Last week, I visited Puerto Rico for first time. The ACS Board of Directors meeting was taking place there (also for the first time), so it was a good opportunity to go and visit the facilities at the University of Puerto Rico.
UPR has 11 campuses, five of which house research facilities. The crown jewel is the Molecular Sciences Research Center, an advanced facility devoted to basic and translational biomedical research. MSRC opened in 2011 and hosts approximately 300 researchers, students, postdocs, staff, and technicians. Half of these 300 individuals are chemists working in a variety of fields including molecular biology, genomics, proteomics, bioimaging, pharmacogenetics, and neuroscience. The building is not completely finished, but several floors are fully operational and house cutting-edge technology. Its open and shared spaces were created to encourage interaction and collaborative work and thereby boost innovation.
MSRC is also home to a technology transfer and innovation office, which is charged with “stimulating, protecting, promoting, and licensing innovations” at any of the UPR campuses across the U.S. territory. The office is responsible for commercializing research carried out at the university and will also host an incubator so individuals from other universities or organizations, including early-stage biotech start-ups and life sciences firms, can take advantage of the facilities. There is already a long waiting list for space in the incubator, which is currently under construction and will open this fall.
Much of the research at UPR is focused on stopping or containing tropical disease because Puerto Rico is often a gateway to the mainland for such diseases. One team is doing work toward an HIV vaccine, and there is also ongoing research focusing on Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.
In terms of securing federal research funds for that work, UPR fares very well when compared with institutions on the U.S. mainland. José A. Lasalde Dominicci, vice president for research and technology at MSRC, celebrated this as enabling the university to continue to invest in science despite the very difficult financial situation that Puerto Rico is going through. Its economy has been rocky for a while, but it finally spiraled out of control last summer when it defaulted on a bond payment for the first time. Puerto Rico then shot into the limelight as its $70 billion debt, shrinking economy, and high unemployment rate hit the news. A few months on, there is still turmoil, with drastic cuts in public spending looming.
Lasalde Dominicci cited Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste” when describing Puerto Rico’s precarious financial situation. I came away with the feeling that at least MSRC is making the most of it. By focusing research on certain areas and prioritizing investment, MSRC is hoping to become “the spark that can restart Puerto Rico’s economy,” as the center was called in a Caribbean Business article.
And while austerity measures threaten cuts in education, the MSRC team continues its commitment to education and research and has recently signed an agreement with the Department of Education to provide STEM mentorship to the poorest public high schools in San Juan. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to meet UPR’s Project SEED students, of which it is hosting 14. Project SEED is an ACS program that intends to provide a research experience to talented high school students coming from low-income families.
Despite the financial crisis that has been tormenting Puerto Rico in recent times and the Zika virus epidemic, the mood is upbeat and science is thriving. It benefits from scientific leadership that has tenacity, resilience, a clear vision, and an interdisciplinary approach.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.