Personal experiences catapult UB engineers to research fellowship

By Peter Murphy

Published October 17, 2023

Firsthand experience dealing with overcrowded emergency room waiting areas and an opportunity to conduct research early in their academic career helped these University at Buffalo engineers earn a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship.

“Noticing a problem and wanting to make a difference is a great ideal, but experiencing the problem makes it much more tangible. ”
Adam DeHollander, PhD student
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Adam DeHollander, PhD student in industrial and systems engineering, and Adam Krathaus (MS ’23, BS ‘21), civil engineering alum, were each awarded a fellowship in the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The fellowship provides three years of financial support, including an annual $37,000 stipend. The fellowship gives each of them more flexibility to continue their research and work toward earning their PhDs. 

DeHollander and Krathaus have taken different paths to earn the GRFP fellowship, but both had a personal experience propel them toward research. 

Turning crisis into an award-winning chess engine

DeHollander needed to visit the emergency room two years ago. He was shocked to see the overcrowded waiting room, and wondered if it would be possible to reprogram algorithms that play chess to analyze the emergency department. He developed game playing AI focused on ER efficiency in order to address the issues he experienced first-hand in the ER waiting room. He earned the 2022 Chessable Research Award and continued to refine this approach while working toward his PhD. News of this fellowship came while DeHollander dealt with more adversity.

“Last March, I had surgery and was unable to walk for three months. Even after learning how to walk again, I was still in a lot of pain and had limited mobility for additional months,” DeHollander says. “Being bedridden provided me with time to contemplate my research, and it was during this time that I developed my chess engine approach to improving efficiency in the ER. It was a great honor to be chosen for this fellowship, but it was especially fulfilling because it resulted in something good coming out of a very difficult time in my life.”

Going through this trying period motivated DeHollander and gave him a perspective on why his work was so important. 

Adam DeHollander.

Adam DeHollander

“Noticing a problem and wanting to make a difference is a great ideal, but experiencing the problem makes it much more tangible,” DeHollander says. “Being bedridden in tremendous pain for an extended period of time showed me how important it is to decrease crowding in the ER so patients can receive care without needing to wait in distress.”

During his recovery, DeHollander read dozens of ER papers and developed his unique chess engine approach. He also bought textbooks to study methods he needed to implement his ideas. DeHollander’s research is a brand-new approach to patient prioritization in the ER.

“Developing a completely novel approach is both exhilarating and daunting due to the inherent uncertainty in creating an entirely new solution to a problem that has been studied for decades,” DeHollander says. “Being awarded this fellowship has bolstered my confidence as it confirms that other researchers recognize the potential in my innovative idea.”

Discovering an unexpected passion for transportation research

Krathaus’ research focuses on transportation engineering. In his research supported by the GRFP, Krathaus will use advanced statistical modeling to analyze social activity-travel behavior in order to measure the effect transportation has on social activity and the ability of individuals to maintain their social networks. According to Krathaus, social networks are a significant reason why people often travel.

“Travelers are social agents belonging to spatially distributed social networks composed of friends, family, colleagues and others,” Krathaus says. “This relationship makes social networks a potential source of explanation for social activity-travel generation.”

Krathaus is enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s PhD program, but a career in research and academia was not always something he had in mind.

“Three, or even two years ago, these aspirations were totally absent. I’m a first-generation college student, and was unaware of what graduate school even was,” Krathaus says. “The entire idea that I would be in a field or a career that I was passionate about was very much up in the air.”

Krathaus entered UB as a mechanical engineering major. After three semesters, he decided to explore other programs. He enjoyed his math and science courses, but he often dreamed of becoming an architect. After his transfer request was denied by the School of Architecture and Planning, he transferred to civil engineering with the goal of exploring architecture after a few semesters, or in graduate school.

During the summer following his sophomore year, Krathaus participated in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences intramural program, an experience he says helped realize his passion for transportation and research.

Adam Krathaus.

“I really do credit the intramural program run by assistant professor Andrew Olewnik as a turning point for me. We were split into teams, and our team of four had to analyze bridge collisions by over-height trucks trying to pass beneath them so that later teams could design a solution to the problem. The question was intentionally vague to emphasize that problems start general outside of the classroom, and it is up to a good engineer to identify the right questions,” Krathaus says. “We analyzed incident reports and collected data for 57 collisions since 2000.”

Although Krathaus admits the methods he and his team used were not the most sophisticated, they were still able to point out clear trends in the data and present their case study to the New York State Department of Transportation.

“I did not yet know that what I had been doing was research, but I knew I wanted to be in a field that let me do more of it,” Karthaus says.

DeHollander and Krathaus are both continuing their research careers while enrolled in different PhD programs.

Current mechanical engineering MS student Polly “Boashan Liang” received honorable mention for the award. Recent UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences graduates also received the GRFP. Biomedical engineering alums Jacqueline Hannan (BS ’21), currently at the University of Michigan and Isabell Linares (BS ’21) at the University of Rochester also received the NSF GRFP along with environmental engineering alum Clayton Markham (BS ’22) who is currently enrolled at Virginia Tech. Hannan, Linares and Markham are each enrolled in PhD programs.