NSF Research Fellowship is latest achievement in this environmental engineering student's comeback

By Peter Murphy

Published April 20, 2020

“When I look back now, I smile to think how far I have come,” says Zachary Kralles, a current MS and soon to be PhD student in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, “I’m hoping that the more people that read this, the more people I can inspire to turn their lives around.”

Resilience and a second chance

“I think if we were more open about these issues we could start to evolve to deal with them in healthier ways instead of just running from them. I hope my story can inspire others who are struggling in any way to get the help they need. ”
Zac Kralles, MS, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
Zac Kralles portrait shot.

“Zac’s background made him a good candidate,” says Ning Dai, environmental engineering assistant professor and Kralles’ advisor, “he is very intelligent, very motivated and I want someone like him to have an opportunity to further their academic path.”

Kralles, earned an award from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSFGRFP). This program supports outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States.

Dai also acknowledges this opportunity is an excellent experience for Kralles. “He will enter a very selective and prestigious group of graduate students,” Dai says.

The NSFGRFP is the most recent step for Kralles in what both he and his advisor have described as a “comeback.” His academic career has been unconventional, and Kralles has dealt with adversity along the way.

“I have been in school for a long time, I started as a freshman at UB in 2011,” Kralles says, “I made the Dean’s list freshman year, but my mental health started to deteriorate during my sophomore year. In 2013, my dream of becoming an engineer was crushed.”

Kralles withdrew from classes due to addiction and mental health issues. After taking a semester off in fall of 2013, he returned to UB for the spring 2014 semester. “I was determined, but had no counseling, personal growth or spiritual understanding of my problems. My mental health quickly deteriorated again,” Kralles says.

A year later, in spring of 2015, Kralles says he hit “rock-bottom,” and sought help. His life took a turn and after eight months of treatment, Kralles returned to UB with rediscovered passion for his work. When Kralles returned to UB in fall 2016, he enrolled in the Aquatic Chemistry class with Dai. It was a combined senior/graduate-level elective.

“He was the best student in the class that semester,” Dai says, “he was the only one who got an A and did better than the graduate students. That alone was impressive, but he also told me in passing that he lives in Rochester and worked 30 hours a week.”

Kralles’ home in Rochester is about an hour and fifteen minutes from North Campus. In addition to the 75-minute commute one-way and 30 hours of work each week, Kralles continued treatment.

“I continued treatment in order to improve my personal and spiritual wellness. I was ecstatic to learn I received the highest grades on the midterm and final exams in the Aquatic Chemistry class, and carried this momentum through the next year.”

Kralles completed his BS degree in May 2018 and earned a teaching/research assistantship to enter the MS program with Dai as his advisor. Kralles says this is when he discovered his passion for research. His research focus is disinfection byproducts (DBPs). Water has to be disinfected for safe consumption. Disinfecting water prevents waterborne diseases and other pathogens, but this process produces DBPs, which are also harmful to humans and other organisms.

“My research focuses on a group of DBPs called haloacetonitriles, which pose a public health risk due to their toxicity and prevalence,” Kralles says, “if we can understand them better, we can engineer strategies to control them.”

Conducting research gave Kralles a chance to work with other students and faculty members who shared his passion. His first project investigated a specific DBP, and after two months of long hours working on experimental techniques and literature reviews, he had his first second authorship on a journal article. He also went to a research conference and met other faculty and graduate researchers in his field for the first time.

Kralles (left) accepts the Robert P. Apmann award from CSEE chair Joseph Atkinson (right). 

Outside of research and other academic commitments, Kralles has also volunteered with the Buffalo Niagara Water Keeper, and discovered a new passion through UB’s Science is Elementary program. Since March 2019, he has been a STEM mentor, integrating basic engineering and science into lectures and workshops for underprivileged elementary school students.

Although Kralles’ academic career has taken some unexpected turns, he has been honored by peers and faculty members. Last year, he received the Robert P. Apmann Award from the Department recognizing a first-year graduate student’s academic excellence. Dai also believes that in addition to being a good researcher, Kralles is a good teacher and mentor. Kralles is considering an academic career as a faculty member after he graduates.

“In Spring 2015, I dropped out. In January 2016, I left school for treatment and came back

in August 2016,” Kralles says, “now, I hope to get a faculty position somewhere down the line to continue my effort to solve environmental issues surrounding treatment of drinking water and wastewater. Everyone loves a comeback.”

Beyond his personal achievements, Kralles hopes his story can help others going through some troubling times.

“Mental health problems and addiction both come with a stigma and people are often too ashamed to seek help,” Kralles says, “I think if we were more open about these issues we could start to evolve to deal with them in healthier ways instead of just running from them. I hope my story can inspire others who are struggling in any way to get the help they need.”