Forced out of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, Rutgers grad looks for new home for her lab

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Hurricane Maria smashed poles and snarled power lines in Puerto Rico. Belinda Pastrana, a chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, says devastation from September’s powerful storm is making it impossible to continue her work on the island. 

Hurricane Maria smashed poles and snarled power lines in Puerto Rico. Belinda Pastrana, a chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, says devastation from September’s powerful storm is making it impossible to continue her work on the island. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

A Puerto Rican scientist and Rutgers University graduate is looking to relocate her lab to the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.  

Belinda Pastrana, a chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, said devastation from September’s powerful storm is making it impossible to continue her work on the island. She’s been there for 20 years, but the post-hurricane realities of life are forcing her to abandon everything she’s known and worked for over the last two decades.

As Hurricane Maria pounded the island with sustained winds of 155 mph, it destroyed homes and uprooted trees. Pastrana hunkered down in her home, hoping for the best.

“It is very difficult to be able to withstand that emotionally, and also just thinking about your families and your loved ones,” she recalled.

The storm knocked out power to the entire island. In her community and at the university, Pastrana said, everybody was as prepared as they could be with lots of extra water and power generators.

“Waking up that following day — and you’re used to using cell phones, you’re used to using electricity, you’re used to using water from your faucet — and, all of a sudden, all of that is gone.”

Pastrana said most of the buildings in her region on the east coast of the island were left intact. However, access to resources was limited as lines for food, water and gas to power generators started to form everywhere.

Pastrana, who researches proteins that are used in medications for Parkinson’s, cancer and other illnesses, owns a startup company that’s working to develop a microscopelike device to study these proteins and how they might react when used in humans.

When she was finally able to check on her labs, she found devastation.  The substances she uses in her experiments were ruined.

“We lost all reagents that had to be refrigerated or frozen, $250,000 worth of reagents that were very unique because they were designed and built and made in our lab,” she said.

All of the backup systems to preserve power had failed.

Pastrana said she is now forced to start over in many ways and she is relocating her lab to the mainland because she needs a reliable power supply to do her work. It’s been a very emotional decision for her.

“You have to keep focused on what is the bigger picture, and what we are developing can help patients around the world several times,” she said.

Puerto Rico will need massive help, both from the government and private companies, in rebuilding its power grid, she said.

“We need electricity, we need that infrastructure — in terms of macro-economics, in terms of micro-economics, in terms of keeping people alive.”

As she checks out several potential locations for her company, Pastrana is also trying to relocate her students to universities in the U.S.

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