Sunday, September 04, 2005

Another loss from Katrina.

The attention at this point should still be focuses on immediate matters of life and death -- getting people hit by the hurricane and the flooding out of harm's way, getting them water, food, shelter, medical attention, helping them to find their loved ones.

But after all that comes the larger project of rebuilding lives. And among the group of people trying to pick up and go on will be scientists (including post-docs and graduate students) who were doing scientific research at colleges and universities in the stricken areas.

I don't know (nor, I imagine, does anyone else yet) the extent of the loss: experimental apparatus, reagents, stored data, lab notebooks. Hoods and vacuum lines and all that good stuff. Years of work (potentially) gone.

I do not know what kind of delays to our scientific knowledge might result. In the grand scheme of things, we can live with them. I'm more concerned about what will happen if multiple cohorts of science students and early-career researchers have to suddenly start from scratch.

Yes, I know, lots of people will be starting from scratch. People who have been evacuated with nothing will be trying to find work and get re-established. But, arguably, the kind of help most people will need to get back on track will come down to things that are easier to provide -- food, shelter, clothes appropriate for job interviews and work, leads on jobs, etc. For undergraduates, the needs are different (classes to complete a degree, books, room, board, and tuition), but they could be met by any number of colleges and universities stepping up to take on the students displaced by the hurricane. (See, for example, this list, thoughtfully linked by Bitch Ph.D, of schools jumping into the breach and this letter to to a university dean and provost.)

But imagine you're an nth year graduate student. You've been struggling in the lab (as graduate students do), and finally in your (n-1)th year have you gotten the experimental system to behave and accumulated some really good data. You've turned the corner, not only in terms of making a real (if little) contribution to knowledge in your field, but also in terms of feeling like you could really be a scientist when you grow up.

And now? With the whole lab washed away? Can you believe that you'll be able to get back on track without investing another n years of your life? Is trying to be a scientist still a rational decision?

Let's face it, certain moments in graduate school are soul-crushing enough without Mother Nature screwing with you. I think it would be heartbreaking if a major break in the science pipeline were one of the consequences of Katrina.

Are any of those with university labs in a position to help displaced graduate students and post-docs? Is anyone looking into what sorts of arrangements could be made, and figuring out how, when things have calmed down a bit, to identify the displaced scientists and find out what kinds of help they might need?

Right now, people need food, water, and shelter. But in the long run, we all need scientists. Besides, no one needs extra slings and arrows in graduate school. I'm hopeful that the scientific community will show itself to be a real community here, characterized by its compassion as well as its mad scientific skillz.

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