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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
p. 25

All In The Family

Sense of humor sustains University of New Orleans' Bruce Gibb, now living and working in Austin

Amanda Yarnell

Photo by Mark Matson

Staying Together Gibb (from left), Dragna, Kannupal, Corinne Gibb, and Naomi Gibb are all living in a small apartment near the University of Texas.

Many professors like to characterize their lab members as “family.” But for the past few months, Bruce C. Gibb, a chemistry professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO), has taken that label to a whole new level: He’s been sharing a three-bedroom apartment with his wife, their two-year-old daughter, his postdoc, and one of his students. “Luckily, we all get along,” he jokes.

Gibb’s sense of humor is what keeps him—and the rest of his “family”—sane these days. He fled New Orleans with his wife, Corinne, and daughter, Naomi, two days before Hurricane Katrina hit the city. After spending four days holed up in a hotel room in central Mississippi, they realized they weren’t going back to New Orleans anytime soon. The university where he and Corinne worked had been closed indefinitely, and their house in Gentilly Ridge had been made uninhabitable by rising water. Out of options, they found themselves bunking with their neighbor’s parents in Indiana.

Gibb was deeply concerned about his colleagues and students in the chemistry department. “We left early because of our daughter. But I knew that others planned to wait out the storm, either at home or on campus.” Many of the department’s grad students and postdocs don’t own cars, and many have no family in the U.S., he adds.

Although most of the city’s phone lines were out of commission and the university’s e-mail system was useless, Gibb managed to contact UNO chemistry professor John B. Wiley. Over the course of a few days, the pair managed to cobble together an e-mail “phone tree” reaching all 20 of the department’s faculty members and 65 of the grad students and postdocs, including all three members of Gibb’s own lab. But several people, staff and graduate students, remained missing.

Like many displaced faculty, Gibb was soon inundated with offers of temporary research space and housing from colleagues across the country. He eventually picked the University of Texas, Austin, because of the double welcome from two supramolecular chemists there and because Austin is close—but not too close—to New Orleans. To save money, Gibb’s family is sharing an apartment with his postdoc Srinivasan Kannupal and his undergraduate student Justin Dragna, a native of New Orleans.

Gibb, his wife, and Srinivasan are now scrambling to set up shop in the space that UT Austin chemists Jonathan L. Sessler and Eric V. Anslyn have carved out for them. Gibb was lucky to have brought his laptop, and thus much of his data, along when he evacuated. The National Science Foundation is working with him to provide a three-month supplement to his current grant, which he hasn’t been able to use because UNO’s grant administration office is operating on a skeleton crew. This supplement will allow him to pay Dragna and buy reagents. “We won’t be firing on all cylinders anytime soon,” he says. “But anything is better than nothing.

“To get through, I try to think of the silver lining in all of this. My undergraduate student is getting to take a broader range of courses at a larger school. And my postdoc is getting some hands-on experience in setting up a lab, which is what he wants to do when he gets back to India.

“The experience has taught me to appreciate normality,” Gibb adds. “Several days after I arrived in Austin, the Journal of Organic Chemistry sent me a paper to proof. To me, this was the first hint that things were starting to return to normal.”

In fact, it’s hard to know when things will return to normal, Gibb admits. Just the fringes of the UNO campus suffered major flooding, and the chemistry building remained dry. But the storm’s toll on the department is yet to be fully realized, Gibb says. His wife Corinne takes care of the chemistry department’s three nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. “She’s been in mourning,” Gibb tells C&EN. To function properly, the magnet of an NMR spectrometer needs a constant supply of liquid nitrogen and helium—all of which evaporated when the UNO campus was deserted in the storm’s wake. As a consequence, the department’s three NMRs will require costly and lengthy repair, if not even costlier replacement. “Even if we get back in the near future, there might not be much organic chemistry going on,” Gibb says. “We might not be back to the days of tasting compounds to characterize them, but NMR is so central to the field that research will undoubtedly be impacted.”

Although he says he’s still hoping to go back to UNO when it’s slated to open its New Orleans campus in January, Gibb admits that the university’s temporary closure has tempted him to look at job ads in C&EN. “The department is in pieces, with displaced students and faculty now scattered across the U.S. and Canada. Where will we live when we get back? What will hold the department together? These are all questions that I just don’t know the answer to.”



Jack Stocker, University of New Orleans
Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers, Tulane University
Jerry Merchant, PPG
Eric Broussard, Xavier University
Cheryl Stevens, Xavier University, and Ed Stevens, University of New Orleans
Saundra Y. McGuire, Isiah M. Warner, and Luigi G. Marzilli, Louisiana State University
William L. Strayham, DuPont
N. Dale Ledford, University of Southern Mississippi
Gerald R. Ehrman, DuPont
Bruce C. Gibb, University of New Orleans
Nitsa and Zeev Rosenzweig’s group, University of New Orleans

Chemical & Engineering News
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