Puerto Rican students find temporary home for research in East Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Students visiting from Puerto Rico have made the University of Tennessee their home for the past few weeks after Hurricane Maria's destruction affected their laboratory.

"The worst part was our second generator of electricity failed from the very beginning because a big tree fell into the room and everything was crushed," visiting graduate student Benjamin Mercado said.

That ceiling fell in, and students said there was no way to save specimens they had been working on.

"So we didn't have the conditions to do our work there, so we had to stop doing the experiments that we were doing there," student Yadeliz Serrano said.

East Tennessee professor Terry Hazen taught in Puerto Rico years ago and was concerned about graduate students trying to complete their research. He used his connections at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A combination of help from the facilities and national science grants brought the top students to East Tennessee to use the labs.

"So they got exposure to that, could be sequencing, proteomics and all that," UT Governor's Chair Professor Hazen said. "So I reached out to some of the scientists in Oak Ridge, and they agreed to help them, too."

Since their arrival in Tennessee, the students have had access to both
the university and the national lab.

"It's perfect because now I can start my work again," Mercado said. "And I can use that opportunity to learn techniques that I can't do back in Puerto Rico without any supervision."

Even after the students return home later in March, they will have virtual connections with top scientists in Tennessee who can continue mentoring them.

"Hopefully, they'll be able to finish their degrees now and get papers out in conjunction with us," Hazen said.