Going the distance with John Paul Pieper: Undergrad Student Spotlight

John Paul Pieper is a Purdue EEE undergrad constantly on the move. It’s Sunday and Pieper has just finished running his 90th mile of the week, 35 hours spent lapping Purdue’s campus and the sidewalks of West Lafayette, the equivalent of a full-time job. In addition to training year-round as a long-distance runner, Pieper spends 15+ hours weekly conducting lab research, no small feat when completing not one, but two degrees in the College of Engineering.

John Paul Pieper is a Purdue EEE undergrad constantly on the move. 

It’s Sunday and Pieper has just finished running his 90th mile of the week, 35 hours spent lapping Purdue’s campus and the sidewalks of West Lafayette, the equivalent of a full-time job. In addition to training year-round as a long-distance runner, Pieper spends 15+ hours weekly conducting lab research, no small feat when completing not one, but two degrees in the College of Engineering.

Pieper is in his fourth year of Environmental and Ecological Engineering’s combined degree program, which allows him to graduate with a B.S. and an M.S. in just 5 years. Missing class often for competitions, Pieper has learned to master difficult material on his own. But don’t envision him up at 4 a.m. surrounded by empty cans of Red Bull and Hot Pocket wrappers. As a high-caliber athlete, Pieper must maintain a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep to stay in shape. Effective time management is not a goal; in the world of John Paul Pieper, it’s a necessity.

“I haven’t had the typical undergraduate experience,” Pieper says. He clearly wouldn’t change anything.

“Running isn’t a chore,” he says. “It’s my downtime. I’m with my best friends and it’s a great mental break. Other times, I reflect on concepts from my classes or mentally work through a challenge I’m facing in the lab.”

Originally from Pontiac, Michigan, Pieper chose Purdue because of its engineering and athletic prestige.

He knew early on that his skillset was well-suited to engineering, but arrived at Purdue unsure what field he would pursue.

That all changed when Pieper took Engineering 250 with Professor Andrew Whelton.

“I thought Environmental Engineering was about recycling,” Pieper laughs. “Professor Whelton’s class opened up a whole world that I didn’t know existed. Every time we turn on the faucet, there is a vast infrastructure working behind the scenes. We take clean water for granted. It’s only when we see a situation like Flint that we wonder, how do they get their water and why is their infrastructure failing? I knew EEE was a field in which I could make a genuine impact.”

The inclusion of social impact in Purdue EEE’s courses was a big attraction for Pieper.

“I love that Purdue EEE is Environmental and Ecological Engineering. Ecology brings in human factors. I want to see the real-world implications of my research, not work in a theoretical vacuum.” 

Already preparing to pursue a Ph.D., Pieper will focus his research on water quality and desalination in developing nations.

“Desalinating water to achieve reverse osmosis takes a lot of fossil fuels,” he explains. “Third-world countries don’t have that infrastructure and they often experience droughts. Sustainable energy is good for the environment, but it’s also accessible and inexpensive for areas that can’t afford massive fossil fuel consumption. That means more people get clean water. That human impact is what interests me most.”

Pieper is sitting on a sunny brick ledge outside of Au Bon Pain in WALC, his face animated as he jumps from example to example of water quality impacting everyday life. South Africa, he explains, experienced a water crisis because their infrastructure couldn’t keep up with rapid urbanization.  

“In other areas, women walk five miles every day to bring water to their village. I took a class with Professor Hua Cai in which we discussed how installing pipe systems would disrupt gender norms in certain cultures, which is an impediment to making water more accessible. Did you know that access to clean water correlates to women’s educational level?” An expression of amazement briefly flashes across Pieper’s face.

Considering his time-consuming athletic commitments and passion for water-quality issues, it’s not surprising Pieper chose Purdue EEE.

“It’s a flexible major that I can tailor to my interests. I also love its interdisciplinary nature. Environmental challenges are complex. Adding the perspective of another discipline, such as ME, makes it far more likely I’ll find a workable solution.”

Pieper is not one to stand by while others do the grunt work, however. He actively works towards potential solutions to water-quality issues via undergraduate research.

“I would encourage all undergrads to pursue research opportunities. Internships are hard to get, and professors in Purdue EEE are very open to including undergrads in their projects. Even if you aren’t planning to go to graduate school it’s still beneficial. It teaches you how to fail productively.”

To participate in his current research, Pieper reached out to Professor Amisha Shah, who paired him in the lab with a Ph.D. student. After that graduate student moved on, Pieper took over his responsibilities. The project, which Pieper presented in October 2021 to the Purdue EEE External Advisory Council, explores how effective activated carbon is at removing toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from water.

 

Household water filters, such as Brita pitchers, use activated carbon to remove such compounds. This could be a low-cost solution to treating contaminated water in affected areas. However, the amount of toxic chemicals these filters actually remove is difficult to determine quantitatively.

“Just finding the right methodology took numerous failed attempts. We had to figure out how to extract and measure exceptionally low levels of concentration.” 

Not bothered by “losing” several-hundred hours of painstaking work to an incorrect method, Pieper focuses on what he gained by failing. 

“Research isn’t about recognition,” he says. “My coach always tells us that life is the biggest classroom. Research is life. You aren’t sitting in a classroom passively listening to a lecture. You are actually doing and that’s a higher level of learning. I benefited from having responsibility, and I got to work closely with a professor. A research project feels more like a partnership than a typical student/teacher relationship. I received so much one-on-one advisement by working with Dr. Shah.” 

It’s hard not to compare the discipline and endurance Pieper uses to run 2,000 miles per year with the patient, learning-through-failure approach he applies to his research.

Pieper’s favorite experience at Purdue thus far? He answers quickly. 

“The first time I left the lab at 10 p.m.,” he answers quickly. “I felt like an engineer.”

 

Writer: Jessica Mehr
Source: John Paul Pieper
Caption 1: John Paul Pieper running as #6366
Caption 2: Professor Amisha Shah(left) and John Paul Pieper at EEE External Advisory Council meeting