Wai-Fah Chen received his M.S. in civil engineering from Lehigh University in 1963 before teaching as an assistant, associate and full professor of civil engineering from 1966-1976. After leaving Lehigh, Chen served as professor and later head of structural engineering at Purdue University for 22 years. Since 1999, Chen has been Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Chen is a well-respected leader in the field of plasticity, structural stability, and structural steel design and has made major contributions to introduce the mathematical theory of plasticity to the civil engineering practice, especially in the application of limit analysis methods to the geotechnical engineering field.
Chen was included in the book Giants of Engineering Science, a biographical monograph examining the life and works of ten of the world's leading engineering scientists. Chen was cited for his contributions to structural and geotechnical mechanics. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
In addition to his teaching, Chen is the author or co-author of 18 books, 41 contributed book chapters, 344 refereed technical journal papers, 244 papers in conference proceedings and symposium volumes, and the editor of 22 books. Following his 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction, Chen wrote his most recent publication, an autobiography titled "My Life's Journey."