Carnegie Mellon University
Skip navigation and jump directly to page content

July 26: Obituary: Professor Gary Powers Revered for His Passion for Teaching and Dynamic Personality


Chriss Swaney                       

Obituary: Chemical Engineering Professor Gary J. Powers Was Revered
By University Community For His Passion for Teaching and Dynamic Personality

Gary PowersPITTSBURGH—Gary J. Powers, 61, a respected educator and pioneer in risk assessment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, died July 23 at his farm in Sewickley. Powers, who was a professor of chemical engineering, was a leading researcher in process systems engineering and an outstanding faculty member of the Carnegie Mellon community since 1974.

"This is a tremendous tragedy for Carnegie Mellon," said Pradeep K. Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering. "Gary was uniformly respected and admired by his students and colleagues, and his seminal work involving safety analysis helped set industry standards for the past three decades."

For more than 30 years at Carnegie Mellon, Powers used his unbridled energy to create unique laboratory experiments that emphasized process safety and environmental risk assessment for chemical engineering graduate and undergraduate students.

"He used engineering fundamentals to address product and process development problems, but he did it in a way that not only inspired the interest and imagination of his students, but prompted many to become successful entrepreneurs," said Andy Gellman, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Chemical Engineering.

Steven Lapp, who earned his bachelor's (1973), master's (1976) and doctor's (1978) degrees in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon, credits his company's success to Powers's creative and inspirational guidance.

"He was my advisor, my friend and my business mentor, and I simply can't say enough about Gary's enthusiasm. He exuded enthusiasm for any task at hand, and he always had that wonderful smile," said Lapp, a principal in Pittsburgh-based Design Sciences, a risk assessment company the two formed in 1978 to assist industry giants like Alcoa and PPG in assessing process risk.

Matt Cline, a Carnegie Mellon alum who runs the chemical engineering undergraduate lab, said Powers gave encouragement to everyone. "Professor Powers's genuine concern for others and his vision of  life's possibilities affected thousands of students," said Cline. "He had a knack for being able to pique your curiosity and renew your sense of wonder."

His faculty peers also laud Powers for his ability to turn problem-solving into a great educational expedition for students. "His teaching was unconventional, but his students loved it, and he was always keen to help others," said Dennis C. Prieve, the Gulf Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Powers's dedication to students and creative learning environments made him a frequent recipient of the department's Kun Li Award for Excellence in Education, which is given each year by the graduating senior class to an outstanding chemical engineering professor.

In 2005, Powers won the prestigious Walton-Miller Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers for his pioneering research in process risk assessment. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin, in a joint effort with colleagues, he developed a program for the automatic synthesis of process flow sheets using artificial intelligence techniques. He also co-authored "Process Synthesis," the first text in this area.

He received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1967 and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1971. Prior to coming to Carnegie Mellon, he served as a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Powers is survived by his wife, Susan; six children and five grandchildren; and a brother and a sister. A memorial service is being planned for the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2359 W. Ingomar Road in the North Hills. A campus tribute is being planned by the Chemical Engineering Department. In lieu of flowers,  the family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Spina Bifida Association of Western Pa., 134 Shenot Road, Wexford, Pa.