Immunologist Seth Pincus survived Hurricane Katrina, but much of his research may not. Evacuated from Louisiana State University Children's Hospital in New Orleans on Thursday, Pincus left hundreds of fragile samples--representing years of HIV research and his life's work--to an uncertain fate.
Pincus, 57, studies the interaction of antibodies and pathogens and directs the Research Institute for Children at the hospital. Throughout the storm, he and several hundred other hospital employees stayed to look after a hundred remaining patients, as well as samples belonging to him and colleagues. But 5 days later, police told the group to evacuate. "We probably held out the longest," Pincus says. "A lot of people in New Orleans wound up abandoning their work. I think every scientist there was worried about what's more important--my experiments or my life."
The low point came Wednesday, Pincus says. That's when the staff realized that the lack of clean water, combined with fears of looters, posed a health risk that would force them to abandon the hospital--and the several hundred research mice and rats that they had managed to save from the worst of the storm. Rather than let the animals starve, dehydrate, or overheat, Pincus euthanized them with pentobarbital. Then he packed what he could into insulated containers, hoping to keep cell lines and microbial collections cold until they could be transported to Baton Rouge. "Everything I own and do is in the minus 80 [degree Celsius] freezer and liquid nitrogen tanks," Pincus says.
In the end, the staff didn't want to wait until a scheduled afternoon exit convoy and began to leave hours ahead of schedule. "It was so hectic and crazy," Pincus says. "We had to leave probably the most important specimens." Samples packed in containers for the trip, and abandoned last minute, may last for a week, he says. The freezer, on the other hand, is still running on generator power but will automatically shut off unless the New Orleans SWAT team using the building as a command center keeps it running.
For now, Pincus will head to a temporary base for the Children's Hospital set up in Baton Rouge. But he wonders how he and other New Orleans researchers will be able to stay competitive, with delays of months and the loss of years' worth of research samples and animal colonies. Some colleagues, he says, may ultimately choose to go elsewhere rather than take indefinite unpaid leave. "That's the big concern for New Orleans: If we can't get back up and going within 2 to 3 months, anyone who can go anywhere else will."