Compassionate colleagues can help labs restart after disaster

Superstorm Sandy

Scientists plan for many things, but often not for disaster. Two scientists share their story of recovery after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

Jeff Schmaltz/LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team/GSFC/NASA

Scientists spend a lot of time planning. Planning the next set of experiments, the next paper, the next funding application. An hour on a coveted piece of equipment can require several months of legwork. Mice or other animals for experiments have to be bred years in advance — foresight that takes planning.

It’s one thing to plan for experiments you’d like to do. Preparing for scenarios you hope never happen is often much harder. When a disaster hits the lab, even the best plans for mice and men may give way to wind and weather.

Superstorm Sandy hit New York University’s Langone Medical Center in 2012 with a storm surge of more than four meters (13 feet). Thousands of animals, carefully housed in the basement to control heat, light, humidity and noise, drowned in the water. The emergency power flickered out, thawing carefully stored samples. The losses represented millions of dollars in research funding. But they also represent years of lost work, in some cases more than a decade.

Competitors and colleagues came together to help, and two years later, the medical center and the scientists there are still working away. The recovery illustrates that science can continue in spite of loss. And it shows that scientists, like the rest of us, get by with help from their friends. 

“My lab was on the eighth floor of a building that was actually slated to be torn down in the next year,” recalls Mary Helen Barcellos-Hoff, a cancer biologist at NYU. “The move just kept getting put off.” The eighth floor might seem relatively safe from flooding, and sure enough, it stayed dry. But the power was a far more difficult issue.

“The freezers shut down,” she recalls. “My lab had to spend two to three days moving up and down eight floors in the dark with our biological specimens so we could rescue our samples. It was 10 years of biological samples. We lost two-thirds of them, just because we couldn’t move them fast enough.” And a rodent experiment at the end of its two-and-a-half year run had to be terminated early when the animals were suddenly exposed to wild variations in light and temperature.

Barcellos-Hoff’s lab studies ionizing radiation in breast cancer — both how it can cause cancer, and how it is used to stop cancer from spreading. The researchers worked closely with the radiation oncology group at the hospital, which provides radiation therapy to patients treated for cancer. During the storm, the basement housing the radiation oncology unit flooded and the linear accelerators were lost. “Our clinical department lost a huge investment in the accelerators to treat patients,” says Barcellos-Hoff. “They had to squeeze in with another clinical building. The time on the machines meant they had to work seven in the morning to eight at night and weekends to keep their clinical practice.” The clinicians are still working those extra hours while new accelerators — and a new building to hold them high above potential flood waters — are being installed.

Picking a lab back up is a tough task. “It took two months before people were thinking straight,” Barcellos-Hoff recalls. But, she says, her colleague Bob Schnieder, also a cancer biologist, stepped in immediately to help. “He had just moved into a new building. He said ‘It’s just us chickens up here, why don’t you come over and stay on the empty benches near us?’ He really championed our cause.” The generous offer proved helpful to both labs, and in the end, Barcellos-Hoff’s lab stayed at the new location, forming a base for breast cancer research with Schneider and other groups.  

Bruce Cronstein, a translational scientist, also lost his lab’s work. But instead of samples, he lost all of his mice to Sandy’s surge. “We had eight or nine different types, ones with certain genes knocked out,” he says. These are not just mice that can be bought from a supplier. They need to be bred carefully by in vitro fertilization and raised in pathogen-free rooms.

So Cronstein had to call in a favor. Eleven years earlier, Cronstein helped out Michael Blackburn, a molecular biologist studying lung diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who lost all of his mice during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. At the time, Cronstein helped Blackburn maintain one of his valuable mouse strains. “It was tough,” Blackburn recalls. “We lost all our mice. 100 percent kill. I called [Cronstein] and I asked if I could have his mice.” After an escapade involving a long road trip with two mousey passengers, Blackburn was eventually able to restart his colony.

In 2012, Blackburn repaid the favor and helped Cronstein restart his mouse colony at NYU. “He really helped us,” Blackburn says. “We repopulated our colony quickly and got back to work within a year. When the same thing happened to him, we were happy to help. We’ve been there. We what losing the mouse colony means. It’s blood, sweat and tears.”He learned just how important it was to share. “You never know when you’re going to need help like this,” he says.

The help of his colleagues was crucial to getting Cronstein’s lab back on its feet. “I actually had people e-mailing me offers even before we were in any position to take things,” he recalls. “We have a strong community, at some level we’re all competing with each other, but we’re also collaborating. You figure you pay it forward, you never know when you’ll be on hard times and need something.” Those that never share their resources or materials may not find themselves so fortunate in times of trouble.

The experience has made Cronstein, Blackburn and Barcellos-Hoff grateful for the many scientists they have worked with over the years. It has also made them careful. The labs still lost many stored samples. “I’ve had a lab going for 30 years,” Cronstein says. “We had irreplaceable specimens.” The experience with Sandy has made Cronstein something of a laboratory minimalist. “We think about backup a lot more than we used to,” he notes.

Barcellos-Hoff has become even more zealous about contingency plans in the face of disaster. “It’s very hard to think about before it happens,” she says. “But now we think first thing, what is the insurance policy for the mice, for the samples, for the files. Are they backed up?” She also emphasizes that NYU was very supportive to the scientists and clinicians. “They released emergency funds almost immediately,” she says, to replace the valuable equipment and chemicals that a lab needs to function.

They also know that they were lucky. For some, rebuilding is still in progress. Many delicate human samples may never be replaced. NYU has put its own plans in place, mindful of another potential disaster. “We think this is going to happen again,” says Cronstein. “We don’t know when.” He says that NYU now has a team dedicated to emergency planning, preparing for another disaster. But with work, planning and help from fellow scientists, science, even in the face of disaster, keeps moving on.

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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