Storms in a test tube: How research was affected by Storm Desmond

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Spare some thought for the research departments at Lancaster. Not only is research time-consuming and potentially difficult to perform, but the mounted pressure of ensuring every detail is right, combined with the possibly ground-breaking nature of the work makes research one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, aspects of academia. The science and technology departments are under even greater scrutiny, which is why when a colossal tempest batters the electric grid, problems tend to occur.

Whilst it’s fair to say the disruption caused by the lack of electricity affected all the departments, the science and technology departments were most hit by the lack of power. To find out how the storm affected one faculty, I spoke to Professor Neil Johnson, the Dean of the Health and Medicine faculty at Lancaster University, who researches medical education, who informed me that despite the storm, the effects were minimised to the best possible degree. However, damage was inflicted, even if not major.

‘The biggest impact by far was a result of the prolonged power loss and the intermittent power loss, which damaged some freezers. The particular switching on some of the freezers couldn’t cope with the intermittent power loss, and of course, the very prolonged power loss meant that they defrosted…that meant we lost a variety of biological samples.’ However, despite the loss, very few academic staff members were affected, and despite teaching many more postgraduate and Masters degree students, very few of them were severely affected as a result. He informed me that for the worst affected PhD student, they managed to have the focus of their research adjusted to minimise the impact. He further reassures that, ‘If it becomes apparent that anybody, either a member of staff or a student is severely affected, for example, delay in research or financial implications, then we’ll look at that very sympathetically.’

So thankfully, potentially months of research didn’t go to waste, and on the whole, researcher students weren’t affected too badly. This minimisation of damage was not only a result of pre-empted planning, but the hard efforts of the staff that stayed on at the university, despite the turmoil unfolding. ‘When it became obvious that this was a very significant problem, a number of people who have particular responsibilities for liaising with students came in to try and help sort the problems that students were facing as a result of the power outage.’ As well as assisting forlorn students, ‘when they [staff] realised that they were struggling in terms of office use, they either helped deal with the problems being faced on campus and in the labs, or worked from home. Those who were laboratory-based spent the Monday and parts of the Tuesday ensuring damage to the samples and reagents were kept to a minimum.’

Overall, the storm wasn’t as scientifically damaging as originally perceived; however it highlighted multiple minor areas for improvement. ‘One of the things we did the week after Storm Desmond was look at the contingency plans already in place, and asked ourselves “are there additional plans that need to be put in place?”’ He went on to highlight three issues brought up by the events following the storm, the first of which was catering response and preparation to students with a significantly different term-time routine, such as medical students. Professor Johnson told me that ‘many of them were on placements at hospitals and so on…what we’ve learned is that we need to be more effective in how we communicate with them, recognising that they are different to other undergraduate students here.’ The second point risen was the need to improve and provide greater contingency plans for laboratories and special equipment, as the existing preparation plans failed to take into account the sensitive and specialist apparatus used by the researchers at the medical department. Finally, the third improvement would be the introduction of a ‘faculty response team, so that if the same thing happens, somebody can ring a number, and pull together relevant people from the faculty, to deal with specialist issues,’ such as the management of the laboratory equipment and the organisation of students and researchers.

Of course, it is evident that the department has learned much from the events of last November. However, considering the relative unexpectedness of the severity of the storms, and the results that followed, the safeguards will indeed need to be thorough if future disruption is to be minimised. On the other hand, everyone learned many lessons, and it seems the best way to future-proof yourself is to learn from experience.

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