Displaced graduate student Ana Milena Reyes Ramos has been working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Elizabeth Gamillo

A year after Hurricane Maria, mainland scientists have helped Puerto Rican colleagues recover

It’s a cliché to say it takes a village to educate a scientist. But Yoana Guzman Salgado and Ana Milena Reyes Ramos are proof that such a global village exists, and that it was able to swing into action within days of Hurricane Maria’s punishing blow to Puerto Rico last fall.

Salgado had just begun to write her master’s thesis in microbiology and Ramos was in the midst of her doctoral dissertation in bioengineering at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez when Maria struck on 16 September 2017. It was 40 days before students and faculty were allowed to return to the campus, which also houses a medical school. But the extensive damage from the water, wind, and loss of power meant that things were still a long way from getting back to normal.

Anticipating how long the recovery would take, evolution geneticist Marta Wayne of the University of Florida in Gainesville immediately contacted her program manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and won approval for a supplemental grant to help up to five students in need. On 28 September 2017, Wayne posted a Facebook notice inviting students on the island to apply.

Salgado was one of eight graduate students who responded, along with more than two dozen undergraduates, and in January she joined Kevin Brown’s molecular biology laboratory. In May she moved to the University of Chicago in Illinois, where cell biologist Jean Greenberg gave her a chance to continue her analysis of the composition of sludge from a sewage treatment plant and its impact on plant growth. (The University of Chicago put up institutional funding for seven other graduate students and nine undergraduates through a hurricane relief initiative at its Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.)

In addition to the NSF grant, Florida found institutional funding to offer a temporary haven for nine faculty members from UPR Mayagüez, a sister UPR campus in Río Piedras, and the University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie. One of them, bioengineering professor Maribelle Domenech, happens to be Ramos’s adviser. She’s also a co-principal investigator for an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT). The center, based at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, received a $300,000 supplemental grant from NSF for a range of hurricane recovery efforts. It allowed Domenech to place Ramos in the lab of Sean Palecek, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who is also CMaT’s associate director for research.

Ramos, who came to UPR Mayagüez in 2014 from her native Colombia to study under Domenech, uses biomaterials to regenerate cardiac cells. But that work requires sterile conditions, which were lacking after Maria struck. (The chemical engineering building that housed Domenech’s lab was still recovering from a devastating fire that had struck in 2015, and Maria’s fury unleashed a new set of problems relating to climate control and asbestos.)

Domenech returned to UPR Mayagüez in December 2017, but Ramos expects to stay in Madison until the end of the year. Palecek, whose laboratory specializes in engineering human pluripotent stem cells for clinical applications, is hosting two other Ph.D. students from UPR Mayagüez, and is glad to be able to lend a hand.

“Puerto Rico is a challenging place to do science for a number of reasons,” he says. “They are also geographically isolated, so it’s good to have these partnerships.”

Now back at UPR Mayagüez, Salgado says her travels have taught her that science is indeed a global enterprise—and what role Puerto Rico must play. “I realized that we don’t have the same conditions as other grad students,” she says. “We have to fight and invent more to push forward our research. Although [UPR Mayagüez] is a great institution, there is a lack of materials and equipment.”

Salgado hopes to defend her thesis in February 2019. Then she plans to apply to a doctoral program at either—take a guess—the University of Florida or the University of Chicago.