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Hurricane-affected medical students, and their work, get new start in Buffalo

University at Buffalo (buffalo.edu)

Four medical students from the University of Puerto Rico, whose studies and research were interrupted by Hurricane Maria last fall, will have the opportunity to restore and resume their work in Buffalo, with the help of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

Three of the students and their families are already in Buffalo while the fourth is scheduled to arrive next week.


"I've been working with a lot of these students in the past and one of the first tasks we had after the hurricane was to try to locate them and make sure they were OK and see if there was anything we could do to help," said Dr. Bill Bauer, Director of Education at Hauptman-Woodward. "What we realized fairly quickly, once we got a hold of them, was that they were no longer able to do their research."

Their relocation is happening through the assistance of the BioXFEL Science and Technology Center's Puerto Rico Assistance Program. The BioXFEL Center is a group supported by the National Science Foundation. Hauptman-Woodward serves as the Department of Structural Biology for the University at Buffalo, which is the lead institution within the BioXFEL consortium. Other participating universities include Cornell, Arizona State University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Stanford University.

The NSF BioXFEL Center has been a partner with the University of Puerto Rico for the past four years. It now includes the Puerto Rico Assistance Program, which is assisting researchers directly affected by Hurricane Maria.

"We do have some funds available for them. We recently received a rather large supplement from the National Science Foundation to help support our efforts," said Bauer, who added that donations were still being sought to further support the cause. "NSF has been very supportive of us in supporting our endeavors."

Hurricane Maria, when it passed through Puerto Rico in September, caused significant damage to buildings on the University of Puerto Rico campus. It also destroyed the students' work.

"For my type of work, I work with proteins. It was completely damaged," said Josiris Rodriguez, one of the students. "We lost all samples."

Those samples were critical for what Hauptman-Woodward officials say are important areas of research.

"One is looking at a potential diagnostic marker for determining if cancer is present in patients, so it's obviously very important," said Hauptman-Woodward chief executive officer Dr. Edward Snell. "Another project is looking at potential ways of developing artificial blood."

Rodriguez is working on the latter, which scientists say could prove useful to military in the field, in times of domestic shortage and in times of disasters including the one which forced these students from their home. Knowing artificial blood could have been useful last fall has made Rodriguez more determined.

"That gave me a lot of motivation to keep working on my project and finish it," she said.

Although the relief program is intended to allow students the chance to work elsewhere until their home is restored, Bauer says it is possible the students may ultimately choose to stay in Buffalo. That is, if they're willing to put up with the weather. 

"I would certainly be pushing for that, if any of them were interested."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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