Damage to Labs and Intellectual Assets
Among universities most disrupted was Tohoku University. At about 81 miles, or 130 km, west of the earthquake epicenter, it was the closest academic institution to the disaster site. Total damage including damage to laboratory equipment and buildings is estimated at $32 million.
“Our university buildings have largely escaped destruction but, inside, equipment and facilities are damaged or annihilated,” explained Toshio Miyata, M.D., Ph.D., director of the United Centers for Advanced Research and Translational Medicine (ART), based at the university, told GEN. Laboratories located on higher floors were more severely damaged.
“One of our great concerns and priorities is to preserve our valuable intellectual assets, for example, genetically engineered animals, frozen materials, and cells. So we focused on the preservation of laboratory assets,” recalled Dr. Miyata, who is also special advisor to Tohoku University’s president as well as professor and executive advisor to the dean of the university’s Graduate School of Medicine.
“We had been forced to live in uncomfortable environments and were unable to concentrate on research and clinical trials activity for a couple of months,” Dr. Miyata continued. The earthquake caused a full-scale blackout in the university’s home city of Sendai and large areas of the Tohoku region for a few days.
Disrupted telephone lines, computer servers, water supply, gas connections, and transportation systems left ART’s activities interrupted for at least a few weeks. During the first few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, Dr. Miyata said, he and other members of the community had to organize for themselves their own supply of food and living necessities.
“During the first six days after the earthquake, we succeeded to personally supply food: 5,000 kg rice, 3,200 milk cans for babies, as well as 2,800 blankets, 8,000 dry batteries, 12,000 tissue paper boxes, etc.,” Dr. Miyata reported.
"Several small cities or towns along the seashore have been completely wiped out by the tsunami,” Dr. Miyata remarked. “Many hospitals in these regions are out of function due either to the paucity of medicines and staff or, even worse, to their destruction. Our faculty staff—many of them are doctors—thus shared the responsibility to encourage and support not only students and university members but also patients and medical staff working in the damaged regions.”
“It wasn’t until May that we could get started on research activities,” Dr. Miyata added. “Many people felt mentally depressed for the first few weeks.” Those feelings have lessened as time has passed and the need to rebuild lives, communities, and institutions has intensified. “I do not think personally most are bound by our past so much. We are willing to challenge, regenerate, and restructure,” he noted.
Restoration efforts will be complicated, he acknowledged, by a brain drain that has seen many young researchers leave ART and carry out their work elsewhere. “Most if not all foreign faculty staff and students went back to their own countries soon after the disaster and did not come back until the middle of May, partly because of the request by their embassies,” Dr. Miyata explained. “We would rather invite proactive staff and researchers who could become the core of our regeneration and restructuring.”