Scientists at research universities in several Chilean cities are reeling from last week's earthquake, which overturned microscopes, set fire to laboratories, washed years of research out to sea, and took the life of a young marine biologist. Aftershocks are still rattling the country.
The worst damage reported was to the University of Concepción, near the epicenter of the 8.8 magnitude quake. There a fire ravaged the building housing one of Chile's leading chemistry centers (see photo), including a lab studying advanced polymers. "It's still standing, but it burned completely," said Jaime Baeza, the university's vice-rector for research, reached by cell phone in Concepción. No injuries were reported because the quake took place early Saturday and most of the 100 or so students and faculty were on vacation. But valuable equipment was lost, Baeza says, and "the quake may have set us back 3 or 4 years, even 10 years."
Because other research buildings may have sustained structural damage, faculty are not yet being allowed back into their labs to rescue what might be left of research projects, Baeza said.
A tsunami that followed the quake also wreaked havoc, killed a researcher involved in an ecology expedition to Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile's coast. Ecologist Álvaro Palma of Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, who had dispatched the team of five to the island, says the group scrambled uphill from their house near shore to avoid the wall of water. But Paula Ayerdi, a 28-year-old research assistant in marine biology who had tagged along on the trip with her fiance, became separated. Her body was found along the shore the next day, says Palma.
The wave also damaged a marine research station operated by the University of Concepción in Dichato, a fishing town about 50 kilometers from the city, and left its research vessel stranded several blocks from shore, according to Carlos Moffat, an oceanography professor at the university. Moffat was at a meeting in Portland, Oregon, with Chilean colleagues when the quake struck.
In videos of the tsunami, the blue roofs of the marine station buildings appear to be the only structures near shore that survived. The walls are still standing, "but everything else is pretty much gone," Moffat says, relaying reports of colleagues on the scene. Washed away was equipment, years worth of marine samples, aquariums used in breeding experiments, and the station's library.
Several undergraduates and staff live at the station, and Moffat created a Web site to track the missing. "So far we have found everyone," Moffat says.
At the University of Talca, 260 kilometers north of Concepción, at least three buildings were destroyed, including the library and biotechnology center, bioinformatics researcher Danilo Gonzalez Nilo reports by e-mail. He says high-performance computers were damaged and several of his undergraduate and Ph.D. students' theses "are completely lost."
Further north at the University of Chile in Santiago, the earthquake severely shook the modern four-story Millenium building that houses biology labs, toppling glassware, microscopes, incubators, PCR machines, and refrigerators. A flood from a broken water pipe on the top floor and an electricity shutoff added to the damage, says developmental biologist Miguel Allende.
Researchers rushed to the building the morning after the quake to wade through chemical-laced water and salvage cell cultures, enzymes, antibodies, and other frozen samples and reagents, bringing some home to their kitchen freezers. But many samples were lost, Allende says. His group also worked frantically without an electric pump to change the water in their 125 40-liter tanks of transgenic zebrafish, which otherwise would have died from lack of oxygen.
The damage to labs in that building and a couple of others probably affected half the biology department's 40 or so research groups, says department chair Ana Preller. While the Millenium building needs some repairs, "the big problem is equipment," Preller says. Her preliminary estimate is $600,000 in losses. The quake also shifted and may have damaged a cyclotron in the physics department.
Allende and other faculty members have sent some students to colleagues' labs for now. Colleagues abroad have also offered to take in students. "It's taken 11 years to get where I am now. Doing science here is very hard. It's discouraging. But maybe it will be an opportunity to do some new things," says Allende.
Some Chilean scientists worry about the long-term impact of the quake. The scientific community in Chile "has grown exponentially in the last 20 years," but it's still small and vulnerable, says Roberto Mayor, a Chilean developmental biologist at the University College London. "The effect will be amplified," predicts Mayor, who is trying to raise funds to help.
A note on the Web site of CONICYT, Chile's main science funding agency, says (translated): "It is a tremendous loss for us, for the country, and for science to see years of investigation destroyed."