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Science/Technology

Students displaced by Hurricane Maria at Hauptman-Woodward

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In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with 175 mph winds, cutting the island in half and unleashing torrents of rain and devastation. Now, almost a year later, Buffalo is helping displaced students rebuild their education while Puerto Rico is still rebuilding from the storm.

Natalia Crespo was an undergrad majoring in Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Puerto Rico when Maria hit.  

“Classes got cancelled a few days before and then we were like ‘oh secure your apartments and get home if you can get home, if not they kind of just sit tight and brace for the storm,” Crespo says.

The university’s fall semester was cancelled entirely, but the school tried to make up the lost time. With damage to labs and other problems many students looked elsewhere, and with the help of a federal aid program, some came here.

Frances Heredia is another Puerto Rican student whose plans to return to the island are on hold. She was studying here when Hurricane Maria hit, and will complete a Biophysics PhD program in December.

“Our university has so many limitations, it used to be that we had all the resources that we needed but over the last years with the economy being what it is, when equipment gets damaged there is no money to fix it, no money to buy a new one,” Heredia says.

The Hauptman-Woodward Research Institute soon became a place for  four Puerto Rican students to finish their research. Three out of the four students there were on the island during the Hurricane.

“When the hurricane hit we decided that we had to change our strategy, the things that we were offering were no longer really needed, they needed something different, so we created somewhat of a relief fund through our center where we tried to bring them off the island so they could continue their research,”  says  Dr. Bill Bauer, the associate education and diversity director for BioXFEL Research in Buffalo.

At UB, Crespo is getting the chance to finish her research before returning home. However, her move came with some complications.

“Some of the classes I need are not going to be offered for, who really knows how long so my graduation expectation just kind of shot up I was supposed to graduate next year, now at best I’m graduating in two years maybe two and a half years,” Crespo says.

Now she’s hoping to complete her undergraduate degree here at UB. Heredia meanwhile gets an opportunity that she would not have if she had stayed in Puerto Rico.

“Since I am a PhD student, being here in Buffalo gives me the opportunity to graduate, " Heredia says.

Dr. Bauer hopes that this helps to build a stronger relationship with Puerto Rican researchers and the Buffalo community.

“I’m hoping that the people at UB and the people in Buffalo will realize the potential in the students of Puerto Rico and will maybe more actively recruit from the island and potentially give them some more opportunities,” Bauer says.