by Charlotte Hsu
Published April 17, 2020
Six School of Engineering and Applied Sciences students are among seven from UB to receive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. The fellowships — which provide students freedom and funding — are one of the most competitive for graduate students in the U.S.
The highly sought-after award provides a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees paid to students’ institution. The fellowship provides recipients with the freedom to conduct the research of their choice, a valuable incentive that has helped make the program one of the most competitive and prestigious for U.S. students in the sciences.
Inspired by life experiences that range from laboratory research to volunteering abroad, this year’s UB fellowship winners plan to pursue research in areas that range from designing low-cost water desalination systems to developing technologies for plasma propulsion engines in space vehicles.
“It is deeply gratifying to see so many students from UB win this prestigious award. It confirms what we already know about our students’ immense potential and talent,” says Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School. “Fellowships like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recognize our students’ achievements and will help them succeed in their education and beyond.”
“UB students are applying for these programs at higher rates and winning at higher rates,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. “We had 35 students apply this fall, and we mentor many of those students. Even the ones who don’t win find the experience rewarding. They learn how to write about themselves and to write about science — things they will be doing for the rest of their careers.”
Chris Gnam, a first-year PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is among NSF fellowship winners who benefited from an applicants’ workshop run by Colucci’s office. He says Colucci, faculty mentors and others helped him develop a higher-quality application, working with him through multiple revisions.
Gnam grew up in a rural area of upstate New York, where wide-open night skies inspired his ambition to study aerospace engineering. “You look out my back window, and you can see for 30 miles,” he says. “Because the sky is so clear out there, you don’t have any lights. You can see the Milky Way and satellites and all of that extremely easily.”
Of this year’s seven awardees, Gnam and two others are members of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Nanosatellite Laboratory (Nanosat Lab), in which students work with the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA and Moog Inc. to build satellites from concept to launch with guidance from John Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
“The UB Nanosat students are all volunteers who put in a tremendous amount of effort to build, test and deliver real satellites,” Crassidis says. “The students typify the best-of-the-best in the country, as evidenced by three of them being given this highly prestigious award. Congratulations to our Nanosat team members, and to all the UB students who have earned the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship this year through their impressive achievements.”
UB’s seven NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winners:
Nicholas Bartelo, from Williamsville, New York, is a senior in the Department of Physics. He will pursue an MS in computational biology from Cornell University. His research interests involve using machine learning to make more reliable predictions about whether a drug will cause harmful side effects in patients.
An Honors College student in mathematical physics, Bartelo is a two-time recipient of the UB physics department’s Dr. Stanley T. Sekula Memorial Scholarship. He is a member of Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society. He has conducted research at UB and at Cambridge University on topics that connect data science with medicine and health. He has engaged in teaching activities that include tutoring university athletes in mathematics, and volunteering at an afterschool program for K-12 children in Buffalo.
Jonathan Bessette, from Johnson City, New York, is a senior in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He will pursue a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bessette’s research interests involve designing low-cost desalination systems that aid in the mitigation of global water shortages.
Bessette, a UB Honors College student, was a recipient of the U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Scholarship, which enabled him to spend a summer in Scotland studying art and technology. Separately, he traveled to India to study architecture, including water distribution systems, and led a trip to the Dominican Republic to teach English. He has conducted research in settings that include the Design of Open Engineering Systems Lab at UB, Corning Inc. and Stanford Geophysics. Bessette’s diverse research and service experiences in Buffalo, the U.S. and abroad have inspired his interest in developing affordable technologies for underserved communities.
Ian DesJardin, from Williamsville, New York, a senior in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will pursue a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland College Park. DesJardin’s research interests involve developing control and system identification schemes for plasma propulsion systems, which could be used to produce engines for space vehicles.
DesJardin has conducted research in the UB Center for Computational Research, the Control and Automation Laboratory, and the Nanosat Lab, where he managed teams that designed, built and tested components of student-made satellites. He took part in an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Texas A&M University, and later spent a summer working on the Orion space capsule as a contractor at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. DesJardin has volunteered as a mentor to middle and high school students through a number of science programs, including the Science Olympiad and summer camps tied to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Chris Gnam, from the Town of Penfield in Monroe County, New York, is a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Gnam’s research interests involve developing new techniques for spacecraft optical navigation.
He earned a BS in aerospace engineering and a BA in mathematics from UB, where he conducted engineering research in labs including the Nanosat Lab, where he has also served as a mentor to undergraduate leaders. He was a Daniel Acker Scholar, a member of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) and a Presidential Fellowship recipient at UB. Outside the university, Gnam served as a student trainee at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and interned for NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and Johnson Space Center.
In addition, Gnam worked as an instructor in the University of Rochester’s Science and Technology Entry Program and in UB’s Educational Opportunity Program, both of which help students — including many from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups — advance their educational goals. In the personal essay he sent to the NSF as part of his fellowship application, Gnam wrote that, “As a Hispanic male, I was able to connect with many of (the EOP students) on a personal level, allowing me to provide more individual guidance.”
“Especially for a country like the United States that has such a diverse population, adequately reflecting that population in academia is important,” Gnam says.
Joshua Hazelnis, from Fallsburg, New York, is a senior in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. He will pursue a PhD in chemistry at the University of Michigan. Hazelnis’ research interests involve understanding molecular interactions that could improve the performance of redox flow batteries, a promising technology for storing energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Hazelnis, a Provost Scholarship recipient at UB, conducted research in UB chemistry and chemical engineering labs, with a focus on optimizing the performance of redox flow batteries. His presentation on this technology won first place in the 2019 Transforming Our Tomorrow competition at UB. Hazelnis chose to attend UB as an undergraduate in part because he wanted to be in a diverse environment. He hopes to pursue a career as a research professor, and has shared his passion for science with other young people by volunteering at a UB sustainability camp for middle school students, developing demos for science classrooms, and mentoring fellow UB undergraduates, including students he tutored while serving as a resident adviser.
Grant Iraci, from Phelps, New York, is a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. His research interests involve improving the design of programming languages used in embedded computers, found in technologies that range from coffee makers to medical devices.
Iraci graduated summa cum laude with a BS in computer science and a BA in mathematics from UB, where he conducted engineering research in the Nanosat Lab and did hands-on work with students in Buffalo Public Schools science classes through the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership led by UB. Iraci was a Presidential Fellowship and Presidential Scholarship recipient and Honors College student at UB. He spent a summer at the Institute for Software Research at Carnegie Mellon University, where he took part in an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Iraci has also volunteered in STEM outreach programs through local libraries in the rural area where he grew up.
Zachary Kralles, from Irondequoit, New York, is an MS student in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. He will pursue a PhD in environmental engineering at UB. Kralles’ research interests involve the investigation of how nitrogen pollution and water disinfection contribute to the formation of highly toxic drinking water contaminants called haloacetonitriles.
In a personal essay sent to the NSF as part of his fellowship application, Kralles discussed how he overcame addiction and mental health barriers, returning to school to complete his undergraduate degree after leaving his studies twice. “Though it took me seven years to complete my undergraduate degree, I have stayed clean since Jan. 27, 2016 and am now confident about my career in environmental engineering,” Kralles wrote. “Graduate school had not been my plan, but through recovery I rediscovered my passion for learning and problem-solving. I am grateful for the second chance that life has given me.”
Kralles received a BS in environmental engineering from UB in 2018 and will defend his MS thesis this summer. He researched disinfection byproduct risks for algal impacted surface waters with guidance from Ning Dai, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, and served as research assistant in a collaborative project between UB, the Buffalo Water Authority and consulting firms. Kralles served as a mentor in UB’s CSTEP and Science is Elementary programs, both of which target underserved communities.