Marcos Ramos Benitez is a doctoral candidate in immunology at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, where he was living when Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory last September.
During the hurricane, Ramos Benitez went to stay with family in Ceiba, a city about an hour southeast of the island’s capital, where he stayed for about a month following the storms.
There was no electricity, no email, no phones, and there was no access to his university or lab for about a week. He had no contact with his mentor or lab partners.
“I was not able to know what was happening there, what was happening with the university, (or) what was happening with the lab at all,” Ramos Benitez said.
Ramos Benitez is one of two students selected to come to UC Davis to continue their graduate research in the wake of the storms. The other is Adlin Rodriguez Munoz, another postgraduate student from the UPR San Juan campus, who was conducting cancer research at UC Davis until she left at the end of last month.
Even when the university reopened, it was a long commute to San Juan and he would have to wait in line for 10 to 12 hours to buy gasoline. Ramos Benitez said he tried to make the trek once a week to once every two weeks until he was able to move back to his home in San Juan permanently.
Ramos Benitez is studying the anti-inflammatory capacity of a specific molecule for his doctoral thesis, trying to determine if it could eventually prevent inflammation in different types of cells. He was planning to graduate this year, but the disastrous effects from the hurricanes complicated his time line.
“I have some cell samples that I stored in liquid nitrogen that were lost as a consequence of the hurricane because we were not able to get in the lab to fill up the tanks,” said Ramos Benitez, adding that he wasn’t able to conduct any new experiments for two or three months.
So he was excited when UC Davis offered him the space and resources to continue his experiments.
“Back in September of last year, after the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, some of our faculty, those who are from Puerto Rican origin, they approached me and that’s where we kind of conceived this idea,” said Prasant Mohapatra, UC Davis dean of graduate studies.
They were in a unique position to help ease the devastation in Puerto Rico in a way that other charities and disaster relief organizations couldn't by providing an academic harbor for graduate students to continue their research.
Mohapatra said an email was sent out to faculty to see if anyone would be willing to provide academic homes for students from Puerto Rico.
“To my surprise, within two or three days we got more than 200 faculty volunteering to host these students in their lab,” Mohapatra said.
All they had to do was find students.
There wasn’t a typical application for students to fill out, said Mohapatra, instead UC Davis faculty leveraged their personal connections and existing collaborations in Puerto Rico to find potential candidates. The island didn’t have power, so communication proved difficult, with most of it having to be done via text.
“It was taking probably a day to get a message across over there and the same time to get (a message) back,” Mohapatra said.
But he also said it wasn’t only a matter of finding students with a need, but finding students with a need that UC Davis could fill.
Students who are in the advanced stages of their doctoral studies have specific needs, both in terms of faculty guidance as well as lab facilities, Mohapatra said, because their studies and research are so focused.
In the end, they identified two students they believed could benefit from UC Davis’ help. But, while the university may have been ready to receive them almost immediately, it still took several months for Ramos Benitez and Rodriguez Munoz to arrive.
Rodriguez Munoz arrived Jan. 12, while Ramos Benitez landed in California on Feb. 19.
“You have to realize the situation they are in,” Mohapatra said. “Their entire family is in a situation where they need help, so it’s not that easy for them to, you know, pack their bag and take the next flight.”
Both students were provided with travel support, accommodations with host faculty, a meal plan from UC Davis’ food services, plus space, guidance and materials to continue their research, Mohapatra said.
Rodriguez Munoz, who will complete her studies in May, said she came to UC Davis to finish her research and write her thesis dissertation.
“Because of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, I lost my housing in San Juan, which was near my university,” said Rodriguez Munoz, who had to move to her parents’ house in the southeast region of Puerto Rico. “In Yabucoa, we lost communications, internet and electricity, and the recovery has been slow and unstable. This situation has delayed the progress of my thesis dissertation writing.”
Ramos Benitez, who will return to Puerto Rico on April 17, said UC Davis has made it possible for him to graduate on schedule this fall.
“Although this opportunity arose because of something that was not good, eventually it ends (up) being something good for us,” Ramos Benitez said. “I was really encouraged, I just feel blessed with this opportunity and I am making the most of it.”
Rodriguez Munoz echoed his sentiments.
“I think (this) is an excellent initiative that says a lot about the human and professional quality of the personnel at UC Davis,” she said. “For me this is a life-changing experience that allowed me to know wonderful people and helped me to achieve my goal of obtaining my doctoral degree.”