Chemical Engineering
A UNM student works on an experiment in a chemical and nuclear engineering lab.

This summer, two programs that have been combined in one department for decades within the University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering, will become separate.

The University of New Mexico Faculty Senate voted to approve the proposal to transition the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering into two new departments: the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

The Faculty Senate voted to approve the proposal at its meeting on March 25. The transition is effective July 1, 2014.

“This is an exciting time in the history of the School of Engineering,” said Joseph L. Cecchi, dean, School of Engineering, and professor of chemical and nuclear engineering. “The evolution in these two areas over the years necessitated the transformation of the current departments into the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. This is a huge step in raising the profile not just of the School of Engineering, but of UNM as a whole.

“This change will position us to improve the visibility, strength, and student population in these programs and continue to grow our research and impact in these areas,” Cecchi said.

Tim Ward, head of the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering, said it is anticipated that the change will allow each department to develop stronger recognition and reputation, which should have positive impacts on student enrollment, faculty recruitment, and overall strength and quality of the programs.

“We think this will result in a huge advantage in recruiting students, as each department will have its own identity, and that will be able to be clearly marketed to prospective students,” Ward said.

Students within the programs currently are expected to see few changes in curriculum or administration of programs.

The Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering was formed in 1972, when the chemical engineering undergraduate program and the nuclear engineering graduate program were combined due to their small size. However, both programs have grown and evolved significantly in the last 40 years and both offer degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. levels.

Ward said the chemical engineering program has undergone significant change in the last decade, with several new faculty hires that have resulted in a shift in focus of the research being conducted toward more biological areas.

Ward said that making the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering a separate department — along with adding in the “biological engineering” in the name — will better align with the interests of current and prospective students and is a more accurate reflection of the research that is currently being undertaken in the department.

UNM’s Department of Nuclear Engineering is the only nuclear engineering program in the state of New Mexico and one of only a handful in the western United States that offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Anil Prinja, professor and program director of nuclear engineering, and associate chair of the combined department, said that the creation of a standalone Department of Nuclear Engineering at UNM represents a unique chance for students and faculty to contribute in significant ways to the revival of nuclear power that is currently under way in this country and around the world.

“The new Department of Nuclear Engineering affords us an opportunity to build on an existing solid foundation and offer a comprehensive and modern curriculum in nuclear energy, nuclear security, and nonproliferation that is relevant to the nuclear industry nationally as well as locally in the state of New Mexico,” Prinja said.

Ward has announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2014. Prinja will continue in his current role. A search is currently under way for a chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Cecchi said he will be meeting with nuclear engineering faculty soon to discuss how to go forward with the search for the Department of Nuclear Engineering chair. The candidate selected in that search will become chair on July 1, 2014.