Research is impacted by natural disasters

By Bonnie Coblentz

MSU Ag Communications


In a state where tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are regular — although unwanted — visitors, Mississippi State University has plans for how to preserve data and ongoing research projects.

Hurricane Katrina’s Aug. 29 anniversary provides reminders of the havoc natural disasters can wreak with lives, homes and businesses. Losses to research are less tangible but can be just as devastating.

Dr. Stephen Pruett, head of basic sciences at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, knows just how high those losses could mount.

“Quite often, researchers have several months or even years invested in their work,” Pruett said. “It would be devastating if something were to happen to their data or samples.”

He said the university learned a lot from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, especially observing long-term effects of power outages on a variety of facilities in New Orleans.

“I think everybody in the scientific community watched and were horrified,” Pruett said. “A lot of people lost almost all their scientific careers. For a lot of others, it gave them the wake-up call they needed to be a little more proactive in making contingency plans.”

At the MSU veterinary college, many ongoing research projects require long-term sample storage. Emergency power generators are ready to start up when the power goes out. They can run for days on stored fuel, providing electricity to key areas such as freezers used to store research samples.

The veterinary college has several ultralow, -80 degree Celsius freezers on backup generators. In addition, one cryogenic freezer keeps samples stored at -150 C and has a unique backup system.

“Sitting right beside that freezer is a very large tank of liquid nitrogen,” Pruett said. “If the power goes out and the temperature goes above a critical value, the liquid nitrogen automatically dumps into the freezer and helps it maintain its temperature.”

The freezer was put to the test when devastating tornadoes came through north Mississippi in 2011 and knocked out power to the veterinary college and a large part of the state.

“It worked exactly like it was supposed to,” he said. “At the end of 12 hours, we checked, and the temperature remained in the safe range.”

These freezers store critical samples that cannot be replaced, such as samples collected and used by Dr. Henry Wan in influenza research and samples of cell lines used by Dr. Larry Hanson in his role as manager of an International Animal Health Organization reference lab.

“Dr. Wan gets samples from all over the world from animals that have suspected flu infections,” Pruett said. “He does research on them and helps with monitoring what types of virus caused the outbreaks.”

The veterinary college has a 24-hour animal emergency room, patient care facilities and a lab animal facility. All have a critical need for electricity, regardless of weather or natural disasters.

“Our lab animal facility has its own air handling system, and it must maintain a certain number of air changes every day to meet requirements for accredited lab animal facilities,” Pruett said. “We have backups in place because if the power were to go off for very long, those animals would likely undergo some level of stress. Experiments in progress would have to be repeated.”

Randy Vaughan is an assistant director for Mississippi Foundation Seed Stocks with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. When MSU researchers develop a new seed variety, his work is a key step in bringing that seed to the public.

“We take small amounts of newly developed crop varieties and multiply the ‘breeder seed’ to sufficient quantity for seed companies and individuals with interest in seed production to use the resulting ‘foundation seed’ to produce ‘registered seed’ for sale and use,” Vaughan said.

Natural disasters have significantly impacted these crops in the past, and it is only a matter of time before they will be in the path of danger again.

“Since we start out with only a small volume of the new variety, if something were to happen to that first seed multiplication effort, it could have an impact on how long it takes to bring the new variety to the public,” Vaughan said.

There is very little Vaughan can do to safeguard crops in the field against natural disasters, but he does use cold storage to preserve small quantities of the breeder seed so that not all of the available stock is at risk in any given year.

David Wise, coordinator of MSU’s Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center, oversees projects involving thousands of fish at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville. He said a natural disaster could cost more than $1 million in lost fish, but actual losses would be much greater.

“Most of what we do are one-year projects, but we also have a lot of two-year projects,” Wise said. “There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into those, and if we were to lose a project, that’s two years of work we could not recover.”

The last major research losses came in 1993 when a serious ice storm caused widespread power outages. Since that time, backup generators have been put in place to power the labs. Tractors can provide short-term emergency aeration in ponds.

“If we were to have large-scale losses, we couldn’t just go back and replace the fish,” he said. “It takes time to get new fish stocks, raise them in lab conditions and then prepare again for the research project.”

Ryan Akers, assistant Extension professor for community preparation and disaster management, said preparedness means being ready for the next big threat and the many small threats that come.

“Emergency management includes prevention, preparation, response and recovery,” Akers said. “The Extension Service has reactive response functions throughout the state when disaster strikes. One part of our proactive role is to help better educate and prepare all of our constituents for the different types of threats that they face.”

He said across the university, contingency plans are in place to cover natural disasters that may threaten the work being done. These plans are similar to business continuity practices and are just as necessary, as many research projects represent a life’s work.

“Research represents a fabulous investment of time, money and resources into our future and livelihood,” Akers said. “These contingency plans must be carefully thought out, properly designed prior to the onset of any project, no matter the size — and meticulously followed. As with most any emergency situation, not allowing for the proper prevention and preparation protocols to protect valuable work could be most unfortunate in the event of a disaster.”