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Multidisciplinary student orchestrates engineering and musical interests

It was Monday, the day before final exams for the spring semester. Students hurried across the UC lawn to the library and to review sessions for last-minute cramming.

At a review session for one of her electrical engineering courses, Soo Hooi Oh ’06 struggled to concentrate. While her professor lectured, Soo mentally reviewed the piano performance she had just given at the Zoellner Arts Center for a jury of teachers, the equivalent of a final exam for students taking private music lessons.

When the review session concluded, Soo went to the Rauch Business Center to give the final presentation for her integrated business and engineering (IBE) project. IBE students complete a year-long senior design project in which they design and market products for a real company.

After the presentation, Soo returned to Zoellner for a sound check. Later that evening, a chamber group in which Soo plays flute performed a trio by Bohuslav Martinu for a concert by the Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble (LUVME).

After the LUVME concert, Soo hurried to the library, finally able to study for her exam the following morning. At 11 a.m. Tuesday, her test complete, she went home and collapsed in bed.

That hectic Monday was a not-too-untypical day in the life of Soo Oh, who juggles a triple major in IBE, electrical engineering and music theory and composition.

Soo did not plan to major in music, but she finds herself drawn more and more to composing and performing.

Her interest in music, she says, actually began even before she was born: her mother taught classical guitar lessons while pregnant with Soo. “I had prenatal training,” she says with a laugh.

At Lehigh, she has written several pieces, including a march for full orchestra titled “Once upon a March.” The piece, which opens with snare drum and piccolo, was performed last year by the Lehigh Philharmonic.

Composing, says Soo, is like writing a book. Writers begin with a plot, a character or a line, and then choose to write tragedies, comedies or romances. Composers have even more freedom, she says. A piece can originate from a story, an idea, an instrument or a form, such as a waltz or march.

The title of her march reflects this; the phrase “Once upon a …” recalls fairy tales and favorite bedtime books. “I wanted tell a story about myself,” Soo says, “and stories always start with ‘once upon a time.’”

Soo knew that she wanted her piece to be a “musical representation” of herself. So, she used American instruments to play pentatonic or five-note scales that are associated with Asian music.

“One of the challenges of being a composer is finding your own voice,” Soo says. “I want to write something the means something to me.”

Soo believes “Once upon a March” worked “fairly well,” but is not fully satisfied with it. “It’s never finished,” she says. “There’s always something to correct when I hear it again.”

Soo also had to make time this spring and summer for IBE and engineering projects.

Soo completed a summer internship in 2004 at the Center for Optical Technologies and continued it in the spring. In the new optoelectonics and photonics lab, she wrote computer programs to interface data from two different machines on the same graph. In April, Soo described this work in a presentation titled “Optical Fiber-based Low Temperature Photoluminescence Measurements.” She was one of 12 students invited to the first annual Engineering Undergraduate Research Symposium, where she received honorable mention.

This fall semester promises to be challenging for Soo but less hectic. “Nothing could be busier than last semester,” Soo says. “But,” she adds with a laugh, “I might be speaking too early.”

Besides her other projects, she will work on a research project for the Martindale Scholar Associates Program, which selects 12 upperclassmen each year to study business and economic issues in a foreign country. In June, Soo and the Martindale Scholars traveled to Hungary.

After she leaves Lehigh in 2007, Soo Hooi Oh will return to Malaysia to work. Someday, she hopes to come back to the States.

“It was a good experience,” she says. “At first I was cautious, wondering if I would be accepted. Then I realized how friendly people are at Lehigh. They were genuinely interested in who I am and where I came from.”

by Becky Straw ‘06

Posted on Thursday, September 01, 2005

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