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Student projects interrupted by US shutdown

It was to have been an exciting three-month research visit. Siddharth Hegde, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, had lined up a trip to NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California. Hegde is an astronomer who models atmospheres on extrasolar planets, and he was planning to study the optical properties of extremophiles — organisms that thrive in extreme environments — during his sojourn.

But then the US government shutdown hit. Hegde, who had carefully nurtured and grown his extremophiles, had to pack up his things and walk out of the Ames lab. Without someone there to oversee the cells and feed them regularly, the extremophile cultures are now dying. (The seed cultures, gathered from hostile environments such as the Atacama and Mojave deserts, remain safe in deep freeze.)

“To go from seed culture to see them grow takes some time,” says Hegde. “Some of these organisms were taking a long time to grow, and if all of these die then I have to start again and wait another month.”

Time is precious because Hegde, an Indian citizen, has a three-month US visa. When that expires at the end of November, he will have to go back to Germany and re-apply if he wants to return — even as other work there requires his attention. “It’s not a question of money right now,” he says. “It’s time. There is no substitute for time.”

For now Hegde is hunkered down at his uncle’s house in northern California, logging into his German research projects and trying to get some work done remotely on those. But he cannot help but think about the organisms languishing in the lab nearby. “The whole field of astrobiology is so hot right now,” he says. “If I don’t finish my work, then that work is lost. Someone else will do it and someone else will get the credit for it.”

Even so, Hegde knows it could be worse. Some of his friends, who are also visiting students at Ames, got kicked out of their NASA dormitory-style housing and struggled to find places to stay, in an unfamiliar city and on short notice, when the dorms closed down. And Hegde’s adviser at Ames, astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild, has found herself at loose ends trying to advise a student team she had mentored for months before the shutdown. Those students, from Stanford and Brown universities, work at the Ames centre in the summer developing a synthetic biology project.

The team competed last weekend in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) contest in Toronto, Canada, but Rothschild was technically barred from communicating with them. They did, however, advance to the next round of the iGEM competition.

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