Professor J.J. Lee retires after changing students’ lives at USC for over 50 years

Anish Kelkar | April 29, 2022

Inspired by a desire to safeguard coastal spaces, Lee moved from Taiwan to the U.S. to catapult the next generation of engineers at USC Viterbi.



Professor J.J. Lee discovered an interest in civil engineering while in high school in Taiwan. At the time, Taiwan was hit with extreme floods two years in a row, resulting in devastation to infrastructure, such as railroads and bridges. The government pushed for its citizens to help in the reconstruction of the infrastructure, which influenced Lee to earn a bachelor’s in civil engineering at National Taiwan University in 1962. Lee would specialize in water and hydraulic engineering, eventually landing at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where he has taught in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for over five decades.

Following work as a reserve officer, Lee applied to U.S. universities, and received scholarship offers from Princeton, Columbia, and Utah State. However, only Utah State offered him spring enrollment, so he decided to go there.

“Utah State had a very strong department in hydraulic engineering and they had a big [water] laboratory, so I went to Utah State for my master’s. Then, I went to Caltech for civil engineering, with a hydraulics and water resources emphasis,” Lee said.

While at Caltech, Lee would get the chance to use the knowledge he had garnered while pursuing his PhD in coastal engineering when a storm would hit Marina Del Rey.

“A storm from the Pacific would knock out most of the boats and cause excessive oscillations, so they had to close the harbor and do studies on what happened. That’s why they gave a grant to Caltech, and I was lucky enough to be one of the graduate students that worked on that problem. I developed a computational tool for analyzing the wave induced oscillations in harbors of arbitrary shape,” Lee said.

After graduating from Caltech, Lee would get offered a professor position at USC in 1970, where we would stay until retiring this year, over 50 years later.

“I had challenges in all my classes [that I taught] because of my language — at the time my language was still pretty broken English” Lee said. “But I saw a need to prove myself in other areas to make up deficiency in language, so when the department wanted a teacher to teach a class crossing [department] lines, I said ‘I can do it.’”

In 1984, Lee would become the director of the USC Foundation for Cross-Connection Control and Hydraulic Research, which was created in 1944 when there was a cross connection between good water and bad water, resulting in many people becoming sick.

“We have a small group (more than 10 people), and we published a book called Manual of Cross-Connection Control, which has been adopted by most training centers throughout the United States for the training of cross-connection control professionals. We’re on the 10th edition … we have sold 47,000 copies since 2010,” Lee said.

After a career spent working with young students, Lee has had many opportunities to share wisdom learned from his career. Addressing incoming students and seniors at graduation, he said he often is asked to discuss the “secret to his success.”

“There are five pieces of advice I tend to give,” Lee said.

Professor J.J. Lee’s Secrets to Success:

  1. One clear definite purpose is harmony with natural law, which is a law that cannot be repealed.
  2. Work as a team, I put it as [number] two because it takes two to form a team.
  3. Learn how to master three management skills. One is time management because everybody only has 24 hours, and it’s how you use the 24 hours that counts. Two is money management and three is goal management.
  4. There are four different areas for achieving a balanced life: physical strength, spiritual strength, financial strength, and social/emotional/intellectual strength.
  5. Do everything with five personal traits: 1) attitude, if you have a good attitude in everything, it’s easier to accomplish tasks; 2) believe, in yourself, the team and what they are doing; 3) commitment – no gain without pain, so you need to commit to excellence; 4) decision and determination — learn how to make decision early; and 5) enthusiasm and endurance.

After his retirement, Lee plans to focus on things he’s been neglecting, and mainly getting some rest and looking into his family history.

“I enjoyed my time at USC for the last 51 years and it’s sad to leave,” Lee said.



Published on April 29th, 2022

Last updated on April 29th, 2022

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