UC Berkeley grad student says research may have been destroyed by PG&E outage

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Sarah Morris says 12-hour days are not uncommon at her bio-chemistry lab in Morgan Hall at UC Berkeley. But PG&E's power outage may have destroyed two years of her ground-breaking cancer research, valued at $500,000.

"I kind of had a moment of thinking, 'is my dissertation thesis going to include the lines: I did this, and then it got wiped out because of a power outage. Please let me graduate!'" says Morris.

Morris is a PhD student researching new therapies to fight drug-resistant forms of cancer.

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She says PG&E assured UC Berkeley that the power would not be shut off, but then suddenly found herself with just 12 hours to decide how to salvage two years worth of research after PGE announced power would be cut.

"I was so excited because I was just one week away from finishing, and then all of a sudden I am (thinking), I may have to lose a year-and-a-half worth of work," explains Morris.

Due to the time-sensitive nature of her work, Morris says even a slight change in temperature could kill off her cells, some which require refrigeration at minus 80 degrees.

Some cells were moved to special tanks on campus, while some were taken to UCSF, as UC Berkeley scrambled to divert its limited power to keep the research labs running.

"I just like put away all this monsterous anger and I just shoved it in the back of my mind and said, 'Ok, this is a do-or-die moment,' quiet literally for my cells," says Morris.

PGE says it gave UC Berkeley advanced notice. In an email to ABC7 News, PG&E says:

"PG&E has been working with critical service providers and our large customers with one-on-one engagement and sector-specific meetings and webinars to inform, provide resources for and support as they developed their PSPS and emergency-preparedness plans. We also had frequent communications with these customers before, during and after the PSPS event to support their event-specific preparedness and address restoration prioritization requests and other needs."

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Morris says if her work is lost, not only will she have to start over, but it could have a huge impact on any future career.

"If I go out into the job market, I cannot say: The power went out. Please give me a job," says Morris.

Morris says academia is not so forgiving. If she has to start from scratch, it will require her to be in college for another year and a half. That means trying to raise money for tuition and research, which may not be as easy second time around from donors and grants.

"They are very particular. They don't want to just give money to someone they think is a failure. And having a really long graduate student lab, does not look good. They are not willing to fund that," says Morris.

But for now, Morris says there needs to be a stronger focus on the economic and social costs of cutting power to a state.

"This is a call to action," says Morris. "If PG&E cannot hear us individually, they will hear UC Berkeley. And I am glad to put my voice to that."

Morris gets her cells back from UCSF on Tuesday. She says will take her two weeks figure out what, if any, part of her research can be salvaged.
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