011 to join the Seismic Research Centre at UWI right as they obtained funding for the Global Earthquake Model (GEM), a project funded mainly by big insurance companies. GEM is charged with developing a model that can determine the risk of earthquakes in different regions of the world. They invited me to be the operations manager to launch the programme in the Caribbean, but they only had funding for one year so I was there for that length of time, long enough to launch the programme. It is done mainly on a voluntary basis with different working groups but people are busy and little can be done without funding. One area we worked on was micro zonation which The Seismic Research Centre is now doing for Port of Spain and environs. This will give us a better idea of the effects of a major quake on a particular area.
Q: In addition to your civil engineering work, you were involved in the Caribbean Conference on Artificial Intelligence. What was your role?
A: In 1989, I organised the First Caribbean Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and managed to get the leading AI expert, Dr Ed Feigenbaum of Stanford University to come as a keynote lecturer. Feigenbaum’s laboratory went on to develop expert system programmes in medicine (MYCIN,PUFF,ONCOCIN), molecular genetics (MOLGEN), X-ray crystallography (CHRYSALIS), and analysis of pulmonary function (PUFF). It also developed the first transportable general-purpose expert system “shell” (EMYCIN). With the aid of computer scientists, experts in different subject areas could populate EMYCIN with their specialized knowledge in the form of rules and then the knowledge-augmented system could be applied to different problem areas.
Q: What work are you are doing now?
A: Since my retirement from UWI in 2002, I have consulted for numerous firms. Currently, I’m mentoring young civil engineers who have recently graduated from UWI. I give advice on structural and civil design, reinforced concrete design and so on. This is very satisfying to me. In the words of Confucius, there is nothing more pleasing than to pass on to others the knowledge that you have gained.