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Nearly six months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, residents there are still coping with the aftermath. Among those affected are university professors and students, particularly in the sciences, because the long period without electricity and mold growth severely damaged and in some cases destroyed sensitive equipment and laboratories. To gain a fuller picture of the situation, we talked to Fabiola Pagán Meléndez, an undergraduate chemistry student from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus, about her experience and how the storm has affected her studies and future plans. Pagán is also a journalist for the student-run media outlet Pulso Estudiantil, and right after the hurricane, she recorded a video that was distributed by NBC News. She was also quoted in a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Nearly six months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, residents there are still coping with the aftermath. Among those affected are university professors and students, particularly in the sciences, because the long period without electricity and mold growth severely damaged and in some cases destroyed sensitive equipment and laboratories. To gain a fuller picture of the situation, we talked to Fabiola Pagán Meléndez, an undergraduate chemistry student from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus, about her experience and how the storm has affected her studies and future plans. Pagán is also a journalist for the student-run media outlet Pulso Estudiantil, and right after the hurricane, she recorded a video that was distributed by NBC News (1). She was also quoted in a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2).
Your personal life is important as a foundation for your professional life. How long were you without power at home after the storm? What is the current status of your home life, and that of family and friends?
The area where my family and I live was without power for about a month and a half. Thankfully, we had a power generator and running water after the hurricane. My mother’s cousin lived in the center of the island in Corozal. Unfortunately, he lost his home after the nearby river overflowed and flooded the first floor. His family had to be removed via helicopter because all the roads were blocked. Like many Puerto Ricans, they decided to leave the island and currently live in North Carolina.
Almost all of my friends were very affected by the storm. Most were without power and running water for months; my best friend would stop by my house to bathe and charge her phone. One of my friends is from Naranjito, in the center of the island, and we could barely get in touch with her because of the lack of cell signal. There was a lack of supplies in the center of the island, so my friends and I bought food to take to my friend’s family. Bridges had collapsed and there was almost no vegetation when we went to Naranjito. Another close friend had to leave and go to Florida because his mom’s health was very fragile. Because his college dormitory flooded, when classes resumed he had to stay with friends in order to attend his courses.
The first days back at the university in early November were very tough. The Natural Sciences Building has little ventilation and there was no power and the weather was hot. We would take class while cooling ourselves with hand and electronic fans. Professors would ask students to bring their laptops (if possible) so they could see the PowerPoint presentations. Since we couldn’t use the overhead projectors, professors would bring their laptops and place them on their desks to give the presentations. Many students had no cell signal, Internet, or power during those first few weeks of class.
How were your classes and plans disrupted by the hurricanes and their aftermath?
Prior to Hurricane Maria, I was planning on studying for the MCAT [medical school admissions exams] during the fall semester. I had also applied to study abroad in the Complutense University of Madrid for the spring semester. After the hurricane, I realized none of my plans were going to become a reality. The University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus resumed classes in November and the semester was going to end in February. If I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree on time, I was going to have to forget about the study abroad in Spain. It was something I had been looking forward to for months, but it was out of my control. I know of at least half a dozen students who went through a similar situation.
What is the current state of the university in terms of scientific education? What is the broader status of academic life at the university?
It’s been challenging to say the least. There aren’t enough resources for the faculty and student body; it’s completely frustrating. This past semester I took Instrumental Chemistry, an upper level course for chemistry undergraduate students. The laboratory is held twice a week and the purpose is to prepare us to work with instruments such as those for gas chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography, atomic absorption spectroscopy, inductively coupled plasma techniques, and others. When we returned to the campus in November, our class met in a hallway to discuss the course because the laboratory was full of fungus. Our professor hesitated to take us back to the lab even two weeks after classes had resumed because she feared the conditions weren’t safe (she almost had an asthma attack after visiting the lab). After Hurricane Maria, only two of the 10 instruments we had available were working properly. We lacked the instruments, reactants, materials, and even power sometimes. Our final projects had to be modified on several occasions because of the resource limitations. Even before Hurricane Maria, the University of Puerto Rico had struggled to provide students with adequate materials for laboratories.
The current state of scientific education is much like Puerto Rico’s political and economic state: worrisome and unstable. Students and faculty continue to discuss if they will leave the island in order to continue their careers and personal lives. Most of the people I know desire to stay and improve the situation here in Puerto Rico, but are questioning if they are able do so due to the political and economic climate. The University of Puerto Rico is constantly under attack by the Fiscal Control Board and the local government. It was recently announced that they plan to increase the cost of the undergraduate credit to $220 (the current cost is $57 per credit). That is absurd. Most students in Puerto Rico would be completely unable to afford higher education at that cost. Again, there is talk about privatizing the University of Puerto Rico. If the credit cost becomes significantly higher, I have no doubt student stoppages will occur once again [as they did earlier in 2017]. A student strike is also on the horizon if the situation persists.
The University of Puerto Rico is an amazing institution that harbors the best and brightest professionals on the island. As an undergraduate, I have met professors who have undoubtedly shaped my life and our communities with their work. More than a center for higher education, the university is a beacon of hope for Puerto Rico.
Where will your career path lie? How has this view evolved since the storm?
I plan to apply to medical schools this fall. Due to Hurricane Maria, I’ve had to change my MCAT plans several times. Originally, I was going to study for the exam last fall and take it in January. However, it was impossible for me to do this without Internet and other resources. After the hurricane, I volunteered with the Municipality of San Juan and visited elderly care centers throughout the capital. It was awful seeing how the elderly had been abandoned after the storm and how difficult it was for them to receive medication and other supplies. The passing of hurricane reminded me why I want to be come a medical professional and how important it is in our island.
What do you think the scientific community should be doing to help restore Puerto Rico? What efforts do you know of that are occurring? Are there any gaps?
Without a doubt, Hurricane Maria worsened the economic situation in Puerto Rico. Many laboratories lost equipment and other materials, and have had to readjust budgets in order to get back on their feet. I believe it’s extremely important that the scientific community strengthen its ties to Puerto Rico by providing investigators, faculty, and students with more access to resources. The University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus greatly needs more updated instrumentation. Even though Puerto Rican professionals have united in efforts to mitigate the crisis, the lack of funds is a severe obstacle in scientific development and education.
(1) “Scenes from the Ground: Puerto Ricans Document Shattered Lives,” NBC Latino. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6TMUrYPr4s
(2) S. Hoisington, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 28, 2017. https://www.chronicle.com/article/At-the-U-of-Puerto-Rico/241327