Department History

Disclaimer – This history has been compiled from various sources, both written and oral.  If you have knowledge of information missing or incorrect, please share.  In addition, an attempt has been made to document all of the faculty who have served in CHME.  That roster is available here on the CHME website.

In 1924, when the Board of Regents decided to institute a curriculum in chemical engineering, that field was the youngest of the major branches of engineering. Major institutions such as MIT and Wisconsin had developed curricula shortly before the turn of the century, with many other colleges and universities following the trend in the next two decades. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers had been formed in 1908.

It is not clear what rationale Dean Goddard presented for establishing the curriculum at NMCA&MA (New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts). But it is safe to assume that he and the regents wanted to render assistance to the infant agricultural chemical industry, to the chemical processes in the mining industry, and to oil and gas production and refining.

The first assistant professor of chemical engineering arrived on campus in 1926. Luke Berry Shires, who had just completed his M.S.Ch.E. degree at Penn State, was the first chemical engineering faculty member to be found in the vast area of the desert Southwest, literally the only one between Austin, Texas, and Pasadena, California. “Prof Shires,” as he was known to his colleagues, was an individual very much concerned about the well-being of others, students and faculty alike, and was widely admired by undergraduates and alumni. “Demanding, but compassionate,” was the common description of his relations with students. Despite the meager resources with which he had to work, his students received a first-class education, which provided a strong foundation for their professional careers.

Upon arrival, Professor Shires was assigned space in the Science Hall, which was to remain the home of the chemical engineering program until 1966. Although combined with chemistry, the chemical engineering curriculum was administered by the School of Engineering from the beginning. The early curriculum followed the industrial chemistry model; however, the 1930s saw changes in the curriculum brought about by an emphasis in the leading universities upon the unit operations and unit processes concepts, thus giving greater importance to engineering than to industrial chemistry. The institution followed suit with a bona fide unit operations laboratory course.The war years brought a halt to instruction, but the postwar period was characterized by an expanding student population and changing curricular demands. In 1949, a new chemical engineering department was formed, with Professor Luke B. Shires as the first department head. For over a decade there were only two faculty members in the department. With the arrival of Dr. Dinwiddie C. Reams in 1956, to fill the second faculty position, research was added as a vital component of the chemical engineering curriculum.

Funds for modernizing the laboratory equipment were very scarce in all the engineering departments. This deficit, plus the small size of the faculty and the deteriorating physical plant, made it difficult to retain qualified faculty.

In 1961, Professor Shires asked to retire the next year. Although the university administration seriously considered abandoning the curriculum, it was decided instead to allocate sufficient funds for upgrading it.

Professor Shires recruited his own replacement in the person of Dr. Edward F. Thode. The two men had met in 1948 and had maintained correspondence over the years. One condition of Dr. Thode’s move to NMSU was that Shires remain for one year as professor after Thode became head, in order to assist with the transition.

CH E Professors Dr. Holman (Ph. D., Iowa State), Dr. Bruce Wilson (Ph. D., Princeton), and Dr. Bekin (Ph. D., Carnegie-Mellon). These gentlemen would be the third, fourth, and fifth CH E professors at NMSU, following Shires and Thode.

CH E Professors Dr. Holman (Ph. D., Iowa State), Dr. Bruce Wilson (Ph. D., Princeton), and Dr. Bekin (Ph. D., Carnegie-Mellon). These gentlemen would be the third, fourth, and fifth CH E professors at NMSU, following Shires and Thode.

Dr. Edward F. Thode arrived in September 1963.  Prior to joining NMSU as Department Head, Dr. Thode was on the faculty of the Institute of Paper Chemistry, Appleton, Wisconsin.  He also had previously taught in the chemical engineering program at the University of Maine/Orono.  He also brought with him industrial experience from time spent with 3M Research Laboratories and Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company.

He was charged with the task of development of a chemical engineering program which would meet the requirements of accreditation as outlined by AIChE and ABET.  A key need was the recruitment of new faculty with the upgrade in facilities by construction of a new wing on Jett Engineering Building.  In 1963 the Department was located in Science Hall which was part of the chemistry department complex.  In 1963 approval was given to hire two new faculty members.  One would replace Professor Shires, who had retired from NMSU but was retained temporarily to help in the transition of the department.

In September 1964 two new faculty were added to the department:  Dr. Donald B. Wilson and Dr. Harold Belkin.  Dr. Belkin previously was employed as a researcher and planner by Standard Oil of Indiana and later with a Venezuelan division of Exxon in Venezuela.  Dr. Belkin had received his BS from RPI and PhD from Carnegie Mellon University.  Bruce Wilson was just completing his doctoral studies at Princeton University.  He was injured in a laboratory reactor explosion shortly before he was to report for faculty duties in September 1964.  Bruce Wilson did join the department although Professor Shires may have assumed some duty for classes before Bruce was able to commence full time teaching.

It was essential that the physical facilities be improved, since the department could delay no longer in installing modernized equipment and in making room for a growing student body. The Science Hall had to be renovated. Realignment of the interior space was not easily accomplished in the old building. Once Professor Thode asked Dean Bromilow if a door which was nailed and blocked shut could be unblocked to permit easier flow of student traffic to a laboratory. Dean Bromilow gazed reflectively at a long diagonal crack in the brick wall and responded, “You had better not. That door is holding the wall up!”

An objective of Dr. Thode’s which held high priority was establishing co-op opportunities for chemical engineering majors. The first co-op program established for these students was a “first” in another way: Los Alamos National Laboratory had never employed undergraduate co-op students before its arrangement with the university in 1964-65. Within five years, over twenty NMSU chemical engineering students were working at various industrial and government facilities.

In September 1965 Dr. Kermit Holman was added to the faculty.  Dr. Holman was employed at Dow Chemical Company – Rocky Flats prior to joining the ChE faculty at NMSU.  And in that same year the Department moved from Science Hall to the new wing of Jett Engineering Building.

A requisite for a stable undergraduate program is the presence of a graduate program. A Master of Science degree in chemical engineering was approved in the late fall of 1965, and the M.S. program began in 1966.

In September 1967 Dr. Harry Folster was added to the faculty.   He previously had taught in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Maine/Orono while he was pursuing his doctorate. He also brought with him four years experience of industrial experience as a process engineer for Northern Chemical Industries/Chemetron, a producer of anhydrous ammonia, nitric acid and ammonium nitrate based liquid fertilizers.

At that point, the Department had five faculty members with earned doctorates in chemical engineering and with varied industrial and academic backgrounds.  One of the key tasks was to prepare for AIChE/ABET accreditation of the bachelor of science degree.  One should not underestimate the importance of this key step in the recognition of the development of the program in chemical engineering at NMSU.

In the early 1970’s the faculty realized that it would be important to develop a program with the capability of granting a doctoral degree.  It was a general consensus that the growth of the graduate program and research by faculty was limited without the depth of the ability to grant a PhD or DSc in chemical engineering.

The allocation of FTE by the State of New Mexico was about 4.5 so a major effort was centered on generation of research funds to cover the 0.5 FTE faculty position.  At times when the Department did not have outside research contracts, some faculty were loaned to other departments to supplement their specific teaching needs.  Also, the retention of faculty was a secondary concern because the Department recognized the critical ingredient of research, national recognition, and technical publications were key elements for recruitment of graduate students. Indeed, the educational program at the bachelor’s level was progressing well.  Our graduates were sought by the chemical industries and were recruited by chemical engineering programs in other universities.  One should give credit to the students, their parents and the education system in the various communities in New Mexico.  When they entered the university the students had a history with a strong work and study ethic.

For several years the program developed and matured.  The combination of relatively heavy teaching and research responsibilities began to wear on the faculty.  At this point the number of B.S. degrees granted in chemical engineering was about 15-22 per year.  Also, the MS in chemical engineering was operational in late 1968 with an enrollment of 15-20 students.  The use of teaching and research assistants provided some relief to the faculty in terms of more efficient handling of teaching loads.

In the early 1970’s the faculty realized that it would be important to develop a program with the capability of granting a doctoral degree.  It was a general consensus that the growth of the graduate program and research by faculty was limited without the depth of the ability to grant a PhD or DSc in chemical engineering.

In 1970, engineering enrollments began a four-year “down cycle” which resulted in an administrative decision in 1974 to reduce the chemical engineering faculty from five to four. Rather than participate in a decision to terminate one of his tenured colleagues, Dr. Thode resigned the department head position in 1974 and transferred to the Department of Management, College of Business Administration Economics, where he remained until his retirement in 1986. Dr. Thode had participated in some large operations research studies at the Institute of Paper Chemistry prior to assuming the department head duties at NMSU in 1963.

The years following Dr. Thode’s departure were not easy ones for chemical engineering. Although this period, 1970-1977, may have been a troubled time, the Chemical Engineering Department had a number of achievements: introduced new upper graduate level courses in cooperation with the Civil engineering department, produced highly sought graduates by both industry and other graduate programs, grew the Master of Science degree program, achieved recognition for research results with more grants awarded, numbers of technical papers published and presentations, and instituted active interaction with local chemical industries.

The younger faculty members were very active professionally submitting research proposals to government agencies seeking support to conduct work important to the State of New Mexico and to support graduate student research, participating in Sectional and National AIChE meetings as speakers and session chairs, and publishing technical papers. They also were fundamental in establishing a local AIChE chapter that was accredited as the Rio Grande Section of the AIChE.  Dr. Wilson and Dr. Holman were very successful in bringing research monies into the department and growing the graduate program. From 1970 to 1977, Dr. Folster was a participant, either as principle investigator or team member, in proposals that were granted resulting in over $250,000 as well as over $30,000 in private industry donated equipment. A number of these grants were interdisciplinary involving faculty from other departments within NMSU as well as UNM. These efforts led to research support of graduate students, publication of technical papers and presentation at national technical meetings as well as attracting graduate students and good publicity for the department.  Dr. Folster directed nine graduate students to successful completion of Master of Science degrees from 1970 to 1977.

Drs. Wilson, Holman and Folster established a great relationship with their students outside the classroom in addition to their roles as mentors and faculty advisors to student organizations. They participated in many sporting activities with the students establishing a rapport which carried over to the classroom. They also made many visits to high schools throughout the state talking with students, teachers and guidance counselors about careers in chemical engineering and the NMSU program.

Dr. Holman was appointed Acting Department Head in 1974.  He remained Acting Head until he resigned to assume the position of Chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Idaho/Moscow in September 1976.

Herb Minter, an NMSU graduate in chemical engineering, came into the Chemical Engineering Department in 1975 where he served as a mentor and tutor to the students coming in 2-3 days a week.  He had taken early retirement from P&G due to a medical condition (multiple sclerosis) and returned to Mesilla Park.  He was alert mentally but handicapped physically.  Dr. Wilson knew of him and was instrumental in bringing him into the department as an adjunct member of the faculty. Herb became an asset to the department as the students enjoyed interacting with him and sought him out for advice and technical help.  In fact, when he arrived for various duties in the department, it required a couple strong students or faculty to lift the wheel chair and transport Herb Minter up to the second floor of Jett Hall to the chemical engineering offices area.  It is interesting to note that access regulations were not law when the addition to Jett Hall was made.  In fact, a small elevator was added several years later to the other wing of Jett Hall to allow access to all the floors of the new Jett Hall. Herb and his wife lived in Mesilla Park at his parent’s home.  It was very close to the home of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at NMSU, and his wife

Dr. Edward Groth, joined the department in 1976 having retired after many years in industry.  Upon retirement, he decided to locate in a university area where he could contribute and keep active in his professional field. He was very professional and worked well with the faculty and students. Dr. Yash Gupta (Ph. D. 1973, Univeristy of Calgary) joined the program as visiting Assistant Professor around 1974 to provide teaching support for faculty on release time for research grants.  Dr. Gupta left after two years to join the teaching program of Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Harry Folster took a leave of absence in June of 1977 to join the corporate research and development group of Weyerhaeuser Company in Federal Way, Washington. He eventually extended that leave and became a faculty member in absentia until resigning from NMSU in mid-1979.

Upon Dr Holman’s departure, Dean John Hernandez, who had replaced Dean Bromilow, initiated a search for a new head and, during the interim, appointed Associate Dean C. Q. Ford as acting head. After many months, the search committee recommended that Professor John T. Patton (Ph.D. 1959, Oklahoma State) be hired as the permanent head. Arriving in Las Cruces in June of 1977, Dr. Patton immediately faced the problem of rebuilding the faculty and curriculum.

Dr. Paul Babcock joined the faculty in September of 1977.

In rapid succession, three recent Ph.D. graduates were hired to bolster the faculty resources, including Murty Kuntamukkula (1979). They were ably assisted by two retirees, Herb Minter and Ed Groth, both of whom had distinguished industrial careers. Through their mature counsel and dedicated effort, these two men contributed significantly to the department.

Dr. Harold Belkin requested he be placed on retired status effective September 1, 1979. He later passed away due to complications from a heart condition. After the untimely death of Dr. Harold Belkin, the department had to rely on temporary faculty appointments.

The careers of the three young faculty members failed to mature as fast as each had hoped. One by one, they left the department so that by 1980 the department was again faced with a rebuilding chore. Following the wise counsel of Joe Genin, who had become dean in 1980, the department decided to recruit more mature, established professors. In the next eighteen months, four outstanding professionals had joined the chemical engineering faculty: Dr. K. H. McCorkle, Dr. Allen Rakow, Dr. Richard Long, and Dr. Rudi Roubicek.Dr. Roubicek provided much valuable research leadership. He established the Biotechnology Center of Excellence, later renamed the Center for Biochemical Engineering Research. His capacity for coping with adversity was demonstrated by his building a bioengineering laboratory on the roof of Jett Hall when conventional space was unavailable!

The outstanding quality of chemical engineering students and graduates became evident as they assumed positions of leadership and received College and university honors. Even in lean years, the chemical engineering enrollment was of the highest caliber. In 1980, as the number of quality students increased, the department continued to strengthen.

Undergraduate enrollment grew at a rate of approximately 10 percent per year from 1977 through 1981, when it peaked at, what was then, an all-time high of 230 students. Graduate enrollment grew from three in 1977 to twenty-four in 1981. This growth could not be sustained indefinitely, of course. As both internal pressures and outside forces were brought to bear, the enrollment declined. This was not without some benefit, however. As teaching loads were lightened and research activity maximized, the overall program achieved a better research-teaching balance.

The surging vitality in research and graduate education generated numerous requests for doctoral level training. Accommodating these requests would have been impossible without the support and assistance of Dr. W. H. Matchett, dean of the Graduate School. Dean Matchett established the Ph.D. program in interdisciplinary studies to satisfy students’ needs in areas not included in established Ph.D.-granting departments. Dr. Bruce A. Barna received the first degree in 1984 and soon gained national recognition for excellence in teaching design at Michigan Technological University.

The demand for and productivity of the I. Doc. (Interdisciplinary Doctoral) program generated administrative support for a bona fide Ph.D. in chemical engineering. In 1985, under the leadership of J. Derald Morgan, the then new dean of engineering, a petition was initiated to gain approval for this degree. Final approval was received in NMSU’s Centennial Year, 1988.

Two additions to the faculty in the mid-1980s contributed to the quality of the program. Joe Creed, an NMSU graduate of 1959, was initially hired on a part-time basis to teach the undergraduate laboratories; his duties were increased in 1985 to include the teaching of the undergraduate design class. In 1988, Joe Creed became assistant dean, with a primary responsibility of program development. Dr. Ricardo Bogaert was hired upon the completion of his Ph.D. in June 1986, to replace Dr. Ken McCorkle in teaching material science.

Research funding increased as the established faculty matured. This allowed the department to employ two additional faculty on research funding: Dr. Francisco del Valle (Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) came from the University of Chihauhua, and Dr. Stan Holbrook, who received his Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Doctoral program at NMSU in 1987.

As of the university’s centennial year, 1988, the department stood at an all-time high with respect to faculty quality and strength of programs. The faculty, which then totaled ten, included four faculty members with tenure and three individual research programs receiving national and worldwide attention. Undergraduate and graduate enrollment bottomed out in 1986, but since that time both have growing continuously.

There were two faculty changes during 1988. Donald B. Wilson retired in January, and in May Dr. Ron K. Bhada (Ph.D., Michigan) replaced Dr. Patton as Department Head. Under Dr. Bhada’s leadership, the Waste-management Education and Research Consortium (WERC) was founded, and in 1990, the NMSU Chemical Engineering Academy was started. WERC grew rapidly and soon required full-time leadership from Dr. Bhada. During 1992 a nationwide search was conducted and in January 1993 Dr. James Eakman (Ph.D., Minnesota) succeeded Dr. Bhada as Department Head.

The faculty of the Chemical Engineering Department in 1998 (Long, Del Valle, Harcum, Munson-McGee, Bhada, Mitchell, Rockstraw, Andersen)

The faculty of the Chemical Engineering Department in 1998 (Long, Del Valle, Harcum, Munson-McGee, Bhada, Mitchell, Rockstraw, Andersen)

Dr. Eakman’s was successful at bringing many new resources into the department, including the development of a computer room with sixteen PC stations for the chemical engineering students, and the departments own network server. In addition, Dr. Eakman brought in some young, outstanding faculty members: Dr. Mark Montoya (1994), Dr. Sarah Harcum (1995), Dr. David Rockstraw (1995), and Dr. Martha Mitchell (1996).
With Dr. Eakman’s departure for Nebraska in January of 1997, Dr. Bhada resumed the role of Department Head in Chemical Engineering. Under Dr. Bhada’s guidance, Dr. Paul Andersen was added from Purdue to the faculty upon the departure of Dr. Montoya, who left to join the research and development efforts of Motorola.

In January 2000, former NMSU ChE alumni Dr. Charles L. Johnson took the helm. During Dr. Johnson’s tenure as head, Dr. Shuguang Deng was added to the faculty.

Dr. Mitchell took over as interim Department Head in 2004, then was awarded the position permanently in 2005 when a search was concluded. Dr. Mitchell increased the enrollment of the department through various outreach efforts. Under Dr. Mitchell’s leadership, the department added Assistant Professors Dr. Jessica Perea Houston and Dr. Hongmei Luo, both of whom have established themselves as top-ranked researchers and educators at NMSU.

In 2012, Dr. Mitchell accepted an appointment as Associate Dean of Research at NMSU. Former interim dean and Department Head of Civil Engineering Dr. Ken White, P.E.took over the administration of the department on an interim basis while also leading an international search for a successor. In July 2012, Dr. David A. Rockstraw was named as the next head of the department.

In the months leading to his appointment as head, Dr. Rockstraw led a search for new faculty that resulted in the hiring of Dr. Thomas A. Manz, Dr. Julio A. Martinez, and Dr. Catherine E. Brewer.  Dr. Reza Foudazi was hired shortly afterwards, each of whom come to NMSU with strong research backgrounds.

Jett Hall was identified as the #1 capital outlay priority in 2013.  Through Rockstraw’s promotion and leadership, the legislature and voters approved this outlay in 2014.  The renovation has started and CHME research will be taking place in state-of-the-art facilities by December 2016.

The department officially changed names in 2014, to The Department of Chemical & Materials Engineering, consistent with the advanced materials specialization of many of the faculty.

In August 2015, Dr. Deng and Dr. Martinez official end their appointments at NMSU to pursue their careers elsewhere.  Dr. Mitchell announced that she will leave her position in the dean’s office and return to CHME.

In August 2016, Dr. Umakanta Jena joined the CHME faculty as an Assistant Professor with a background in Biological and Agricultural Engineering to compliment the CHME capability of collaborating with Ag.

The story continues…