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Science & Technology

August 4, 2008
Volume 86, Number 31
pp. 38-41

Flooded Out Of Their Labs

Displaced University of Iowa faculty strive to keep researching while waiting to learn extent of lab damage

Jyllian Kemsley

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Flood scenes from the University of Iowa campus

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On Wednesday, June 11, University of Iowa officials ordered faculty in the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories (IATL) to evacuate their labs and offices. The Iowa River, which bisects the university campus, was rising quickly after a week of heavy rainstorms and was predicted to crest at 33 feet—about 11 feet above flood stage.

Tom Jorgensen/UI University Relations
Breached The Iowa River flooded IATL (left) and the student union building (right).

The chemists, physicists, and engineers of IATL were told they had until 5 PM that Saturday to get out anything they wanted to protect. "At that point, they put tape all along the windows and doors to show how high the water could get," says Vicki H. Grassian, a chemistry professor whose labs are in the building. "It was almost up to your neck."

It was a sobering demonstration. Faculty, staff, students, and postdocs began working together to move samples, equipment, and other essential items either from the first to second floor, or out of the building entirely. The researchers didn't know whether it would be days or months before they could reenter their labs. At one point, "we were moving things to the chemistry building and saw a big line of Hummers coming down the street as the National Guard came in," says chemistry professor Amanda J. Haes. "It really increased the sense of urgency."

The river rose faster than expected and the evacuation timeline was shortened to 5 PM on Friday. At 10 AM that day, the building lost power. "Police came into the building and were yelling at us to get out immediately," Grassian recalls. Attempting to wrap up projects before abandoning key instruments, "people were still trying to collect data to finish experiments. All of a sudden that was over. We were in the dark trying to remove some last remaining things," she says.

The river crested at 31.5 feet on Saturday.

UI University relations
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Location IATL sits next to the Iowa River, with the chemistry building to the east.

The campus shut down for 10 days. When the university reopened on June 23, the population returned to varying degrees of devastation. Sixteen buildings flooded, including the art, theater, and music facilities; the English-philosophy building; student residence halls; the chapel; the student union; the steam plant; and IATL.

IATL fared somewhat better than expected—the water reached only to about 2 feet. But seven weeks later the building remains without power or air-conditioning. As Grassian and her fellow researchers try to get experiments up and running in temporary quarters, they still don't know the full extent of the damage or how long it will take to restore their labs to full capacity. According to Linda Maxson, dean of the university's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, current estimates are that the flood caused $232 million in damage to the university overall, including $40 million to IATL—$8 million for the building and $32 million for its contents.

Much, if not all, of the equipment left on the first floor of IATL is beyond repair, says Mark A. Arnold, a chemistry professor and director of the university's Optical Science & Technology Center. In addition to physics and engineering labs, the first floor of IATL housed a clean-room facility that contained the university's molecular beam epitaxy unit, which researchers used to make crystalline or thin-film materials, as well as the microfabrication lab, which was used to prepare custom optoelectronics and other high-tech, high-precision devices.

"There are a number of pieces of instrumentation that could not be moved because they're too large and are wired into the lab," Arnold says. "All of those were exposed to river water up to at least 22 inches. Even things above the waterline are adversely affected because of mold and mildew, and also rusting of a lot of the components" from high humidity.

Arnold works on chemical sensor technology, in particular near-infrared (near-IR) spectroscopy for monitoring glucose levels in diabetics and metabolites in fermentation bioreactors. His labs are located on the second floor of IATL. When the evacuation order came, he chose to have his group move as much instrumentation as possible into temporary quarters in the adjacent chemistry building. Arnold also focused on making sure critical samples survived; some went to the chemistry building while others went to his home freezer until power was stabilized on campus.

Arnold and his group are now making the best of their temporary work area. The chemistry building was undergoing significant renovations, and in January the department had opened a new wing of teaching labs. Chemistry faculty displaced from IATL moved into the new space.

Tom Jorgensen/UI University Relations
Displaced Arnold's group tries to get experiments up and running in their temporary quarters in one of the chemistry building's teaching labs.

It's a half-blessing, as it turns out. Even though the chemistry building didn't flood, it has been affected by damage to campus utilities. Temperature and humidity control in the building is normally achieved by cooling incoming air with chilled water, then rewarming it with steam. But flooding in the university's steam plant and tunnels has hampered effective environmental control. Even with temporary boilers, parts of the chemistry building remain a chilly 60 ºF. Humidity has been high enough that in early July, water condensing on pipes dripped onto and saturated ceiling tiles. Sections of the ceiling collapsed to the ground in 14 places throughout the building.

The heavy use of IR spectroscopy by Arnold's group makes humidity a particular concern, since water vapor absorbs a portion of the IR spectrum. "We have some air dryer systems so we've made progress, but the humidity definitely has slowed us down," Arnold says.

His group also feels the loss of the microfabrication facility, which it used to make specialized optoelectronic components for IR wavelengths. Iowa State University has offered to share its microfabrication resources with University of Iowa researchers, and Arnold plans to start taking advantage of that facility shortly. He is also working with microfabrication lab director Chris Coretsopoulos to set up a temporary facility with microfabrication equipment they were able to move out of IATL.

Chemistry professor Christopher M. Cheatum also uses IR spectroscopy, in particular a two-dimensional time-resolved technique to study the motions of enzymes as they catalyze reactions. As the flood predictions worsened but before the evacuation order, he sat down with his students to discuss where things stood with their projects. One student in particular, Jigar Bandaria, was in the middle of an experiment on formate dehydrogenase, trying to collect the last data for a paper. He worked all night to complete the experiment before the evacuation order was enforced.

Unlike Arnold's relatively portable spectrometers, Cheatum's third-floor experimental setup involves lasers and optics laid out on laser tables. "One experimental apparatus consumes something like 20 linear feet of laser tables," he says. "To tear that down and try to move it out of the building would take days and days, and then six months to a year to set it all back up somewhere else."

Instead of moving his equipment, Arnold and his students focused on doing their best to protect the equipment from humidity, which can cause optical coatings to crack or water to condense on electronics. The setup is normally covered by Plexiglas boxes through which dry air is pumped; the university's disaster team quickly ordered in 50-lb bags of silica gel desiccant, which the researchers poured onto trays to set around the equipment under the boxes. Cheatum had hoped to caulk the box seams with silicone but in the end there was no time and the group made do with packing tape.

Cheatum was allowed into his lab for a few minutes in mid-July. The temperature was about 85 ºF with about 60% humidity. "I poked around with a flashlight but didn't open the boxes," he says. Some of the larger gold-coated mirrors were clearly damaged. Otherwise, he says, "many if not most of the optics are in pretty good shape and seem not to have been terribly damaged, but we won't really know until we can take them out and look closely."

Cheatum's graduate students are faring as best they can. Bandaria is now writing his paper, while another student works on her thesis. A third is synthesizing a molecule on which to experiment. A first-year student is reading up on lasers, optics, and spectroscopy.

His fourth- and fifth-year students are in the worst shape. "They're in the situation of having everything poised and ready. They'd done all the background and synthesis, and the laser was working—they were just going to start a new set of experiments," Cheatum says. "Now they're stuck." The fifth-year student aspires to a teaching position at a four-year college, and will now spend the fall teaching an undergraduate physical chemistry course under Cheatum's supervision. Cheatum is talking with 2-D IR colleagues about the possibility of sending the fourth-year student elsewhere to develop and build equipment to bring back to Iowa.

Cheatum himself is an assistant professor and was scheduled to go up for tenure in the fall of 2009. The university administration plans to grant a one-year extension of the tenure clock to junior faculty affected by the flood, if they want the extra time. "It's not fun to have things pushed back, but this is a little blip" compared with an overall faculty career, Cheatum says. "If I'm delayed a few months or a year in getting tenure, that won't make a big difference. Emotionally, the bigger drain on me is trying to make sure that I can minimize the impact on my students' lives. They're at a stage where the impact is much greater."

One graduate student who has clearly felt the impact is Kwame Owusu-Adom, who works for chemical engineering professor C. Allan Guymon and had planned to defend his thesis in August. Guymon's labs were in IATL; his group works on photopolymerization of nanostructured materials for applications such as scratch-resistant coatings and biomaterials. Although the group was able to move much of its equipment over to the chemistry building—a lab the group members now share with fellow IATL evacuees Alec B. Scranton and Julie L. P. Jessop and their colleagues—it's been rough trying to get everything working again. Between damage caused by the move and a shortage on campus of supplies such as gas cylinders, experiments didn't resume until mid-July. And the temperature and humidity in the chemistry building is a concern. "I'm working with my students about whether we can really trust our results," Guymon says.

Owusu-Adom still needed to do some photopolymerization experiments and collect some small-angle X-ray-scattering data before defending his thesis in August and starting work for 3M in September. The X-ray-scattering unit was left behind in IATL, so those experiments are off the table. Now, Owusu-Adom is helping to get the other equipment up and running, as well as revisiting old data to see if the answers he needs are there. He expects his defense will be delayed by at least a month, possibly longer. 3M is being supportive of the delay, but "I was disappointed," he says. "I was hoping to get done and then move onto other things. But really there's nothing we can do, so we're trying to make the best of the situation."

That's what everyone at Iowa is trying to do. Chemistry professor and IATL resident Gary W. Small devises biological and environmental sensors and also develops computational algorithms for extracting analyte information from complex samples. Rather than move his experimental equipment, he relocated his computers. Now "we're analyzing data we already had," he says. "We're always behind on that aspect of it anyway."

"We're doing a lot of writing," Grassian says of her group. Grassian's research focuses on understanding the surface chemistry of environmental interfaces; she is also the director of the university's Nanoscience & Nanotechnology Institute. She was able to move out of IATL only about 25% of her equipment and not all of it is operational; meanwhile, she had a postdoc who started on July 1 and a visiting scholar who arrived on July 7. "I'm working with all of the people in my group to refocus research goals," she says, aiming to do some experiments that will complement those they can do whenever they get back to normal operations.

Just when IATL scientists will get back to normal is an open question. Current university projections are that at least second- and third-floor faculty will be able to reoccupy the building in mid-September, although utilities may not be stabilized until October. In the meantime, instruments continue to sit. "It's just not good having state-of-the-art scientific equipment sitting around," Grassian says. "The longer that happens the harder it is to bring it back up again." After the scientists can inspect their instruments, it may take months to schedule a service call or receive replacement parts.

The flood has affected research beyond those who were displaced from IATL. Floodwaters were high enough that the chemistry building was close to flooding as well. As IATL tenants were evacuating, chemistry-building occupants were relocating chemicals and other items from the first to the third floor. The chemistry building also lost power during the flood, although a backup generator worked as designed and kept electricity flowing to a few key instruments, glove boxes, and freezers. Even so, the ensuing temperature and humidity problems in the chemistry building have affected all of its occupants.

Also, to reduce power demands, the building had to turn off 60% of its fume hoods. Although some research labs were able to consolidate operations to accommodate the shutdown, many of the closed hoods are in instructional labs—and fall classes start on Aug. 25. Difficult as it was to turn off so many hoods during the summer, "it is a bigger problem if we can't get this up to a higher percentage when fall classes start," says David F. Wiemer, department chair.

In addition, the new chemistry teaching labs now are occupied by IATL research groups. Fortunately, the old labs had not yet been demolished, so many classes will return to their previous locations. Wiemer is now working through the logistics of relocating equipment and purchasing materials to get the old labs up and running again.

Even when floods and other disasters do befall laboratories, the rest of the world keeps turning. So for IATL researchers, there's the overhanging issue of funding—grant applications to submit and annual reports to prepare. "I'm working on a proposal right now," says Haes, who develops nanomaterials to be used in capillary electrophoresis for environmental and biological sensing applications. She notes that she got a lot of work done on the application during the week the university was shut down, so the deadline isn't her biggest worry. "Having results is a concern," she says, "but I can't fight that battle right now."

Officials at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health say they are doing their best to be accommodating about deadlines, as well as to extend the expiration date of affected researchers' grants without penalty. "The amount of flexibility varies from program to program," says NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr. "Everyone's trying to be sensitive to the researchers' needs and provide as much flexibility as possible." With regard to funds for IATL equipment that needs to be replaced, he expects much of that will come from the university's insurance.

The support of their funding agencies, university administration, and colleagues both in Iowa and across the continent has been very important to the faculty affected by the flood. "There's been a huge outpouring of support from people across the country and even Canada," Haes says. "It's wonderful to know."

"Emotionally, this has been a roller-coaster ride," Arnold says. "Personally, there have been times when I've been very depressed about the whole situation. Then you start to see everyone working together from the central administration on down and you get some hope. In some cases maybe we'll be better off than we were before."


Flood scenes from the University of Iowa campus

David Wiemer/UI

Volunteers construct a sandbag wall between the chemistry building and the university's Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories (IATL).

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Christopher Cheatum/UI

Cheatum lab members placed trays of desiccant inside Plexiglas boxes to protect optical equipment.

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Jennifer Schuttlefield/UI

Water surrounded the south entrance to IATL.

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Tom Jorgensen/UI University Relations

The floodwaters encircled IATL.

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Tim Schoon/UI University Relations

Water recedes from the wall built to protect IATL and the student union.

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Amanda Haes/UI

Inside IATL, the water reached about 2 feet deep on the first floor.

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Amanda Haes/UI

Graduate student Michael Ivanov and undergraduate Regan Keeney retrieve samples that were left behind in the Haes lab in IATL. The tube is a conduit for dry air blown into the building by restoration crews.

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Tim Schoon/UI University Relations

Much of the experimental equipment on the first floor of IATL was too large to move.

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Tom Jorgensen/UI University Relations

Professor Mark A. Arnold and graduate student Joo Young Choi adjust the alignment of a near-IR spectrometer relocated from IATL to the chemistry building.

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Amanda Haes/UI

Undergraduate Regan Keeney, postdoc Maryuri Roca, and graduate student Michael Ivanov troubleshoot a spectrometer in the Haes group's temporary lab space in the chemistry building.

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Jackie Jensen/UI

Grassian group graduate student Sherrie Elzey adjusts current to an electrospray aerosol generator in their temporary lab as part of an experiment to measure the size distribution of silver nanoparticles.

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Jackie Jensen/UI

Assisted by a multitude of boxes, graduate student Gayan Rubasinghege adjusts gas pressure to investigate the photochemistry of adsorbed nitrate on mineral dust in the Grassian group's temporary lab.

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Tim Schoon/UI University Relations

Gutted first-floor IATL offices await restoration.

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ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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