Omar & Argy – Building a Lab from the Ground Up

June 25, 2015

In a nondescript corner of Link Hall, there is a set of small conjoining rooms, replete with scaffolding and catalytic reactors. Today, they hum with activity, but not long ago the space was empty. Using little more than creativity, elbow grease, and resourcefulness (along with crucial financial support from Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, the National Science Foundation, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) two Ph.D. students have transformed the once vacant area into a robust chemical engineering lab that generates technologies to reduce our dependence on oil and scientific insights to broaden our knowledge of catalytic reactions. In August of 2011, Assistant Professor Jesse Bond joined the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering. Coinciding with his arrival, Omar Abdelrahman Ali Abdelrahman and Argy Chatzidimitriou began work on doctoral degrees in chemical engineering. The three were introduced to each other through a course Bond taught to familiarize students with the focus of his research—developing catalytic solutions for replacing petroleum with renewable biomass. Abdelrahman and Chatzidimitriou became deeply interested in both the fundamentals of catalysis as well as Bond’s applied research, and they decided to join his research team. Bond describes, “Working with faculty at the beginning of their career is really a unique experience. When you come in as an Assistant Professor, the College generally gives you a budget for research startup, hands over the keys to your new lab, gives you a pat on the back and says ‘Go for it! We know you’ll do great, otherwise we wouldn’t have hired you!’ And then you walk into an empty laboratory. I remember thinking, ‘There is no way this is going to work out.’ Having never built a lab before, that was a brand new kind of terror for me. And it’s bad enough for the professor, but it really takes a special kind of student to willingly walk into that environment and tackle the challenge of a blank canvas head-on at the start of their Ph.D. program. I have pretty much used up a lifetime’s supply of luck getting two of them in Omar and Argy.” Once on board, the pair were immediately burdened with a heavy load of coursework, learning the tools of the catalysis trade, and building a laboratory from the ground up. For Abdelrahman and Chatzidimitriou, though, it’s all in a day’s work. “When Jesse took us on, there were only two or three pieces of equipment that had already been purchased, and none were really online yet. He tossed us right into the deep end. He basically said, ‘I have these ideas and this equipment. Help me figure it out.’ We dug into it and by the end of our first year, we were in overdrive, building as fast as we could,” recounts Abdelrahman. Building a fully-functioning, experimental catalysis laboratory from scratch is capital intensive, and, once startup budgets are exhausted, funding for research equipment can be difficult to come by. “For most experimentalists, there is no way that you can afford to buy turnkey versions of all of the equipment that you’d like to have. Starting up, you might tend to trim your wish list down to the essentials, balancing the experiments that you’d like to do with those that you absolutely have to do. Fortunately for me, that wasn’t really good enough for Omar and Argy. Once they knew what they could learn from all of those tools that I initially told them were too expensive, they began coming up with creative, frugal, do-it-yourself alternatives and presenting their ideas to me during group meetings. To this day, their resourcefulness and ingenuity blows me away. Of course I gave them the green light,” says Bond. In order to move their experiments forward, the team worked with whatever they could find. They bought equipment that was used and in disrepair for a fraction of the cost of buying new. They built scaffolding and shelving out of scrap metal that the University was throwing out. If other labs were disposing of old equipment, they pounced on it. It wasn’t long before people in the Link Hall machine shop and facilities department started coming to Abdelrahman and Chatzidimitriou any time something they might be able to use showed up in surplus. Since that time, Bond’s laboratory has been supported through additional funding from the National Science Foundation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, but their approach hasn’t changed, and research dollars have been stretched as far as possible. Once completely unfamiliar with the technology, Abdelrahman and Chatzidimitriou now learn about every nuance of their equipment. This creates new ideas and possibilities for their research—respectively, they are working on hydrogenation and oxidation of levulinic acid. It has also made them experts on the equipment. With the knowledge they’ve gained they are able to restore old laboratory equipment to perfect working condition. “Once you learn the instruments — what they are capable of— you find that your needs start getting bigger and broader. We're at the point where we are getting everything out of this equipment — far more than what we intended to use it for in the first place,” says Chatzidimitriou. In addition to servicing and repairing the equipment, the duo also leverages resources on campus, including the Link Hall machine shop and Arts & Sciences glass shop. Sally Prasch in the glass shop and Dick Chave and Bill Dossert in the machine shop have been godsends in making the lab’s custom designs a reality. Tools and replacement parts are created right on campus to meet the unique needs of their research. Such parts could never be purchased off the shelf and would be extremely expensive if ordered through an outside vendor. Abdelrahman and Chatzidimitriou will both complete their doctorates in the next year. While Bond expresses sadness about their inevitable departure, he also describes incredible pride in all they have accomplished at Syracuse University. “I remember before I started at Syracuse, I would hear senior faculty talk about how ‘Back when I was starting out, I somehow managed to find this amazingly talented student that helped me to get things started. I don’t know what I’d have done without them.’ And I would panic and think, ‘There’s no way I’ll get that lucky.’ But somehow I did. Not with one, but with two amazing students, both of whom really take great pride in our laboratory and have immense respect for the science that we pursue. In ten years, when some young professor asks me about starting up, I’ll share with them stories about Omar and Argy. This lab is theirs; there is no way I could have done it without them. I know they have the drive, training, and expertise necessary to succeed anywhere and at whatever they take on”