One Year After Hurricane Maria, a Research Institute in Puerto Rico Struggles to Come Back

At the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute, a student overcomes incredible hardship to complete his studies on time

4 min read
Marcos Santini [left], a student at the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute, works on optical dimensional metrology instruments with PRPI's lab technician, Francisco Rivera.
Marcos Santini [left], a student at the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute, works on optical dimensional metrology instruments with PRPI’s lab technician, Francisco Rivera.
Photo: Jonathan Friedman/PRPI

On 20 September 2017, Marcos Santini was home with his infant son in the city of Caguas, Puerto Rico. His wife, Wilmady Pagan, was still at work. It was no ordinary day. For close to a week, the Santinis, like everyone else on the island, had nervously watched the weather reports as a tropical storm crossed the Caribbean on a path headed straight for Puerto Rico.

Even before Hurricane Maria made landfall at 2 a.m on the 20th, Marcos’s neighborhood was being buffeted by winds of up to 280 kilometers per hour and drenched by torrential rain. Marcos, his son, and the family dogs took refuge on the second floor of their house.

By the time the skies cleared nearly a day later, Marcos faced a devastating sight. Windows in his house had been blown in, the first floor was flooded, fallen branches and trees lay across his yard, his neighbors’ yards, and the street. The main road leading to and from the community was impassable, and his wife couldn’t make it home for several days.

Marcos quickly got to work clearing up the storm debris, making repairs, collecting rainwater because the taps weren’t working, and figuring out a way to do without electricity or phone service. He also helped care for his asthmatic son and some elderly relatives.

This wasn’t how Marcos had envisioned spending his fall. He was in the middle of completing a technical certificate program in lasers and photonics at the Universidad Metropolitana’s Puerto Rico Photonics Institute, where the two of us are professors. Marcos had enrolled at PRPI to, in his words, “become a laser jock.” He’s passionate about the technology and someday hoped to start a business that involved lasers. But immediately after the storm, photonics was the furthest thing from his mind. He wasn’t sure if he would ever return to school.

PRPI was created at UMET in 2011 to do research and education and nurture Puerto Rico’s nascent photonics industry. One of us (Friedman) had been a research scientist at the Arecibo Observatory for nearly two decades before joining the UMET faculty to launch PRPI. Díaz had moved to Puerto Rico from Penn State University in 2010, initially working at AT&T and then joining UMET in 2014.

PRPI is the only photonics institute in the Caribbean. The program that Marcos enrolled in trains students to become technicians. In addition to taking courses and doing lab work, they are placed in paid internships with companies in Puerto Rico. We believe innovative initiatives like PRPI could and should play a key role in energizing Puerto Rico’s torpid economy.

Hurricane Maria was certainly a setback. The institute’s classes are held on the main campus in the city of Cupey, southeast of San Juan. Thankfully, this area avoided significant storm damage compared to the rest of the island, although it had no power, water, and communications for weeks.

PRPI sign at the entrance to the Barceloneta Science ParkThe sign for the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, and the institute’s labs remained closed for 6 months.Photo: Jonathan Friedman/PRPI

The PRPI laboratories, which are located in the Barceloneta Science Park, west of San Juan, didn’t have power or water for 6 months. As a workaround, we used shared lab space on the main campus. Each week, the two of us would drive to Barceloneta, enter the unlit, un-air-conditioned building, and using flashlights, collect whatever equipment and supplies we needed for that week’s lab exercises, returning the equipment we’d already used.

Beyond those immediate hardships, enrollment in our program and in UMET as a whole has suffered. The university now faces deep and difficult budget decisions precipitated by the storm, including laying off faculty and staff and closing academic departments. PRPI’s staff will soon drop from six to two, just as a new crop of students seeking associate degrees start their studies and our sophomores begin their second year.

Marcos Santini at work for Criticial Hub Networks.Marcos Santini repairs telecom equipment damaged during the hurricane. After he completed an internship with Critical Hub Networks, the company hired him full-time.Photos, left: Critical Hub Networks; Right: PRPI

The good news is that PRPI remains open and committed to rebuilding our community. Marcos Santini managed to contact UMET on 15 October, just three and a half weeks after the hurricane. A week later he started classes again, through one-on-one tutorials with Díaz. Marcos also began an internship at Critical Hub Networks, where he helped re-establish fiber-optic networks in San Juan. The company was so pleased with Marcos’ dedication that he was hired full-time at the end of his internship.

By April, our labs in Barceloneta had reopened. Marcos and another student in the certificate program had to work with equipment that had weathered six months in the heat and humidity, but they succeeded in learning how to use a laser engraver, optical dimensional metrology systems, and optical thin-film coating apparatus.

Even as he was finishing up his academic degree and working full-time, Marcos also continued to care for his son, who had to be hospitalized for a month due to health problems triggered by the hurricane. Despite his many responsibilities, Marcos finished his certificate in May and is continuing with his associate degree this fall. He’s an inspiration to anyone who must overcome adversity in pursuit of their goals.

About the Authors

Jonathan S. Friedman is director of the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute at the Universidad Metropolitana. Andrés Díaz is PRPI’s academic coordinator.

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