UAMS hosts displaced scientists 

click to enlarge BACK IN TOWN: Scientists Hurlburt (left) and Maleki.
  • BACK IN TOWN: Scientists Hurlburt (left) and Maleki.

The idea of a hurricane hitting New Orleans was certainly not absurd.

“Being where we are between June and November, everybody’s eye is on the weather. Everyone has hurricane watching programs on their computer,” said Barry Hurlburt, whose home is about a quarter of a mile from the lakefront in New Orleans. “At least once a year, we evacuate.”

“We have to make the decision 48 hours in advance and leave. That’s our rule, because if we wait until it’s any closer, we can’t get out of town,” added Soheila Maleki, Hurlburt’s wife.

So on Saturday, Aug. 27, as Hurricane Katrina was still a category three storm and expected to hit hardest in Florida, Hurlburt made his 48-hour decision to stay in New Orleans and invited people to come over to the house for a hurricane party.

Hurlburt broke his 48-hour rule the next morning after learning that Katrina hadn’t made the characteristic right-hand turn and was now headed straight for the Big Easy.

A research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hurlburt and his wife packed into Maleki’s 1990 Nissan Sentra along with his graduate assistant, a friend, three 75-pound dogs and a cat. (The Sentra had the most gas in it and gets 40 miles to the gallon, he said.)

After being blocked on U.S. Highway 11 by a burning car, Hurlburt turned around and got out on Interstate 10 — like everybody else. With the help of back roads and a GPS system, he made it to Little Rock in a little less than 14 hours.

Why Little Rock? Hurlburt had worked at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences until 2001, when the USDA in New Orleans hired him. Maleki, who researches peanut allergies, was already employed by the federal agency’s office in New Orleans, but had been able to work from Little Rock.

Hurlburt’s former colleague, UAMS microbiologist Mark Smeltzer, took him in.

“We called Mark Smeltzer and said we were coming,” Hurlburt said. “We got in about 2:30 a.m. We stayed up the next 24 hours watching the hurricane tear up our city.” And — the worst part — watching the flooding on Tuesday.

“Our house took 39 inches. The lab took about 8 feet because it is near the levee,” Hurlburt said.

Smeltzer told Dr. Roger Rank, chairman of the UAMS microbiology department, that he would be happy to share some lab space with Hurlburt and Maleki. Dr. Martin Cannon, an immunologist in Rank’s department who had been collaborating with Maleki, also offered space.

“From the department standpoint, it was kind of a no-brainer to do it,” Rank said. “I wrote an e-mail to the dean and he didn’t see any problems. He said whatever you can work out, and they came in.”

Hurlburt and Maleki now have appointments at UAMS as visiting scientists.

Rank said the two are a stimulating addition to the department. “The whole goal of the department and its students is to do the best research we can, so [their presence] kind of directly helps in that regard,” Rank said. “It is no financial help, but I wasn’t looking for one.”

“Barry and I have collaborated for a long time,” Smeltzer explained. “So number one, you have a friend in need and number two you have a colleague in need and so you just do what you need to do.”

With four people working in his lab right now, Smeltzer said it’s been tight at times, but it’s quite doable. And there are silver linings.

“[Hurlburt] and I get to collaborate more like we did when he was one floor below me. My students get the chance to be exposed to him and his approach to science. There’s a reason why he’s always been on my students’ committees.”

“Soheila, when she was a post-doc, worked here at UAMS and spent parts of a couple years working in the lab. It’s nice to have her back,” Cannon said. Maleki has been absorbed into his collaborative lab space, which consists of eight people scattered in three buildings. “I’d prefer it was under happier circumstances for her, but it’s a pleasure to have her around. A lot of fun. Gives us an opportunity to follow up on some projects we’ve discussed over the years. So the force of circumstance can be turned to an advantage, in that respect. There are some ideas we’ve been knocking around. We’ll have a go.”

Maleki said she and Cannon have wanted to write a grant together for some time. Her temporary relocation will make that easier.

Cannon’s working on ways to urge the immune system to power up to attack cancer cells. Maleki’s goal in working with peanut allergies in his lab is to turn the immune system off. Cannon said the basic technologies between projects are similar; it’s just a matter of using different manipulations. Their collaborative grant would focus on how dendritic cells turn off allergic responses.

Hurlburt lost his post-doctoral fellow and technician to Katrina: They’ve either been reassigned or left his lab due to other responsibilities. He still has his graduate student from the University of New Orleans, and she is the only one working on his research project: How bacterial metabolites make farm-raised catfish distasteful and unsellable.

Hurlburt said though the bacterial strains he was working on are redundant with those in Smeltzer’s lab, his DNA constructs were lost in the hurricane.

“The catfish project is severely crippled,” Hurlburt said. “We had a very large study going on where we had surveyed the organisms in 20 ponds on a commercial catfish farm for 18 months, once a week. The idea was to determine the organisms in there throughout the year and how they correlate with blooms of off flavors and we were about halfway done analyzing those samples … . So that project is devastated because most of those samples are gone. We have data from what we did, but my technician is no longer working on it.”

“I lost 500 varieties of peanuts, all kinds of peanut mutants,” Maleki explained of her research.

Hurlburt and Maleki have made some 15 trips down to New Orleans to survey the damage, deal with insurance and to recover as many lab materials as possible. Their stocks of bacteria, DNA, antibodies, human serum was normally stored at -80, -20, or 4 degrees Celsius; after Katrina hit, they sat in 100 plus degrees Fahrenheit, in super-humid conditions.

“We have to test everything that we brought out to see if it works,” Maleki said. “It will take us six months to a year to test everything. Plus I’ve got over 30 collaborators all over the world that we provide services for and do parts of projects that they’re working on … .” She can’t send them any significant amount of protein.

The government had predicted Hurlburt, Maleki and their colleagues at the USDA in New Orleans would be able to return to their research there in August, but the couple has their doubts.

Until then, they will have a home at UAMS. Aside from losing valuable and irreplaceable samples and research materials, though, they both said it’s just not the same.

“I feel like I’ve been sucked back five years in time,” Maleki said of being back at UAMS. “It’s all like déjà vu … it’s like someone opened up some space-time continuum.”

“It’s a mixed blessing,” Hurlburt said. “We have a lot of friends in this town. But we had it perfect there. I had my cute little wife, a nice little house, good money, stable job, sailboat, no winter, and it’s all been ripped away. Now I’m back in a place with winter, without my sailboat, no house. The job is quasi. The only thing I have is my dog and my cute little wife.”

Dorothy Miles is a broadcast journalist for KUAR-FM.


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