Upon arriving in Los Angeles in Sep­tember 1984 as a doc­toral stu­dent at the Cal­i­fornia Insti­tute of Tech­nology, Yiannis Lev­endis decided to take a walk. Within min­utes of begin­ning his journey, a car pulled over to ask if he was okay. Then another and another. Lev­endis was wor­ried his shirt was on back­ward. It turned out the locals just weren’t used to walkers.

You would drive a block to the mail box,” recalled Lev­endis, now a pro­fessor of mechan­ical engi­neering at Northeastern.

He chose Cal­Tech pre­cisely because it was sit­u­ated in one of the most pol­luted cities in the world: he was there to study air pol­lu­tion and smog, which rested like a blanket over the city of Los Angeles, and was pro­duced by the ever-​​growing fleet of auto­mo­biles and trapped by the sur­rounding moun­tains. It was the same in Lev­endis’ home city of Athens, Greece.

Inspired by a deep con­cern for the envi­ron­ment, he decided to ded­i­cate his life to engi­neering solu­tions to pro­tect it. “I’m real­istic,” said Lev­endis. “We’re not going to get around cars and power-​​plants. We have to do things as engi­neers to improve on pollution.”

He has lived up to his words. Over the last three decades, Lev­endis has filed more than 10 patents, com­pleted dozens of research projects, and pub­lished hun­dreds of peer-​​reviewed papers, a feat that has earned him the Amer­ican Society of Mechan­ical Engineering’s highest honor in the power field of mechan­ical engi­neering. At the ASME annual con­fer­ence in November, Lev­endis will be pre­sented with 2013 George West­ing­house Gold Medal.

ASME estab­lished the award in 1952 to rec­og­nize emi­nent achieve­ment or dis­tin­guished ser­vice in the field to per­pet­uate the value of the rich con­tri­bu­tion to power devel­op­ment made by George West­ing­house, a pio­neering engi­neer in the elec­trical industry.

Lev­endis joined the North­eastern fac­ulty in 1988, imme­di­ately fol­lowing a post-​​doctoral research posi­tion at Cal­Tech. His many con­tri­bu­tions to the field include sev­eral in-​​depth inves­ti­ga­tions of the com­bus­tion behavior of var­ious fuel types, from coal to biodiesel. He has devel­oped hard­ware to mon­itor that com­bus­tion and spe­cial­ized ceramic fil­ters to clean both oil and gaseous emis­sions. He has designed novel com­bus­tion sys­tems, including a reactor that cleanly burns waste plas­tics to pro­duce energy.

Lev­endis grew up before envi­ron­mental con­trol mea­sures were put in place. The cat­alytic con­verter was intro­duced 10 years before he arrived in Los Angeles, but it was still not a require­ment on most cars. Back then, he said, pol­lu­tion was widespread.

While society must deal with the impli­ca­tions of poor envi­ron­mental deci­sions of the past, Lev­endis hopes the work of future engi­neers will help lead society down a cleaner path.

We need to be very active to improve on pol­lu­tion through engi­neering,” said Lev­endis. “And this is good — it gen­er­ates jobs, tech­nology, it’s a good thing.”