2016 Early Career Award: Q&A with Nicholas Balster

// Materials Science & Engineering

Tags: alumni, Engineers' Day, MSE E-Day, Nicholas Balster

photo of Nicholas Balster

Nicholas Balster

Vice President of Industrial Applications, Groom Energy Solutions; BSMS&E ’00 (MBA ’13, Babson College),

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Early Career Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


Why did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I visited several schools that had good reputations across the engineering disciplines, but I loved the atmosphere on UW-Madison’s campus. I knew that I wanted to pursue an engineering degree, but I didn’t know what type when I first got on campus.


Why did you choose engineering as your major?

I was a materials science and engineering major. Choosing engineering was relatively easy; I had some great teachers in high school in math and the sciences, as well as a college counselor who felt that engineering would be a good fit. I really sort of came to materials science and engineering after I had had conversations with several of the professors in the different departments, and we talked a bit more at length about what the degree types were that I could pursue. The combination of what a materials science and engineering degree would afford me, in terms of career options, as well as the professors in the MS&E department sealed the deal.


Who was your favorite engineering professor?

One is an MS&E professor and the other is a mechanical engineering professor. Frank Fronczak in ME taught an introduction to engineering course my freshman year. He really confirmed that I was in the right program and got me very excited about engineering. It was a pretty low-level course, but he encouraged us to think creatively and utilize some of the skills that we already had. My other favorite is the professor who nominated me for this award—John Perepezko. He taught a foundational course that solidified for me that MSE was the discipline I wanted to pursue. He was a very enthusiastic instructor.


What was your favorite engineering class?

I studied abroad in Munich my junior year, and I took an elective course taught by an awesome professor. His name was Professor Tensi, and the reason I loved his class on diffusion was a combination of his presence and the subject matter. I ended up taking two more courses from Professor Tensi because he engaged in a really brilliant way with students.


When you were a student, what was your favorite place to hang out on campus?

I actually lived very close to the engineering campus. One of the two places that I hung out was the MS&E building with my nerdy engineering friends. After hours we were there as late as we needed to be. I had an office, coffee maker, etc.; I hung out there to study quite often. And then there are two guys that are to this day best friends of mine, and they were my roommates on Lathrop Street. When I wasn’t hanging out on the engineering campus, I was with them at our house.


What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

Living with my best friends in a great house on Lathrop was the most memorable experience for me. We stay in pretty close contact; I talked to both of them yesterday. Sixteen years later and they’re still my best friends. I have very fond memories of those years.


What lesson did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?

One of the tenets that was drilled into me by a professor named Fred Bradley was the notion that in the course of a career, you’re going to have to constantly change and figure things out. It is one of the single most valuable lessons that I walked off campus with. Typically, engineers graduate with all sorts of problem-solving techniques and then get plopped into environments and have to learn how a team functions and how a business works. Being able to handle that depends on their ability to figure things out, even if they’re very murky in the beginning.


What is your current title and company?

I’m the vice president of industrial applications at Groom Energy Solutions, which is a turnkey energy efficiency service provider. We work with customers across the country to cut energy costs and improve operations, and have a great team who are dedicated to what they do and to each other. We’re based out of Beverly, Massachusetts.


Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

My parents, who have been a strong support team my entire life. They provided me with resources and opportunities to achieve most of what I have in my life. They both made sacrifices and worked very hard, and deserve a lot of credit.


What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

I would say “continuously innovate.” There are some things that I learned in my career that I don’t think there’s a reason that students in the College of Engineering or other disciplines couldn’t or shouldn’t learn. It goes back to Fred Bradley and his “keep figuring things out” mantra. My read is that people who will be the most successful are those who can fail fast, move forward and never stop innovating themselves and their thinking. The level of innovation that occurs today versus when I was on campus is very, very different and students would do well to accept and try to master a continuous innovation or improvement mindset.


What are your hobbies/interests?

I love spending time with my family. I’m a big road bicyclist, and like physical fitness and staying active. I enjoy free reading and staying up on current events. I also like to travel with family and friends, and try to get to new destinations to explore as often as I can.


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

There’s nothing that I do in a day that’s more important than my family. I’m the fortunate husband of Ali, and the proud father of Katie, Lila and Jackson. We’ll all be together at the homecoming game to cheer on our Badgers.

Author: Engineering External Relations