Even though I did great on my ACTs and had already taken calculus, I really wasn’t prepared for my freshman year at Vanderbilt. After skating through my small rural high school, the Vanderbilt School of Engineering was going to make me work.
Working hard was the easy part. The one thing that really held me back was having no self-confidence. None. While Vanderbilt isn’t a big school, I had gone to school with the same small group of kids virtually my entire life. I was so shy, I was actually afraid to go to class.
It’s nice to have outgrown all that, but back then, it represented a wall I almost couldn’t see over. The idea of asking for help never occurred to me. But fortunately, Professor Karl Schnelle has always had a way of ignoring walls like that and helping students get past them, too. While other professors pretty much scared me to death, with his gravelly voice and candid expression, Professor Schnelle was always warm, grounded and easy-going with a great sense of humor. One of my fondest memories is Professor Schnelle’s distillation survey course—he had various ethyl alcohols that had to be tasted by us students. That was the first course I had with him—who knew that chemical engineering could also be fun?
While I eventually learned to get out of my own way and enjoy chemical engineering as a discipline, I really couldn’t see myself working in a chemical plant. After my junior year, I needed help seeing how I could use my degree. Again, Professor Schnelle provided the key. He has always been passionate about separation processes and applications in pollution control. I decided to focus in that area.
After graduation, I went to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and worked to clean up Superfund sites. After becoming interested in on-site incineration as a Superfund remedy, I began writing permits for hazardous waste incinerators. At about that time, I saw that Professor Schnelle was teaching courses on air pollution control. It occurred to me that I should take my incinerator pollution control and combustion process experience and focus on air pollution control and compliance with Clean Air Act regulations. Shortly after that, I went to law school and become a Clean Air Act lawyer.
I love this work. I even co-wrote a chapter of the American Bar Association’s Clean Air Act Handbook. (Again Professor Schnelle served as a model—he co-wrote a whole textbook, the Air Pollution Control Technology Handbook.)
Air law is technical enough that I still feel right at home at AIChE meetings and conferences. There I get to see Professor Schnelle and talk about a subject that makes most people’s eyes’ glaze over. Professor Schnelle is one of the few people who, like me, still think all of this is fun.
When I started at the School of Engineering, I figured out pretty quickly how much work it would take to get my chemical engineering degree. What I couldn’t have known was how much fun I’d end up having with it or how critically it would factor into a career I love so much. But Professor Schnelle did. There are professors who love their subjects and who are truly inspirational teachers. And there are professors who show you the way, who give you direction and instill a sense of creativity, fun and passion for learning that never dies.
Professor Schnelle is all of those, and more.
Mary Ellen Crowley Ternes, BE’84, is a shareholder and member of the environmental practice group of McAfee & Taft, Oklahoma’s largest law firm. She’s a fellow of the American College of Environmental Lawyers, active in AIChE, and frequently writes and speaks on environmental issues.