Puerto Rico: Maria’s Laboratory for Scientific Collaboration
by Kimber Price, PhD
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, Ubaldo Córdova-Figueroa’s primary concern was for the safety of his students and research assistants. With communications shut down, it took over a month for the professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez to contact them all. “Having no access to my students or my research-lab members was very painful because I didn’t know what was going on with them. I just wanted to know that they were fine,” he says. Everyone was okay but became anxious when research was interrupted for months. Córdova-Figueroa had to reassure them that it was okay, to relax, and wait for things to return to normal. It was, after all, a catastrophe.
The university sustained an estimated $100 million in damages, and some scientists lost specimens and samples that represented their life’s work.
Córdova-Figueroa says many scientists are concerned about their future in research at the university, which was facing a fiscal cliff before the hurricane. “They are afraid that they may not get the support they need to recover,” he says. But consensus is building that devastation from last year’s hurricanes could change the way science is approached in Puerto Rico. The post-hurricane conditions provide a unique environment to study. There is also an opportunity to develop local, non-scientific and scientific collaborations as well as attract outside collaborators to work together across disciplines. The results could impact resiliency and innovation both locally and globally.
“When you lose energy as we did after Maria, not only does your grid go down but with it goes your health system, your communication, your transportation system, your food distribution system, your education system,” says Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Cecilio Ortíz-García, “But none of those realms, in non-emergency times, talk to each other or understand each other. It’s time to establish a platform for cross-communication.”
Ortíz-García is on the steering committee of the National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI) at the University of Puerto Rico. INESI promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on energy and sustainability problems and has a network of 70 resources across the university’s 11 precincts. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it has been able to help establish collaboration at local, community, and municipal levels as well as with some of the stakeholders, says Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Marla Pérez-Lugo, who is also on the steering committee.
But the federal and central governments have excluded scientists from local recovery efforts she says.
The absence of strong federal and central government involvement following Hurricane Maria has prompted organized innovation and resilience on local levels that was never expected Ortíz-García says. The mayor of San Sebastian pulled together volunteers who were certified electricians, ex power-utilities employees, retired employees, and others like private construction contractors that had heavy equipment. “They put those guys together and started electrifying neighborhoods on their own,” said Professor Ortíz-García.
Solving real-life problems
Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) is a non-profit organization that promotes science communication, education, and research in Puerto Rico. They received a grant from the National Science Foundation to implement project-based science lessons on disaster-related topics. The middle school education program features lesson activities that are related to what’s happening in Puerto Rico as well as culturally relevant.
“We must empower Puerto Rican students to be resilient and innovative problem solvers,” says Director of Communications & Science Outreach for CienciaPR, Mónica Feliú-Mójer.
The first lessons implemented included how to properly wash hands when clean water is scarce and understanding the effect of the storm on the terrestrial environment.
Each child is given a paper microscope and asked to conduct a research project to answer a question they have about how the storms have affected the environment. At the end of June, the students will share their findings with the community.
“We want them to learn how you can use science to solve real-life problems, not just to pass exams,” Feliú-Mójer says.
The project is funded by a RAPID grant, which is awarded for one to two years to respond to emergency or one-off events. The Foundation has awarded about 40 grants associated with Hurricane Maria, according to their website. Most of them are RAPID grants and about 25 percent of them have been awarded to scientists in Puerto Rico.
RAPID grants associated with Hurricane Maria have required INESI to adapt its vision, says Professor Pérez-Lugo. INESI’s basic mission is to look at Puerto Rico from a local perspective to insert local knowledge into the policy process. But the flood of effort coming from outside universities has required them to attempt to identify and coordinate those doing research and relief work in Puerto Rico. INESI initially counted 20 universities conducting research, but other initiatives and projects involving energy and the electric system have been identified since. In some cases, there were three or four teams from the same university working in Puerto Rico that were unaware of the presence of the other teams. “So, these universities found out about their colleagues through us,” said Pérez-Lugo.
The workers and researchers tended to be concentrated in only a couple of municipalities, leaving many areas neglected. INESI coordinated their efforts to avoid fatigue, to avoid saturation in some areas, and to distribute aid in a more just and equal way Pérez-Lugo says.
Updating approaches to disaster
According to Ortíz-García, INESI was founded prior to the arrival of Hurricane Maria in recognition of the flaws associated with the fragmented organization at the university. Like most universities, it is organized to accomplish the goals of teaching, research, and service, which is an organization best suited to the scientific processes of discovery, knowledge creation, and scientific inquiry. “But these are different times,” says Ortíz-García, “with problems that are not aligned with a fragmented, unidisciplinary approach.”
“Let’s say when you have an energy issue, you call an electrical engineer and you fix the problem because electrical engineers are the ones who deal with energy,” Ortíz-García says.
“But that’s an outdated approach because now we know that energy transitions are embedded in everything that society values, from water to health, to safety and security, and to food. So, multiple organizations will need to be involved to solve the problem and they need a common language to fix something.”
INESI has been working toward taking the University of Puerto Rico to the next level of university organization, with networks of interest and practice within and throughout interconnecting disciplines. “Instead of concentrating on a scientific development in one discipline, scientists need to concentrate on the effective design of solutions to issues that don’t belong to any discipline, like climate change,” says Ortíz-García.
Collaborative convergence platforms such as INESI can foster interdisciplinary dialogue and the generation of solutions for these issues. Now, inspired by the influx of representatives from other universities to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, INESI wants to build a platform of platforms.
RISE Puerto Rico
A group representing an inter-university collaborative convergence platform will meet for a foundational catalyst workshop at the end of June. Twenty-seven people from ten universities have already accepted the invitation and will meet face to face for the first time.
“The goal is to look at how all of the platforms work and collaborate not only on Puerto Rico’s problems this year, but learning from Puerto Rico to be able to solve, let’s say, Boston’s problems next year or New York’s or Florida’s problems the year after that,” says Ortíz-García. “That’s why I think the region of Puerto Rico has so much promise.”
“The platform that we’re looking to build here, we’ve already preliminarily named it RISE Puerto Rico, which stands for Resiliency through Innovations in Sustainable Energy,” Pérez-Lugo says.
Starting these dialogs now will go a long way, Ortíz-García says, in reorganizing academic environments toward finding the solutions necessary to fix these problems. “In addition, it can foster innovation in ways our own organizational structure could never, ever think of because you would have spin-off after spin-off of academic conversations not only with the scientists but also community and other stakeholders’ knowledge that is out there from leading these events themselves,” he says.
Córdova-Figueroa is optimistic about the research opportunities in Puerto Rico.
“How we do research in an environment like this one could be a best practice that we can share with the world,” he says.
He would like to see many scientists from around the world take advantage of the myriad research opportunities available. “Come to Puerto Rico,” he says. “You will learn something great here.”
About the Author
Dr. Kimber Price is a science communications graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter: @LowcountryPearl