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Alumni Profiles

Rebuilding After the Storm

Debby GrimmIn 2005, Debby Grimm ’85 was living in New Orleans and was director of the Coordinated Instrumentation Facility at Tulane University, a facility that provides access to sophisticated research equipment in electronics, inorganics, microscopy, and organics for academic and industrial research communities.

She was also a sailor, having won titles in regional and local regattas, and competed in national level sailing events.

Then Hurricane Katrina sent Grimm on an unexpected journey.

When floodwaters destroyed Grimm’s home and impacted the research center where her husband worked, her family relocated to Baton Rouge. In the meantime, Tulane University struggled to cut back on expenses, and Grimm was laid off.

She found a position as a laboratory instructor for freshman chemistry at Southeastern Louisiana University, and later, the chemistry department at Louisiana State University hired her to work in its mass spectrometry facility.

“It was an excellent opportunity to learn about some new and different techniques and to analyze different types of samples,” she said.

In May 2006, the CIF at Tulane contacted Grimm to see if she would be interested in returning. She and her husband knew they would be going back to New Orleans in the fall, so she accepted the offer and returned on a part-time basis, with a title change to assistant director, and hopes to work her way back to a full-time schedule.

While the loss of a semester was destructive and difficult, the amount of physical damage done to the facility by Katrina was relatively minor. CIF maintains a complete imaging facility that includes electron microscopes, a confocal microscope, and a 500 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, an instrument base valued at $5 million. Grimm gives credit to the department’s preparation before the storm for minimizing the damage.

“All our instruments were shut down or put in a standby mode, and our laboratories were secured and closed on the Saturday morning before Katrina,” she said.

All of the instruments that were available pre-Katrina are currently available to researchers, but turnover from people leaving the area resulted in the necessity for reorganization, and the facility is operating at a minimal staffing level.

The Tulane campus is recovering, however. This year, they had a record freshman class enrollment.

“Seeing this activity around the campus is encouraging,” Grimm said. “As new faculty are coming to campus, and returning faculty get their research programs back into full swing, we are expecting to be very productive this year.”

Grimm spends time in the laboratory preparing and analyzing samples. She’s responsible for compiling the results and reports and sometimes writes the ensuing scientific paper. Her work often involves consulting with other researchers.

“People bring me a vial and say, ‘Can you identify this compound or compounds?’ Depending on the amount of information they have about this sample, this can be a difficult task.”

She attributes the broadbased education that she received at Transylvania for enabling her to communicate well with researchers from a variety of disciplines, and credits chemistry professor Gerald Seebach with convincing her of her ability to go to graduate school. She was a chemistry and computer science major at Transy, and earned her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Tennessee in 1991.

“Not only did Transy provide me with the necessary knowledge, but it also got me prepared for the routine of academic work – studying, reading, researching, and presenting results,” she said. Grimm was also an athlete at Transy. She was a key player for the field hockey team and lettered in swimming and softball, so her sailing career comes as no surprise.

She learned to sail at Girl Scout camp, and took up the sport again when she and her husband began sailing with a friend on Lake Ponchartrain. They sailed as a crew on the friend’s boat for several years before they bought their own boat, a 28 foot Irwin sailboat they named Tuesday’s Child.

“I enjoy sailing on many levels – just being on the water and being propelled by the wind is very relaxing. You can get a quarter mile off shore and feel like you have left everything else behind,” she said.

But Katrina held changes for that aspect of Grimm’s life as well.

“Katrina really hit the sailing community hard. In the outer harbor, more than 80 percent of the boats were damaged. Unfortunately, our family boat was one of those,” she said, adding that many sailors have either replaced their boats or have found other ways to sail. She is still a partner in a J22 sailboat with a women’s team. Grimm’s immediate plans are focused on spending time with her family and rebuilding.

“We purchased a home in a wonderful New Orleans neighborhood, but it needs renovation,” she said, and she recently signed on to coach her five-year-old daughter Kaylor’s soccer team. She hopes to help her department rebuild the level of activity that will support its operating budget. “I’d like to see us continue to acquire state-of-the-art instrumentation,” she said, “to keep Tulane University’s research going strong.”

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