Poh receives 2021 MechSE Distinguished Alumni Award


Taylor Tucker

Li San Poh (BSME ’98) has been named a 2021 recipient of the MechSE Distinguished Alumni Award. Li San currently serves as Vice President of Changi Airport Group, the managing and operating company of the award-winning, world-class aviation hub Singapore Changi Airport.

In her current role, Li San looks after the planning of two specialized airport engineering systems: the people mover, an internal light-rail system that carries passengers across terminals, and baggage handling, which sorts and transports baggage from airport terminals to the flights. Her decade-long career with CAG includes leading the planning, design, and development of Terminal 4, a megaproject that was completed in 2017. She is now planning for Terminal 5, an even larger terminal that will significantly increase the capacity of Changi Airport. In addition, Li San is developing customized robotics solutions and autonomous platforms that will transform labor-intensive operations in the airport into higher-productivity operations. She is also exploring how green and environmentally-friendly designs, technology, and systems can improve Terminal 5’s projected carbon emissions.

“[The overarching question is], how do we design a building in a way that can be the most energy efficient?” Li San explained. She and the planning team are researching a plethora of methods and technologies for the new terminal’s design, from using recycled concrete and solar panels to installing vegetation-rich courtyards that can act as carbon sinks to reduce the airport compound’s net carbon emissions. Their design work will also take into account infrastructure needs presented by future changes to air travel; for example, the team has been in conversation with Airbus regarding the company’s concepts for zero-emission commercial aircraft that would be primarily fueled by hydrogen.

“People need to change their mindset and start looking at the total cost of construction from a life-cycle point of view, including operations, maintenance costs, and environmental impact, instead of just the capital cost,” Li San said of incorporating environmental sustainability in new construction. “I think it’s a very important mindset shift that can have a big impact on the environment.”

Li San’s interest in engineering began at a young age. “At home, especially when my parents were out working, I used to take things apart,” Li San recalled. “I always had a curious mind and going into engineering was quite natural for me.” After enlisting in Singapore’s Air Force at the age of eighteen and spending the subsequent year in training, she planned to study engineering at the University of Cambridge.  

“I was on scholarship from the Air Force and I was advised to study in the US because it was more advanced in engineering than the UK,” Li San said. “I had no idea then what Illinois was like, so it was a huge discovery for me.”

Transitioning from the tropical climate of her home country to the fluctuating weather of the Midwest took time, but Li San soon found her place. In addition to pursuing concurrent degrees in mechanical engineering and economics, she was very active in the University Taekwondo Club and would often take cycling trips to explore farms and neighboring towns on weekends. After graduation, she returned to Singapore and spent ten years in service as a Search and Rescue pilot flying Super Puma helicopters. She was active in humanitarian disaster relief missions during the 2004 Asian Tsunami, a record-breaking natural disaster that claimed more than 200,000 lives, and was later appointed as the first full-time female Aide-de-Camp to the President of Singapore, serving in the President’s Office from 2006 to 2010.

“I flew wide-ranging missions to support the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Civil Defense forces in their operations, including counter-terrorism operations, fighting forest fires, and flying high-rise building rescue missions,” Li San said. “It was really an exciting and meaningful time in my life.”

Aside from her current role as Vice President, Li San is also very active in politics. After spending years in volunteer service in the community, she won the July 2020 Singapore General Election and currently serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) in her Sembawang West constituency. As an MP, her duties include pushing for legislative changes and representing the views of her constituents in Parliament. Among other missions, she is currently deeply involved in advancing sustainability for fighting climate change. At the community front, Li San does weekly house visits to check on the well-being of her ~52,000 residents. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she and MP colleagues have been focused on assisting residents in need through relief packages, financial aid, and job-matching outreach. Their main focus for 2021 is to roll out a nation-wide vaccination program that will help Singapore achieve herd immunity by the end of the year.

“[Being an MP takes] a lot of responsibility, but it is also very satisfying work to be able to help people on the ground, especially during this difficult period,” Li San said. “The MPs who I work with all come from diverse backgrounds and bring with them a rich contribution of views and experience.” Within the Parliament, she also serves on parliamentary committees for transportation and sustainability & environment, as well as the Public Accounts Committee.

For incoming engineering students, Li San stresses the importance of diversifying one’s education through liberal arts and other courses. “Engineering is a great building block for future endeavors, be it in engineering or other fields,” she said. “It’s a great way to train your mind to be systematic in thinking and problem solving. I think if you were to combine engineering with something from more of a liberal arts-nature, you will create a powerful combination that will serve you well in life.”

“That’s something I really treasured from my education at Illinois,” Li San mused, “that in addition to core engineering courses, I could explore courses that were non-engineering and become a more balanced person.”