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Paulo Almeida

November 6, 2018

When Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair Paulo Almeida feels overwhelmed, he simply looks at a Post-it note for inspiration. Just a few weeks after Hurricane Florence, he found the note stuck to a table near the Student Recreation Center. The note, seemingly written by a student: “Impossible is just an opinion.”
 
“It had been a long day for me already and I was tired, and about to teach my biochemistry lecture, but I felt very elated,” Almeida recalled. “This was coming from a student and was teaching me a lesson.”
 
The simple statement drives Almeida as he leads the chemistry department in its recovery after the hurricane. Dobo Hall, which houses the chemistry and biology departments, was the hardest hit building on campus. During the height of the winds and rains, the protective rubber membrane covering the roof peeled back, allowing more than 24 inches of rainwater to pour into the building over a span of three days. A majority of the labs and offices were flooded.
 
Classrooms were relocated and some labs were moved to MARBIONC at the Center of Marine Science in the wake of the storm. Due to limited space, some labs have become virtual labs. A conference room in the Randall Library serves as temporary office space for the chemistry faculty.
 
“Everything that we had was in Dobo Hall, which may not have been a very good idea if you look at it in hindsight. We basically put all our eggs in one basket,” said Almeida, who has taught at UNCW for 17 years. “We suffered damage, but we did not suffer as much as we would have if we hadn’t been so careful in protecting all the instrumentation.”
 
Early inspections of the equipment show little damage, he said. The department is in the process of moving the instruments, including two mass spectrometers, to MARBIONC. Faculty have not been able to restart research because most of the department’s instrumentation and chemicals remain in Dobo Hall.
 
“The instrumentation has to be moved very carefully, and, in the most extreme cases, we are asking the manufacturers to disassemble them, move them, reassemble them and test them to make sure that they are fine,” said Almeida. “We feel confident that we will be up to speed fairly soon.”
 
Relocating labs and classrooms to continue the curriculum as planned has been a remarkable undertaking by leadership and the department, he continued.
 
“I don’t think there has been any campus in the U.S. that suffered what we suffered and didn’t close,” he continued. “For example, Tulane was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and they lost the semester; we didn’t. The faculty is working hard. I think most students understand that we are doing all we can. It’s a real challenge, but I think we are coming out on top.”
 
Aswani Volety, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said there are plans to restore Dobo Hall to full functionality as soon as possible, but that will take time.
“Until then, we are working to ensure the academic integrity of our science programs and provide students with the educational experience they deserve,” he said. “Student success remains our highest priority.”
 
Next semester, officials plan to have modular lab units in place on the main campus, and by the end of the summer of 2019, lab facilities comparable to those that were in Dobo Hall should be operational in other campus buildings.
 
Volety noted Hurricane Florence affected various disciplines within CAS as well as other colleges on campus.
 
“The university worked really hard to minimize the disruption to scholarly activity as quickly as possible, but Hurricane Florence affected research and scholarship in all of the college’s disciplines in some way,” said Volety. “CAS faculty have demonstrated tremendous professionalism and flexibility throughout this experience, as well as unwavering dedication to their students.”
 
During this challenging time, Volety is grateful to have someone as thoughtful, pragmatic and creative as Almeida leading the department. “He is a fierce advocate for UNCW students and is committed to providing them with the best experience possible.”
 
Almeida is confident the university is doing a good job maintaining the quality education it is known for following the storm.
 
“I think UNCW is still the right choice for students,” he continued. “This is a difficult time, and in difficult times that is when you see what stuff you are made of. If students can do well under these conditions, they can do well under any circumstances.”

-- Venita Jenkins
#CAS