The morning after the fire in Hall-Atwater Laboratory, professors, graduate students and University staff scrambled to transport samples to functional freezers in other labs. In many chemistry and biochemistry research laboratories, experimental samples will quickly become unusable if they reach room temperature. Although efforts to save the samples were largely successful, many research projects have been suspended due to damaged equipment. 

“Most of the spaces have been cleaned and restored to use except for the space directly affected by the fire and smoke,” said Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe.  “The damages are still being assessed by the insurance adjustor.  We expect to have a scope of repairs in about a week.”

According to Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Andrew Bodznick, most of Hall-Atwater has been returned to normal operations except for a few labs, two of which will be renovated over the course of the summer. Four faculty offices were also damaged by water and smoke, and are still being repaired.

One of the most affected areas was room 274, an advanced instrumentation lab used by the molecular biology and biochemistry (MB&B), chemistry and biology departments.   Although most of the samples were preserved, many instruments were damaged by soot and water. This equipment included isothermal calorimeters, plate readers and fluorimeters, all of which are frequently used by the MB&B department.

Before the fire, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Ishita Mukerji was working with Professor of Chemistry Philip Bolton to develop a screening method to rapidly measure a large number of DNA and protein samples using the plate readers and fluorimeters. Mukerji tags the DNA with a protein, which emits light under the fluorimeter. The research has since been postponed.

“We don’t know the full extent of the damage,” Mukerji said.  “Most of it is not recoverable. It is probably about $300,000 of equipment.

Professor of Biology Michael Weir may also have lost some valuable equipment.  Two polymerase chain reaction machines were waterlogged and are possibly no longer functional. The machines, advanced technology used for studying DNA, cost between $3,000 and $10,000.  While the machines are expensive, they are replaceable. 

“The members of my lab have spent most of this week documenting for the insurance company known and potentially damaged equipment and supplies including chemicals and reagent from refrigerators and freezers,” Weir said.  “So students in my lab have not yet returned to their research.” 

Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Anthony Infante’s lab was among the labs most damaged by the fire. But because Infante is planning to retire at the end of the year and was in the process of moving out to prepare for a new faculty member, much of his equipment was saved from the blaze. The renovations for the new faculty member, however, will now be more extensive than originally planned.  

While insurance adjustors make financial assessments, professors are trying to determine how the fire will affect their work beyond equipment damage. Weir and his staff moved boxes of archival samples to working freezers, but they may not have been saved.  If this is the case, the stocks—the results of years of work—will be difficult to replace.

Samples from the MB&B lab have also been moved, and according to Mukerji and Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Michael McAlear, the samples are still usable. The fire delayed McAlear’s research—the natural gas used for sterilizing cultures in the MB&B lab has been turned off since the fire—but the cultures can be re-grown fairly quickly.

Thanks to the response of the Middletown Fire Department and the help of staff and students in moving samples, much of the valuable research has been salvaged.  Most experiments have resumed, and professors remain hopeful that they can continue their research this summer and next semester.

“The inconvenience has been very significant but the major impact has been much less than it might have been,” Bodznick said.

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