For more than 30 years, researchers at New Orleans’ Tulane University conducted one of the most exhaustive heart disease studies in the country, tracking the diets, habits and blood chemistry of 16,000 people in Bogalusa, La.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit. Most of the Bogalusa Heart Study’s tissue samples were destroyed when freezers lost power.
“You can’t just regenerate 30 or 40 years of material,” said Dr. Paul Whelton, Tulane’s senior vice president for health sciences. “A great international treasure was lost.”
In Katrina’s aftermath, universities along the Gulf Coast are reeling from the loss of scientific research and the scattering of hundreds of scholars across the country.
Though many facilities escaped damage, experiments within often did not.
Many of Tulane’s 148 research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health, for example, are a shambles, university officials said.
The scientific losses have cast a cloud over the future of the city as an educational and research hub.
“We are not UCLA. We are not an Ivy League school,” said Dr. Nicolas Bazan, head of Louisiana State University’s Neuroscience Center of Excellence in New Orleans. “But this is a wonderful part of the country.... I’d like [displaced faculty members] to have faith that we will be able to regroup and continue.”
To scientists, failed freezers are Hurricane Katrina’s ruinous emblem.
Bazan said the storm destroyed frozen brain tissue from scores of Alzheimer’s patients and wiped out hundreds of unique cell cultures.
Before the storm, Bazan was seeing his dream come to life after nearly a decade of fundraising, recruitment and research. The neuroscience center was gaining prominence with a flurry of research findings, including evidence that fish oil may combat the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
LSU had agreed to build a new laboratory for his 110 staff members, who were studying stroke, epilepsy and other brain disorders.
Now, with the campus trying to recover from massive flooding, and Hurricane Rita on the horizon, his building is on hold.
“We’re trying to digest our anguish and overwhelming uncertainty in order to deal with this enormous task” of reviving the program, Bazan said.
Paul L. Fidel Jr., a microbiologist and associate dean of research at LSU’s dental school, had stored frozen samples from patients suffering yeast infections collected over much of his career -- an exceptional biological databank.
“Fifteen years of work, gone,” he said with resignation.
Thousands of LSU’s experimental animals, including unique genetically altered mice, died or had to be killed -- a setback for many of its 117 NIH-funded projects.
Although much research has been disrupted, there were also signs that, barring new flooding, some researchers might soon be back at work.
Most university labs are above ground level in strong, modern buildings, so much of the equipment was unharmed.
Some biological products survived because they were stored in canisters filled with super-cold liquid nitrogen rather than in electric freezers.
One of the nation’s largest collections of preserved fish -- 7 million Gulf Coast specimens gathered over 50 years -- was moved out of the main Tulane campus a few years ago due to space constraints.
It proved to be a stroke of luck. The collection survived because it was housed in World War II-era ammunition bunkers on high ground.
“They are made of reinforced concrete and are virtually indestructible,” said ichthyologist and curator Hank Bart.
Dozens of universities and U.S. Department of Energy labs have offered temporary offices, lab space and library privileges to displaced scientists.
Tulane cell biologist Joan Bennett relocated to New Jersey and might accept an offer to stay at Rutgers University for the fall term. She is also fortunate because she specializes in Aspergillus, a hardy mold.
“Aspergillus forms spores, and even without power they should last about six months,” Bennett said of her specimens back in New Orleans.
She also may soon be in demand as a consultant for the city’s reconstruction. Mold is expected to inundate the walls of dank houses.
University officials, however, worry that it may be tough to get some researchers to return.
Officials at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black institution, said some faculty have landed temporary slots at Texas Tech University, Mississippi State University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier, which was flooded to a depth of nearly 6 feet across its entire campus, said the school must somehow get up and running again in January.
“This is my greatest challenge,” said Francis, head of the school since 1968. “We’re on our knees, but we’re not on our back.”
Tulane, which suffered flooding in about half of its buildings, sees its future as an important research institution tied directly to scholars returning to work quickly.
Before Katrina, Tulane’s research star was rising. The private New Orleans university had tripled its grant funding in recent years to about $140 million annually, including $90 million for biomedical studies.
“We are very exposed,” said Tulane’s Whelton. “It’s hard to keep the research community intact if all they are going to do is work through chaos for the next few years. We have to give them a ray of hope that there is a reason to stay.”