Engineering the unknown: EEE students help communities restore water quality

EEE graduate students Caroline Jankowski and Kristofer Isaacson, and EEE alumna Dr. Christian Ley recently traveled to Colorado to help Andrew Whelton decontaminate water systems after the Marshall Fire.

We take it for granted—that when we turn on the faucet, quality water will flood through our pipes into our sinks, dishwashers, showers, and toilets. It’s only when disaster strikes and we lose a basic necessity that we consider the vast infrastructure behind the scenes of our water systems.

Working behind those scenes, you will find researchers from Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering (Purdue EEE). These professors and students don’t just study water quality in the lab; they develop real-world solutions for decontaminating water systems. At the same time, they consider the broader environmental and social impacts of not having—or abruptly losing—access to quality drinking water.

Private wells are particularly vulnerable to contamination from wildfires. Whelton and his students spent a week in January conducting free water testing for these wells in the Boulder County, Colorado, area. Pictured is Kristofer Isaacson, a Purdue graduate student in Environmental and Ecological Engineering. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Whelton)

A single spark

Wildfires are one of many disasters that contaminate community water systems and they are becoming more frequent and intense. While a 30% global increase in wildfires is expected by 2050, most communities remain unprepared due to a lack of knowledge and set recommendations for responding rapidly. 

On the morning of December 30, 2021, a grass fire broke out in Boulder County, Colorado on Marshall Road. Over the next two days, the Marshall Fire destroyed over 1,300 homes and caused more than $2 billion in damages.

Quickly on the scene was Andrew Whelton, Purdue University professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering, and affiliate for the Purdue Center for the Environment. He was joined by Purdue EEE graduate students Caroline Jankowski and Kristofer Isaacson, as well as EEE alumna Dr. Christian Ley, currently a postdoctoral associate at University of Colorado Boulder.

For the past four years, Dr. Whelton and his students have grown accustomed to last-minute plane trips to disaster sites, including Hawaii and multiple trips to California after the Camp Fire and  Tubbs Fire.

Whelton and his students have established that high temperatures from fires can degrade plastic pipes and  leach chemicals into drinking water. Since plastic pipes run through every modern home and building, it can take months for a town’s water to be safely consumed again.

“The faster we can decontaminate water systems, the faster communities can recover,” Whelton says.   

On the scene in Colorado, Whelton’s students fill dozens of coolers with water samples from wells, which will be used to make recommendations to restore private homeowners’ water systems, then shipped back to Purdue for further research.

The efforts of Whelton’s team reflect the impact-focused approach of Purdue EEE and the Center for the Environment, whose researchers develop practical and immediate solutions to environmental challenges that ideally lead to change.

Whelton, who also directs the Center for Plumbing Safety, has used his studies to make infrastructure and public health recommendations, such as how to improve building codes to prevent post-wildfire water contamination and better inform households of water safety issues.

From an educational perspective, Whelton is providing valuable opportunities for students to be engaged scholars, applying their research firsthand and learning how to interact with public health and environmental agencies. 

“Engineers and scientists are not receiving an education that prepares them to operate in the unknown,” Whelton says. “Disasters require you to look for things that are ill-defined and figure out what to do about them. This means you have to think in a way not prescribed.”

Whelton’s efforts have received a notable amount of media attention; however, his team of young researchers have yet to share how operating in the unknown has enriched their educational experience. 

Another side of academia

“I never expected to get involved in anything like this,” says Purdue EEE Ph.D. candidate Kristofer Isaacson. Kris originally worked with Dr. Amisha Shah and Dr. Whelton on a project that determined thermal damage to plastics causes leaching of chemical contaminants.

“My role was totally lab based,” Kris says. “Then suddenly we were taking our results and focusing on how real communities are impacted by disasters.”

Before working on the Colorado team, Kris visited Hawaii with Whelton and Dr. Caitlin Proctor to help a naval base recover their water systems after a fuel leak in a well shaft.

“I’ve learned a side of academia that I didn’t know existed,” says Kris, whose own research now focuses on thermal damage from wildfires and water quality. “It feels important and relevant, especially after seeing the community impact firsthand.”

In it for the long haul

Purdue EEE alumna Dr. Christian Ley echoes Kristofer’s views on the educational value of outreach.

“I think it is extremely important for engineering students to be involved in humanitarian and service-learning projects. These projects help students develop vital communication and leadership skills, and contribute to a sense of social responsibility,” Ley says.

Ley remains actively involved with Whelton’s team after earning both her M.S. (2019) and Ph.D. (2021) in environmental and ecological engineering from the Purdue College of Engineering.

“I feel very fortunate to have worked with Dr. Whelton on projects aimed at community education and water testing following disasters,” Ley says. “I chose the Purdue EEE department because there were so many opportunities to be involved in projects with an outreach component. Faculty are aiming to improve water quality and sanitation in the U.S. and for people all over the world.”

In addition to joining Whelton at numerous disaster sites, Ley helped to study the impacts of long-term COVID-19 related stagnation on drinking water quality in Indiana and Ohio schools. Long-term building closures causes stagnation, which impacts water chemistry and microbiology, making contamination by Legionella and other pathogens more likely. Ley has led community water and sanitation outreach efforts and installed water treatment systems in low-income areas such as Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, work that she found particularly fulfilling.

Caroline Jankowski (right), a Purdue graduate student in Environmental and Ecological Engineering, and Christian Ley, a University of Colorado Boulder postdoctoral associate and Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering alumna (left), test water samples collected from Colorado’s Marshall Fire. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Whelton)

A new motivation

For M.S. student Caroline Jankowski, seeing communities respond to disasters has provided a new impetus for her research.

“This was my first real-world engagement project on water quality,” Caroline says. “The experience gave me a whole new perspective on the work I conduct in the lab.”

Caroline’s research focuses on how water softeners respond to building contamination; however, while many of the homes she visited in Colorado had water softeners, not much is known about how they are impacted by pollutants.

“Seeing the real-world need for my research motivates me to keep doing what I do,” says Caroline. “We also got to help people through a devastating experience.”  

Back at Purdue, Caroline, Kris, and their peers are busy analyzing the water samples collected in Colorado. Their findings will continue to inform community recommendations and help EEE researchers learn how to prevent widespread water contamination due to fire-damages plastics in the future.

Would Caroline recommend community engagement to other engineers?

“I think every student would benefit from this type of training,” she says.  


Writers: Jessica Mehr ( and Kayla Wiles (
Sources: Andrew Whelton, Christian Ley, Caroline Jankowski, Kristofer Isaacson

Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering (EEE) pursues a modern approach to environmental engineering that considers both conventional waste emission treatment and industrial sustainability. The Purdue Center for the Environment promotes proactive, interdisciplinary research, learning, and engagement that addresses important environmental challenges. In 2021, the Purdue Lyles School of Civil Engineering was ranked by U.S. News as the #3 undergraduate civil engineering program in the nation.