Lab of Opportunity

Students from the University of Puerto Rico’s storm-damaged campuses see biology through a new lens at U-M.

Author | Leisa Thompson

"Something I will carry with me dearly for the rest of my life (besides the amazing biology experiences) would have to be having the opportunity of meeting people from different cultures that share the same dream as I do, as well as getting the chance to meet the amazing members of the DFB team who gave us their time and dedication to make all of this happen for us students," says Grecia M. Alvarez Hernandez, a UPR student, shown here with fellow student Nayanna M. Mercado Soto (background); DFB instructor Emily Holloway, a Ph.D. student in U-M's Department of Cell & Developmental Biology (foreground); and Mike Scales, a Ph.D. student in Cell & Developmental Biology.

Grecia M. Alvarez Hernandez's studies at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) inspired her career path to become a biologist, but studying at a university still ravaged by the lingering effects of Hurricane Maria has been challenging. "Our labs were the most affected of all in the science department, which has put me and my classmates behind in the learning process," she says. "We lost a great amount of materials in the lab. Our professors and the faculty have been doing their best in trying to make our learning process as normal as it can be, but it still has been a struggle to recover." 

Then Alvarez Hernandez began her week of lab work at U-M in May, visiting as part of a program called Developing Future Biologists (DFB), a U-M graduate-student-led educational outreach organization. She dissected, windowed, and analyzed in state-of-the-art laboratories. Students from Michigan universities and from UPR attended the program, and many of them said the experience solidified their plans to earn advanced degrees in biology. 

"The opportunity has made my vision of what I see myself doing in the future less blurry," Alvarez Hernandez says. 

"In Puerto Rico, we don't get a lot of opportunities to work hands-on in a lab," says UPR student Nayanna M. Mercado Soto (pictured in the back of the photo at the top of the page). "After the hurricane, it was much worse because the materials we had for the lab courses got ruined and most of them had to be thrown away. We still struggle a lot with the electricity and water services, which doesn't help in making things easier back at home."
Lab spaces and buildings throughout the campuses of UPR were badly damaged during Hurricane Maria. Many labs continue to operate with reduced supplies and frequent power outages.
The students from UPR started their terms late because of continued effects of Hurricane Maria, and many were still in session at the time of DFB. Still, "they were very grateful to actually be participating in lab work and attended the program anyway. They saw what the opportunity could provide," says Emily Holloway, a Ph.D. student in U-M's Department of Cell & Developmental Biology and a DFB instructor.
DFB graduate instructors include Mary Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology.
Students from local universities, including Wayne State, Eastern Michigan, and Henry Ford College, also attended the program.
"When I got home, I had to take a lot of tests. In one of them, there were questions about developmental biology that I could answer thanks to DFB," says Soto.
Barbara Nelson, a graduate student in Cancer Biology at the Medical School, leads a class during a DFB lab session.

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