Doing more than what’s asked: EEE senior Griffin Laihinen named Udall Scholar and Purdue Engineering Fellow

Griffin Laihinen has three priorities that guide his life: help other people, seize new opportunities, and always do more than what’s asked.

The EEE senior’s journey from Minnesota child intrigued by resource-use to rising leader in environmental stewardship and sustainability was so driven by these three values that recognition was never Griffin’s goal.

“I was pursuing opportunities to learn and grow, not necessarily success,” Griffin says. “Success kind of found me.”

Passionate about preventing undue emissions that impact air and water quality, Griffin has completed co-ops and internships related to sustainable manufacturing and construction in Texas, Wisconsin, California, and Illinois, as well as studying abroad in India.

Why engage with such a broad range of communities?

“I want to empower people to care about the manufacturing practices and environmental challenges that impact them that they may not even know exist,” Griffin explains .

Throughout his EEE degree, Griffin has worked on community projects to foster public interest in urban farming and industrial safety. He serves as President of the Purdue Student Engineering Foundation (PSEF), undergraduate ambassador for EEE and the College of Engineering, teaching assistant, and member of the Society of Environmental and Ecological Engineers. In 2023, Griffin received EEE’s Wangari Maathai Award, the first in a string of high-profile achievements. 

Griffin received a prestigious 2023 Udall Scholarship ($7,000) for exceptional leadership, public service and commitment to environmental stewardship. This was followed by a $20,000 Purdue Engineering Fellowship, awarded to just seven extraordinary undergraduates in the College of Engineering.

Humble, yet confident and self-reflective, Griffin sees the big picture in everything he does, including his personal achievements. 

“I’ve grown to recognize the asset I have in my EEE degree. I keep thanking my mentors and they say, ‘it’s your work.’ But EEE’s faculty, my peers in PSEF, the opportunities Purdue gave me to study abroad, undertake co-ops and pursue internships—that’s what got me where I am,” Griffin claims.    

The fifth class of Purdue Engineering Fellows was announced during a ceremony on September 11, 2023 at Fowler Hall. (Left to right): Ben Pekarek, Zach Logar, Jennifer Short, Kayla King, Dean Arvind Raman, Griffin Laihinen, fellowship donor Bob Buckman, Rithika Athreya, Jake Marr and Alyssa Wilcox. 

Raised to help other people

Griffin Laihinen grew up in the South Metro suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child, he was intrigued by resource-use in his area, particularly the abandoned mining towns his family once called home in Northern Wisconsin, now a barren landscape of decaying structures, the resources that built them exhausted.

“My family were loggers and miners. It’s easy to see the economic value of those resources but fail to account for the individuals impacted by their misuse,” Griffin says. 

Sipping an iced latte at Fuel Coffee in West Lafayette, Griffin’s eyes stare off, then flash back brightly.

“I guess some students chose EEE because they saw forests littered with plastic bottles while hiking or fishing growing up. I looked at these abandoned mining towns and I thought, people built lives here. They built a culture and community. When you lose something that tangible, it’s hard not to ask: why is there no value being assigned to the people and what they built that can’t be seen?”

Copyright Purdue College of Engineering 2023. 

As a percussionist in the high-school marching band, Griffin formed his definition of leadership:  always do more than what’s asked. While no one in his family had an engineering background, Griffin knew he liked to solve problems and that adverse environment impacts had created a need for solutions.

“I knew that’s where I needed to lead,” Griffin says.  

Griffin’s one requirement for college was to attend a Big-Ten School. Interested in sustainability but not sure what that meant career-wise, he was attracted to Purdue EEE’s unique, standalone program.

“EEE is very systems-based; our faculty are big-picture thinkers. Taking a new perspective allows you to see new parts and relationships in a system—all the interconnected variables that impact an environmental challenge. There is a reason that EEE combines classic environmental engineering concerns with industrial sustainability. They are interconnected. You can’t have tunnel vision and only see one without the other.”

In addition to its small size and flexibility, EEE appealed to Griffin because it includes ecology, the relationships between living organisms and their environments.

“People are the ones that rely on certain resources and protections. Everything comes down to helping other humans, directly or by proxy. That was a value I learned from my parents early on,” Griffin claims. 

Seizing new opportunities at Purdue

Griffin’s Purdue journey was piloted by a relentless drive to seize new opportunities and forge connections that reinform his worldview.

Starting college at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Fall 2020, Griffin struggled, as many students did, to find a social support system. In the spring of his sophomore year, Griffin chose to pursue a semester-long co-op in Texas just as life was returning to normal on campus.

“I wanted to go someplace new and come back with a fresh mindset. That’s kind of why I do anything in my life. Instead of having a fear of missing out on what’s going on where you're comfortable, you should fear missing out on new and unfamiliar experiences,” Griffin says.

Purdue offered Griffin a chance to “step into his own space” and pursue a broad range of opportunities both on and off campus.

“I’m not adventurous in the sense that I go places for the sake of adventure. I like the adventure of learning about new people and environments, then bringing that knowledge home to see the familiar from an unfamiliar perspective.”

In Texas, Griffin learned how polluted shipping channels and local air can become in places like Houston. During his first internship in Wisconsin, Griffin worked at a paper mill on a river that was used to provide clean drinking water. However, it was a two-week trip to India on a winter study abroad that solidified Griffin’s interest in water.

“We need engineers and environmental chemists to run pH strip tests on water supplies, but I’d rather go to the root cause of why the pH was not what it’s supposed to be. Then I want to figure out how to solve that problem and restore it. EEE gives me the skills to do something with the information gathered.”

Griffin speaks rapidly, detailing his visits to areas where resources are consumed differently, such as the water- and air-quality issues created by using cow feces to power villages in India.   

“I feel very privileged for the opportunities I’ve had to see environmental challenges on a regional and global scale,” Griffin explains. 

Griffin named Udall Scholar and Purdue Engineering Fellow

Doubtful he met the criteria for a prestigious Udall Scholarship, Griffin felt insecure that he had no awards to list on his Udall application.  

That is no longer a problem. Griffin won the highly competitive, national scholarship for his leadership in environmental stewardship and was invited to join 55 Udall Scholars for four days in Tucson, Arizona.

“The Udall orientation was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life thus far. It was well-designed to create a setting where young adults can be vulnerable and open about their experiences in advocating for themselves and others in the world of environmental stewardship and tribal public policy,” Griffin says.  

The general programming of the orientation involved small and large workshops, networking sessions, lectures, open dialogue, plus a visit to the Sonoran Desert Museum and a talent show. Griffin attended and contributed to sessions discussing the role of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) and forged connections with other Udall Scholars that he still maintains.

“The programming made me think critically about managing hard ethical situations. I left the orientation feeling less alone and doomist about the climate crisis. I now believe that humanity will adapt out of necessity and I’m confident we can execute that adaptation with equity in mind,” Griffin says. 

Six months later, Griffin was one of seven extraordinary undergraduates awarded a $20,000 Purdue Engineering Fellowship.

“Griffin is a leader in EEE,” says award nominator and EEE faculty mentor, Dr. Lindsey Payne. “He is well-spoken, charismatic, and models integrity. Having worked with hundreds of undergraduates, I am nothing but impressed by his leadership and commitment to the environment.”

After graduation, Griffin will join SRF Consulting Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a full-time Water Resources Engineer.

EEE senior Griffin Laihinen (left) and Dr. Lindsey Payne (right) at Purdue Engineering Fellows Reception on September 11, 2023. 

Griffin’s advice to younger students committed to positive change?

“Chase what energizes you. Seize opportunities to help other people and learn from their worldviews.”  

Griffin smiles, displaying a Google Calendar packed with meetings and study sessions, even an appointment to “call Mom.”

“Do more than what’s asked,” Griffin says, searching his schedule for where to go next.     

Writer:  Jessica MehrPurdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Sources:  Griffin Laihinen and Lindsey Payne