Renovated undergrad teaching lab a 'silver lining' for ChBE

Reequipped, 2,600-square-foot Keck 108 replaces former lab in Abercrombie.

Kyle Clayton and Marya Cokar standing in Keck 108 lab

Last year, Kyle Clayton was researching biodiesel fuels. Now he grows E. coli in a bioreactor.

The bacteria, in turn, produces DNA polymerase, which can replicate DNA. This substance he supplies to researchers at Rice who use it in their work.

“We make it here in the undergraduate teaching laboratory and then send it over to the BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), wherever people are working. We have all the equipment we need in the lab to manufacture it,” said Clayton, a junior in chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChBE).

Every undergraduate majoring in ChBE takes three mandatory lab classes. For years those classes were held in the basement of the former Abercrombie Lab, razed two years ago.

“That turned out to be a silver lining,” said Marya Cokar, director of the undergraduate lab and assistant teaching professor of ChBE.

Keck Hall 108, formerly occupied by bioengineering labs, was fully renovated — at a cost of $695,000 — and reequipped, and became the new home of ChBE’s undergraduate teaching laboratory. The old lab in Abercrombie totaled 1,700 square feet. The new space in Keck, readied for occupancy in 2019, measures 2,600 square feet.

“Now it’s fully outfitted. We have a polarimeter, a tensiometer, a 3D printer, equipment to perform GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), HPLC (high-pressure liquid chromatography) and GPC (gel permeation chromatography), everything the students need to do their research and complete their courses,” said Cokar, who earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Calgary in 2013.

She is chief technology officer and co-founder of Biosfera Group and joined the Rice faculty in 2015.

“I spent four years in oil and gas but came to Rice because I love working with students,” said Cokar, who does research in chemical engineering and pedagogy. She published a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education titled “An Inquiry-Based Learning Undergraduate Laboratory Course During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

“We learned a lot from the COVID-19 experience,” said Cokar, whose co-authors were Jacob Arredondo, CHBE’s undergraduate laboratory supervisor, and Michael Wong, Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology and chair of ChBE.

Since the teaching lab was renovated, some 300 undergraduates have passed through it. Juan Donoso, a second-year doctoral student in ChBE, figures he spends about five hours a week working with undergraduates in the lab as a teaching assistant.

“I provide a sort of leadership, answering questions, showing the proper way to use the equipment. We work very closely with the students,” said Donoso, who earned a degree in chemical engineering from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in 2014.

Clayton has already landed an internship for this summer with ConocoPhillips, thanks in part to the CHBE undergraduate teaching laboratory.

“Marya and the rest of the people are great. They’re patient. Marya always listens to what you have to say,” Clayton said.