Written by Anne Krapfl | Photo by Christopher Gannon
Jan. 23, 2024

Informal portrait of Hoa Chi in Sukup Hall's Student Concept Lab.

The prospective student whose appreciative family got a personal tour of Sukup Hall. The student team whose derailed senior project received some attentive advice to get back on track. The university carillonneur whose replica model project needed a little professional expertise to assure its consistent operation. The common thread? Their day was better because Hoa ("Hwah") Chi offered to help.

Officially, he's the safety coordinator for the agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE) department and manager of its student concept teaming lab, a makerspace for the department. Any ABE student with a project that requires building or fabrication visits with Chi -- anything from design advice or materials purchases to semester-long guidance. An estimated 85 to 100 students use the team lab each year.

"Our students have great imaginations, but they don't always have the experience yet to see how the parts in their overall design become a system in motion. I begin by asking many, many questions about their plan and things they may not see yet," he said.

Occasionally, they swat away his questions if they perceive he's making their task harder. 

"They find out that instead of the extra mile I suggested, maybe now they have to go 10 miles," he said with a smile.

He's driven, he said, by two things: a love of knowledge and a desire to make a difference.

"My work has to be meaningful, and I find more meaning when I'm helping someone," Chi said. "Humanity needs to do better; we need more people who care for others. Whoever walks in this door is under my care."

He said his joy comes from watching students take on leadership roles and from their confident smiles of accomplishment. He also takes satisfaction in keeping students and faculty researchers safe.

"Some might perceive safety as impeding progress. I come at it from a desire to help," he said. "It's an opportunity to build relationships, to work one-on-one with a researcher or a student club while we get to where we need to be."

  • Home of the waterjet cutter

    Among its specialty tools, ABE's student concept lab includes the waterjet cutter, a machine that reads a computer-aided design program and uses fine sand in super pressurized water -- 60,000 pounds/square inch -- to cut materials, from foam to two-inch steel. Retirement memento shields, vintage radiator covers in the Memorial Union or Plexiglas workspace shields used during the pandemic are some of the more visible waterjet products on campus. Chi trains a student team to help cover the campus demands for that cost-recovery service.

ABE department chair Amy Kaleita said she relies on Chi's safety expertise, culled from his years in the chemistry department, to be certain all the research labs follow safety protocols.

"The range of things we have going on in the department is quite large. He's a leader and an advisor and a collaborator and a good sounding board, especially in the safety area, for me and for faculty," she said.

Chi will patiently explain that his care for others -- even his choice to care so much -- comes from experiencing the two extremes in his life.

I don't want anyone to think they're bothering me. I want them to think of me when they have a problem. This is my job.

Hoa Chi, student concept lab manager

From Vietnam to Iowa

The child of a U.S. Army soldier and South Vietnamese woman, Chi grew up in a Catholic monastery after his mother was sent to a re-education/labor camp at the end of the Vietnamese Conflict. There was little food and even less schooling. The 1987 federal Amerasian Homecoming Act, intended to bring children of American GIs to the United States, was his ticket to opportunity. By chance, he was assigned to Iowa, and he arrived in Cedar Rapids as a 20-year-old with a fourth-grade education.

For four years he worked, studied English in the evenings with other refugees at a Lutheran church and, through books at the public library, taught himself math through the algebra level. Eventually he was able to enroll at Kirkwood Community College in math and English as a second language. He studied mightily to understand and master English. When he graduated, he returned to the workforce for several years and married. In 2004, he enrolled at Iowa State and in 2007 completed his bachelor's degree in biochemistry.

The day he was accepted into Iowa State was a milestone.

"It was the result of a battle I'd been in for years," he said.

But, he said his pursuit of an education included "beautiful people" in Vietnam and Iowa who were kind and helpful to him. They included former Distinguished Professor of chemistry Pat Thiel, who lost her battle with cancer in September 2020.

He applied his degree as an instrument technician for a central Iowa ethanol plant for several years before returning to campus in 2011 as a lab technician for the chemistry department. He moved to his post in ABE in 2019.

(And yes, through a DNA registry, he found his father, now 74 years old, who lives in southern Illinois. Chi's family visits him several times a year.)

It's no bother, it's my job

Kaleita observed that the variety in Chi's daily work reflects a busy department but also his willingness to step up when he sees a need. One example: It took several years' worth of mechanical engineering senior capstone projects to design and build the replica model carillon and its companion mini campanile. Late in the project, Chi and lab colleague John Sheriff offered to oversee the work for an electric lift mechanism -- which unfolds a 25-foot campanile from a two-foot collapsed structure in a reliable and safe way.

Because it's likely that a different set of volunteers will set up and take down the scale model carillon every time it travels outside of Ames, Chi currently is working on safety protocols for loading and moving it consistently and safely.

Kaleita said he also provides safety best practices for the department's student clubs, many of which involve vehicles.

Chi insists it's all part of what he calls his "miscellaneous duties."

"I don't want anyone to think they're bothering me. I want them to think of me when they have a problem. This is my job," he said.