Bridging a profession in teaching and a love of cooking has turned out to be the perfect recipe for Lesa Tran Lu ’07.
After earning an undergraduate degree, she stayed on to complete her Ph.D. in chemistry, and then started teaching at Rice. A lifelong cook, Lu soon found a way to bring her favorite hobby into the classroom. “To me, it was the perfect topic I could use to introduce chemistry to students of all backgrounds.” Besides altering recipes to learn how different components chemically react and change the outcome, Lu has enlisted the help of chefs from Houston’s best restaurants, including Chris Shepherd, owner of Underbelly and a James Beard Foundation award-winning chef. Guest speakers share their culinary methods, creating discussions about the science behind their creations, and students conduct experiments in an unconventional laboratory setting to illustrate the science involved in the composition, transformation and perception of food.
Since my parents have been in the Houston food industry for as long as I can remember, I learned how to cook at a very young age. As I studied chemistry at Rice, I began paying more attention to the science behind the recipes and ingredients I used in the kitchen. I realized that cooking is chemistry in action, but much more palatable in taste and presentation.
Active learning, as opposed to passive learning (i.e., traditional lecture-style teaching or memorizing), engages students in constructing and reinforcing their own knowledge base. This allows students to take full control of their own learning experience, which ultimately leads to higher retention and more thoughtful reflection of the knowledge they acquired. Active learning techniques are deeply integrated into all of my classes, from collaborative hands-on kitchen experiments in the Chemistry of Cooking class to frequent group discussions in my General Chemistry class.
My best moments are when students showcase all that they have learned when preparing for and completing their final presentations. These student projects are as if your favorite reality cooking show had a baby with a scientific symposium. It’s impressive to see my students take what they learned in the classroom to demonstrate and apply their knowledge in the most creative ways possible. Those are the moments I am the proudest.
Experiments Gone Bad
Experiments fail all the time in class, but that’s the beauty of it all. Many of the experiments are designed to fail to demonstrate the importance of various ingredients and methods used in a recipe. Other experiments and projects are open-ended to allow students to go through trial and error. On several occasions, students’ recipes completely fail, which ultimately forces them to improvise and get creative to pull off a successful (though unintended) dish.
I often times create and experiment with my own recipes, particularly for desserts and Asian cuisine. In fact, my mom and I even taught Rice chefs how to make some Chinese dishes at the college serveries and developed the recipe for the Korean beef taco at 4.tacO in the Rice Student Center. It’s been their best-seller since day No. 1.
Student Becomes Teacher
It still feels surreal for me to stand at the front of the classroom than to sit behind a student’s desk. But there is also an immense sense of belonging I feel having been on campus for 14 years straight. I definitely call Rice my second home. There were many times I considered going elsewhere, but I always found the best opportunities for me here at Rice. Being here for so long has also given me a unique sense of empathy for my students. I can relate to both undergraduate and graduate students, having been both, on a different level than most faculty members.
During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was part of a team in Lon Wilson’s lab that created and developed carbon nanomaterial-based drugs for stem cell therapy and medical diagnostics. The carbon nanotube drug, which we called the Gadonanotube, improved the brightness of MRI diagnostics and allows for stem cells to be visualized and magnetically targeted when injected into a beating heart. While finishing up my Ph.D., I primarily looked for teaching faculty positions. Because of a set of serendipitous events, my current position at Rice was created and allowed me to make a smooth transition out of the Wilson lab and into my new role as an instructor. Though it wasn’t the research that initially convinced me to stay, the extraordinary experience and relationships I had at Rice motivated me to serve campus in a different capacity. I now conduct educational research in my department to better understand student learning and attitudes in the chemistry classroom setting.
I am always interested in finding other Houston-area chefs and business owners to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for cooking and science through different culinary topics presented throughout the semester. Having Chef Johnny Curet and the rest of the Housing and Dining team involved is a treat and privilege for my students, who get to see all the hard work that goes on in the servery kitchens. This class is always evolving, and it improves every year.
Watch a video of Lesa Tran’s “Cooking with Chemistry” class featuring guest lecturer Chris Shepherd of Underbelly.
Here’s a comfort food recipe from Lesa Tran Lu’s family recipe file. Serve these sweet, savory and slightly spicy wings with a bowl of warm white rice.
Recipe: Ginger Soy Chicken Wings
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup warm water
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon cornstarch
2 pounds chicken wings
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
6 stalks green onions, julienned
In a medium bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, water, ground ginger and cornstarch. Set aside.
Rinse chicken wings and pat dry. Remove tips and discard; separate each wing at the joint into two pieces. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken wings and fry until golden-brown on each side, about 8–10 minutes. Remove wings from pan and drain on paper towels.
In the same pan over medium heat, saute ginger and green onions until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add soy sauce mixture and stir until just combined.
Add chicken wings and turn them often to coat them as the glaze reduces. Cook until the wings are coated and cooked through. Season with black pepper and serve.