Learning and Discovery in Lee's Labyrinth of Labs - Y Magazine
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Learning and Discovery in Lee’s Labyrinth of Labs

By M. Sue Bergin 

DEEP INSIDE the capacious labyrinth of Milton L. Lee’s laboratories on the second floor of the Ezra Taft Benson Building, a squat metal contraption sits atop a black counter. Inside the gleaming apparatus–a “batch reactor”–is graduate student Juan Carlos Medina’s experiment in mimicking how the earth generates natural gas.

Medina is one of 12 doctoral candidates studying under Lee. Medina’s batch reactor experiments have yielded important new data contradicting long-held theories that natural gas, or methane, is created through the same thermal route as petroleum. Instead, he has discovered that nature can readily produce natural gas from coal at relatively low temperatures if certain catalysts, namely nickel and iron, are present.

“Under [the old] theory, natural gas forms very, very slowly. With the presence of a catalyst, it’s really, really fast,” says Medina. “Experiments with both catalysts generate huge amounts of methane.”

Medina’s research, funded by the Gas Research Institute, could be extremely valuable to anyone searching for new sources of energy, Lee says. It’s already known that wherever coal beds exist, natural gas may also exist. Medina has shown that the presence of nickel or iron or both significantly increases the chances of finding natural gas.

“If you know the characteristics of the surrounding geology that are likely to produce coal, such as transition metals in the coal, it would help in locating new reserves of natural gas,” says Lee, who calls Medina’s project an “overwhelming success.”

That success could help Medina realize his goal to return to his native Colombia and become a chemistry professor at the Industrial University of Santander, his alma mater, in the city of Bucaramanga. His journey toward that dream began in 1983 when, at age 16, he joined the LDS Church. In 1986 he served an LDS mission in Cali, Colombia, and it was during those two years that he felt impressed to complete a university education. “My family did not have the resources to pay for school, but during my mission I got the feeling and the thought that I needed to go to the university; it didn’t matter how.”

When he returned from his mission, Medina found that tuition at Santander was not as expensive as he had feared, and his high scores on national tests entitled him to financial aid. After completing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he stayed to earn a master’s degree. In 1994 Medina’s university adviser met Lee at a conference in Italy. Knowing of Medina’s church membership, the adviser encouraged him to apply to BYU for his PhD and to study under Lee. Medina met Lee at a 1996 conference in Venezuela, and that introduction sealed his determination to come to BYU.

“I was impressed by two factors. One was the very high quality of the research at BYU, and the other was how clear Dr. Lee’s presentation [on chromatography] was,” Medina says. “You can do that only if you understand very well what’s going on inside the column in the chromatography process. I knew if he could explain that so clearly, I could learn from him.”

But just as Medina was applying to BYU, a snag arose–he was called to be bishop of the El Tejar Ward in Bucaramanga. He wanted to serve as called, but he also wanted to follow the promptings he had felt since his mission. “I said, okay, what does the Lord want?” After some struggle, he concluded he should press forward with his BYU plans. He completed a year as bishop, then came to the United States to enroll at BYU.

Medina’s hopes for his experience at BYU have been fulfilled and even exceeded. Lee cares about his students, Medina says–not only that they progress professionally, but also that they are in good health and have a good life. He believes part of Lee’s success is his skill as a manager, particularly his ability to help his students find productive avenues of research, then turn them loose.

“He allows people to work independently,” says Medina. “He gives you feedback, and then you go off on your own again. You don’t need to be asking permission for every experiment. That’s very important to his success–and to his students’.”