Skip to Main Content

Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
p. 26

Stranded By Katrina

Foreign grad students and postdocs like those in the Rosenzweig group face extra challeges

Bethany Halford

The young graduate students and postdocs in the research groups of Zeev and Nitsa Rosenzweig, chemistry professors from the University of New Orleans, are a tidy, well-spoken bunch. Judging from looks alone, you’d never guess that less than three months ago they were homeless, had lost most of their possessions, and feared they might be deported.

With their projects destroyed and their laboratories shuttered, all of the graduate students and postdocs displaced by Hurricane Katrina face an uncertain future. But the plight of international students seems particularly acute: They are thousands of miles from their families. Their only options for shelter are hotels and motels in unfamiliar cities where they know no one. The university sponsoring their stay in the U.S. is closed down.

Photo by Peter Cutts

Missing New Orleans Zeev and Nitsa Rosenzweig (standing at right) and their students (from left) Shi, De Paoli, Lacerda, Long, and Crivat are continuing their research thanks to NIST and NSF.

“The feeling is really bad,” says Vania De Paoli, a postdoc in the Rosenzweigs’ lab, remembering those tenuous days after the levees in New Orleans broke. “Suddenly you wake up, and you don’t have a place to live anymore, and you don’t know where your friends are.”

De Paoli and her labmates—graduate students Lifang Shi, Ying Long, Georgeta Crivat, and postdoc Silvia Lacerda—still seem a little numb when they recall the rushed and circuitous trip that took them from the University of New Orleans to their new, albeit temporary home at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

When they left New Orleans, the only route open to Chinese students Shi and Long was to Houston. De Paoli and Lacerda, sisters from Brazil, traveled first to Jackson, Miss., and then to New York City. Crivat had to drive for 12 hours to a town outside Memphis to find a hotel with vacancies. Once she got there, the remains of the hurricane shut down the town’s power. Crivat was unable to contact her family in Romania for days to tell them she was okay. The Rosen-zweigs and their two teenage children traveled to Memphis and Little Rock before settling into a townhouse in McLean, Va.

The group even made a poster documenting the experience—catharsis that perhaps only other scientists can understand. They were going to present it at a conference in Florida, but the meeting was canceled because of Hurricane Wilma.

By the time they reunited with the Rosenzweigs in Virginia, Zeev Rosenzweig recalls, the “Refugee Girls,” as they had taken to calling themselves, were “hungry, tired, and really in bad shape.” None, however, considered packing up and heading home. “The feeling was that if we were all together, we would all be okay,” Zeev says.

Just days after it became clear they would not be returning to New Orleans anytime soon, Zeev managed to secure a position with the National Science Foundation. NIST scientists Laurie Locascio and Michael Gaitan carved out space in their labs for Nitsa and the students. “It’s amazing what they did,” Nitsa says. “Laurie gave up 50% of her space, and she gave over part of her budget, too.”

“The response of the chemical sciences community has been terrific,” Zeev adds. He notes that colleagues from all over the U.S. offered to accommodate the group and have helped restore cell lines and precious materials they lost. Roper Scientific and C. Squared provided the group with loaner instruments.

NIST has been particularly generous with the students, arranging fully furnished apartments for them within walking distance from the institute. Rental rates in Gaithersburg are considerably more than what the students were paying in New Orleans, so NIST also provided them with a housing subsidy.

Because they are foreign nationals, the young women faced several unique obstacles. Their visa status was pegged to the University of New Orleans, and to ensure they wouldn’t be working illegally, NIST had to coordinate with the university. This was no simple task, as the university’s international office had essentially become a fellow evacuee with a laptop in Rhode Island.

As international students, they were also warned about taking any money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For non-U.S. citizens, the money is considered a loan, and any failure to pay it back could jeopardize their visa status or future attempts to get a green card. Without aid from FEMA, the Refugee Girls couldn’t afford temporary housing. They squeezed into the Rosenzweigs’ townhouse for three weeks until NIST sorted out their visas.

Over a lunch of Nitsa’s homemade jambalaya, the group tells C&EN they are starting to rebuild. They’ve decided to start their projects from scratch, pooling their expertise in nanomaterials and biological systems with that of Locascio in microfluidics and Gaitan in nanofabrication.

“There is an array of tools here that it would be a crime not to use,” Zeev says. “They don’t have a clean room here; they have a clean building.” At New Orleans, Nitsa adds, the group was working with a clean box.

Their classwork is continuing, too. The university has reopened in cyberspace.

“I think overall the research productivity will be high for the year,” Zeev says optimistically during lunch. He looks at the students and, in a surprisingly forceful tone, tells them their top priority is to get papers out. His drive might strike some as unsympathetic, but not the students. Instead, they say they are relieved to know that despite their personal losses, their careers are moving forward.



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
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society