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Qilin Li

Qilin Li

Civil and environmental engineering professor | Rice University | Class of 2002

If not for the UI engineering professor who was an advisor, mentor, motivator and friend all rolled into one, Qilin Li‘s China-to-the-cornfields journey might not have had as happy an ending as it did.

How big an impact did Vern Snoeyink have on the future Rice professor and renowned water treatment researcher in the 1990s?

We’ll let her tell it.

“When I was learning how to drive — yes, I learned to drive in graduate school — I was hit by a drunk driver. While I was extremely fortunate to not suffer any injury, I was so terrified by the horrific experience and did not want to drive again.

“One afternoon several weeks after the accident, I was in Vern’s office discussing research. When we finished, he took out his car key, and said very casually to me, ‘I think you should continue learning to drive.’

“The fear in my eyes must have been really obvious. He continued, ‘The fear will go away, but the skills will be here to stay.’ I did not think it was a good idea for me to drive his huge Buick, but I ended up starting driving again after this. That short conversation stuck with me, and always reminds me that courage is never too far to reach.

“Vern has touched numerous lives with his tireless work and genuine interest in every person he interacts with. It was his kind encouragement and confidence in me that led me to a pursuit for an academic career, and his advice that helped me navigate through my early career.

“What is most important to me, however, is the excellent example of academic and personal integrity that he set for all of us, which will always guide me through the ups and downs of life.

“Champaign-Urbana in the ’90s did not have the numerous buzzing restaurants its residents enjoy today, but we celebrated our friendship and fellowship at department barbecue parties, the Snoeyinks’ Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and group outings in Vern’s big Buick.

“These fun times are sparkling jewels in my memory, and will always be held dearly” says Li, who earned both her master’s and Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Illinois.

“I will forever be in debt to this university in the vast cornfields that has shaped my life.”