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New York research facilities feel Sandy’s wrath

Posted on behalf of Brendan Borrell and Helen Shen.

It was sometime around 8:00 pm on Monday night when the surging East River, driven by Hurricane Sandy, broke its banks and a deluge of brackish water came pouring into the basement of New York University’s Smilow Research Center at 30th Street. For neurobiologist Gordon Fishell, who was weathering the storm at his home in Larchmont, New York, it was the worst-case scenario for his research.

The flooded basement houses the building’s animal care facility and its emergency generators.  Fishell lost 40 strains of mice in all — about 2500 individuals — the sum total of what he had developed over a decade of research on forebrain development, including a paper published last year in Nature. Today, the building reeks of diesel fuel, and dozens of Fishell’s colleagues in fields that range from cancer research to cardiology have yet to take full account of the magnitude of the disaster.

Although New York University (NYU) was clearly the research facility hardest hit by this week’s storm, others were also affected. Leslie Vosshall, who studies the olfactory system of mosquitoes at Rockefeller University, located about 35 blocks further up river from NYU, shut down a computer server in the basement on Sunday, but fears it could have been damaged from flooding. She has had to wait for the university to pump out the water, before she can check on it. “We do have some of the data backed up elsewhere, but it would set us back significantly.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island was largely spared, but the evening was not without drama. Lanny Bates, assistant laboratory director for facilities and operations, says that the lab decided to keep one supercomputer online for international collaborations and power outages knocked out their cooling system for several hours. “We ran out of chilled water and the temperature rose from 43 degrees to 47,” he says.

Fishell says the one bright spot is that he has received calls and emails of support from colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Weill Cornell Medical College, who are offering to help him replenish his mouse colony. They can do that because he has always believed in sharing reagents and mice strains as quickly as possible after publication. “I don’t think there is a single allele that we had produced or transferred that is not in someone else’s hands,” he says. “If there’s a lesson in this, it’s why sharing in the community is so valuable.”

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