Response to Caribbean Storms Offers Lessons on Resiliency, Opportunity

Kenneth Boutte (at podium) addresses the 2018 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM along with fellow panelists Juan Ramírez Lugo, Giovanna Guerrero-Medina and Camille McKayle. | ColellaDigital

Hurricanes that devastated areas of the Caribbean last fall impeded science research and teaching, but new networks for aiding colleagues and new avenues for research have emerged from the response efforts, according to several speakers at a recent conference co-hosted by AAAS.

The 2018 Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, was held in Washington, D.C., from Feb. 22-24.

In a plenary talk, Juan Ramírez Lugo, assistant professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus and president of the AAAS Caribbean Division, detailed the effects of Hurricane Maria on scientific research and teaching in the Caribbean.

The September 2017 storm wrought significant damage to physical infrastructure, causing “weeks and months” of disruption in electrical power and cell phone service, he said. “How many people looked at their phone first thing this morning?” Ramírez Lugo asked conference attendees, as nearly every hand in the room rose. Cell phone service has returned, but electricity has still not reached the entire island, he said.

The financial impacts of the storm are also immense, with damage estimated at 34.1% of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product, he added.

The U.S. Virgin Islands was hit not just by Hurricane Maria but also by a second Category 5 hurricane, Irma, in the span of a month, said Camille McKayle, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of the Virgin Islands.

After the storms swept through, St. Thomas – one of the territory’s three main islands – “looked like it had been burnt,” she said.

Throughout the Caribbean, as many struggled to survive, universities were also faced with destroyed labs, ruined equipment and missing samples, among other challenges. Yet McKayle and her colleagues at UVI focused on “not if, but when and how” they would resume classes. Ultimately the semester restarted in October as the university relied on generator power. At UPR’s Río Piedras campus, the fall semester was moved back two months; the spring semester begins this month.

UVI sought to “meet students where they are” – a mission that always guides the historically black university, McKayle said. They housed those students who weathered the storm on campus while making coursework and lectures available to students who could not yet return to the islands.

“It’s going to take a lot of time to get back on our feet, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t,” Ramírez Lugo said.

The ERN conference, hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation, was aimed at undergraduate and graduate students, particularly those participating in programs funded by the NSF’s Human Resource Development Unit. That unit aims to boost the ranks of underrepresented minorities and individuals with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

About 70% of the conference’s approximately 1,100 attendees were undergraduate and graduate students, representing 240 colleges and universities – including 54 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The ERN conference, now in its eighth year, seeks to help students hone their science communication skills and prepare for science careers. The program included nearly 700 oral and poster presentations delivered by students and judged by STEM professionals; workshops on graduate applications and funding and career preparation; a new “maker” innovation showcase for students from HBCUs to address sustainability challenges; a video contest; and several plenary addresses.

Giovanna Guerrero-Medina, executive director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a resource network for those interested in science and in Puerto Rico, and director of Yale University’s Ciencia Initiative, told the conference how the science community and the Puerto Rican diaspora have stepped up to offer assistance to scientists in Puerto Rico.

Ciencia Puerto Rico created a centralized site for disseminating information and directing donations to those in need, she said. The site fielded offers of laboratory space, specimens and more, receiving more than 450 offers of aid in one month, Guerrero-Medina said.

“Hopefully this can be a model for how other communities, other societies, other groups can help in similar situations,” she said.

Ciencia Puerto Rico and the AAAS Caribbean Division, in partnership with the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust, launched the Hurricane Relief Grants program to support science in Puerto Rico. The program allocates grants along three tracks:

  • Restoration grants go toward the restocking of materials and samples, rehabbing of teaching and research spaces, and the repairing of damaged equipment.
  • Thesis grants offer supplemental funds to graduate students within one year of completing their degrees who were set back by being unable to continue research.
  • Continuity grants support scientists seeking to temporarily relocate to continue their research elsewhere.

A funding drive raised $182,000, including $61,000 from AAAS members, demonstrating the value of scientific societies in cultivating a community of like-minded individuals working toward similar goals, said Ramírez Lugo. “They see that there’s a colleague in need, they run out and help,” he said.

Students and researchers have submitted 130 completed applications, with 52 grants distributed thus far, he said.

While the region is still in relief mode, the hurricanes have shaped and strengthened research priorities in the Caribbean, Guerrero-Medina said. “We need to look beyond the emergency to really build a resilient Puerto Rico.”

Ciencia Puerto Rico’s mission to improve science education on the island – where the majority of eighth graders are not proficient in science and math – was sharpened and adjusted after the hurricane. Through a “new prism” of sustainability and resiliency, Ciencia Puerto Rico developed project-based science lesson plans on subjects like renewable energy and safe drinking water. The organization is currently working to disseminate the plans to teachers and has requested a grant from the National Science Foundation to test the effects of the lessons and study feasibility of their use in disaster zones.

UVI researchers have also been awarded a new grant from NSF’s Rapid Response Research program to study the impacts of hurricanes on coral reefs, McKayle said.

“The glass is more than half full,” she said of the opportunities that have emerged in the wake of the hurricanes’ destruction.

Kenneth Boutte offered a perspective from an institution that recovered — and re-emerged stronger — from a devastating hurricane. Boutte is a professor of biology and the former associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU in New Orleans that was shut down for months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The campus was flooded with brackish water and was inaccessible until October of that year, said Boutte.

"Many people thought that Hurricane Katrina was the coffin of Xavier University and that it would be buried unceremoniously without ever coming back," he said.

The university's president, however, was determined to reopen in January 2006, despite extensive damage to facilities, far-flung faculty, administrators and students, and little funding. Administrators were told they would be lucky if 50% of their students returned, but more than 75% came back to Xavier, Boutte said.

Boutte credited the university's resurgence in part to the partnerships it developed with other institutions: Xavier shared classroom space with other local universities, while universities outside New Orleans temporarily admitted and housed Xavier students, he said.

Today, the school is No. 1 in the nation in bachelor's degrees awarded to black students in biological and biomedical sciences, physical sciences and physics, and in black graduates who go on to medical school, Boutte said.

Yanitza Rodríguez González, who recently completed her undergraduate coursework in biology at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus, was moved by the plenary address.

“It resonates with my own experiences because I did pass through the whole hurricane at home and also was without power for three months and without water for two months,” Rodríguez González said. “I was lucky to be offered the opportunity to study abroad, but many people were not so lucky.” She is currently taking additional courses at the University of Minnesota before her graduation at UPR this spring.

Rodríguez González learned about the ERN conference last summer while conducting research on epilepsy in a biomedical engineering lab at the University of Minnesota. She took part in the conference’s poster presentation, a networking opportunity that has already opened doors for her: one of the judges offered her a position in her lab at Yale University.

Rodríguez González, who plans to pursue a biomedical engineering graduate degree, cited the professional growth the conference afforded and the inspiring advice from speakers in encouraging other students to attend the ERN conference. “Go for it,” she said.

[Associated image: Jorge Colón]