A True Boiler in the Basement

Author: W.M.
From her underground office in the Civil Engineering Building, a lab manager has—for 35 years now—helped put students and safety first.

As a military kid who spent much of her childhood on the move, Janet Lovell put down some serious roots after discovering Purdue as a teenager. She earned a biology degree in 1972 (and later a master’s from the School of Science in 1994) and has subsequently clocked in 35 years in the School of Civil Engineering as a lab manager. Today, she’s responsible for maintaining the equipment and training students in both the materials chemistry and the geotechnical laboratories.

With a friendly and familiar face in the Civil Engineering Building (CIVL) for nearly four decades, Lovell has no doubt witnessed a number of student hairstyle and fashion changes in that time. But what’s the biggest change she’s seen in students since 1973? It’s not so much about a transition from bellbottoms and long hair to Ugg boots and iPhones but rather the skills students bring with them to campus straight out of high school. “The onset of computers has been the main thing,” she says. “You can do a whole lot more with data acquisition now, and students come in expecting to do more.”

Still, computer smarts alone don’t mean students arrive with full knowledge of how to run the equipment, so Lovell trains them with a focus on both proper usage and safety. From a high-temperature furnace to chromatography equipment to thermal gravimetric analysis, Lovell helps build on classroom theory with the lab’s hands-on component. “They still have to learn those tasks,” she says.

Janet Lovell, a CE lab manager, stands before the shelved samples, which are the byproduct of dozens of student experiments over the years.

A longtime member of various safety committees, Lovell now chairs the civil engineering safety committee, which is helping bring together various departments within the building. As chair, she’s helping keep Purdue in accordance with federal regulations, as well as preparing for emergency building evacuation plans. Kathy Banks, the Bowen Engineering Head and Professor of Civil Engineering, appreciates her watchful eye. “The safety of our students, faculty, and staff in the civil engineering laboratories is of the highest priority to the school,” Banks says. “Janet’s extensive laboratory experience and excellent attention to detail make her the ideal leader for the committee.”

From labs to offices, Lovell wants to keep CIVL safe. “We want to keep track of all of the available chemicals,” she says, “particularly those that the Feds want us to track."

While there are still miles to go before she sleeps, or dare we say retires, Lovell maintains her active role to help keep a large school running smoothly. And however much she works “behind the scenes,” it’s a role that’s not unnoticed. “Janet’s dedication to Purdue is inspiring to all of us,” Banks adds. “Over the last 35 years, she has significantly contributed to the educational growth of thousands of students. This is an amazing contribution to our school and the field of civil engineering.”

And while those thousands have passed through the basement labs in what surely must seem like record time in retrospect, Lovell remains ever cognizant of proper training and doing things the right and safe way.