When Hurricane Sandy knocked out the power to most of New Jersey last year, the lights – and more importantly, the freezers – stayed on at Rutgers University’s Cell and DNA Repository in Piscataway.
The lab, which is home to more than 12 million biological samples, is among the state university’s most valued lab spaces. Its rows of steel cryogenic tanks and deep freezers hold DNA and cell lines that help scientists across the country study numerous diseases.
Any loss of power in the high-profile repository would have been a disaster not only for Rutgers, but also for science, campus officials said.
“It came through unscathed because we had extensive backup generators,” Christopher Molloy, Rutgers’ senior vice president for research and economic development, told The Star-Ledger of Newark.
Other Rutgers labs were not as lucky when Sandy’s wind and water devastated the state last year, school officials said. The lack of backup generators meant some lab freezers defrosted when the power went out. The compressors in other freezers blew out when the electricity surged back on.
In one lab, a 4,800-strain collection of yeast mutants was compromised and enzyme preparations dating back to the 1980s were lost. At another Rutgers site, the lack of electricity left an expensive liquid helium mixture to expand uncontrollably and evaporate.
The lack of e-mail and phone communication also meant some Rutgers professors and staff members traveled on dangerous roads in the aftermath of the storm to check on their experiments and lab animals, only to find their buildings were locked shut, campus officials said.
More than a year after Sandy hit, Rutgers is rethinking how to prepare its research and lab spaces for the next natural or man-made disaster. An internal report made public last week recommended Rutgers add more backup generators and come up with new protocols to protect research data, lab equipment and the welfare of lab animals involved in experiments.
Big money is at stake. Rutgers spends more than $700 million in research grants and funding each year, placing it among the top 25 research universities in the nation. The university brings more federal research dollars to New Jersey than all of the state’s other colleges and universities combined.
Rutgers officials said they do not want a reputation for losing research.
“Without the assurances that we can provide continuous power for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) research projects, Rutgers will jeopardize its ability to garner competitive federal grant support,” the university’s 264-page report on its Hurricane Sandy response concluded.
Molloy, who oversees research operations on Rutgers’ three campuses, said his staff will spend the next few months considering changes – including consolidating important research sites and investing in alternate power sources.
“We clearly need to address where we need some backup generators,” Molloy said. “We’ll be looking at this report and looking at all the core research.”
The extensive backup generator system that kept the freezers humming at the university’s Cell and DNA Repository in Piscataway can be viewed as a model, Molloy said.
But even that system had problems.
At one point, a generator at the repository failed when it temporarily ran out of fuel, according to the internal Rutgers report on the hurricane aftermath.
Campus officials said the university used 55,000 gallons of fuel in the days after the storm, including gas to run generators at labs on the New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses.
While many New Jerseyans were waiting hours in line to fill their cars and gas cans for their home generators, Rutgers was able to procure the abundance of fuel it needed only because of the school’s “excellent relationship with the university’s fuel vendor,” the report said.
Rutgers was among several area research universities affected by Sandy.
The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which partially merged with Rutgers last summer, also lost some research samples stored in lab freezers during the lengthy power outages, campus officials said.
At New York University, thousands of lab rats carefully bred to study heart disease, cancer and other disorders drowned when basement labs at the school’s Kips Bay research facility flooded during the storm, campus officials said.
At Rutgers, Hurricane Sandy also affected the university’s research projects at the Jersey Shore. Rutgers’ Marine Field Station in Ocean County suffered more than $1 million in damage in Sandy’s storm surge, administrators reported. The station, located in a former lifeboat station near Little Egg Inlet in Tuckerton, has since been repaired.
The university’s high-frequency radar stations, which measure sea currents along the Jersey Shore, also sustained about $1 million in damage. They were also repaired and are back online, researchers said.
Despite the isolated problems, the Rutgers report concluded most of the school’s research labs did relatively well during the storm.
That was partly because of dedicated professors, lab workers and students traveling to the closed campus and sleeping in their labs to maintain experiments and care for lab animals, according to the report.
No Rutgers research animals were reported harmed during Sandy, campus officials said. But some researchers remain worried about future disasters.
“I didn’t lose anything from the storm, but a prolonged power outage would be devastating to my animal colony, which is in my laboratory in Psychology,” said one unnamed researcher quoted in Rutgers’ internal report. “These mice are genetically engineered and irreplaceable. Please provide backup support for these facilities.”
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