by LESLIE CHURCH
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, Susan Zolla-Pazner thought her lab would be fine. On the 18th floor of the Veterans Affairs Hospital at First Avenue and 23rd Street, the lab wasn’t in danger of flooding. But when millions of gallons of water surged over the banks of the East River and into the basements of First Avenue buildings, power outages shut down the whole block. And the 18 flights of elevation that had protected Dr. Zolla-Pazner’s delicate equipment and specimens became a test of willpower as she and her lab members were forced to haul 50-pound blocks of dry ice up each grueling step.
“We went into emergency mode. Our incubators were dead; our freezers were dead. We knew we lost cultures,” says the HIV and tuberculosis researcher at the NYU School of Medicine. “I’ve been working on AIDS there since the beginning of the epidemic. These are irreplaceable specimens.”
Dr. Zolla-Pazner is one of 24 NYU School of Medicine scientists who have found a temporary home at Rockefeller in the wake of Sandy. NYU researchers have taken up unoccupied spaces on campus and in some cases have signed leases and expect to be here for several more months. While the NYU Langone Medical Center reopened in January, many of the research buildings are still shuttered while crews rewire the electrical systems.
After learning of the power outage, Dr. Zolla-Pazner called around for dry ice, and landed at a party supply store. They only had 350 pounds left — cleaned out by Halloween parties set to take place that week. She bought it all, and when more came in, she bought that too. In total, her lab members and their friends carried more than 1,000 pounds to the top-floor lab.
“It was a remarkable show of teamwork and determination,” says Dr. Zolla-Pazner. “We were able to keep the contents of 19 freezers and 15 liquid nitrogen tanks frozen for five days until they could be moved out of the lab. We saved the majority of our work.”
Dr. Zolla-Pazner shipped many of her specimens to an out-of-state company that stores scientific material, but she still needed a place to work. She contacted Michel C. Nussenzweig, a friend and collaborator, and asked if Rockefeller had any space available. By coordinating with personnel from Rockefeller’s Plant Operations, Research Support and Academic Affairs offices, the university identified several vacant spaces that could be used to house researchers in need. In Dr. Zolla-Pazner’s case, the space is right down the hall from Dr. Nussenzweig, in an area in Smith Hall formerly occupied by Ralph Steinman’s lab. Although Dr. Zolla-Pazner’s HIV collaborators have been split up over nine locations, making their work more challenging, she can see a silver lining. “It turned into something very positive in terms of collaboration,” she says. “We exchange reagents with Michel’s lab, share antibodies, get help from each other with different technologies. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
“We are happy to facilitate these researchers’ work because they are part of our community and they needed the help,” says Amy Wilkerson, associate vice president for research support. “We would hope that our sister institutions would do the same for us.”
Heran Darwin, a tuberculosis researcher at the NYU School of Medicine, reached out to Charles M. Rice, an old friend and head of the Laboratory of Virology and Infectious Disease at Rockefeller, because she needed more than a standard lab space. To continue her work on M. tuberculosis, Dr. Darwin needed a biosafety level 3 facility. The university has both in vitro and in vivo facilities.
“It was a lucky break for us that this space was available. Initially I just thought we’d bring a few reagents up and hang out for a few weeks, but we’ve been here since December,” says Dr. Darwin, who decided to move her entire lab and its contents here and says they lost about $20,000 of scientific material. Her lab will remain at Rockefeller until December.
“Fortunately, Rockefeller is one of the most amazing places in the world, scientifically. We’re able to do the same quality work that we were doing before. Plus this is hallowed ground for scientists. I’m sort of treating it like a sabbatical.”