At just seven years of age, it was impossible for Stevens alumnus Hanh Schnell (B.E. in Electrical Engineering, 1991) to know that the giant Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft that brought her and her family from her native Saigon, Vietnam to her future New Jersey home was designed and built by the same company that would employ her for 21 years and counting.
But that’s what happened.
The story began when Schnell arrived in the United Sates in 1975. Schnell entered the second grade knowing no English whatsoever, but she soon adapted easily the life in America. As she grew up, she abandoned her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut when she realized she suffered from motion sickness, but she continued to admire her male cousins who were studying engineering in college. She was the only girl enrolled in her high school’s electronics electives. She even joined a Boy Scouts Explorers program to learn the basics of programming and circuits, when nothing similar was available for girls. Participating in a summer program sponsored by Fort Monmouth ensured Schnell that engineering was the right choice for her.
Stevens was Schnell’s first choice for higher education because of its top-ranked engineering program and small size. She was also drawn to the Cooperative Education (Co-op) program, which officially launched when she was a freshman in 1986.
“As a member of Stevens’ first Co-op class, I guess you could say I was a guinea pig,” Schnell said. “But obviously it was an experiment worth doing – one that has paid off many times over for me and many other students in the 25 years since.”
While holding offices in numerous student groups – including IEEE, Glee Club, Drama Society, the Vietnamese Students Association, Stevens Christian Fellowship and four honors societies – Schnell worked at three unique companies during her undergraduate years: Vista Research, Georgia Tech Research Institute, and GE Astro Space. She also took advance of the offer to take courses during her Co-op assignments to receive a Minor in British and American Literature.
During her first assignment at Vista Research, Schnell worked in a small group at an Environmental Protection Agency site in Edison, N.J. monitoring the vendors in charge of testing underground storage tanks for leaks.
“We would create controlled leaks and then do a lot of programming and number crunching to see if the vendors’ testing data matched ours,” said Schnell.
Her second, two-semester assignment at Georgia Tech Research Institute involved more complex research and design work alongside government engineers at Fort Monmouth.
“Mainly I helped to design a new chip and then do timing measures and run simulations,” Schnell said.
Finally, Schnell spent eight months at GE Astro Space, where she created her own design for the U.S. Air Force GPS IIR satellite. It was one of the first times Schnell got to work closely with a female engineer in an industry that was still largely dominated my men.
“That was a chance to work not just on support, but on my own design,” Schnell said. “It was amazing to be in this huge room alongside my lead, who was a woman, presenting a design to a room of more than 100 men.”
Schnell said she learned many valuable skills from Stevens and from Co-op, including how to conduct a design review, do project planning, work in a team and interact with vendors. Many of those lessons closely complimented what she was learning in the classroom.
“Through Co-op I was exposed to radar frequency bands, importance of materials and communications technologies so when we got to those topics in class they weren’t just concepts; I understood why we needed to know these things,” Schnell said.
Upon graduation from Stevens, Schnell – who also earned her M.S.E.E. from Drexel in 1994 – joined the staff of Lockheed Martin, which designed the airplane that brought her to America. Over her 21 year career, she has moved from a digital design role to writing firmware at the operating system level into application software. Her broad education at Stevens allowed her to move easily from hardware, to firmware, to software, and finally systems design. In 2000, she became the manager of a software group in charge developing infrastructure middleware as well as cutting-edge research and design.
“These transitions allowed me to gain lots of technical expertise and also grow into a leadership position in the company,” Schnell said.
Today, Schnell’s position as a senior manager in a Lockheed Martin Systems Engineering department has her overseeing more than 100 engineers who design Command and Control products for the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Missile Defense Agency, and the navies of other countries like Japan, Spain, Norway, Korea and Denmark.
She even does rocket science. One of her team’s greatest accomplishments, occurring about four years ago, was reconfiguring the Aegis Combat System on the USS Lake Erie to shoot down an errant, toxin-carrying satellite that was falling towards earth.
“We had one single shot, and we hit it,” said Schnell.
Schnell, who lives in Marlton, N.J. with her husband, Vincent, and her two children, 15-year-old Nicholas and 9-year-old Jessica, remains heavily involved in the Stevens community. Every year, the avid volunteer – she’s active in the Society of Women’s Engineers, has earned President’s Volunteer Service Awards since 2004, and was awarded an Outstanding Contribution Award from Stevens Co-op in 2007 – comes back to campus to conduct the Lockheed Martin Ethics Challenge to the incoming Co-op class. She also finds time to cantor for her church, and sing for her choir at work and the Ondrick Chorale. She even returned to Stevens to perform solos for the 40 Years of Women at Stevens celebration this March and Alumni Weekend this June.