P&S Lends a Hand After Sandy


Jen Uscher

When Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, struck New York City last October, NYU Langone Medical Center and NYU’s medical school suffered devastating damage. Tisch Hospital and several other buildings on campus were shuttered for months because of flooding and power outages. In the days and weeks after the storm, the P&S community reached out to colleagues at NYU to offer help to minimize the disruption to NYU’s education and research activities.

As soon as the storm passed, P&S colleagues of neuroscience investigators at NYU’s Smilow Research Center, which lost power, rallied to coordinate donations of the dry ice needed to keep valuable biochemicals and molecular reagents in NYU freezers from thawing and spoiling. After requests from two former P&S graduate students, many P&S faculty members and their labs mobilized to donate hundreds of pounds of dry ice, but the dry ice was not needed (the existing NYU supplier was able to deliver dry ice the next day).

Robert S. Kass, PhD, vice dean for research and the Alumni and Hosack Professor and Chair of Pharmacology at P&S, assisted NYU researchers who needed to locate freezer space by contacting a company that sent a truck to NYU to collect frozen specimens for off-site storage. 

Carol Mason, PhD, P&S professor of pathology & cell biology, neuroscience, and ophthalmic science, helped by connecting New York Times science reporter Ben Carey with her NYU colleague Gordon Fishell, PhD, associate director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute, where genetically altered mice that took years to breed drowned when the basement of the Smilow Research Center flooded. “Ben wrote an article that extended beyond the disaster because it discussed the fact that since Gordon had always shared his mice with other investigators, some were being housed and bred at other institutions,” says Dr. Mason. “Those institutions are now sending mice back to him. People are being even more helpful because of that article. And it showed how sharing is so important for the scientific enterprise. It’s something we teach to our students.”

Adolfo Ferrando, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and of pathology, provided support to NYU colleagues who lost their mice. He hosted two researchers who are members of the lab of his collaborator, Iannis Aifantis, PhD, professor of pathology at NYU. Suffering from a major loss in their mouse colony and lack of access to their NYU lab facility, which lost power, they needed space to complete time-sensitive experiments. After securing Columbia IDs and completing safety training, the researchers used Dr. Ferrando’s lab space and had access to primary patient samples, reagents, and Dr. Ferrando’s mouse colony.

One of the researchers, Bryan King, is a PhD student in the cellular and molecular biology program at NYU’s Sackler Institute. He uses mouse models of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia to study the function of a mutation in a gene called Fbxw7, which encodes a tumor suppressor protein frequently mutated in T-ALL. Mr. King submitted a paper to a journal right before Sandy struck and the paper’s reviewers asked him to do a number of additional experiments. “Because of Dr. Ferrando’s help, we were able to answer the reviewer comments and do experiments we didn’t have the resources to complete at NYU,” he says. “It’s also been nice to get additional feedback from Dr. Ferrando on my experiments.”

With NYU medical students unable to use some of the buildings on their campus, P&S administrators offered access to facilities at Columbia. Anna Getselman, executive director of the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, learned that the Ehrman Medical Library at NYU was closed after it was badly damaged in the storm. She reached out to NYU and arranged to let medical students there use Columbia’s library starting in early November.

“These days health sciences libraries are used by students mostly as a study space,” says Ms. Getselman. “Since NYU’s facility was totally devastated, we thought offering an alternative study space was very important. The students who took advantage of it seemed to appreciate it.” 

Some NYU medical students could not complete psychiatry clerkships that were scheduled to take place in November and December at the teaching hospitals affiliated with NYU, such as Bellevue Hospital Center, Tisch Hospital, and VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. With these hospitals closed in the aftermath of the storm, NYU contacted colleagues at other New York-area medical schools to find alternative clerkship opportunities for students. Janis Cutler, MD, director of medical student education in psychiatry at P&S, helped make it possible for Asya Izraelit and David Beck to complete psychiatry rotations at New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Ms. Izraelit spent her six-week clerkship in a clinical unit of the Washington Heights Community Service, which provides inpatient and outpatient services for people with severe mental illness living in northern Manhattan. 

“My experience was so overwhelmingly impressive,” says Ms. Izraelit. “I had the opportunity to be on the inpatient unit, to go to Ward’s Island for court proceedings, and to present at journal club and case conference. I’m really happy Columbia was so welcoming and that this opportunity existed.”

Students did their part by volunteering in communities impacted by Sandy. In their “Health Education and Promotion in Physical Therapy Practice” class students in the PT doctoral degree program were allowed to use three hours of class time to volunteer. After voting unanimously to participate in hurricane clean-up efforts, the students helped in New York and New Jersey communities. Their volunteer time far exceeded the three hours of class time, with many of the 60 students devoting eight or more hours to activities that included shoveling sand, removing drywall, or collecting and distributing donations.

Ben Spoer, a student in the master of public health program at the Mailman School of Public Health, organized a bus trip to the Rockaways in December so more than 40 CUMC students could volunteer to clean up flood-damaged homes and distribute food. 

First-year medical student Denise Johnson was part of a team of 10 students who removed walls, drywall, insulation, and appliances from a one-story house owned by a nurse who lost most of her possessions in the hurricane. Ms. Johnson’s conversation with the owner gave her new insight into how people are still piecing their lives together after the storm and will continue to need support, even though less attention is being paid to their plight as the months go by. 

“All of us students who have moved to New York from other places—we are all a part of this community now,” says Ms. Johnson. “It meant a lot to be able to at least help one person and share in her struggle just for that one day. It was rewarding to contribute to this community that I’m now a part of.”