A Note from a Concerned American Citizen and a Scientist with Puerto Rican Roots

Oct. 2, 2017

The past couple of months have brought upon the United States of America an unprecedented wrath of extreme weather. From Houston to Florida and now Puerto Rico, 12 hurricanes continue to highlight how vulnerable we are to natural disasters, which are undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change. While I hope we as a society are able to provide basic aid to those in need, we also have to ensure providing assistance to the students, trainees and future generations of scientists in these affected areas. Of imminent concern are the students, fellows, and scientists in Puerto Rico. 

Puerto Rico, a ~ 3,500 square mile island harboring ~3.4 million people that has been part of the USA for over a century and in which every citizen is American, was recently battered by hurricane Maria. The magnitude of the disaster remains to be fully tallied, as the island is currently without water, electricity or phone services, and many parts of Puerto Rico are flooded or under danger of flooding, delaying access for repair crews. The island will certainly need serious help in order to rebound. The Puerto Rican government estimates that it will take about six months to restore electricity to the entire island, which seems to be an optimistic assessment. While I hope the island will be helped by our government and generous donations alike, as a Puerto Rican microbiologist I ask that we scientists come together as a group to specifically assist our colleagues in the universities on the island.

Like many of my Puerto Rican colleagues, my love for science and microbiology is rooted in the lectures and laboratory courses I took as an undergraduate in Puerto Rico. The strong foundation instilled in me by my professors back then still provide s the drive and passion I have today. However, education on the island has suffered from a decade-long recession and budget cuts, a declining condition that has now been further exacerbated by hurricane Maria. Masters and Ph.D. students will be seriously affected, as their research programs will have to come to a full stop for the foreseeable future. As we know, science is a very fluid endeavor and has no regards for natural disasters like Maria. In order to ensure scientific continuity in Puerto Rico, we need to put on our thinking caps and try to come up with potential solutions to help our colleagues and future scientists on the island.

For those of you who trained talented and hardworking students from Puerto Rico in your labs, I suspect you will recall how enthusiastically they contributed to your program; I propose that it is time to "pay it forward." I urge the members of our great American Society for Microbiology and university chairs and program directors to aggressively explore ways to ensure that Puerto Rican scientists have the help they need in order to overcome this major disaster. Potential solutions include hosting students and scientists in our laboratories during the ongoing semester or providing direct aid to relief and reconstruction efforts at the universities. Microbial ecology highlights the importance of communities, and it seems appropriate to apply this concept to the U.S. and Puerto Rico: a strong community of willing scientists can ensure that the "isla del encanto" ("island of enchantment") gets all of the necessary support to keep science in Puerto Rico alive.

The above was first published in Infection and Immunity on October 2, 2017.

Author: Associate Professor

Associate Professor
In 2008, Dr. Torres joined the faculty in the Department of Microbiology at NYU School of Medicine, where he is currently a tenured Associate Professor. His research program focuses on how Staphylococcus aureus manipulates the immune system to promote infection.