Even after both light and heat were restored, some of the mice never fully recovered. “In the end, we decided not to do any experiments with the existing mice,” Skok says. “I didn’t want to be in the situation where you’re thinking, ‘Well, is this result interesting or is it an artifact of the hurricane?’”
Many of the stories that surfaced after Sandy are much like this — tales of time spent trying to recoup years, even decades, of work, commuting to multiple locations for a single experiment, or waiting for help to arrive from distant collaborators.
Hurricane Sandy’s true toll for science is the “astronomical” loss of time and effort, says David Gresham, assistant professor in NYU’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. “In most labs, that was where the real financial burden fell.”
Gresham was luckier than most. His building, located farther from the water than the medical center is, also lost power. He too lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of reagents, enzymes and other supplies, but he was able to save his lab’s irreplaceable resource: a collection of yeast strains generated, in some cases, over decades.
The night of the storm, his department administrator called him at home, asking him to choose one item in his lab to save. He was told that electricians would hardwire it into emergency power that was available to light stairwells.
Gresham immediately chose the -80 degree Celsius freezer that contained his strain collection. “But some people had to make a difficult decision about what to save,” he says. “It was like Sophie’s Choice.”
Help, financial and otherwise, has been available to many of the labs that endured Sandy.
Apart from insurance reimbursements, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has contributed about $180 million thus far to NYU. The university also offered support to fledgling labs that might not otherwise have survived the upheaval. The National Institutes of Health granted most researchers a one-year extension on grants.
Fishell and Skok both suggest that not everyone who got help fully deserved it. “A lot of people are exaggerating up the wazoo,” Fishell says.
Overall, however, Hurricane Sandy seems to have brought out the best among scientists.
When news of Fishell's losses became public, for example, emails began pouring in from scientists with whom he had shared his mice. More than 30 labs eventually sent him back mouse strains, allowing him to repopulate roughly 40 percent of his original collection. Some scientists don’t share their mice for fear of being scooped, but “that’s just stupid, it really is,” Fishell says.
This silver lining of scientific generosity shines through others’ experiences as well. “People who were my fiercest competitors were emailing me saying, ‘What do you need? How can we help? We’ll send you what you need,’” Skok says.
Stewart Anderson, Fishell’s most direct competitor, went so far as to offer Fishell space in his own lab at Cornell University. “It’s really a wonderful story of how the community works together,” Fishell says. “We work better when we work together.”
Still, NYU is trying to make sure its scientists won’t ever be in this situation again. In the new building that Fishell and others will occupy, set to be ready in two years, the mouse facility will be on the third floor. The temporary leased MRIs are on the lobby level of the medical center. When they arrive, the permanent MRIs, too, will be high enough above ground to withstand floods.