500 Caterpillars at Home? UC Berkeley Scientists Scramble to Save Research During Blackout

UC Berkeley grad student Aaron Pomerantz holds one of the caterpillars he needed to take into his home during the power outage. (Aaron Pomerantz)

While many Californians sat at home with flashlights and emergency radios during the power outages, Ph.D. student Aaron Pomerantz was home with 500 fuzzy caterpillars.

UC Berkeley was one of the nearly three-quarters of a million customers who lost power during the PG&E shutdown this week. Instead, the university relied on minimal emergency power. That sent researchers scrambling to save scientific specimens requiring temperature control to survive, and which represent millions of dollars in research.

Pomerantz got the word that his lab might go dark on Tuesday and immediately started considering what to do with the painted lady caterpillars he studies in his lab.

“The announcement was kind of abrupt and sudden, so I noticed people were cleaning out their cages and moving them to other areas,” he said. “There really wasn’t a plan for a lot of people to have everything on backup power.”

Some UC Berkeley buildings have backup generators, but many older buildings lack an emergency power supply. The campus has a small power plant that runs on natural gas, but it can’t supply the entire campus. Administrators have been carefully balancing power needs so demand doesn’t overtax the system.

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Pomerantz says with only a few power outlets linked to emergency power, he and other grad students packed up their specimens.

“These are living animals that need constant care and they represent months and months’ worth of my work as a Ph.D. student,” he said.

Luckily, the caterpillars are fairly easy to care for.

“I have them laid out on my floor of the apartment,” he said. “They’re getting some natural sunlight, which I’m sure they’re enjoying. They’re just chilling.”

One of his colleagues brought home 10,000 tiny swimming crustaceans, which live in aquariums with running filtration.

The stakes are especially high for researchers with frozen specimens, like cells and bacteria, which require preservation at -80 degrees Celsius. Those freezers represent decades of work and a lot of money.

How much?

“They are priceless,” said Noah Whiteman, an associate professor of integrative biology. “A money amount cannot be put on them because they’re irreplaceable.”

Some of the 500 caterpillars in jars that UC Berkeley grad student Aaron Pomerantz brought home to protect during the power outage. (Aaron Pomerantz)

Seventeen freezers were put onto trucks and sent to UCSF for safekeeping. Other researchers scrambled to find extra freezer space or connect their freezers to outlets that would remain on emergency power.

“For our other freezers not on the backup outlets, we stockpiled them with ice packs, dry ice, and buckets of ice to help insulate the cold, so that they would last longer,” said Thomas Burke, a postdoctoral fellow who studies how bacteria and pathogens infect cells. His labmates dashed to the hardware store to buy 50-foot extension cords.

“Our lab alone has decades of cell lines and bacterial stocks in our freezers,” he said. “Our research and careers depends on the sanctity of those stocks.”

UC Berkeley astronomers also helped launch a NASA satellite Thursday evening, relying only on emergency power. Mission control for the Ionospheric Connection, or ICON, is based on campus at the Space Sciences Laboratory. It was able to track the satellite, thanks to power from the university’s power plant. The mission will explore how space weather interacts with the upper atmosphere.

“It was like watching a choreographed performance turn into a jazz improvisation as problems come up and the individual team members solved them in real time feeding off one another’s talent and energy,” said lab director Steve Beckwith in a release.

Many researchers were frustrated with the abrupt notice they got from PG&E, and the lack of backup power in older buildings.

“That’s why we were so concerned that we don’t have the infrastructure that we need from the state in order to protect those interests in the long term,” said Whiteman. “These short-term Band-Aids will probably work. But what happens if it goes seven days out? There are contingency plans, I’m sure, but faculty are not aware of these.”

In a statement, UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz said the university is doing everything it can to protect its research specimens.

“We are assessing the cost of lost research time, as well as other costs associated with running independently from PG&E and any lost or damaged experimental materials,” said Katz. “We will seek compensation for those losses as appropriate.”

Some see it as a wake-up call for the next disaster, whether it’s an earthquake, wildfire or pre-emptive power shutoff.

“That’s why I believe it will be a blessing in disguise,” said Whiteman. “This is a great opportunity for the faculty to work with the administration to come up with clear guidelines and plans.”

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