When UTMB scientists began planning to build the world’s first cryo-electron microscopy facility with the ability to safely handle biosafety level 3 viruses, they knew they were taking on a challenge.
Taking pictures of details as small as a few atoms with an electron microscope requires almost complete isolation from vibration, protection from even the weakest electromagnetic fields and perfectly still air kept at constant temperature, pressure and humidity. Such conditions would be hard to create in a biosafety level 3 lab, where constantly running ventilation systems are needed to contain and filter out any pathogens that might get into the lab atmosphere.
There was also the problem of sample preparation, which in cryo-electron microscopy means using liquid ethane to instantaneously freeze viruses inside an ultra-thin film of water. That had to be done inside a special biosafety cabinet. Finally, a method had to be found to decontaminate the microscope without damaging its delicate components
Solutions were found for all those problems: special devices to cancel stray electromagnetic fields; draft-eliminating ventilation equipment; carefully choreographed procedures to freeze samples safely; and heat treatment to destroy viruses. Vibrations were minimized with shock absorbers — and by locating the lab on the ground floor, only ten feet above sea level.
That’s where Hurricane Ike comes into this story.
“The surge brought ten inches of water into the microscope rooms, and there were two inches left when we arrived two days later,” center director Michael Sherman said. “That was enough to ruin everything.” Even though Sherman quickly pumped the water out of the facility, all three of its electron microscopes were soon riddled with corrosion — the product of salt-water exposure and weeks without air conditioning.
UTMB was lucky in one way: since no viruses had ever been stored in the center (all pathogens are kept in secure locations elsewhere on campus), there was no chance for dangerous microorganisms to escape. But the university also faced a dilemma. After Ike, it planned to elevate its most valuable infrastructure. This costly lab complex couldn’t be elevated. Should it be rebuilt?
For UTMB’s administration, the answer was clear.
“We’ve long seen this unique center as critical to the future of both our infectious disease and structural biology programs, as well as other areas of research,” said Dr. Garland Anderson, UTMB Health executive vice president and provost. “It was vital that we find a way to rebuild it with proper flood protection, and our success in doing that is a powerful symbol of UTMB’s recovery and revitalization.”
The rebuilding effort was helped by a FEMA reimbursement process that was much more straightforward than those required to fund other reconstruction projects at UTMB. Many of the technical issues had already been solved the first time the center was set up. But that still left the problem of flooding.
The solution was simple, if expensive.
“Basically, we put the whole thing in a big bathtub,” said Galveston National Laboratory scientific director Scott Weaver, pointing to a layer of gray, waterproof sealant that rises three feet above the laboratory’s floor and extends around its whole perimeter. “We have flood doors that can hold out three feet of water, and we’ve reinforced the floor with carbon fiber to make sure it doesn’t buckle under the buoyant forces created by a flood. We should be protected from up to a 14-foot storm surge.”