Burt Hall fire’s impact on research lingers

Chloe Stewart, News Contributor

The Keck laboratory, a previously clean and highly-specialized workspace, now sits under a layer of dirt. An airlock, situated on the wall shared with the lab where the fire originated, sits open and seemingly unused for some time. Gowns intended to cover researchers’ clothes, a once mandatory step to gain entry to the lab, hang in the airlock now unused. The ground is covered with a layer of debris and dirt, including small pieces of charcoal. Large machines sit dormant and visibly out of place. 

“When I first walked into that laboratory, it looked like somebody had taken a bucket of mud and just strewn it all over the place,” said Tuba Özkan-Haller, professor and associate dean for Research and Faculty Advancement in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric sciences. “The chunks of burnt material that floated into that space. It was truly saddening to see it in that state.”

According to Özkan-Haller, CEOAS is very research active, with approximately 100 faculty, 200 graduate students and 800 undergraduate students. Following the fire in Burt 2, approximately a quarter of all faculty research has been affected. However, this is not a definitive figure—Özkan-Haller indicated the college is still working to determine the extent of the impact on research.

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“One of the saddest pieces, of course, is graduate students who are working there have just watched their research come to a screeching halt,” Özkan-Haller said. 

She then went on to describe the scene that unfolded the first time grad students were allowed back in the building after the fire.  

“The first night we were finally able to get folks in for just five minutes at a time, to get some stuff out of the building because it was clear that the building was going to be closed for a while, and just watching those graduate students, you know—what do you take? They were sort of clutching sopping wet things,” Özkan-Haller said. “The impact really becomes clear when you talk to these folks who just potentially watched their career trajectory change.”

Nicole Rocco, a master’s student who worked in the Keck lab with the highly sensitive and specialized equipment, is one of those students. Since the fire, the course of Rocco’s research has changed in two primary ways. First, the timeline of her project has been changed, extending her MS by at least one or two terms. Second, an important part of the research has had to be dropped. 

Before the fire, Kent and Rocco were working together to develop a novel analytical method to use with her samples. The new technique would combine some of the highly-specialized equipment that existed in the Keck lab and a different method in which Kent is considered an expert. However, the damage done to the lab environment and the equipment means that Rocco is unable to analyze the samples in this way. 

“We have a really unique setup in that lab, and I don’t really have the same opportunity to go to another lab for that,” Rocco said.

However, in spite of these difficulties, Rocco has tried to view this as an opportunity to strengthen her skills as a researcher and found support in the resilience of the CEOAS community. 

“It’s been pretty clear over the last month and a half that we have a pretty strong group and I’m just thankful to be a part of it,” Rocco said.

 In total, Burt 2 contained six specialized environment facilities, in addition to more generalized lab spaces. Since the fire, Özkan-Haller indicated that most of the non-specialized labs and those that work in them have been temporarily relocated or otherwise taken care of.    

The aforementioned Keck lab is one of the specialized environment facilities because of the very specific and difficult to maintain environmental conditions that existed in that space. With specialized air filtration mechanisms in the ceiling, limitations on the amount of metal that can be within the lab and an airlock with sanitary clothing covers for those who enter the lab, this lab was a very uniquely-maintained facility. Further, the lab was home to a great deal of highly-sensitive research equipment.

Walking through the now open and damaged lab, Adam Kent, Professor of Geophysics and Director of the Keck lab, joked that it could hardly get worse. 

“Walking around in here probably makes it cleaner because we carry some of it out on our shoes with us,” Kent said. 

The Keck lab shared a wall with the lab where the fire originated last term. Following the fire, water flooded in, bringing with it soot, dirt and charred material. In its current state, according to Kent, all research has ground to a halt. Kent also explained that some of the scientific equipment hasn’t even been turned on since the fire. 

“Basically, we are doing nothing at the moment apart from fire recovery,” Kent said. “It’s an all-engaging process. Basically, what we have to do is we’ve had to evaluate all the equipment we have, work out what’s going to happen to it—for instance, whether they’re repairable or whether we will buy new equipment—we’re having to move out of all of those facilities and moving equipment like this is not trivial. In fact, we have some equipment that the only way we could get it into the building was by taking a window out and craning it in through the second floor because it’s big.”

Another of the highly-specialized facilities affected is the OSU Argon Geochronology lab, in which researchers can measure the amount of argon in a rock or mineral and use this to derive when in geological history it formed. This lab was on the third floor of the building, one of the furthest from the fire’s origin. 

However, this doesn’t mean that it was immune from damage. The smoke rising from the fire made its way up to the third floor and deposited a layer of soot throughout the entire lab. This layer of soot covers the scientific equipment, including mass spectrometers and highly sensitive microscopes, as well.

Anthony Koppers, Professor of Marine Geology and Geophysics and Director of the Argon Geochronology lab, explained that this soot poses a significant problem to the lab. 

“Now you would think you could clean that off, potentially, but the composition of soot is in such a way that it is a highly unwanted contaminant in my measurements, Koppers said.

According to Koppers, this lab is one of the longest running on the OSU campus and its reputation that reaches OSU. The methods practiced in this lab are tremendously important to geologists and projects and students from outside OSU often come to the lab. In one year, this lab will receive and process samples for approximately 70 different projects around the world that would otherwise be unable to conduct their experiments. 

For now, Koppers indicated that he and the rest of the folks who work in the lab are doing their best to remain as productive as possible. He estimates that the lab is running at about a 30 percent productivity after working to relocate researchers and students as best as possible for now. 

“We want to do research, and we want to get back on our feet as quickly as possible, so we can get the students back on track and get own research back on track,” Koppers said. 

Özkan-Haller and her colleagues have appreciated the outpouring of support from OSU, and are working as hard as they can to get CEOAS’ research, and the people behind it, back up and running. 

“The focus is really on students—making sure students are productive again, because we’re an institution of education, we’re an institution of research and outreach, those are the things we want to make sure we get up as quickly as possible,” Özkan-Haller said. “We want to enable students to continue on the path of education, we want to enable the faculty and the students to continue the discovery piece, and we want to make sure we are continuing to be a resource for the rest of the country, or the world “for that matter.”