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Strike At University of Puerto Rico Impacts Research

Academe: Despite disruptions, chemistry faculty and students continue working

by Linda Wang
June 8, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 24

Credit: Carla Saladini
Student strikes have temporarily shut down the University of Puerto Rico.
Credit: Carla Saladini
Student strikes have temporarily shut down the University of Puerto Rico.

A massive student-led strike that has led to the indefinite closure of 10 of 11 campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system has impacted the ability of faculty and students to conduct research, including chemistry research.

 "This strike is really hurting the research, the students, and the university as a whole," says Carlos R. Cabrera, a professor of chemistry at the university's Río Piedras campus and director of the Center for Advanced Nanoscale Materials. "The morale here is very low, but we're trying to keep the research going."

The strike began on April 21 in opposition to several issues, including proposed tuition hikes and the elimination of tuition waivers for honors students and athletes. The situation in Puerto Rico reflects the consequences of severe budget cuts that have hit colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. Last November, students and faculty in the University of California system held a strike to protest student fee increases.

Since the University of Puerto Rico strike began, faculty and students have only had intermittent access to its labs. Even when they are allowed to enter, they are working with dwindling supplies of some chemicals and other research materials. Closed campuses mean new shipments cannot be delivered.

Faculty and students in the chemistry departments have maintained a sense of normalcy by communicating through e-mails and phone calls, working at home on grant proposals and research papers, holding group meetings and seminars off campus, and going into the lab whenever they are given access. "We keep working," says Ingrid Montes, a professor of chemistry at the Río Piedras campus. "But it's very hard because your mind is not completely focused on what you are doing. The faculty is very upset and frustrated."

R&D at the University of Puerto Rico has been on an upward trajectory. For example, at the Río Piedras campus, chemical R&D grants more than doubled between 2005 and 2006 (C&EN, Oct. 26, 2009, page 26). Jose A. Prieto, a professor of chemistry there, says this growth reflects an increase in faculty hiring in recent years. Nonetheless,  he says he is worried that the strike will have an impact on faculty recruitment and retention.

Another potential impact of the strike is the loss of research opportunities for students. Already, the university has cancelled its participation in ACS Project SEED, which provides research experiences for economically disadvantaged high school students, as well as other summer research programs for high school students. "Those students lost an opportunity of a lifetime because when you have a research experience, it enlightens the rest of your life," says Prieto.

Salvador Gavalda, a fifth-year doctoral student in chemistry at the Río Piedras campus, says the impact of the strike reinforces the fact that research is not done in isolation. "Our research affects society," he says. "And society affects our research."



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