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Students, graduate dean
Lisa Sloan, vice provost and dean of graduate studies, was instrumental in making arrangements at UCSC for a group of students from the University of New Orleans lab of alumnus Stephen Winters-Hilt. Pictured, left to right, are: Ovidiu Trusca, Maria Tanase, Stephen Winters-Hilt, Lisa Sloan, Mathew Landry and Shrikant Sendamangalam. (Not pictured is undergraduate Iftekhar Amin.) Photo: Jim Burns

October 3, 2005

University of New Orleans students relocate to UCSC

By Tim Stephens

University of New Orleans researcher Stephen Winters-Hilt is still struggling to get his life back to normal and his lab up and running again in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Thanks to his strong ties to UCSC, however, about half of the students in his research lab have temporarily relocated to this campus and will be able to carry on their research here.

The students--four graduate students and one undergraduate--are living in campus housing, taking classes, and doing research in the UCSC Biophysics Laboratory. (Five UNO graduate students came to UCSC initially, but one of them has since returned to Louisiana, where he has family.)

Winters-Hilt earned his Ph.D. in bioinformatics at UCSC in 2003. As a graduate student, he contributed to a research project led by David Deamer, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and interim chair of biomolecular engineering, and Mark Akeson, associate adjunct professor of biomolecular engineering. The collaboration continued after Winters-Hilt left UCSC, and he is currently a coinvestigator with Deamer and Akeson on two grants funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Akeson tried to contact Winters-Hilt shortly after hurricane Katrina hit. When he finally got in touch, Akeson learned that Winters-Hilt's research facilities in New Orleans were out of commission. More disturbing, however, was the plight of his students.

"The students had been living in a part of New Orleans that was badly flooded, and they needed a place to go for fall quarter," Akeson said.

Akeson contacted Lisa Sloan, vice provost and dean of graduate studies, who worked with campus staff and administrators to get the students enrolled and arrange on-campus housing and other support for them.

"Some of these students have lost everything, and I just hope they are able to settle in and feel they are part of the community here," Sloan said.

Iftekhar Amin, a senior in computer science, left New Orleans in a minivan crowded with relatives and friends. He had some spare clothes in a plastic bag and not much else. They weathered the storm in Hattiesburg, Miss., where wind speeds reached 120 miles per hour, and eventually ended up in Houston. From there, Amin was able to get in touch with Winters-Hilt and found out about the possibility of coming to UCSC.

"It's excellent here. People have been really helpful," he said.

Amin doesn't know if he has anything left in New Orleans. He went back at one point, but was unable to get to the part of the city where he had lived. "It was still under water, but what I saw looked horrible," he said.

Maria Tanase, a graduate student in physics, said her life still feels very unsettled, but she is glad to be in Santa Cruz. She and her husband, also a graduate student in Winters-Hilt's lab, left most of their possessions behind when they evacuated from New Orleans. A levy broke near where they had been living on the UNO campus, but they don't know the full extent of the damage.

They are grateful for the opportunity to continue the research they had been doing in New Orleans, Tanase said. The project involves the analysis of DNA and other biological molecules using a nanopore detector--an instrument built around a tiny pore just big enough to allow a single strand of DNA to pass through. The idea for the nanopore detector originated with Deamer and a collaborator at Harvard University (see earlier story).

"As far as our research is concerned, this is a great experience for us. As for the rest, well, at least we are healthy," Tanase said.

The Department of Biomolecular Engineering has provided computers and desk space for the new students. Deamer said it won't be difficult to fit the new arrivals into the ongoing lab work on the nanopore project here at UCSC.

"I think everybody's going to come out ahead. They will all have jobs to do here, and we will benefit from their contributions," he said.

The University of New Orleans, meanwhile, has temporarily moved its operations to Baton Rouge. Winters-Hilt plans to offer a course out of Baton Rouge that his students can take via the Internet. He also plans to spend about one week in Santa Cruz every month, Akeson said.

"We're just trying to make something good come out of a disaster," Akeson said.

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