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Rebuilding research after Katrina

Six months later, New Orleans's battered life science community is struggling to recover

By | March 1, 2006

Nearly six months to the day since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, Mardi Gras took place as scheduled, but New Orleans's research community—and much of its ecology—seemingly has little to celebrate. Instead, scientists are still making due with limited services, faculty, and funding, and scrambling to recover their lost work.

At Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC), which suffered about six feet of flooding, scientists have reestablished cell cultures. But with limited exceptions, animal work continues to be conducted out of Baton Rouge, according to Arthur Haas, chair of biochemistry and molecular biology. "Virtually the entire animal facility was lost," he told The Scientist.

As a result of Katrina, Haas said he lost an estimated million dollars' worth of libraries and reagents - many of them irreplaceable - when the freezers went down, the result of 25 years of work. The LSUHSC reopened its first research center, the eight-story Mervin L. Trail Clinical Sciences Research Building, on January 17. The building has electricity, fire detection, and IT, but no steam (and thus, no autoclaves), air conditioning, or hot water, and no working toilets above the fourth floor. The elevators work, but "we realized they became billows to pump mold from the lower floors to the higher floors, so we only use the elevators on an absolutely need-to-use basis," Haas noted. The university's Medical Education Building is slated to reopen March 6, Hass said, "but with the same provisos."

At Tulane, President Scott S. Cowen has restructured entire schools, including eliminating four engineering majors and folding two others (biomedical and chemical engineering) into a new school of science and engineering. He has also fired faculty to keep the school running. Of 12 full-time faculty working pre-Katrina with William Wimley, associate professor of biochemistry at Tulane Health Sciences Center, two were fired, three are working outside Louisiana but expected to return, one is in Houston teaching Tulane's displaced medical students, and six are in New Orleans, he said.

Wimley's peptide chemistry lab is on the sixth floor of Tulane's Health Sciences Center Building, which had 18 inches of water on the ground for several weeks. He lost the bulk of his reagents in rotting cardboard boxes that cooked for months in dormant freezers. "We threw away probably eight to 10 garbage bags full of samples, and kept a few shoeboxes full," he said, estimating his losses at $20,000 to $25,000.

Another struggle researchers face citywide is maintaining competitiveness for federal dollars. "We're furiously trying to catch up to where we were," said Seth Pincus, director of the Research Institute for Children at Children's Hospital, New Orleans. One of Pincus' two NIH grants is up for renewal in late 2006, the other in 2008. "I've lost six to eight months'" worth of work, and the institute has spent $250,000 in the first two months just replacing reagents, he told The Scientist. "I'm hoping they'll give me that but I don't know, so I'm working like hell."

According to deputy director for extramural research, Norka Ruiz Bravo, the National Institutes of Health is using administrative supplements and "no-cost extensions" to assist the research community in hurricane-stricken areas. These funds are awarded on a case-by-case basis. According to Bob Cashner, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school at the University of New Orleans (UNO), "in almost all cases, we have received those extensions."

Also badly hit is the local ecology. Michael Poirrier, a UNO marine biologist, has been surveying aquatic vegetation at five locations around Lake Pontchartrain since 1996. Since Katrina, three of those sites contain no submerged vegetation, and little remains at the other two, he told The Scientist in an e-mail. Marsh habitat directly in the storm's path lost all of their grass beds, affecting local wintering waterfowl, he said. Such beds also provide protection for small aquatic creatures including blue crab and shrimp. And scientists said this week they expect a post-Katrina surge in mosquitoes, potentially increasing the risk of West Nile Virus. All this, and hurricane season is just three months away.

Still, scientists that spoke to The Scientist were unanimous in their optimism and their desire to rebuild. "My feeling is we're going to recover, and maybe even be stronger than we were before," said Tulane's Wimley.

Correction (posted March 2): When originally posted, this story said Seth Pincus' NIH grant was up for renewal in 2007. The actual date is late 2006. The original story also said Pincus had spent $250,000 to replace reagents. That figure is for his entire institute; Pincus' lab spent closer to $30,000. And when originally posted, the article said Tulane had eliminated the school of engineering. In reality, that school has been restructured. The Scientist regrets these errors.

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