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UB RENEW students travel abroad for global view of climate-resilient buildings

A person crouching in a large puddle of water following an historic storm.

Jonathan Navarro-Ramos tours a flooded American University of Sharjah campus following unprecedented rainfall that hit the United Arab Emirates shortly after he arrived in the country. Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Navarro-Ramos


Published June 13, 2024

Zach Kralles in Taipei, Taiwan.
“My understanding is from a U.S.-based perspective. Going to Taiwan let me see the problems they have that we don’t, but also how they have solved some problems that we still have. ”
Zachary Kralles, PhD student
UB RENEW Institute

Hours after Jonathan Navarro-Ramos arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a historic storm brought down more than a year’s worth of rainfall in a single day and essentially shut down large parts of the desert nation.

His timing couldn’t have been better. 

After all, Navarro-Ramos, a chemistry PhD student with the UB RENEW Institute, was there to research how buildings can be designed to recycle stormwater and wastewater to become more resilient in the face of flooding and other climate hazards. The unprecedented rainfall and resulting deluge during his two-week stay in April allowed him to witness flood damage up close and collect samples of stormwater to test for potentially harmful chemical pollutants. 

“This experience made me more patient, accepting and resilient, and showed me how to cope with change in the best way possible,” Navarro-Ramos says.

He and other RENEW graduate students are getting the opportunity to conduct international research through the “Technologies for One Water in Extremely Resilient-buildings” (TOWER) project, which aims to design buildings adaptive to water security issues caused or worsened by climate change, from flooding and droughts to contamination and pollution. Such structures could harvest rainwater, sorb atmospheric moisture and even treat stormwater and wastewater for reuse. 

TOWER is funded by a highly competitive, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, which supports international education, research and interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle global issues, such as climate change and water security.

The funding has allowed some of the project’s graduate students to travel to partner institutions across the globe and study the water challenges unique to those regions. In addition to the UAE, students have traveled within the past year to Taiwan and the Philippines, with another trip planned for Costa Rica this summer.  

And their travels are already getting results. TOWER researchers co-authored a study published June 11 in Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) Water that assesses the open research questions and policy implications of the flooding that Navarro-Ramos experienced in the UAE.

“With global water scarcity and quality issues, there is only so much a person can understand from reading newspapers and journal articles. Firsthand experiences and the opportunity to learn from and work with local experts can unlock intellectual vistas for graduate students,” says Diana Aga, director of RENEW and the TOWER project’s principal investigator.

Two people pictured togetherAmerican University of Sharjah campus in United Arab Emirates.

(From left) Jonathan Navarro-Ramos and his adviser, Diana Aga, on the American University of Sharjah campus during their stay there in April. Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Navarro-Ramos

Networking and getting in the right mindset

Rochester native Zachary Kralles’ only international travel had been across the nearby border to Canada. 

Then his adviser, Ning Dai, associate professor of environmental engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a TOWER co-principal investigator, approached him in 2022 about spending a month living and working in Taiwan.

“It was a bit overwhelming,” Kralles says.

To prepare for the trip, Kralles connected with Taiwanese researchers at the conferences he attended in the year preceding his trip last October. In addition to his host and TOWER collaborator Yi-Hsueh Chuang, associate professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Kralles’ professional network allowed him to have connections in every region he visited, from the city of Taipei in the north to Kenting National Park on the main island’s southernmost tip.

“People there really want to go out of their way to help you and make you feel like you belong,” Kralles says.

Navarro-Ramos, who is from Corozal, Puerto Rico, and had never traveled internationally, was also initially nervous. However, he persevered, thanks to coaching from his adviser, Aga, who joined him for part of the trip, and Lisa Vahapoğlu, RENEW’s education and outreach director, who provides all TOWER student travelers with a pre-trip cultural preparedness workshop. This covers everything from navigating international airports to understanding and adapting to social norms and values of the host country.

“They helped me adopt a mindset of welcoming everything and being immersed in the full experience of being there,” he says. 

He also credits his host, Fatin Samara, professor at American University of Sharjah (AUS), for making him feel at ease and welcome in the UAE. Not only is Samara a UB alumna who conducted her doctoral work under Aga, Samara also grew up in Puerto Rico.

“We had a different bond from the beginning because we share a baseline of culture. We could communicate in Spanish, for example,” Navarro-Ramos explains.

A person inspecting a mechanical room in an apartment building.

Part of students’ responsibilities was surveying apartment buildings in their host countries. Here, Zachary Kralles tours a Hsinchu dwelling’s mechanical room. Photo: Courtesy of Zachary Kralles

Sleuthing through apartments and stormwater

During their trips, Navarro-Ramos and Kralles surveyed and gathered data about typical apartment buildings in their respective host countries. They took photos and measurements of everything from water towers on rooftops to reverse osmosis filters under sinks, as well as energy and design considerations of refrigerators and air conditioners.

“Some of the things that we’re interested in just aren’t well documented,” Kralles says. “But they are also critical to improving climate resilience.”

The apartment complex data collected by Navarro-Ramos, Kralles and other students will inform TOWER co-principal investigator Martha Bohm, associate professor of architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, about the unique design preferences and constraints of dwellings throughout the world. Once analyzed, this information will also enable Bohm to design implementation strategies that are customized for a specific region’s culture and geography.

In addition to surveying buildings, both Navarro-Ramos and Kralles got to conduct lab-based work related to water quality, their specific research focuses.

Kralles studies potentially harmful byproducts formed when drinking water is disinfected with chlorine. Under the guidance of Chuang at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Kralles is using chemical kinetics modeling to quantitatively examine the formation of these byproducts, work that could help develop alternative water-disinfection methods.

Navarro-Ramos, meanwhile, analyzes water samples for chemicals from road runoff and surface waters that have been shown to affect fish and other wildlife. Some of these contaminants may also create disinfection byproducts when water is chlorinated.

As he was touring AUS’ flooded campus following the region’s historic storm, it dawned on Navarro-Ramos that he had a unique opportunity to sample stormwater.

“Here I am in a country where it doesn’t rain, and not only did it rain, but it rained at the highest intensity since those records started being kept 75 years ago,” he says. “I just saw the flooding and thought: This is it.”

Analyzing stormwater runoff on the roads could yield information about potentially harmful chemicals released by floodwater, including those from the roadway residue of car tires.

“Tires in the UAE are sourced from all around the world, so their chemical composition varies quite a bit. It’s very important to know what’s in the tires because stormwater from the roads may eventually be chlorinated and used as drinking water,” Navarro-Ramos says.

The flooding in the UAE closed schools and businesses, damaged dwellings and vehicles, and for almost a week disrupted the Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest airport for international travel. Four people in the country died. 

Because of its historically arid climate, the UAE does not have a good drainage system infrastructure to deal with heavy rainfalls. However, that will need to change.

A study by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group found the storm that hit the region was likely amplified by human-induced climate change.

The ramifications of these climate-intensified storms are the subject of the ES&T Water study, which was co-authored by Aga, Vahapoğlu and Samara, and other AUS researchers.

“It was striking to be present for flooding that caused sewage overflows, which led to public health concerns about water quality, as well as evacuation orders,” says Aga, who is also SUNY Distinguished Professor and Henry M. Woodburn Chair in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “We witnessed clear evidence of the urgency of our research.”

A rooftop and skyline in Taipei, Taiwan.

Students were responsible for surveying apartment buildings in their host countries. Here, a rooftop of a dwelling in Taipei. Photo: Zachary Kralles

More travel planned

Another RENEW graduate student, John Michael Aguilar, conducted TOWER research in the Philippines last December. He and Aga also gave a workshop on mass spectrometry for environmental analysis at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, another international collaborating institution on the TOWER project.

Next, several of Bohm’s students will travel to Costa Rica for research this summer, while a student with another UB researcher and TOWER co-principal investigator, Haiqing Lin, professor of chemical and biological engineering, will visit Egypt or Saudi Arabia next year.

In addition to writing studies and disseminating findings at national meetings, the team also hopes to host international collaborators and students at UB.

As for Kralles, he’s preparing to defend his dissertation this summer before starting a postdoc position at John Hopkins University. However, he says he now can envision one day living and working abroad.

“The experience really gave me this worldly view and helped me understand what it’s like for international students to come here,” he says.

It also changed his perspective on climate change challenges.

“My understanding is from a U.S.-based perspective. Going to Taiwan let me see the problems they have that we don’t, but also how they have solved some problems that we still have,” he says.