Professor of the Practice John Koon talks teaches his Senior Design class on a recent Thursday. Koon is one of the newest members of the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors for the nation's engineers. (Photo: Amelia Neumeister)
Never mind that election to the NAE is one of the most prestigious honors — perhaps THE most prestigious — an engineer can receive, and one that’s been reserved for only about 2,500 people worldwide.
“It is an incredible honor,” Koon said. “I’m delighted to be included in this remarkable group of engineers.”
Koon is one of two Georgia Tech professors among this year’s 104 new members; the other is Regents Professor Krishan Ahuja in aerospace engineering. The National Academy said it was recognizing Koon “for contributions to the design of systems to treat chemically complex industrial wastewaters” in its Feb. 7 announcement.
Koon has built a career as one of the foremost experts in treating industrial wastewaters and helped develop some of the fundamental practices environmental engineers use today. Now he uses his 40 years of experience to shape a new generation of engineers as a professor of the practice in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“Dr. Koon brings a wealth of practical experience to the classroom based on his many distinguished years of professional practice. He has been a tremendous advocate for student experiential learning, particularly in our environmental engineering design courses,” said Donald Webster, Karen and John Huff School Chair. “I am so pleased that his contributions have been honored with election to the NAE.”
“I woke up one day and realized that the purpose of my 40 years or so of practice was preparation for teaching at Georgia Tech,” said Koon, who has been teaching in the School for more than a decade and joined the faculty in 2012. “I frequently draw upon instances where I was working on engineering projects and bring that to the classroom. And I thought, all of that experience was just preparation for what I’m doing now.”
His is a career that may have turned out very differently, had he finished his Ph.D. even a few years earlier or later, Koon noted. But the country was waking up to the impact we were having on the environment, opening the door for him to help take new theories and approaches from the lab and classroom and put them into practice.
“When I got into the field, it was very new and undergoing very rapid change,” Koon said. “When I was in graduate school [President Richard] Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency. The first year I was working, Congress passed the Clean Water Act that basically required all cities and industries in the country to start treating their wastewaters. Before that, there were lots of them, easily the majority, that didn’t do that or did very little of it. So right at the cusp of us, as a country, developing our environmental ethic.”
Fresh out of graduate school in the early 1970s, Koon joined “what we now call a startup” with other young engineers and “one guy with the gray hair” — probably the best-known industrial wastewater expert in the world at the time, Koon said.
After four decades as an engineer, John Koon got the teaching bug: “I thought that education and, specifically, science where being undervalued by the country, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should help young people appreciate science and get excited about it,’” he says. Koon has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one the highest honors for engineers in the United States. (Photo: Amelia Neumeister)
“At a time when industry was needing help figuring out, how do we treat these wastes, we were coming forward with new ideas and a new approach to environmental engineering at this company,” he said.
Koon said the firm, and a few others, were taking the principles they’d just learned in grad school and applying them to the real world. The company helped lead a fundamental shift from empirical designs for treatment systems to an approach based on chemistry, chemical reaction kinetics, and reactor theory.
“That has forevermore changed environmental engineering. By looking at these processes we use in a fundamental way, it’s allowed us to design better — and also to do research on them to make them better, to get more out of the processes."
Over the course of his career, Koon worked at something like 500 industrial sites. He implemented new systems that allowed pharmaceutical companies to treat and reuse their wastewater, which was laden with chemicals. He helped develop biological processes to treat industrial toxic wastes. He also worked with pesticide makers to manage chemicals that turned out to be very persistent in the environment.
About a decade ago, Koon started to consider how he wanted to spend the rest of his career.
“I thought that education and, specifically, science were being undervalued by the country, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should help young people appreciate science and get excited about it,’” he said.
Koon still consults and serves as an expert witness. A few years ago, the Water Environment Federation gave him a lifetime achievement award and the University of California, Berkeley, inducted him into its civil and environmental engineering Academy of Distinguished Alumni.
“I’ve thought about what role luck played in all of this,” Koon said. “My undergraduate and master’s degree adviser went to Cal Berkeley and encouraged me to go there to graduate school. When I was there, I took the first offering of a course in applying chemical reactor theory to environmental engineering processes. That gave me a big piece of the technical background I needed.
“I went to work with this startup firm — I had a couple other offers, but I chose this one. That work gave me lots of opportunities early in my career. And being at Georgia Tech — I was nominated as a practitioner, but I’m sure my work at Georgia Tech strengthened my nomination.”