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Photo of Normarieli Passalacqua
August 13, 2018

After hurricanes, Puerto Rican scholars find second research home at UW-Madison

Written By: Will Cushman

Mara Domenech’s worst enemy might be power outages.

More than a year before Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure; one such power outage precipitated a fire that consumed Domenech’s lab at the Chemical Engineering Building of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM). The lab, where Domenech and her colleagues researched stem and cancer cells, burned to the ground.

The blaze was a devastating setback for Domenech’s research projects, a 2010 alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s biomedical engineering PhD program who is now a faculty member in UPRM’s Department of Chemical Engineering. But she pushed forward and was making progress toward opening a new lab when, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed the island just days after Hurricane Irma blew through. The public utility was still in the midst of repairing its already tenuous electric grid—and the back-to-back storms dealt the fragile network a death blow with prolonged ramifications.

The U.S. territory’s woes since Hurricane Maria have received widespread attention. Power outages have been measured not in hours since Maria, but in weeks and months. The initial storm damage and the lingering outages combined have made conducting scientific research at UPRM and other universities in Puerto Rico extremely difficult, if not impossible—not to mention the storms’ toll on food production, tourism and the rest of the island’s economy.

“The struggle has been way bigger than just research,” Domenech says.

Soon following the second hurricane, Domenech and her husband temporarily moved their family to Gainesville, Florida, so they could access the internet and communicate with research collaborators around the country, including UW-Madison’s Sean Palecek, a professor of chemical and biological engineering. They moved back to Mayagüez in late October 2017 to begin rebuilding their lives.

“Daily life was very hard,” says Domenech. “Things started to feel normal again in January when we got internet in our house. Then we started to see the aisles in the grocery store fill up with fresh produce again, which is now coming from places like the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica because local agriculture was severely damaged.”

 Ana Reyes-Ramos
Ana Reyes-Ramos, a PhD candidate at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, moved to Madison for six months to continue her research after 2017’s Hurricane Maria made it impossible to maintain a sterile laboratory on the island.

It will take at least a year or two for the island’s orchards and farms to recover. Meanwhile, power outages are less frequent, but still occur occasionally and lasting up to 24 hours at a time. The prolonged and unpredictable outages wreak havoc on research that depends on refrigeration and climate-controlled labs to keep Puerto Rico’s tropical climate from creeping indoors. Cell cultures languish in the heat. Humidity triggers malfunctions in sensitive instruments. And there is the ever-present anxiety that frequent power interruptions could trigger additional setbacks in ongoing research projects.

These problems pose a particularly acute dilemma for researchers whose work is funded by time-limited grants and for students trying to complete their degrees. How can they maintain momentum in their careers while some of the power infrastructures remain unsettled in Puerto Rico?

In the case of Domenech and two UPRM graduate students, that question has been answered by a call to action within Domenech’s alma mater, as UW-Madison College of Engineering faculty in multiple departments have opened their lab doors to the visitors.

One of those visiting scholars is Ana Reyes-Ramos, a PhD candidate in UPRM’s chemical engineering program. Domenech is Reyes-Ramos’ research mentor. Reyes-Ramos grew up in a small town outside of Cartagena, Colombia, but she had lived in Mayagüez since 2014 when she began her graduate work under Domenech. Reyes-Ramos researched in nanoparticles and drug delivery methods until the 2016 lab fire, which necessitated moving to a provisional lab facility and shifting her research to the engineering of biomaterials for modulation of tumor and stem cell behavior. But the 2017 hurricanes again thwarted Reyes-Ramos’ research.

“After the hurricanes in September we couldn’t do any long-term cell culture studies in the lab,” Reyes-Ramos says.

Like Domenech, she left the island for more than a month, returning to Colombia until November hoping to pick up her research. But that proved difficult.

“The energy wasn’t stable, and I couldn’t do long-term studies,” Reyes-Ramos says.

Even when power was working, problems with the lab’s ceiling and air conditioning made for a high-humidity environment that was prone to contamination. Still, Reyes-Ramos persisted with her research, but to no avail. The stem cell differentiation studies at the center of her research require 21-30 consecutive days, and power outages cut it short twice. The failures were quickly becoming discouraging.

But then Domenech learned that an inter-institutional research proposal she had taken part in was awarded by National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The 10-year, $40 million grant would fund the formation of an NSF engineering center comprised of researchers at UPRM, UW-Madison, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia who is developing cell manufacturing techniques and technologies. Domenech and her collaborators, including Palecek, immediately applied for and received supplemental funding to temporarily relocate UPRM researchers at UW-Madison and Georgia Tech. Reyes-Ramos subsequently arrived in Madison in February for a six-month stint in Palecek’s lab.

“For the Puerto Rican team to be integrated into our NSF engineering center grant, we had to find a way to allow them to do research, and there is added value in that this jumpstarts a closer collaboration between the institutions,” says Palecek.

Meanwhile, news of the Domenech and Reyes-Ramos’ situation spread to the College of Engineering more broadly, and a call from the college dean’s office went out to faculty asking them to consider seeking similar supportive relationships with Puerto Rican scholars. In response, Douglass Henderson, chair of the Department of Engineering Physics, reached out to faculty at UPRM who work with nuclear engineering students and was put in touch with a graduate student who was facing the prospect of a significantly delayed master’s degree.

Normarieli Passalacqua began her master’s program at UPRM in 2016. She studies carbon nanotubes and their use in reinforcing polymers, and her research requires the use of a scanning electron microscope, which helps her characterize the materials she’s studying, and a dynamic mechanical analyzer, which allows her to conduct tension and compression tests and other mechanical tests on those same materials. Following the hurricanes and power outages, heat and humidity damaged the specialized instruments. Technicians with the specialized skills to repair the instruments are few and far between, and with the scale of the disaster in Puerto Rico, there was no timetable for making repairs, Passalacqua says.

“In Puerto Rico, we already don’t have too much research equipment, and after Hurricane Maria, we had almost no equipment,” says Passalacqua. “You need a lot of money to fix these instruments, and some universities in Puerto Rico don’t have the funds for that. It’s a really bad situation.”

Still, Passalacqua was lucky enough to have samples that do not require refrigeration or advanced climate control. She says that many of her colleagues lost all of their materials, sometimes representing years of work. Without the invitation from Henderson and UW-Madison, Passalacqua says her research—and degree—would also be delayed by at least a year.

Passalacqua arrived in Madison in March 2018 and was given access to office and lab space for more than two months so she could characterize her samples and complete her degree on time. In Madison, she worked with Kumar Sridharan, Distinguished Research Professor in engineering physics and materials science and engineering.

“This has been so good,” Passalacqua says. “I feel welcomed in Madison. People are always willing to help me.”

In fact, Passalacqua will be returning to Madison in the fall, as she was recently accepted into the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s PhD program. Meanwhile, Reyes-Ramos sees an equally clear silver lining to her sojourn in Madison.

“The work I’m doing here in Madison will be very helpful for my PhD research and most importantly will allow me to complete ongoing research work for publication and thereby contributing to the biomedical and engineering fields,” Reyes-Ramos says. “Wisconsin is one of the best universities in research, and this experience makes a great contribution to my professional career and also can help me with landing a postdoctoral position.