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Celebrating Asian–Pacific American Heritage Month: Phil Huang

Phil HuangPhil Huang laughs when he says his engineer father and nurse mother were “typical Asian parents.”

“I guess you can say it’s typical Asian values,” Huang says. “But really it’s true of any culture. It’s what most people want for their kids: get a good education, find a good job, and do well so you can take care of yourself.”

Huang says that as a parent of two sons, he has ended up following some of those same traditions. “It’s sort of scary to hear yourself sounding like your parents!” he says.

Education is what brought both of his parents to the United States from China; Huang’s father came here to pursue his doctorate in engineering, while his mother came to earn her nursing degree. The two met in Pittsburgh and settled down in Maryland, where they raised their family. Huang was born in Annapolis and attended Prince George’s County schools, graduating from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As it turns out, the University of Maryland has become an important part of his life. Huang, a Space Department engineer, met his wife, Thanh, there and is about to send his younger son, Ricci, off to College Park in the fall. Ricci will be joining his older brother, Robert, who’s already pursuing a degree in electrical engineering there. Both boys attended Blair High School in Silver Spring, which is a math and science magnet school, and earned scholarships to the University of Maryland.

Huang is extremely proud of his sons for their academic achievements but says he and his wife also made sure the boys had balance in their lives. “They played all kinds of sports, growing up,” he says. “Basketball, cross country, swimming—we felt that was really important.” Huang has coached volleyball for about seven years, and he assisted in coaching Ricci on the Blair volleyball team. (In fact, the two are also participating this summer in a volleyball training camp and competition in Florida, sponsored by the U.S. Volleyball national team. Huang will attend the tryouts and assess players. )

Watching his sons move from high school into college has made Huang reflect a bit on his own education and his career lately. He says he always knew he had an affinity for math and science but couldn’t have imagined the kinds of projects he would end up working on—first at Motorola, where he began his career, and now at APL, where he’s worked since 2004. He’s currently the technical lead for the Space Department’s Multi-mission Bus Demonstration (MBD), a pair of small “cubesats” (nicknamed Jake and Elwood) slated for launch this fall. “It’s a good opportunity for me,” he says. “We’re testing and it’s hard work, but I’m learning a lot. I feel really fortunate.”

Huang started out in APL’s Air and Missile Defense Department. “I enjoyed it and became a section supervisor, but I missed working on hardware,” he says. Four years ago he transferred to the Space Department, where he has worked on a transceiver for the Van Allen Probes (formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) and is now fully focused on MBD. “My goal is to get these two spacecraft launched,” he says. “For our group and our whole department, we feel that getting these spacecraft launched will open a lot of other business opportunities for us in the small satellite/cube satellite area.”

His core group of about eight people works very well together, Huang says. “It’s family-like,” he explains. “We have our arguments—in fact, we can have some very good arguments—but after the meetings we’re always better for it. Everyone really wants to succeed. The best part for me is that you can ask a really stupid question and people are more than happy to explain it. That’s how you learn.”

Huang feels that way about APL in general. “It’s great when you can create opportunities, get to know new people, and take advantage of all the diverse perspectives here,” he says. “Seeing another perspective can push the way you think and make you learn. So I always say, no matter what, listen.”

Family Ties

Listening and generally being considerate of other people is something Huang says he learned from his mom. “I don’t know if you’d say that’s an Asian thing, but one of the basic things that my mom tried to teach us was to be considerate; if you can’t do anything else, just try to be nice. Respect other people.”

He remains close to his parents today; he’s also glad his sons have grown up knowing their grandparents.

An Asian tradition his family has participated in is Wu Shu—a Chinese martial art. “We started taking it with our kids over 10 years ago. It was nice because we were all students. So we were kind of all equals,” he says. Now he teaches Wu Shu at the local Chinese school near their home. “That’s one way of sort of giving back to the Asian community,” he says.

Huang says his family is neither fully traditional nor wholly Americanized. “We’re a little of both, I think. And hopefully the better of both,” he says.