Local vision, international mobilization: first steps in restoring Puerto Rico's scientific community after Hurricane Maria
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico beginning on September 20, 2017 was catastrophic. While stories of the storm's lingering effects have been well-publicized, the damage to Puerto Rico's scientific community has been largely underreported.
Classes for newly returned students in Puerto Rico were canceled as a result of the storm and its devastating aftermath. Many campus facilities were either destroyed outright or damaged beyond immediate repair. This included not only buildings but also laboratories and other facilities used by scientists ranging from undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students to professors.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to recover the samples and data that were destroyed by the storm, some of which represented over a decade of work. However, the scientific community banded together to minimize the amount of time these scientists would lose continuing or, in some cases, restarting their work. Under the direction of Dr. Juan S.Ramirez Lugo, President of the Caribbean Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a plenary speaker at the 2018 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), a funding program was created to support these scientists through grants and financial aid. AAAS was joined by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT) and Ciencia Puerto Rico in fundraising for and publicizing this important effort. Through this program, funds were available for temporary relocation to continue research as well as the restoration of facilities.
Critical to the success of this project were the over 450 offers of laboratory space and facilities—as well as personal accommodations—from universities, hospitals, and private companies, as well as a handful of individuals. This outreach was not only from the Puerto Rican scientific diaspora but fellow scientists all over the United States as well as France, Italy, and Hong Kong.
As inspiring as these efforts are, they are ultimately temporary solutions. Without repairs to or reconstruction of scientific facilities, many Puerto Rican scientists will find the challenges to continuing their work in Puerto Rico insurmountable. Those who want to remain in the field may have to permanently relocate, as many already have, and others may be forced to end their studies or careers entirely. Given that many residents of the island still lack power, rebuilding is not likely to begin in the short term. Continuing efforts, as well as an international commitment to this community, will be required in the meantime.
The 2018 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students is proud to present Dr. Ramirez Lugo as one of our plenary speakers on November 16.