When flashbacks of Hurricane Irma pummeling his family’s home in St. Thomas break his concentration, Lewis Bennett steps outside the lab at the Johns Hopkins University and plays some tracks from Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album to collect himself.
Bennett, 22, was one of four students from a summer biology internship program whom the university brought back to the Homewood campus after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated their homes in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. University officials scrambled to make arrangements to get the students to Baltimore to keep them safe and minimize any disruption to their educations while their communities began to rebuild.
“It felt like someone cared,” said Bennett, who huddled in a closet with his cousin when Irma barreled through the island in early September. He had to endure a second storm when Hurricane Maria hit St. Croix after he traveled there to try to catch his flight to Baltimore.
Once returning to Hopkins on Oct. 1, Bennett was able to move forward on his graduate school applications, take necessary exams and continue his research into proteins, sperm development and infertility.
Joel Schildbach, a Hopkins biology professor and vice dean for undergraduate education for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said after the hurricanes hit the U.S. territories, he checked in on the former summer interns who lived there and activated a team at Hopkins to bring them back to campus.
About a dozen students come to Hopkins each summer for the 10-week biology internship program provided in conjunction with the National Science Foundation. Four of the previous interns were still undergraduates, so Schildbach used roughly $10,000 in a private funds budget to pay for their temporary return.
Schildbach said he was especially worried about Bennett and another student who were in the midst of applying for graduate programs. If they had missed certain deadlines, they could have been knocked out of the applicant pool, delaying their education for up to a year, he said.
“The students would be badly disrupted,” Schildbach said. “You don’t want to see the talent wasted. These students have demonstrated their abilities, and the timing for two of them was critical.”
Natalie Strobach, director of undergraduate research at Hopkins, got to work shortly after the hurricanes hit to make the arrangements. She spent six hours booking a single flight from Puerto Rico, finding seat after seat immediately sold out, then arranged for temporary housing and shopped for bedding, toiletries and groceries for each of the students.
“As soon as the storms started breaking out, Joel was asking if I had heard from the students,” Strobach said. “He emailed them, wanting to make sure they were OK. He asked if they could go to their schools and if they had power. Their campuses were completely shut down.”
At Hopkins, the students were able to pick up their projects from the summer and work as visiting researchers.
Strobach said the opportunity to have a direct impact on the lives of those affected by a natural disaster feels empowering.
“It is knowing that in teamwork you can have an impact,” she said.
One of the four students, Carla M. Quinones, will return to Puerto Rico early next month after presenting her research at a conference in Phoenix. She spent the last three weeks digging deeper into her research about the functions of a bacterial enzyme that is similar to an enzyme found in the thyroid gland.
Quinones, 20, said her classes at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras have been interrupted as the campus tries to cope without water, internet and electricity. Her family of six survived Hurricane Maria, but their home near the university campus was flooded.
“It was a relief that we could come here and work in our labs and study and have internet, but I still have my island and my family back home in my mind,” said Quinones, who was comforted by a painting of the Puerto Rican flag displayed on Hopkins’ Homewood campus and news of bake sales and other relief efforts by students.
Bennett — who is applying to graduate school at Hopkins and a handful of other elite schools for cell and molecular biology — will return to St. Thomas on Tuesday to resume classes at the University of the Virgin Islands. The other two students returned Saturday to Puerto Rico.
He said he is grateful for the help Hopkins extended to him and the other students, and he hopes and prays others in the U.S. remember the needs of their fellow citizens.
“People living in the mainland should know about places besides Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and learn about the U.S. Virgin Islands, and not because there is this cheap cruise,” Bennett said. “Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still need help. We still need a lot of help.”