Yihan Hu ’22: ‘If you want to prove something, then go for it'

Yihan Hu ’22, Chemical Engineering major

Had she ever been under the impression that women couldn’t be engineers?

“Oh yeah,” says Yihan Hu. “I mean, I come from China, right?”

She half laughs when she says it, but she means it. Her father’s parents were, she says, biased against girls. They weren’t happy that their son’s only child was female, and so they treated her differently. She remembers watching her grandfather give out red envelopes stuffed with cash to her and her cousins on the Lunar New Year. Her male cousins got more than she did.

It wasn’t until she moved to the United States at the age of 14 and lived with her host family that she began to learn that girls didn’t have to be housewives, or stick to subjects like literature while boys did math and science. Her host mom in Reading, Pennsylvania, had worked in a lab as a young woman, and she was always saying things to Hu like, If men can do it, you can do it.

And so she did. Hu is now researching techniques that can separate carbon dioxide from nitrogen in flue gas emissions from chemical plants. Specifically, she’s part of a team designing a polymer membrane that could present a cheaper, more efficient alternative to current CO2 absorption methods. She loves the work, but even more perhaps, she loves feeling inspired and motivated by the female faculty around her. They embody a simple but profound message: You can do this. And so that’s what Hu would say, too, to any young woman struggling to find her way around the expectations of others.

“You only live once,” she says. “You’re not living for your family. If you want to prove something, then go for it.”

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This profile is part of Resolve Magazine's Soaring Together series.

Photography by Douglas Benedict/Academic Image