Research Amidst the Rumbles


What do you do when your laboratory starts to shake around you? Assume it´s just another aftershock and try to ignore it? Dive under your desk and ride it out? Make a dash for the precious samples vital for your PhD research?

On February 22nd, those sorts of choices confronted staff and students alike at the University of Canterbury when the 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch hard.

MacDiarmid Director Professor Richard Blaikie saw his fifth floor office trashed in 23 seconds flat – books heaped on the floor, papers scattered everywhere. His first reaction was to grab his bike and head home to check on his family. The short ride to St Albans confirmed that this shake had done much more damage than the original September 4 earthquake, with piles of liquefaction and broken roads providing a clear indication that things were pretty bad.

Once past that first phase of checking on nearest and dearest, Richard started to make contact with colleagues and students. His rather tepid foray into Facebook months earlier proved its utility when all those “friended” postgraduate students started checking in, letting others know that they were alright or that they´d spoken with peers and confirmed their status.

Over the following weeks and months, things have returned to normal, but to a new value of normal, with students scattered around the world and staff making highly effective use of alternative communications and long-standing collaborations to keep work underway.

Any high-rise building in Christchurch became suspect, and the university buildings remained off-limits while painstaking checks were made for structural soundness. Even when that had been completed, access was limited. In the Rutherford Building (eight-storey home to a number of science departments) a check-in-check-out system was operated for the top floors of the chemistry section to limit the number of people inside.

Almost three months after the February shake, the Rutherford building finally opened up fully, with functioning toilets and operational lifts. With most of the key chemistry lab work on the sixth floor, the lifts were particularly appreciated. The building had been cleared for use, but work continued on checking through all the vital equipment. Some of the basic but important items, such as fume hoods, remained to be checked; others require specialist support staff to come in from overseas.

Some were still in operational recovery mode as a result of damage from the earlier September earthquake.

“It´s a long process to do [the checks] carefully,” says Alison Downard, Professor of Chemistry and a MacDiarmid Principal Investigator. Valuable materials and information had been lost. Samples that relied on low temperature storage were destroyed when the lab freezers lost power. While commercially available ones could be readily replaced, specialist research samples were much more difficult.

Institutions locally, nationally and internationally began to offer assistance to staff and students alike, keen to help in some fashion.

“MacDiarmid colleagues all around New Zealand immediately offered assistance,” says Alison, noting that many other organisations also wanted to play a part.

For some, that assistance came from just down the road.

PhD student Brad Simons had an offer from local nanotech company IZON to continue his research into the flow of particles through nanopores at IZON´s location in the largely untouched western part of the city. IZON houses a number of former students and collaborators, so while Brad´s focus had to shift a little, the work he could do there fitted in nicely with his PhD area. Alison sees the solidification of the relationship as useful, providing a valuable example of entrepreneurship and commercialisation of research as well as a chance to get on with things.

“The technology they have is very good, and its great to be able to use it. If they hadn´t been there, I would have been looking further away,” says Brad. He had good reason to want to stay in Christchurch – his forthcoming wedding plans were going ahead despite the disruption.

For Alison, the earthquake meant a lot of additional work in shifting lecture and research material into electronic format for delivery online. Students were looking to continue studies from home or from out of town; lectures were initially being given in tents in the university´s car parks. “Email proved useful for keeping in touch with the more far-flung students, but it takes longer and is not as easy as face-to-face,” says Alison.

For some, the face-to-face interactions have been put on hold as students transferred to other centres. Amy Phillips was one: she and another Masters student ended up in Auckland, taken in by the Maurice Wilkins Centre.

“Our lab group were really lucky in that we seemed to have heaps of offers of lab space and transfers to other universities, and the lab up in Auckland, where I have come to, offered me a space that same week even. I was really impressed at the response from other uni’s – they were really kind to offer us the chance to move!”

Amy could have left within a week of the quake, but she was initially involved with disaster response activities in the city’s hard-hit central business district and wanted to stay for that.

When the time came to leave, Amy admits that it was “definitely a bonus” to be away from the aftershocks. She’s even found the move beneficial for her project — she’d been waiting on supply of a protein from Auckland and arrived there to have it ready and waiting. A quick adjustment to a new lab and different procedures saw very little delay in her work, as well as a chance to broaden her professional network. She’s looking forward to getting back to Christchurch, taking a good set of results back with her, and getting her work back on track with the comparison samples awaiting her return.

“As well as the work I’ve been able to do here, I have met a lot of people who have been very helpful while I’ve been here, and that I hope I will be able to collaborate with in the future.”

Like Amy, PhD student Andrew Gross became involved with disaster relief efforts. He was in Sydney at the time of the quake, and checked in via flatmate and fellow international MacDiarmid Institute PhD student, Lynn Murray.  Andrew came back to Christchurch two days afterwards to find his flat undamaged but without water. The following day he picked up a shovel and joined Canterbury´s Student Army clearing liquefaction from badly affected areas in the suburbs.

Although working on his research at home was distracting, Andrew found the month after the quake surprisingly productive. At-home meetings with supervisor Alison Downard saw progress on a book they are writing.

“Then Alison had the brainwave to send me to Grenoble.”

The MacDiarmid Insitute offered financial support to get Andrew to France; ultimately the university sponsored him as part of its quake assistance for students. Andrew had spent three months at the UJF-Grenoble University last year as part of on-going collaboration between Alison and a group of Grenoble researchers. When he arrived in France on March 31, he was able to walk straight into the lab and continue with his research and practical work.

“The opportunity is allowing me to continue my PhD experimental work, write up a publication on it, and finish two chapters. So far so good.” Even better, Andrew has been able to conduct a range of new experiments not possible back in Christchurch, and he´s presenting his work at an international conference on electrochemistry being held in Grenoble.

“I was one of the few lucky students, who could either write, or perform experimental work, within two months of the earthquake. In addition, I got the bonus of the location, and the chance to present my work at a conference.”

For others, it has been a more trying time. Some students had not advanced far enough to be able to use the time for writing or to develop other collaborations; others lost access to vital information and equipment. The day-to-day grind of moving around a shattered city or coping for weeks without water has made it a difficult year, and the continuing uncertainty does cause some disquiet.

“You´re conscious that something else could happen,” Brad Simons admits.

That said, the students have shown a strong degree of resilience, which may well end up serving them throughout the rest of their lives, whether research or personal.