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Scientists offer help to labs hit by Harvey, even tending to their fruit flies

A road is flooded on Sunday after Hurricane Harvey in Aransas Pass, Tex. (Gabe Hernandez/Corpus Christi Caller-Times/AP)

Days after his home town of Port Aransas, Tex., was slammed by Hurricane Harvey, microbiologist Brett Baker finally got a status report on his third-floor laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute.

His laboratory members had stored supplies in cabinets. They'd wrapped larger equipment in thick plastic secured by duct tape. Miraculously, it appeared to have worked, he found out Wednesday. A $25,000 computer server had been salvaged. Centrifuges, water baths, incubators and PCR machines looked largely intact. He wasn't sure about whether his research samples were safe, but Baker felt lucky. The ceiling had held — although the lab next door had not been as fortunate.

“That said, we’re kind of like, ‘Okay, good. Everything is there,’" Baker said. But the lab has no power, and it could take weeks or months to be restored. “Now, where do we go? What do we do?”

People moved by the wrenching scenes of devastation in Texas have been donating what they can to support communities that will have a long path to recovery. Add to the outpouring of support: lab space, supplies and offers to tend fruit flies or store cells.

Baker is encouraging his three graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow to take up offers made by colleagues in the scientific community. Labs in California, Sweden and Massachusetts have offered to host the young scientists, so their research doesn't go off track.

That's part of a broader outpouring of support from scientists. Tim Mosca, a fruit fly neurobiologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, began talking with colleagues about how he could help shortly after the storm hit. After Katrina and Sandy, he'd seen the setbacks suffered by colleagues — the ones that don't always come to mind at first — when lab equipment and experiments were destroyed.

Mosca's idea grew from a tweet offering assistance into an active Google document facilitated by the team behind the March for Science in Houston. Already, more than 200 laboratories have volunteered to help, with specialties that span the gamut from virology to soft condensed matter physics.

Mosca said the scientific aid could include providing lab space, storing samples or replacing necessary materials that have been lost.

“In some cases, there’s a very real possibility that students are going to be displaced, and people that aren’t going to be able to get back into labs for months, up to years, in the middle of working on a doctoral thesis or working on a project that has strong public health relevance,” Mosca said. “We want to make sure they don't lose that progress.”

So far, he has yet to have anyone take him up on the offer, but he's not surprised, knowing many people are still in the first stages of making sure everyone is safe or assessing the damage to their homes.

Addgene, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., that serves as a repository of plasmids — circles of DNA that are a basic tool in molecular biology — has also offered to replace materials lost in the storm.

After Katrina, Addgene shipped out some plasmids, but they haven't gotten any requests yet from Harvey.

“If a lab were to contact us and say, ‘We're in desperate straits,’ we’d certainly offer a discount — if not provide it free of charge,” said Joanne Kamens, executive director of Addgene.

For his part, Baker spoke from relatives’ house in Wisconsin, where he was trying to enroll his 8-year-old son in a new school. Then, he planned to drive back home to deal with the destruction.

Baker said he has been in contact with colleagues, but so far many of them haven't even had a chance to focus on the possible destruction of experiments, frozen samples or lab equipment because most are reeling from the severe damage to their houses.

“I haven’t heard on the other labs yet. It seems like every hour, there’s some new news that I hear about it — and some of it’s really bad and some of it's good,” Baker said.

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