After Hurricane, a Spectroscopist Starts Over, Leaving Dreams Behind in Puerto Rico

February 15, 2019

In the fall of 2017, Belinda Pastrana, like many Puerto Ricans, faced destruction all around her following of Hurricane Maria’s arrival on September 20.

In the fall of 2017, Belinda Pastrana, like many Puerto Ricans, faced destruction all around her following Hurricane Maria’s arrival on September 20. A few months later, Pastrana, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez (UPRM), had relocated to Boston and was reviving her biotech company. Within a year, she was presenting new data on her company’s analytical techniques at the SciX conference.

Pastrana and her company are rolling again. But all her work to build scientific programs and opportunity on her native island, and her dreams of expanding that for future generations, face an uncertain future.

A Puerto Rican Returnee

When Pastrana was young, like many talented Puerto Ricans, she left the island for graduate school. She completed her PhD in biophysical chemistry at Rutgers University, then began postdoctoral research at the Mayo Clinic & Foundation in Minnesota. Opportunities in the mainland United States were plentiful.

But she and her new husband, an organic chemist, dreamed of going back. “My husband and I both wanted to return to Puerto Rico what Puerto Rico had invested in us,” she said. So in 1996, they both accepted offers for academic positions in the chemistry department at UPRM- taking a rare opportunity for two married scientists to land tenure-track professorships at the same institution.

Over the years, Pastrana conducted her research, founded a biotech company, taught, and looked for ways to foster science on the island. One way she felt she could create more opportunities for talented local students was to develop a PhD program in applied chemistry. The program she and her colleagues created was rigorous: Students had to publish two peer-reviewed manuscripts  as first author, in addition to completing their theses. They had to complete a practicum in an academic, industry, or government laboratory, with an original proposal written and defended by the graduate candidate. They also had two complete two electives in business administration.

She also focused on options for her undergraduates. Given the strong presence of the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico, Pastrana emphasized preparing those students to work in pharmaceutical  development, continue graduate studies in the United States, or pursue   a medical degree-all viable options for the more than   250 talented young people who graduated with chemistry, biology, chemical engineering, and biotechnology degrees during Pastrana’s 20-year span as a faculty member.

“I wanted to show the world that excellent science could be done on the island, both basic and applied research, with the potential to have a direct impact on the quality of life of patients,” she said.

After the Hurricane

After Hurricane Maria, everything changed. The devastation of this hurricane was far beyond that of previous storms.

The impact on the island as a whole has been well documented. What has been less discussed is the impact on science on the island. Pastrana’s laboratories at UPRM fared better than many others, but much of the sensitive equipment was severely damaged or destroyed. The building’s diesel generator had no fuel, because the priority was to send diesel fuel to clinics and hospitals. Other laboratories suffered greater damage. In particular, the lack of  power  or fuel for generators meant a lack of air conditioning in a hot climate and high humidity conditions, leading to mold growth everywhere. Mold destroyed scientific equipment, and in many cases, made classrooms, laboratories, and equipment unsafe. Her colleague, Samuel P. Hernández, a chemistry professor, saw his laboratories largely destroyed.

The losses to her company, Protein Dynamic Solutions, Inc., which she had founded in 2011, were also significant. The company’s work is focused on technology Pastrana developed to evaluate critical quality attributes of biopharmaceuticals, using quantum cascade laser microscopy, two-dimensional infrared correlation, and co-distribution analysis software to allow direct visualization of aggregates, map the regions prone to aggregation within the protein, and assess domain stability, concerns that affect drug safety and efficacy. But the backup power systems in place, all at sea level, failed. Much of her scientific instrumentation and supporting systems-such as freezers-were without power, resulting in significant losses of dedicated and original biological materials including clones, 5.3 kg of cells harvested from microbial expression, and purified recombinant proteins. These recombinant proteins were essential to her research and development efforts.

 

But Pastrana was most concerned about how the situation would affect her students’ ability to complete their degrees. The university reopened after a month, and even though the disruption was significant, she knew her undergraduate students would be able to finish, and they did. Since then, of her eight seniors, five were accepted into medical school at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences, one was accepted into the structural biology program at Yale University, one was accepted for graduate studies in immunology at Harvard, and one re-located to Boston to continue working at Protein Dynamic Solutions and will pursue graduate studies while in Boston.


 

But her four graduate students were a bigger concern. Through her network, she arranged for her two PhD students to finish their projects at other institutions: one at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and another at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute in Buffalo. They defended their theses in July 2018 in the Biophysics Division of the Applied Chemistry program at UPRM. These PhD graduates are now doing post-doctoral research in the Walter Chazin’s Laboratory at Vanderbilt.

Two more students were in the pipeline toward their PhD degrees and finished their course work during that extended semester of the hurricane. They decided to work or intern at the biopharmaceutical company Eli Lilly del Caribe, a branch of Eli Lilly located on the island, which had its own power station and continued to be operational after the storm. To date, one has decided to continue working at Lilly, and the second transferred to UPR Medical Sciences to continue her PhD.

Pastrana stopped taking in any more students, took a sabbatical leave without pay, and moved to Boston.

Rebuilding the Company

Boston, she knew, had a good ecosystem for her business, offering access to biopharmaceutical companies and clinical research and development organizations. Indeed, the company is doing well. It is conducting protein aggregation analyses for several companies and has received continued non-dilutive funding from the National Science Foundation, including Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) phase IIB funding. The company also has active collaborations with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

The Long Term

In the meantime, the family is split into two locations. Her older son came with her to Boston, to get ready to apply for graduate school. But her husband, a tenured faculty member at UPRM, stayed on the island to be near his elderly mother, and the couple’s younger son stayed with his dad.

The couple knows they can sort out a long-term plan for themselves. But Pastrana’s dreams of continuing the development of science and scientists on the island are uncertain.

She had built her laboratories there through 20 years of grantsmanship, replacing equipment after previous hurricanes through insurance and by writing new grant proposals to fund what the insurance didn’t cover. Over that same period, she graduated 250 undergraduate students (96% of whom continued their graduate studies in the United States) and 11 MS students in biophysics. She was recognized as a Henry Dreyfus Teacher Scholar. She developed a doctoral program and her first two PhD students have graduated, in spite of the storm.

But now the future of all that effort is in doubt. The island’s difficult recovery is exacerbated by the poor economic situation there. And with climate change, the likelihood of more strong hurricanes seems high.

Will Pastrana return to Puerto Rico? “It’s not a decision I am ready to make,” she said.