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Tanya McKinney // assistant professor of biology, Xavier University, University of Alabama, Birmingham
McKinney was back at Xavier with the rest of the returning faculty on January 12. Phone service has been in and out, but she's home.
Within a few days, McKinney had word from her husband that both her home and workplace—Xavier is located in the heart of Orleans Parish in New Orleans—were flooded, and that 5 years of scientific research had been destroyed.
McKinney was creating mutant bacterial strains of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that is the most common cause of food poisoning. "Although high salt concentrations kill most bacteria, S. aureus survives. If we could understand how, then we might be able to better control it."
She was investigating which staphylococcal genes are regulated in various salt concentrations. It was a time-consuming process, but by last summer's end, she finally had identified certain genes and constructed the necessary mutant strains to begin exploring the role of specific proteins. "I was very excited," she says, "but now I have to start over."
Every research scientist with frozen or refrigerated specimens lost all they had.
Many of McKinney's colleagues at Xavier—one of HHMI's long-time undergraduate science-education grantees—have reported similar losses. Every research scientist with frozen or refrigerated specimens lost all they had, says Elizabeth Barron, the university's vice president for academic affairs, and a lot of scientific equipment was damaged. Most heavily affected were faculty in the departments of biology and chemistry and the College of Pharmacy, says Tuajuanda Jordan, former associate vice president for academic affairs. "They will have to start over, though if their computers were not submerged, they should be able to save their data." Throughout the campus, however, floodwaters rose up to 6 feet, submerging the first floors of 39 buildings and destroying any computers situated there. The school also lost its central power plant.
Yet, Xavier stood to lose its most precious resource of all—its faculty. Without salaries or homes, most would be forced to find employment elsewhere. People at HHMI quickly grasped that problem, and within days of the storm, Hanna H. Gray, chairman of the Board of Trustees, conferred with Institute staff to see what they could do to help.
It is no surprise that HHMI zeroed in on Xavier, a historically black university that has received $7.6 million in HHMI grants since 1988. HHMI selects grantee institutions based on their success in sending students to medical school or graduate science programs—an area in which Xavier excels, says Peter J. Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and special programs. "Xavier puts more African American undergraduates into medical school than any other college or university of any size in the country," he says. "And it ranks in the top 50 of all U.S. universities for graduating chemistry and physics majors."
Photo: Imke Lass