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Benjamin Mercado works on sample as part of the Hazen Lab, the group working under the direction of UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen. Mercado is one of a handful of students from Puerto Rico who came to continue their research at UT while the island recovers from Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Maria was the 10th most powerful storm on record when it tore through the Caribbean last fall, leaving behind nearly $92 billion in damage and changing lives forever.

Higher education felt an intense impact, with wrecked infrastructure forcing many students off the islands and into institutions in the mainland United States to continue their educations.

“I’ve never experienced a storm so strong, never seen anything like that,” said Puerto Rican student Benjamin Mercado. “No one has experienced that since the San Felipe hurricane (of 1928).

“It was the kind of thing you only heard stories about from your grandparents.”

Now, six months later, Mercado and a group of other students from Puerto Rico are continuing their careers at UT, thanks in large part to joint UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen.

Mercado, Alfredo Gonzalez Cintron, Rosana Wiscovitch Russo, and Luz Serrato-Diaz, all from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedra, have come to UT to continue their research as part of the Hazen lab.

Their path to UT came about because Hazen taught at their university from 1979 to 1988 and still serves as an adjunct faculty member.

One of his former postdoctoral students, Gary Toranzos-Soria, currently serves as a professor and was mentoring Gonzalez Cintron and Wiscovitch Russo.

“I have a lot of good memories of my time there, and I maintain a strong connection to the university,” said Hazen. “Right after Maria hit I tried to contact Dr. Toranzos.

“It took more than a week, but I finally got in touch with him by cell phone and told him I was more than happy to help in any way I could.”

Gonzalez Cintron said that the help of Hazen and Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Robert Nobles has been immeasurable, connecting the students with everything from housing to scheduling, making them all feel welcome at UT.

Wiscovitch Russo said the loss of electricity was a major setback to the island’s researchers and scientists.

Since a lot of the University of Puerto Rico’s work in biology and microbiology depended on a steady supply of power, destruction of the power grid brought activity to virtual standstill.

While her work was not lost, Wiscovitch Russo said that coming to UT was a great opportunity to continue her research without delay.

Temporarily relocating to Rocky Top has also provided some new experiences for the students outside the classroom.

“It’s the first time most of us have seen snow,” said Wiscovitch Russo. “When it first snowed here, we ran outside and made snow angels, tried to make snowballs, snowmen—all the things we’ve only seen on TV or movies but never experienced.”


David Goddard (865-974-0683,