The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Harry Yeh Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

September 22, 2014


Harry Yeh was born in 1950 in Tokyo, Japan to a Chinese father and a Japanese mother. As a child, Yeh (whose Japanese birth name is Hayama Hidehiko and whose Chinese birth name is Yeh Hsiu-jen) enjoyed collecting bugs and rocks with his father, and later in high school he decided to study economics. Though he gradually began to sour on economics as a discipline to pursue, he completed his degree in the field in 1972, graduating from Keio Giuku University.

As a college student in Japan, Yeh became interested in farming, but found that there was little opportunity for him to farm in his native country. In 1972 he visited one of his older sisters in Los Angeles and chose to move to the United States. While in California, Yeh attended an adult school to learn English and his teacher required him to choose an American name, at which point he adopted the first name Harry. In 1980 Yeh became a naturalized American citizen and officially changed his first name.

In 1972 Yeh also took summer classes at the University of California, Los Angeles to fill in courses like physics and chemistry, which hadn't been a part of his economics curriculum in Japan. Later that year, still interested in farming, Yeh was admitted into Washington State University where he pursued a second bachelor's degree, this time in Agricultural Engineering.

Yeh met his first wife while at Washington State and they married in 1975 when he graduated with his Agricultural Engineering degree. In 1977 Yeh completed a master's degree at WSU in Civil Engineering and strongly considered moving to Colorado State University for Ph.D. studies, but concerns about family health insurance led him to take a job as a hydraulic engineer instead. Hired by Bechtel Inc., Yeh and his family moved from Pullman to the San Francisco Bay area, where they remained for six years.

Though employed by Bechtel, Yeh chose to continue his studies in Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, initially focusing on diffusion and dispersion. When his initial topic lost its funding support, Yeh moved to a study of hydrodynamics and the ocean, with a particular focus on edge waves. Yeh completed his Ph.D in 1983 and left Bechtel in favor of a position at the University of Washington, where he was hired as an assistant professor of Civil Engineering.

Initially, Yeh expected his academic career to involve researching edge waves, but the head of his school advised him to study tsunamis instead. Yeh's standing in the field advanced and in 1992 he was part of an international survey group that documented the path of a tsunami that hit Nicaragua after an earthquake. Yeh conducted subsequent field research at the sites of several other tsunamis in later years, including events in Indonesia, Japan, Peru and Papua New Guinea.

In 1989 Yeh was promoted to associate professor in both the department of applied mathematics and the department of civil engineering, and in 1995 he became a full professor at the University of Washington. Yeh also served stints as visiting professor at Cornell University (1991), the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University, Japan (1997), and the University of Tokyo (1999).

Yeh was recruited to Oregon State University in 2002 where he was appointed to the Miles Lowell and Margaret Watt Edwards Distinguished Chair in Engineering. His field research has continued while at Oregon State, including a 2004 study of the Great Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2011 and 2012, Yeh returned to Japan on sabbatical to research the effects of the Tohoku tsunami and to visit the restricted zone in Fukishima. At OSU, Yeh utilizes the Hinsdale Wave Research Lab to model tsunami events and to continue his work in hydrodynamics.