Biology labs flood during winter freeze


Nihal Manjila/The Observer

Biology faculty preemptively covered their expensive lab equipment with tarps in case of structural failure.

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

Multiple laboratory spaces and offices in DeGrace Hall, home to the biology department, flooded on Dec. 25, 2022. The flooding was caused by multiple pipes bursting due to the temperature dropping to well below freezing temperatures. This continued for multiple hours before it was discovered. 

“There were four pipes, three above [room] 312 and another above the room near 312,” said Dr. Michael Benard, chair of the biology department, describing the locations of the burst pipes. 

As a result of offices and laboratory spaces being unusable, the biology department offices have temporarily moved to the Nursing Research Building until renovations are completed. Every member of the neuroscience group was affected in some way, ranging from minor damage to a portion of one lab to very serious damage to lab spaces and equipment. Many pieces of small equipment were destroyed, and some larger pieces of equipment were damaged.  

“On Christmas Eve, I was aware there was something wrong with the air handlers since it was 43 degrees in the lab,” said Dr. Gabriella Wolff, assistant professor of biology. Unfortunately, at that time it was unpredictable if any flooding would actually occur. 

After the flooding had been discovered, Facilities Services took action to contain the water and begin drying out the affected rooms. 

“I was able to come in the next day and see the lab,” said Dr. Wolff. “There was a lot of dirty water flowing through the lab, so there was dirt everywhere.” 

“It didn’t look that bad, but then we started opening drawers and there were inches of standing water,” said Dr. Jessica Fox, professor of biology, describing her experience upon returning to her lab.  

Faculty and lab personnel have been working to catalog the flood damage in order to begin the process of renovating the building and replacing or repairing lab equipment. Dr. Benard has been working with university administrators to find alternative space for affected faculty. 

“The department chair has been really good about keeping us updated,” said Dr. Wolff. 

A smaller flood had occurred in 2014 in roughly the same location above and around DeGrace 312. The 2014 flood had primarily damaged the lab of a current emeritus faculty, but members of the department had taken heed of the potential for another flood. 

“We actually came in the Thursday before to throw tarps over our expensive equipment,” said Dr. Wolff. “Other faculty had told me that the building had flooded before and it’s risky when there’s a big storm or cold freeze.” 

“Every time it gets below 10 degrees, we put tarps over our equipment because we don’t trust the building not to flood,” said Dr. Fox. “We have been doing that for the past 10 years, since the 2014 flood.” She also described how the tarp her postdoctoral fellow had placed over their equipment caved in due to the volume of water pooling on it. 

Dr. Fox said that she was not aware of a prevention plan implemented after the 2014 flood, but thought that there may have been one in place. She also noted that the previous dean of facilities had passed away shortly after the 2014 flood, and that prevention protocols may not have been passed on to the facilities team. 

The impact of the flood on department research efforts is quite serious. Multiple labs are incapable of continuing certain projects that were underway prior to the flood that could not be replicated in another lab. This has led some faculty to change the direction of their research projects. 

New junior faculty members are affected by delays to research since they are on the tenure clock. Dr. Fox described the process of achieving tenure in the department. 

“When you get hired as a junior faculty, the tenure clock starts,” said Dr. Fox. “There is no set number of papers or grants, but it’s expected that faculty publish papers and earn grants. At the end of the pre-tenure period, the faculty go up for tenure and submit a tenure packet. The department decides if the faculty has met the requirements for tenure.”  

Dr. Fox also explained the process of getting external reviewers to assess the junior faculty’s contribution to the field, as well as the path that an approved tenure packet takes through university administration until tenure is officially awarded. 

“Case [Western Reserve University] gives tenure track extensions for things like [COVID-19] and parental leave,” said Dr. Fox. Unexpected or uncontrollable delays such as lab equipment not arriving quickly or flood damage can also be cause for extensions. 

Other lab personnel—including postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research technicians and undergraduate students—are also affected by the flooding. Dr. Wolff explained that the postdoctoral fellow in her lab will likely have to switch projects if space is not found for their two-photon microscope, and is learning a new technique in the meantime. Her graduate student will conduct their research in another lab while her lab is being repaired. 

“It impacts our students in that we have fewer research positions within the department,” said Dr. Fox. “I was planning to take two undergrads, but now I can’t take them since I don’t have projects for them.” 

“I had four undergraduates working in the lab too, and now they’re not really able to work in the lab until we can get our space back,” said Dr. Wolff. She is currently working to find alternative lab space for them. 

None of the undergraduate students conducting research under Dr. Benard, Dr. Fox or Dr. Wolff have had their course or degree progression affected by the flood. Additionally, there are a number of neuroscience labs outside of the biology department that provide research opportunities. 

Members of the biology department whose labs were not affected by the flood have offered laboratory space to affected faculty and lab personnel who are then able to make progress on their projects. 

“It’s been great to see my colleagues come forward to support the affected faculty,” said Dr. Benard. “There’s been a number of cases where certain work can be completed in other biology spaces.” Dr. Wolff also noted that other faculty members had been very supportive in the aftermath of the flood. 

“We’ve worked to find everyone desk space, but it’s challenging to find experimental work with large, fragile, expensive equipment,” said Dr. Fox. She noted that space on university campuses is often limited, and it can be difficult to find a room large enough for certain equipment. 

When asked what the timeline for repairs will look like, Dr. Benard responded, “Sometime in February, most of DeGrace will be closed for renovations.” The building closure will likely continue for the rest of the semester while contractors work to make DeGrace usable again. 

Dr. Wolff explained that exploratory demolition is being performed to determine the extent of the flood damage to the building. 

“I think the larger issue is how to prevent this from even happening,” said Dr. Benard, “when lab space is damaged, research is slowed down by months.”