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YNC Community Connect #1: Meet Prof Chaewon Ahn for a Journey from Architecture to Urban Design

All PostsFeaturesYNC Community Connect #1: Meet Prof Chaewon Ahn for a Journey from Architecture to Urban Design

Story | Lily Chen (she/her), Contributing Reporter
Photo | Provided by Prof Chaewon Ahn (she/her)

An introduction to the series:

When I came up with the idea of interviewing new faculties in mid-August, a week before the tragic announcement, I was clueless of what I would encounter. After August 27th, I considered shifting the direction of the interviews entirely to just focus on the closure, as that seems to be the only thing that people care about, but in the end I chose to add some questions and keep the rest casual and unrelated to the closure. The main motivation is that in the process of reaching out to the professors and during the actual interviews, many professors indeed expressed their appreciation and desire to have a “normal conversation.” This reminds me of the start of COVID, when everyone was drowned in the sea of depressing COVID-related news, it was so crucial to have some “normal conversations.”

In this series of interviews, you will read about the new faculties that joined the College this academic year, not only about their background and research interest but also their personal life and experience. It is, no doubt, hectic, to start a career during a tumultuous time like this, but the professors are very optimistic about their time here and they are genuinely excited to be a part of this community. All in all, life goes on and we still have four years left with those dedicated professors, who truly care about a liberal arts education. I hope that you can keep an eye out and follow this series in the following weeks.

Date of interview: 2021 Aug 30
Interviewer: Lily Yunrong Chen
Interviewee: Prof Chaewon Ahn
Department: Social Sciences (Urban Studies)
Email: ​​chaewon.ahn@yale-nus.edu.sg
Profile: https://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/about/faculty/chaewon-ahn/ 

Q: I know that a lot of professors have experience of living in different countries. Would you like to share with me about where you have lived?

A: I actually have lived in many places. I was born in Korea, then my family moved to France first, and then settled in Germany because my parents were studying. So I spent my childhood in Germany, came back to Korea and learned Korean when I was 10 years old. And I stayed in Korea until college and moved to the US to do graduate studies. I lived in Boston, and in between I had this one exchange semester in Paris, so there was a short six month period when I lived in Paris for a while. 

Q: So do you consider Korea as your home?

A: Yes I do. I guess it’s because I spent my elementary school, middle school, high school and college years in Korea. I consider Korea to be a home for me, versus Germany for instance or Boston, but I do also feel that when I think about rooting or settling in some place, it gets a little bit tricky, because I feel like I could settle pretty much anywhere, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be Korea.

Q: You mentioned that you went to university in Korea and also in Boston in the States. So how was your university experience? Do you have any “life advice for students at Yale-NUS?

A: One thing that definitely was very different is that, in Korea, I went to a small art school, it’s a very similar atmosphere to Yale-NUS, because the class sizes were really small, we had a very intimate relationship with faculties and with each other. That was a great time, and I studied architecture back then. But then when I moved to the US, I got into MIT, so it was like a massive, very large school with so many different disciplines. It was definitely kind of a very different experience from what I had at my undergrad, and it really pushed me to think of where my comfort zones are, who I am. To be honest, because I was exposed in such an environment that I was really not used to, there was a lot of searching myself happening in the first couple of years when I moved to the US.

Q: Your research interests are architecture, urban design, data visualization and urban studies. How did you get into it and why are you so passionate about it?

A: So currently, I would define myself as an urban researcher rather than an architect and urban designer. I think it really all started from this curiosity about how spaces are made, and it was a really big realization for me when I was in high school learning that all the spaces that I’m experiencing are a product of someone or some forces. So that really intrigued me to get into architecture school. However, at some point I realized I’m not so much a designer on the architect, because I would be constantly curious of how are these conditions that really define the limits of what I can do as a designer, how are these conditions formed, so that really encouraged me to get into urban design, and then further to urban studies. The data piece in it is really what happened while I was in MIT. My master’s years was in an architecture program, but still it was such a transformative time for me that I got to be familiar with big data, urban data and GIS and these type of data driven approaches, which really influenced me to do my PhD also in urban studies in the intersection of urban information systems and city design.

Prof Chaewon Ahn during sensor installation
Prof Chaewon Ahn during sensor installation

Q: Based on your teaching experience so far at Yale-NUS, is there anything that you didn’t expect, like a “Expectation VS Reality”? 

A: First off, I never expected I would be teaching my first class remotely via zoom from Korea, so that’s a big expectation versus reality situation. But I was really surprised about how students are so engaged. I had to send out my syllabus and had a first announcement to the class towards the first week of classes and students would already sign up to my office hours to just come by and say hi. I think that was a culture shock to me to be honest, I would never have been at MIT, where I used to TA, students would seek you when they have issues, troubles, or when they need something from you, not to be just welcoming you, and that was a really big shock. I really want to know what my students are feeling towards the class. I’m teaching geospatial and demographic methods, so it’s a very tool-oriented course, and there’s a lot of content to cover every week, so I feel like I’m rushing into many things, and I wonder how students are feeling about if I’m giving students enough space to do things themselves, and if they feel that the speed of the course is actually right for them. So there are many kinds of unknowns, to be honest, but I had a really really good beginning of this career with this class.

Q: What does a liberal arts education mean to you?

A:  One of the things that really connected me to the school while I was doing the interviews was what Prof Beng Huat Chua said. He was saying that the liberal arts education is not really about creating or fostering skills that are useful, it’s more about helping students, teaching them how to ask questions. He was saying something that we’re not teaching anything that is practical, it’s rather about the things that are maybe not practical, but still essential for being a human being. I think that really resonated with me, because it’s a pretty rare model to have an education [like this] these days, especially in many schools that I see, there is such an emphasis in STEM majors. There’s such an emphasis in kind of majors that would connect to higher rates of getting better jobs, so I think what is really unique and amazing about the liberal arts education, especially in Yale-NUS, is the fact that it really focuses on helping students gaining the skills to think and be critical and start posing questions that they would be answering with their experiences.

Prof Chaewon Ahn after the first lecture
Prof Chaewon Ahn after the first lecture

A: Even though I have been here only for two months and only teaching for four weeks now, it’s still enough time to learn what this community is like, in my opinion, and for me it’s really sad to know that what I started to really like is not going to exist in 2025. And this is a line that came up in The Chair in Netflix in the first episode, the main character says, “I feel like I came to a party that is already over.” (laugh) That’s how I feel in some ways, but in other ways I also feel that there are four years left, and there are so many really committed, hard working professors who have built this community with the students. Have some trust in them that we will find better resolutions within four years. 

Q: Are you a cat person or a dog person?

A: I like cats. Yes, I am a cat person. I wish I had a cat, someday maybe.

Q:  If you won a lottery and decided to give up teaching, what would you do instead?

A: Give up teaching…I don’t know. I would move to a small island, and read and take walks and…honestly, I never really imagined these things. 

Q: Small island, sounds like Singapore?

A: Like minus people (laugh). Like the small island of what I imagined was, you know, like deserted, or being in nature.

Q: Do you have a dish that you can cook very well, and would you like to share the recipe?

A:  I am not a good cook, I have like five dishes that I can make based on while I’m watching the YouTube recipe. And that’s how I survived my graduate years, to be honest. I can make Bulgogi. I found this formula that is perhaps not so healthy but still very easy to cook. You would have pork, and then some vegetables chopped, and then mix it with soy sauce and sugar and salt and pepper, but then there’s this kind of ratio on which you would include each of these ingredients, if you have two cups of soy sauce, which is a lot, then you would have one cup of sugar, which is also a lot. And then I think half a cup of minced garlic, and then you’re letting it sit there for a while.

Q: If you had a choice to choose a superpower, like being invisible or flying, what would you choose?

A: Flying would be great. It’s not a superpower, but I also picked up skateboarding during COVID. And I learned very quickly that the tricks that you kind of see that seem doable are actually not doable at all…if there is a superpower that kind of enables me to do all the tricks that I wanted to in one day that would be awesome.

Prof Chaewon Ahn skateboarding
Prof Chaewon Ahn skateboarding

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