Baylor University

James Karban Q&A

Sept. 29, 2004

Dr. James Karban

Dr. James Karban began work in May 2004 as director of the Baylor Science Facility. Randy Fiedler spoke with Dr. Karban one morning in July in the Baylor Sciences Building atrium over a fresh-brewed cup of coffee from the Atrium Café.


Baylor News: Tell me a little about yourself and your background. How did you come to Baylor, and what were you doing before you got this job?

James Karban: I am a native of western Pennsylvania and I came to Texas in 1967. I served in the Air Force for eight years and worked as an electronics technician on several General Dynamics aircraft. When General Dynamics opened a facility in Waco, I came to Waco and worked for them until 1973 when they closed the facility. During this time, I enrolled at MCC and later transferred to Baylor to finish a bachelor's degree in secondary education. During my time as an undergraduate at Baylor, I worked in the chemistry department repairing instrumentation. The chair of the chemistry department, Dr. Jim McAtee, asked me if I'd like to stay at Baylor on a graduate assistantship, and I jumped at the opportunity. I received my PhD in chemistry in 1979 at the ripe old age of 38. Along the way, I was fortunate to meet and marry a fifth generation Wacoan who just happened to be the great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Rufus C. Burleson. I guess my fate with Baylor was sealed. I started working full time at Baylor in 1982.

BN: As a chemistry professor?

JK: No, I held a staff position. I starrted out teaching chemistry while doing the work I was hired to do as director of instrumentation and maintenance. It reached the point where we had to make a decision whether I should continue teaching or support the chemistry department in other ways. It was a mutual agreement that I would support the department in instrument repair, teaching students and faculty how to use the instruments and assisting chemistry graduate students with instrumentation for their research projects. I also assumed "ownership" of the rest of the instruments in the building and maintained service contracts on them.

BN: How did you get the particular job you have now?

JK: I was on the initial planning committee (for the new sciences building), and I was asked to join the project team. We discussed bringing five departments into the building and what that would mean as far as control of the interaction and shared spaces, those spaces not owned by any one department, but used by all or some of them. There was concern about the shared teaching and research facilities as to who would be in charge of them. The more we talked about it, the more we realized there needed to be a central figure in the building who would help control those areas shared by all departments.

BN: So, are you in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the building?

JK: The simple answer to that question is yes. I am responsible for the academic functions of the building and ensuring that the requirements needed by the academic departments to fulfill their teaching and research needs in shared and common areas are met. As on the rest of the Baylor campus, Aramark still remains responsible for the physical facilities, the mechanical rooms, the electrical units, the air handlers and all mechanical and electrical units required for the building. That is their expertise.

BN: Are you involved when there's a delivery of chemicals?

JK: I have several people working for me, and two of them are in the chemical storage area. We've moved the chemical stockroom from chemistry department ownership and placed it under the facilities department. We wanted everyone to know that the chemical storeroom is for use by all departments even though chemistry probably owns, at the present time, 80 to 90 percent of the contents. What we want to try to develop in the coming years is a storeroom that will be actively used and shared by all departments.

BN: Is the method of bringing chemicals into this building better than we had before?

JK: Definitely. It's a lot easier and much safer. As the chemicals are delivered, they are bar coded and assigned to the owner, individual or department. That way we can document and control the movement of chemicals throughout the building. We have a big hydraulic lift in the back of the building for heavy barrels and large equipment. In addition, we have two electric garage doors for receiving large items into the building. We also have areas for gas cylinder storage, chemical storage, glass and apparatus storage -- it's a big area back there. Also, up in the penthouse we have a glass shop, an electronics shop and a machine shop.

BN: What do the building's machine shop and electrical shop do?

JK: The research groups have a lot of researchers who build their own equipment, particularly in physics and chemistry. Milton Luedke, an ex-Navy machinist who used to work for physics and chemistry, runs the machine shop. Researchers use his abilities to help design and machine specialized equipment for their work. Jerry Milner is the electronics technician who runs the electronics shop. He does repair of electronic equipment for departments all over campus.

BN: What is the glass shop? What do they do there?

JK: Glassblowing and glass apparatus repair. Chemistry, particularly, has some very unique, expensive and sophisticated glassware that they use, and often, when it breaks or cracks, it can be repaired. Or they may want to modify it. We have an annealing furnace, glassblowing apparatus and a glassblowing lathe as well as a diamond saw for cutting glass.

BN: What does all the additional space mean to the departments?

JK: All of the science departments really struggled with space (in the old buildings). Some of the four-person laboratories had as many as 18 students. Plus, over the years, we had to add new fume hoods, new equipment and instrumentation that the building wasn't designed to handle. We were just stacked to the walls. There was no room to grow. We have extremely good research projects going on, and a lot of it was being hampered by space. We were stressing the physical size of the building to the limit, and stressing the environment of the building -- the air conditioning and the heating -- to the maximum.

BN: Why has 80,000 square feet of space in the new building been left empty and unfinished? Is that to provide room to grow?

JK: Yes. It's labeled on the plans as unfinished areas and it was designed into the building to allow us to expand in the future.

BN: What kind of feedback have you gotten from professors who have moved in here?

JK: By far, the majority of the feedback has been extremely positive. But there have been some setbacks, very minor problems. With 500,000 very sophisticated square feet, there's bound to be problems. The biggest disagreement we had was in the planning stage over whether we should use marker boards or chalkboards. The faculty was split 50-50, right down the middle.

BN: How did you solve that?

JK: The decision was made to use the marker boards. We do have three classrooms with chalkboards for those who absolutely have to have them.

BN: If that's the worst problem you have, you're lucky.

JK: At the beginning of the move there was a lot of concern about the building design, even though everyone had several opportunities to come in ahead of time and look at their space to see what it was like. Some of the faculty has moved from smaller offices to larger offices while some have moved from larger offices into smaller offices. That was difficult, especially for those who have a lot of textbooks and reference books that they use every day. But overall, I would say that the move has been extremely positive and successful.

BN: Did the professors have a say in how their research spaces were laid out and designed?

JK: They actually had several meetings with the architects and designed their own laboratories, within a limited scope. They were given the options of what they could have in their laboratory, where they wanted them located, to some extent, and where they wanted their equipment. When the plans were drawn, the faculty again had an opportunity to look at the plans and make changes. There was a tremendous amount of interaction between faculty, staff and students with the architects and the contractors.

BN: This atrium that we're in is one of the most striking public spaces I've ever seen, certainly at Baylor. Was the intent to have this space be a bit overwhelming?

JK: We tried to make it not overwhelming but attractive. The view is beautiful here. The idea was to make spaces where students, staff and faculty could meet and discuss science in areas we call "interaction spaces." There are many such places in this building where they can meet, at lunch time or at any time during the day, and that's already beginning to happen. A little side story -- I gave a tour for a family that came down from New Jersey, and they were visiting several universities. The student was interested in biochemistry, so I agreed to bring them over on a tour. After they saw the building, the father -- a chemist working for a chemical company -- said, "Well, my daughter's coming here."

BN: Hasn't this building already had an effect on bringing students to Baylor?

JK: I do know we've had some high school students come in who were in the high school program the College of Arts and Sciences has every year, and several of them have said that this is where they want to go because of the facilities. We hope that it will be a draw for graduate students as well as undergraduates.

BN: Tell me something about this facility that the average person would be surprised to learn.

JK: I can think of several. We have around 280 chemical fume hoods in the building, and the statistic I heard was that if they were placed end-to-end they would reach from here to the Suspension Bridge. We have enough lab countertop to cover an acre of ground.

BN: Aren't all the rooms self-contained? If there's a chemical spill, wouldn't the spill be contained to that one room?

JK: Normally, yes, depending on the chemical, it would be contained in one room. The spill would at least be contained to one section of the building. For example, if we had an emergency in a chemistry wing, we would certainly have to evacuate that wing, but it might or might not affect the rest of the building. This building has safety features we never even dreamed of in the other building.

BN: Was safety a major concern in the design?

JK: From the very beginning. One of the most important changes we made was is to move the graduate students out of the laboratories into their own spaces with views into the laboratories. Graduate students in Marrs McLean Science Building had desks and offices in the research laboratories, in every little nook and cranny. Also, the room air changes in our new building are significantly better than what we had in the old buildings. In the teaching and research laboratories, we concentrated on providing proper ventilation and keeping the students safe. We have a very safe building.

BN: What's the part of this new job of yours that you think you're going to like the most?

JK: I am going to enjoy working with all the departments in the instrumentation areas and shared spaces. I'm really excited about seeing the collaborative research that's being fostered between the departments because I think there's going to be a tremendous increase in major research from all areas. And I certainly enjoy showing the building to anyone who wants to see it.

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