First published November 1, 2005 - More info
The storm is over, but research universities in Katrina-ravaged areas along the Gulf Coast are still struggling to regroup. The hurricane caused scientists to spread out in search of temporary homes and laboratories and led to the loss of countless hours of scientific research.
Although many facilities themselves remain standing, the data that was at their heart has been destroyed, and with it the cell lines, tissue samples, transgenic animals, and reagents needed to start experiments back up again. Precious samples collected over years from patients with specific diseases are gone.
“Our laboratories have been without power since the hurricane,” said Nicolas Bazan, head of Louisiana State University’s (LSU’s) Neuroscience Center of Excellence. “I am very concerned about equipment and reagents that will not be able to withstand the high temperatures and humidity of New Orleans at this time of year. There is major damage to freezers, deep freezers, and CO2 incubators where we kept cell cultures and cell lines.”
These and similar concerns can be felt at universities statewide. For 3 decades, scientists at Tulane University collected information on over 15,000 people from the state, conducting one of the largest studies on racial risk factors for heart disease. Irreplaceable frozen blood and urine samples, critical to study results, were lost along with the electricity. But it is not just the experiments that have been ruined.
“My biggest concern is that we risk losing the outstanding scientists we have recruited for the past 8 years,” said Bazan. “It took a lot of effort and work to build a culture of excellence at the LSU Neuroscience Center. We were poised to grow and begin a new phase of development in a new building, where [we] could expand the translational neuroscience research that is already beginning.” Bazan is not sure what the future of this facility will be. He is also worried about his own research, which he says was in a very exciting period and is now delayed.
A survey by the NIH shows that Bazan is far from alone. At New Orleans institutes alone, nearly 300 federally funded projects worth more than $150 million were affected in some way. Many of the scientists are temporarily situated on other campuses, where they are focused on writing papers and grants and planning how they will recover their losses.
While Bazan is staying with his daughter in Philadelphia, the members of his laboratory are scattered throughout the US, mostly in Louisiana and Texas, and a few are abroad. He is working hard to find temporary labs for his faculty, postdocs, and students and is also trying to persuade the LSU Health Science Center leadership to establish temporary labs in Baton Rouge to keep some of the work going. He, like other displaced scientists, has received many offers of assistance and lab space, for which he is grateful.
Many organizations are reaching out to help their grantees and other individuals, providing programs to match students and faculty with research institutes that wish to host them. Several universities are making their facilities and resources available for Gulf Coast researchers. But, sadly, solving the problem of lab space is but part of the crisis.
“A lot of my time is spent helping cope with the consequences of Katrina, emotional as well as the uncertainty due to material losses. Many of my colleagues just need support. I am doing my very best in this regard because I always feel that people are as important as the research itself,” Bazan told the JCI.
The storm has likewise displaced thousands of physicians and has caused approximately 1,300 medical students to move to other programs. Darcy Wolfman, a former radiology resident at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, left the area just weeks prior to the storm to begin a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. She told the JCI, “I am lucky I got out just in time. The colleagues I left behind are really suffering.” Wolfman explained that not only have many of the local health facilities been damaged, but many of the smaller community health centers have lost their patients’ health records.
The federal government has already allocated $2.3 million to dozens of health center sites in these areas. These funds are intended to reestablish health care facilities and get them up and running quickly.
It is still not clear when these displaced scientists and clinicians will be able to return to their own labs, clinics, and hospitals. “This uncertainty has created a lot of anxiety for our people,” Bazan said. Currently, many hope to return by December.