Konrad Krakowiak, assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, is quick to defer when he's offered praise for his research. For him, any success he might have is due to the students he has working with him, and the critical thought process foundation he got from his academic mentors.
His latest “great achievement,” as he considers it, is earning a National Science Foundation CAREER award for his proposal, “Stereochemical Biomimicry for Sustainability.” The $698,187 in funding is the second significant NSF grant for Krakowiak, after earning $203,151 for similar research in 2018.
“I achieved this goal because of the hard work of my students,” he said. “If I didn't work with my students and if my students didn't do this quality of work, I would be missing certain pieces of the puzzle. It's so rewarding, not only for my hard work, but most importantly for my students for the work that they did. This achievement wouldn't be possible without the support and hardwork and intellect of my students.”
Krakowiak added that several other factors combined to make him especially humbled by receiving this award. A native of Poland, he was thankful for the immigration path to the United States available to him. His homeland borders Ukraine, and he realizes how fraught the situation is in that country, and how courageous people in that region are currently.
At UH, Roberto Ballarini – Thomas and Laura Hsu Professor and Department Chair – and Abdeldjelil "DJ" Belarbi, Cullen Distinguished Professor, were people that encouraged Krakowiak to work toward a CAREER award.
When it came to his own students, Krakowiak said it was a balancing act between motivating them to excel while maintaining scientific principles. He said he liked to be “shoulder to shoulder” with his students, doing research with them.
“You have to be kind to people and be kind to your students, and give them your best to motivate them to push forward,” Krakowiak said. “But at the same time, don't forget about the scientific principles of research. You need to have rigor. Make sure that your students keep this rigor when it comes to the sample preparation, when it comes to the experiment, when it comes to analysis. You need to be honest in a science.”
The main focus of Krakowiak's research group is implementing practical modifications for construction materials by examining and improving them on the molecular scale. Globally, estimates on the amount of concrete used each year vary from 4 billion tons on the low end, to as high as 30 billion tons.
“What we are aiming at is basically, how to make a concrete material more durable, how to extend its lifespan, how to prevent any type of mechanics that will degrade the concrete in real time structures,” he said. “We don't do it by simple mixing and checking various combination of the ingredients, but by looking at the fundamental physics and chemistry principles, and how to design the concrete at the nano-level, and then assemble the microstructure such that the best properties will be achieved.
He added, “We're looking at concrete from the fundamental physics perspective, and how to translate the nanoscale phenomena to microscopic and macroscopic performance at a much higher level than it's currently impossible to achieve.”