Authors Posts by Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

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Hervé Tiriac during a recent visit to the University of Nebraska Cancer Center. Photo by Dannielle Engel

By Daniel Dunaief

What if doctors could copy human cancers, test drugs on the copies to find the most effective treatment, and then decide on a therapy based on that work?

Hervé Tiriac, a research investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, moved an important step closer to that possibility with pancreatic cancer recently.

Tiriac, who works in the Cancer Center Director Dave Tuveson’s lab, used so-called organoids from 66 patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tumors. These organoids reacted to chemotherapy in the same way that patients had. 

“This is a huge step forward,” Tiriac said, because of the potential to use organoids to identify the best treatments for patients.

Hervé Tiriac. Photo by Dannielle Engel

Tuveson’s lab has been developing an expertise in growing these organoids from a biopsy of human tumors. The hope throughout the process has been that these models would become an effective tool in understanding the fourth most common type of cancer death in men and women. The survival rate five years after diagnosis is 8 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

The study, which was published in the journal Cancer Discovery, “shows real promise that the organoids can be used to identify therapies that are active for pancreatic cancer patients,” Tuveson explained in an email. “This may be a meaningful advance for our field and likely will have effects on other cancer types.”

Kerri Kaplan, the president and CEO of the Lustgarten Foundation, which has provided $150 million in financial support to research including in Tuveson’s lab, is pleased with the progress in the field.

“There’s so much momentum,” Kaplan said. “The work is translational and it’s going to make a difference in patients’ lives. We couldn’t ask for a better return on investment.”

Tiriac cautions that, while the work he and his collaborators performed on these organoids provides an important and encouraging sign, the work was not a clinical trial. Instead, the researchers retrospectively analyzed the drug screening data from the organoids and compared them to patient outcomes.

“We were able to show there were parallels,” he said. “That was satisfying and good for the field” as organoids recapitulated outcomes from chemotherapy.

Additionally, Tiriac’s research showed a molecular signature that represents a sensitivity to chemotherapy. A combination of RNA sequences showed patterns that reflected the sensitivity for the two dominant chemotherapeutic treatments. “It was part of the intended goal to try to identify a biomarker,” which would show treatment sensitivity, he said.

While these are promising results and encourage further study, researchers remain cautious about their use in the short term because several technical hurdles remain.

For starters, the cells in the organoids take time to grow. At best right now, researchers can grow them in two to four weeks. Drug testing would take another few weeks.

That is too slow to identify the best first-line treatment for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, Tiriac explained. “We have to try to see if the organoids could identify these biomarkers that could be used on a much shorter time frame,” he added.

Tuveson’s lab is working on parallel studies to accelerate the growth and miniature the assays. These efforts may reduce the time frame to allow patients to make informed clinical decisions about their specific type of cancer.

As for the RNA signatures, Tiriac believes this is a first step in searching for a biomarker. They could be used in clinical trials as is, but ideally would be refined to the minimal core gene signatures to provide a quick and robust assay. It is faster to screen for a few genes than for hundreds of them. He is studying some of these genes in the lab.

Researchers in Tuveson’s lab will also continue to explore biochemistry and metabolism of the organoids, hoping to gain a better insight into the mechanisms involved in pancreatic cancer.

Going forward, Tiriac suggested that his main goal is to take the gene signatures he published and refine them to the point where they are usable in clinical trials.“I would like to see if we can use the same approach to identify biomarkers for clinical trial agents or targets that may have a greater chance of impact on the patients,” he said.

The research investigator has been working at Tuveson’s lab in Cold Spring Harbor since the summer of 2012.

Tuveson applauded Tiriac’s commitment to the work. Without Tiriac’s dedication, “there would be no Organoid Profiling project,” Tuveson said. “He deserves full credit for this accomplishment.”

Tiriac lives in Huntington Station with his wife Dannielle Engel, who is a postdoctoral researcher in the same lab. He “really enjoyed his time on Long Island,” and suggested that “Cold Spring Harbor has been a fantastic place to work. It’s probably the best institution I’ve worked at so far.”

He appreciates the chance to share the excitement of his work with Engel. “You share a professional passion with your loved one that is beyond the relationship. We’re able to communicate on a scientific level that is very stimulating intellectually.”

Born in Romania, Tiriac moved to France when his family fled communism. He eventually wound up studying in California, where he met Engel.

Tuveson is appreciative of the contributions the tandem has made to his lab and to pancreatic cancer research. 

“Although I could not have imagined their meritorious accomplishments when I interviewed them, [Tiriac and Engel] are rising stars in the cancer research field,” he said. “They will go far in their next chapter, and humanity will benefit.”

Kaplan suggested that this kind of research has enormous potential. “I feel like it’s a new time,” she said. “I feel very different coming into work than I did five years ago.”

My family has become archeologists in our own home. After 12 years of collecting artwork from the kids’ classes in school, saving report cards and filing away binders from earlier grades, we are sifting through all that material, jettisoning or recycling what we don’t need.

Some of the finds are so remarkable that they stop us in our sorting tracks. My high school daughter isn’t much of a morning person. She often prefers short sounds or gestures in the car on the way to school, rather than actual conversations that might require her to form words.

As we were going through a pile of material, we found a note from her nursery school teacher. She described a charming little girl who often takes a while to get going each morning. That description is so apt today that we realized how much of people’s patterns and personalities form early in life.

Then, sorting further, we found papers from her spectacular first-grade teacher. A young woman with a soft voice and a determined style, her teacher brought out the best in our daughter, even early in the morning.

Our daughter kept a diary in that class, in which she shared stories about the family’s weekend activities. Clearly, her brother was jealous of that writing, as we also found a diary from him in which he thanks her for creating a similar book for him to record his experiences. He shared his thoughts from the weekend, and the rest of the family readily wrote back to him.

His sister also kept handwritten notes from her first-grade teacher. The letters are all clear and distinct, and offer a positive and supportive tone. Her teacher wrote to her, without talking down to her. What a wonderful role model. This teacher, through form and content, offered a ray of sunshine to our daughter even then, which was probably why we kept the papers.

These notes today take on a different meaning for us, as the teacher succumbed to cancer at a young age just a few years after our daughter had the privilege of being in her class. Our daughter was recently in a high school English class in which her first-grade teacher’s husband served as a part-time instructor. She shared some of these notes with him. He was delighted to take them home to his daughter, who was a toddler when
her mother died. His daughter has particularly appreciated seeing her mother’s handwriting and feeling an indirect connection to the encouraging words she offered.

We have also sorted through dozens — OK, hundreds — of pictures that have transported us to earlier memories. We have a photo of our 1-year old son standing on the warning track at the old Yankee Stadium, bunched up in a winter coat on a December day.

We also found numerous pictures of our son on baseball fields of his own, surrounded by younger versions of teammates who have stuck with him through the years, as well as of friends who have gone their separate ways — or have pursued other sports.

Amid all the trophies from sports teams, we discovered certificates indicating that one or both of our children had been successful lunch helpers.

We have unearthed old VHS tapes of movies we watched numerous times as a family, including a few Disney classics and a surprisingly amusing Barbie version of “The Princess and the Pauper.”

In addition to sending us down memory lane, sorting through all the accumulated clutter has made the house seem so much larger, giving us room to add modern memories and memorabilia to our collection.

From left, Evan Sohn, co-founder of the Sohn Conference Foundation; Benjamin Martin, associate professor at Stony Brook University; and Bill Ackman, co-founder of the Pershing Square Foundation and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management at an awards dinner. Photo by Melanie Einzig/PSSCRA

By Daniel Dunaief

Up and coming scientists are often stuck in the same position as promising professionals in other fields. To get the funding for research they’d like to do, they need to show results, but to get results, they need funding. Joseph Heller, author of “Catch 22,” would certainly relate.

A New York-based philanthropy called the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance is seeking to fill that gap, providing seven New York scientists with $600,000 each over the course of three years.

In the fifth annual competition, Benjamin Martin, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at Stony Brook University, won an award for his study of zebrafish models of metastatic cancer. Martin is the first Stony Brook researcher to win the prize.

Working with Assistant Professor David Matus, whose lab is across the hall and whose research team conducts weekly group meetings with Martin’s lab, Martin is able to see in real time the way grafted human tumor cells spread through blood vessels to other organs in the transparent zebrafish.

“It’s been very challenging to understand what process cancer cells are using to metastasize and leave the blood vessels,” said Olivia Tournay Flatto, the president of the Pershing Square Foundation. “With this technology, he can see what’s happening. It’s a really powerful tool.”

The work Martin presented was “really appealing to the whole board, and everybody felt this kind of project” had the potential to bring data and insights about a process researchers hope one day to slow down or stop, said Flatto.

This year, about 60 early-stage investigators applied for an award given specifically to researchers in the New York City area. When he learned that he won, Martin said, “There was some dancing going on in the living room.” He suggested that the award is a “validation” of his research work.

The process of a cancer cell leaving a blood vessel is “basically a black box” in terms of the mechanism, Martin said. It’s one of the least understood aspects of metastasis, he added.

Indeed, a developmental biologist by training, Martin is hoping to discover basics about this cancer-spreading process, such as an understanding of how long it takes for cancer cells to leave blood vessels. The process can take hours, although it’s unclear whether what he’s seen is typical or abnormal.

Martin would like to identify how the cancer cells adhere to the blood vessel walls and how and why they leave once they’ve reached their target.

Metastatic cancer is likely using the same mechanism the immune system uses to travel to the sites of infection, although researchers still need to confirm several aspects of this model.

Moving in involves interactions with white blood cells, including macrophages. With white blood cells, an area of infection or inflammation becomes activated, which triggers a reaction of adhesion molecules called selectins.

By watching a similar transport process in cancer, Martin and Matus can “see things people haven’t seen before” and can explore way to inhibit the process, Martin suggested.

He is hoping to find ways to stop this process, forcing cancer cells to remain in the blood vessels. While he doesn’t know the outcome of a cancer cell’s prolonged stay in the vessel, he predicts it might end up dying after a while. This approach could be combined with other therapies to force the cancer cells to die, while preventing them from spreading.

Through this grant, Martin will also study how drugs or mutations in selectins generate a loss of function in these proteins, which affects the ability of cancers to leave the blood vessel.

Martin plans to use the funds he will receive to hire more postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. He will also purchase additional imaging equipment to enhance the ability to gather information.

Martin appreciates that this kind of research, while promising, doesn’t often receive funding through traditional federal agencies. This type of work is often done on a mouse, which is, like humans, a mammal. The enormous advantage to the zebrafish, however, is that it allows researchers to observe the movement of these cancer cells, which they couldn’t do in the hair-covered rodent, which has opaque tissues.

“There’s a risk that these experiments may not work out as we planned,” Martin said. He is hopeful that the experiments will succeed, but even if they don’t, the researchers will “learn a great deal just from seeing behaviors that have not been observed before.”

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of project the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance seeks to fund. They want scientists to “put forward the riskiest projects,” Flatto said. “We are ready to take a chance” on them.

One of the benefits of securing the funding is that the alliance offers researchers a chance to connect with venture capitalists and commercial efforts. These projects could take 20 years or more to go from the initial concept to a product doctors or scientists could use with human patients.

“We are not necessarily focused on them starting a company,” Flatto said. “We think some of those projects will be able to be translated into something for the patient,” which could be through a diagnosis, prevention or treatment. “This platform is helpful for young investigators to be well positioned to find the right partners,” he added.

Aaron Neiman, the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at SBU, suggested that this award was beneficial to his department and the university.

“It definitely helps with the visibility of the department,” Neiman said. The approach Matus and Martin are taking is a “paradigm shift” because it involves tackling cells that aren’t dividing, while many other cancer fighting research focuses on halting cancer cells that are dividing.

Neiman praised the work Martin and Matus are doing, suggesting that “they can see things that they couldn’t see before, and that’s going to create new questions and new ideas,” and that their work creates the opportunity to “find something no one knew about before.”

It happens everywhere, all day long. There isn’t a moment in any day when someone, somewhere isn’t waiting for something.

They might be looking at a protruding stomach waiting for their baby’s birth or standing in line waiting to order lunch. They might even be staring at a phone waiting for a return text message while the three moving dots suggest someone is typing, waiting for commercials to end to see whether the contestants won on a game show — or waiting for word from a school of choice.

I have a friend who is writhing through the exquisite agony of the school wait-list.

He tries to think about other things, like the exams he has this week, the fate of his beloved baseball team in a game or the plans for his long-awaited summer.

To his credit, my friend has allowed himself to stop thinking about the school decision over which he has no control at this point. Well, most of the time.

He’d like to pick up the phone, call the school and ask, as politely as possible, if he got in today.

When we’re younger, we struggle with the wait of a coming birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah or a vacation.

We check the calendar months in advance, planning a party, considering the invitation list, ordering food we may barely taste because we’re so preoccupied playing with our friends that day.

In the days that lead up to the birthday, the clock drags, slowed down by our desire to get to Friday.

The night before children receive numerous presents during a holiday, sleep evades them, as they wonder what’s wrapped and ready the next morning.

If we’re lucky, birthdays and holidays are almost guaranteed to bring presents, even if the bike isn’t the right color or the sweater doesn’t fit.

Those waits are more like yield signs on a highway, where we know, eventually, we’ll merge onto our preferred roadway.

To continue with the road analogy, what if the wait is like a yellow light and the next step is a red light?

If the light turns red — in this case, the school calls to share their disappointment that the person won’t be able to attend — does my friend wish he could go back in time to the waiting period, where a “yes” was still a possibility?

Is not knowing our fate more difficult than receiving a definitive answer? It depends on whom you ask. For some people, the notion of waiting for some kind of resolution is far worse than solid information. They move on with their lives once they hear the news.

For others, the wait allows them to play emotional ping-pong, throwing themselves from one side of a possibility to the other. The resolution can make them feel as if the game with themselves has ended, requiring that they make new decisions with new wait times.

While people wait, they often look for signs. If a school stays in touch, maybe that means he is closer to getting in. If a light turns green just as he arrives at the intersection, maybe that also means good news
is coming.

We wait for so much: For someone to call on us when we raise our hand, for someone we like to pay
attention to us, for a doctor to “see us now” and for the opportunity to do something extraordinary.

Given how much of our lives involve waiting, you’d think we’d be experts at it. And yet, every so often, we hold our breath and hope the delay is only temporary, making the next step — or the next wait — that much sweeter.

From left, Shawn Serbin, University of Maryland collaborator Feng Zhao and Ran Meng. Photo by Roger R. Stoutenburgh

By Daniel Dunaief

Not all greenery is the same. From above the Earth, forests recovering after a fire often look the same, depending on the sensing system. An area with bushes and shrubs can appear to have the same characteristics as one with a canopy.

From left, Shawn Serbin, University of Maryland collaborator Feng Zhao and Ran Meng. Photo by Roger R. Stoutenburgh

Working in associate ecologist Shawn Serbin’s laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Ran Meng, a postdoctoral researcher, recently figured out a way to improve the level of information gained from these remote images, enabling them to distinguish among the different types of growth after a forest fire.

Examining the growth in a pine forest on Long Island after a fire near BNL in 2012, Meng used various spectral properties to get a more accurate idea of how the forest was recovering. Meng and Serbin recently published their results in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

“Using our remote sensing analysis, we were able to link detailed ground measurements from [BNL’s Kathy Schwager and Tim Green] and others to better understand how different burn severities can change the recovery patterns of oak and pine species,” Serbin explained in an email. The information Meng and Serbin collected and analyzed can map canopy moisture content and health as well as fuels below the canopy to identify wildfire risk.

The imagery can be used to map the water content or moisture stored in the leaves and vegetation canopies, Serbin explained. LiDAR data can see through the canopy and measure the downed trees and other fuels on the forest floor. This type of analysis can help differentiate the type of growth after a fire without requiring extensive surveys from the ground.  “One of the issues on the ground is that it’s time consuming and expensive,” Serbin said. Remote sensing can “cover a much larger area.”

Assisted by Meng’s background in machine learning, these researchers were able to see a higher resolution signal that provides a more detailed and accurate picture of the vegetation down below. One of the purposes of this work is to help inform forest managers’ decision-making, Serbin added. A forest with a canopy will likely capture and retain more water than one dominated by bushes and shrubs. A canopied forest acts “more like a sponge” in response to precipitation.

A canopied forest can “hold water,” Meng said. If the canopy disappears and changes to shrubs or grass, the forest’s capacity to store water will be damaged. Altering the trees in a forest after a fire can start a “reaction chain.” Without a nearby canopied forest, the water cycle can change, causing more erosion, which could add more sediment to streams.

Serbin recently met with the Central Pine Barrens Commission, the Department of Environmental Conservation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is based in Syracuse.

Serbin had planned to meet with these groups several years ago to try to build a better relationship between the information the lab was collecting and the pine barrens and ESF to “use the lab as a field research site.”

They discussed ways to use the science to inform management to keep the pine barrens healthy. The timing of the meeting, so soon after the publication of the recent results related to fire damage surveys, was fortuitous.

“It just happens that this work with [Meng] comes out and is highly relevant,” Serbin said. “This is a happy coincidence.” He said he hopes these groups can use this information to feed into a larger model of research collaboration. This work not only provides a clearer picture of how a forest recovers, but also might suggest areas where a controlled burn might benefit the area, minimizing the effect of a more intense fire later on.

“These forests used to burn more often but with less intensity due to the lower fuel loads from more frequent fire,” Serbin explained. Fire suppression efforts, however, have meant that when fires do burn, they occur with higher intensities. “It could be harder to maintain the pine barrens because the fires burn more strongly, which can reduce or destroy the soil seed stock or alter the recovery trajectory in other ways,” he said.

The remote sensing analysis of trees uses shapes, sizes, leaf color and chemistry to explore the fingerprints of specific trees. This could offer researchers and conservationists an opportunity to monitor endangered species or protected habitats.

“We can do even better using platforms like NASA G-LiHT because we can use both the spectral fingerprint as well as unique structural characteristics of different plants” to keep track of protected areas, Serbin explained.

As for what’s next, Serbin said he would like to scale this study up to study larger areas in other fire-prone systems, such as boreal forests in Alaska and Canada. He plans to apply these approaches to develop new forest recovery products that can be used in conjunction with other remote sensing data and field studies to understand forest disturbances, recovery and carbon cycling.

Meng plans to move on in August to work directly with the NASA G-LiHT team. He said he believes this kind of work can also track infestations from beetles or other pests that attack trees or damage forests, adding, “There are some slight changes in spectral patterns following beetle outbreaks.”

A final goal of this project, which admittedly requires considerably more work according to Meng, is to monitor those changes early to enable forest managers to intervene, potentially creating the equivalent of an insect break if they can act soon enough.

Serbin appreciated the work his postdoc contributed to this project, describing Meng as a “dedicated researcher” who had to “sort out what approaches and computational techniques to use in order to effectively characterize” the images.

“[He] persevered and was able to figure out how to analyze these very detailed remote sensing data sets to come up with a new and novel pattern that hadn’t really been seen before,” said Serbin.

I’m starting a new movement. I’m going to call it CCDD, for CounterCulture Dan Dunaief.

Hey, look, if other people can put their names on buildings, airlines and bills that become laws, why can’t I, right?

My movement is all about trying to get away from a world in which large groups of people line up on either side of an issue, without much consensus or common ground in between. The polar opposites are like a barbell, with heavy weights on either end and a thin line between them. The counterculture lives along that line.

So, I’m going to establish my own rules for CCDD. For starters, I’m not going to hurry to do anything. I’m going to smile when the person in front of me doesn’t hit the gas as soon as the light turns green. I’m going to let people go ahead of me. Let’s not get ridiculous about this, right? I mean, if I’m waiting for a sandwich and I’m starving, I’m not going to let everyone go, but, I’m just saying, I’m going to take my foot off the accelerator and stop acting as if I have to race to every event.

OK, I’m also going to stop acting as if I know everything. Everyone is supposed to know everything, or at least fake it. Besides, if we don’t know something, we can check on the internet, which is the greatest source of information and misinformation ever invented. I’m going to say, “I don’t know,” and try to reason through what I recall from my education, from my reading and from people around me before asking Siri, Alexa or any other computer created voice for help. I can and will try to figure it out on my own.

I’m not going to read anything shorter than the length of a tweet message. No offense to Twitter, but the president of the galaxy vents his extreme frustration with people inside and outside his cabinet regularly through this system, so strike while the iron is hot, right? Except that I don’t want to read short ideas, short sentences or shorthand. I want to read a full, detailed thought and idea.

I’m going to care more than I ever have about grammar and spelling. I’m going to encourage others to care about the difference between counsel (advice) and council (a collection of people) because words matter.

I will look carefully at nature whenever I have the chance. I plan to consider the importance of the journey, even as I head toward a destination. The ends will not justify the means, even if it’s easier to cut corners and to take small liberties along the way.

I will believe in facts. This one might be the hardest to live by because, after all, what is a fact today? How do we know, for sure, that something is true? I will research information and will make my own informed decision.

In CCDD, I’m going to listen to people who speak to me, and ignore those who shout to get my attention. If what you say is important and relevant, the value should speak for itself.

Finally, I’m going to celebrate my differences with other people. I’m not going to assume someone passionate about a belief different from my own is wrong. I am going to try to listen attentively, so that I can meet them somewhere closer to that barbell line. If they can change me, maybe I can change them?

Rachel Caston looks at lunar soil simulant JSC1A. Photo by Upasna Thapar

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s the ultimate road trip into the unknown. Space travel holds out the possibility of exploring strange new worlds, boldly going where no one has gone before (to borrow from a popular TV show).

While the excitement of such long-distance journeys inspires people, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among other agencies, is funding scientific efforts to ensure that anyone donning a spacesuit and jetting away from the blue planet is prepared for all the challenges to mind and body that await.

Rachel Caston, recently completed her doctorate, which included work at Stony Brook University in the laboratory of Bruce Demple for a project that explored the genetic damage lunar soil simulants have on human lung cells and on mouse brain cells.

Geologist Harrison Schmitt, who was the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, shared symptoms he described as “lunar hay fever,” which included the types of annoyances people with allergies have to deal with during the spring: sore throat, sneezing and watery eyes.

Using simulated lunar soil because actual soil from the moon is too scarce, Caston found that several different types of soil killed the cell or damaged the cell’s genes, or DNA for both human lung and mouse brain cells.

While there has been considerable research that explores the inflammation response to soil, “there wasn’t any research previously done that I know of [that connected] lunar soil and DNA damage,” said Caston, who was the lead author on research published recently in the American Geophysical Union’s journal GeoHealth.

The moon’s soil becomes electrostatic due to radiation from the sun. Astronauts who walked on the moon, or did various explorations including digging into its surface, brought back some of that dust when it stuck to their space suits.

Caston sought to understand what causes damage to the DNA.

Going into the study, Demple, a professor of pharmacological sciences at SBU, suggested that they expected that the materials most capable of generating free radicals would also be the ones that exerted the greatest damage to the cells and their DNA. While free radicals may play a role, the action of dust simulants is more complex than that created by a single driving force.

Caston looked at the effect of five different types of simulants, which each represented a different aspect of lunar soil. One of the samples came from soil developed to test the ability of rovers to maneuver. Another one came from a lava flow in Colorado.

Demple said that the materials they used lacked space weather, which he suggested was an important feature of lunar soil. The surface of the moon is exposed constantly to solar wind, ultraviolet light and micrometeorites. The researchers mimicked the effect of micrometeorites by crushing the samples to smaller particle sizes, which increased their toxicity.

Farm to table: Caston eats ice cream and pets the cow that provided the milk for her frozen dessert at Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville, Michigan. Photo by Carolyn Walls

In future experiments, the researchers plan to work with colleagues at the Department of Geosciences at SBU, including co-author Joel Hurowitz and other researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory to mimic solar wind by exposing dust samples to high-energy atoms, which are the main component of solar wind. The scientists expect the treatment would cause the simulants to become more reactive, which they hope to test through experiments.

Caston credits Hurowitz , an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences, with providing specific samples.

The samples are commonly used simulants for lunar rocks that mimic the chemical and mineral properties of the lunar highlands and the dark mare, Hurowitz explained.

“This has been a really fruitful collaboration between geology and medical science, and we’ll continue working together,” Hurowitz wrote in an email. They plan to look at similar simulants from asteroids and Mars in the future.

NASA has considered engineering solutions to minimize or eliminate astronaut’s exposure to dust. It might be difficult to eliminate all exposure for workers and explorers living some day on the moon for an extended period of time.

“The adherence of the dust to the space suits was a real problem, I think,” suggested Demple, adding that the next steps in this research will involve checking the role of the inflammatory response in the cytotoxicity, testing the effects of space weathering on toxicity and applying to NASA for actual samples of lunar regolith brought back by Apollo astronauts.

It took about two years of preliminary work to develop the methods to get consistency in their results, Demple said, and then another year of conducting research.

In addition to her work on lunar soil, Caston has studied DNA repair pathways in mitochondria. She used her expertise in that area for the DNA damage results they recently reported.

Caston, who is working as a postdoctoral researcher in Demple’s lab, is looking for a longer-term research opportunity either on Long Island or in Michigan, the two places where she’s lived for much of her life.

Caston lives in Smithtown with her husband Robert Caston, a software developer for Northrop Grumman. She earned her bachelor’s degree as well as her doctorate from Stony Brook University.

Her interest in science in general and genetics in particular took root at an early age, when she went with her father Kenneth Salatka, who worked at Parke Davis, a company Pfizer eventually bought. 

On April 23, 1997, she convinced her friend and her identical twin sister to attend a “fun with genetics” event.

Two of the people at her father’s company were using centrifuges to isolate DNA out of blood. “That was the coolest thing I ever saw,” she said. “I wanted to be a geneticist from that point on.” 

Her sister Madeline, who now sells insurance for Allstate, and her friend weren’t similarly impressed.

As for the work she did on lunar soil, Caston said she enjoys discussing the work with other people. “I like that I’m doing a project for NASA,” she said. “I’ve learned quite a bit about space travel.”

From the time we’re teenagers, we’re taught to control our emotions. As we get older, people tell us not to make emotional decisions.

We see our emotions, particularly the ones in the moment, as being at odds with the rational decision-making side of our thought processes.

We roll our eyes and shake our heads when a teenager makes decisions or declarations that seem driven more by the hormones surging through their growing bodies than by the intellect we hope they’ve developed.

And yet, every so often, we and our teenagers take those raw emotions out for a few hours or even days.

This past weekend, my wife and I did our periodic Texas two-step, where she brought our son to his baseball game in one state and I drove hundreds of miles to our daughter’s volleyball tournament in another.

The journey involves considerable effort, finding food that doesn’t upset allergies or sensitive stomachs at a time when indigestion or a poorly timed pit stop could derail the day.

The games themselves are filled with a wide range of emotions, as a player’s confidence and ability can rise and fall quickly from one point to the next, with slumping shoulders quickly replaced by ecstatic high fives.

In the stands and outside the lines, the emotional echoes continue to reverberate.

One girl sat next to her father, sobbing uncontrollably with her ankle high on the chair in front of her. Her father put his arm around her shoulders and spoke quiet, encouraging words into her ear. Her coach came over, in front of a stand filled with strangers, and said the girl would be able to play the next day as soon as the swelling in her ankle went down — the coach didn’t want to risk further injury. The girl nodded that she heard her coach, but couldn’t stop the torrent of tears.

Not far from her, a mother seethed as her daughter missed a shot. The mother was angry, defensive and, eventually, apologetic to the parents of the other players for her daughter’s performance. Other parents assured her that it was fine and that everyone could see her daughter was trying her best.

Another parent hooted and hollered, clapping long after the point ended, as her daughter rose above her diminutive frame to hit the ball around a group of much taller girls.

Many of the emotional moments included unbridled joy, as a group of girls continued to embrace each other after winning a tough match, replaying point after point and laughing about the time the ball hit them in the head or they collided with a teammate on the floor.

What will they remember next week, next month or in 20 years? Will it be satisfying when they find a picture of a younger version of themselves, beaming from ear to ear with girls they may not have seen for many years?

Even if they do think about one particular point or a strategic decision that paid off in a game against talented competition, they will also remember where and how they expressed those raw, dramatic emotions.

While feelings can get in the way of whatever grand plan we’re executing in our head, holding us back from
taking a risk or preventing us from showing how much we care, they can and do enhance the way we experience our lives. Despite all the work driving behind slow-moving vehicles which take wide right turns and encourage you to call a number to let someone know how they’re driving, the effort — even when the event doesn’t turn out as well as we might hope — is well worth the opportunity to drop the mask and indulge those emotions.

From left, Libo Wu, Zhangjie Chen (both are doctoral students on the ARPA-E project), Ya Wang, Xing Zhang (graduated), Muzhaozi Yuan and Jingfan Chen (both are doctoral students on the NSF project). Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Picture a chalkboard filled with information. It could include everything from the basics — our names and phone numbers, to memories of a hike along the Appalachian Trail, to what we thought the first time we saw our spouse.

Diseases like Alzheimer’s act like erasers, slowly moving around the chalkboard, sometimes leaving traces of the original memories, while other times removing them almost completely. What if the images, lines and words from the chalk could somehow be restored?

Ya Wang with former student Wei Deng at Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ya Wang, a mechanical engineering assistant professor at Stony Brook University, is working on a process that can regenerate neurons, which could help with a range of degenerative diseases. She is hoping to develop therapies that might restore neurons by using incredibly small magnetic nanoparticles.

Wang recently received the National Science Foundation Career Award, which is a prestigious prize given to faculty in the early stages of their careers. The award lasts for five years and includes a $500,000 grant.

Wang would like to understand the way small particles can stimulate the brain to rebuild neurons. The award is based on “years of effort,” she said. “I’m happy but not surprised” with the investment in work she believes can help people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“All neuron degeneration diseases will benefit from this study,” Wang said. “We have a large population in New York alone with patients with neuron degeneration diseases.” She hopes the grant will help trigger advancements in medicine and tissue engineering.

Wang’s “work on modeling the dynamic behavior of magnetic nanoparticles within the brain microenvironment would lay the foundation for quantifying the neuron regeneration process,” Jeff Ge, the chairman and professor of mechanical engineering, said in a statement.

Wang said she understands the way neurodegenerative diseases affect people. She has watched her father, who lives in China, manage through Parkinson’s disease for 15 years.

Ge suggested that this approach has real therapeutic potential. “This opens up the exciting new possibility for the development of a new microchip for brain research,” he said.

At this point, Wang has been able to demonstrate the feasibility of neuron regeneration with individual nerve cells. The next step after that would be to work on animal models and, eventually, in a human clinical trial.

That last step is a “long way” off, Wang suggested, as she and others will need to make significant advancements to take this potential therapeutic breakthrough from the cell stage to the clinic. 

She is working with a form of coated iron oxide that is small enough to pass through the incredibly fine protective area of the blood/brain barrier. Without a coating, the iron oxide can be toxic, but with that protective surface, it is “more biofriendly,” she said.

The size of the particles are about 20 nanometers. By contrast, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick. These particles use mechanical forces that act on neurons to promote the growth or elongation of axons.

Ya Wang. Photo from SBU

As a part of the NSF award, Wang will have the opportunity to apply some of the funds toward education. She has enjoyed being a mentor to high school students, some of whom have been Siemens Foundation semifinalists. Indeed, her former students have gone on to attend college at Stanford, Harvard and Cal Tech. “I was very happy advising them,” she said. “High school kids are extremely interested in the topic.”

A few months before she scored her NSF award, Wang also won an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy award for $1 million from the Department of Energy. In this area, Wang also plans to build on earlier work, developing a smart heating and cooling system that enables a system to direct climate control efforts directly at the occupant or occupants in the room.

Extending on that work, Wang, who will collaborate in this effort with Jon Longtin in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at SBU and Tom Butcher and Rebecca Trojanowski at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is addressing the problem in which the system no longer registers the presence of a person in the room.

Wang has “developed an innovation modification to a simple, inexpensive time-honored position sensor, but that suffers from requiring that something be moving in order to detect motion,” Longtin explained in an email. The sensors can’t detect a person that is not moving. The challenge, Longtin continued, is in fooling the sensor into thinking something is there in motion to keep it active.

Wang described a situation in which a hotel had connected an occupant-detecting system to its HVAC system. When a person fell asleep in the room, however, the air conditioning turned off automatically. On a hot summer night, the person was frustrated. She put colored paper and a fan in front of the sensor, which kept the cool air from turning off.

Instead of using a fan and colored paper, the new system Wang is developing cuts the flow of heat to the sensor, which enhances its ability to recognize stationary or moving people.

Wang and her colleagues will use low-power liquid crystal technology with no moving parts. “The sensor detects you because you are a human with heat,” she said. “Even though you are not moving, the amount of heat is changing.”

The sensor will be different in various locations. People in Houston will have different temperature conditions than those in Wisconsin. Using a machine-learning algorithm, Wang said she can pre-train the system to respond to different people and different conditions.

She has developed a smart phone app so that the house can react to the different temperature preferences of a husband and wife. People can also choose night or day modes.

Wang also plans to work on a system that is akin to the way cars have different temperature zones, allowing one side of the car to be hotter than the other. She intends to develop a similar design for each room.

Astronaut Scott Kelly and author Tom Wolfe. Photo courtesy of Amiko Kauderer

By Daniel Dunaief

How often do you get to talk to someone whose legend loomed large over your childhood?

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing author Tom Wolfe, who died last week at the age of 88. Wolfe wrote “The Right Stuff,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” among others. I spoke with Wolfe about astronaut Scott Kelly, who was so inspired by “The Right Stuff” that he directed a life he considered somewhat aimless toward becoming a fighter pilot and, eventually, an astronaut.

My conversation was rewarding and memorable, so I thought I’d share my interview with the legendary author.

DD: Kelly credits you with putting him on a path that led him to spend almost a year aboard the International Space Station. Is there a satisfaction that comes from that?

TW: Nothing else I’ve written has had such a beautiful result. He told me he’d been floundering around trying to figure out what to do with his life. He hadn’t been doing well in school. Then he just got the idea of going into space and became an astronaut.

DD: Did you know he took “The Right Stuff” with him?

TW: He sent me from the space station a picture of the cover on his iPad. That was one of the greatest messages I ever got.

DD: Do you think Kelly’s mission increased the excitement about space?

TW: There’s been a general lack of a sense of heroism in much of the post-World War II era and there were people who responded to the space program in general in that fashion.

DD: How does the excitement now compare to the early days of the space program?

TW: John Glenn’s return created a lot of excitement. At that time, we seemed to be at war in space with the Russians. That was what kept the space program going. There was always this threat. It’s very hard to hit the Earth from space. You’ve got three speeds: the speed of what you fired the rocket with, then you’ve got the speed at the end of that opening shot and you’ve got the speed of hitting the Earth, which is moving.

DD: How do you think people will react to Kelly’s mission?

TW: It remains to be seen whether it inspires young people the way the Mercury program did.

DD: What drove the space program until that point?

TW: Wernher van Braun [a German engineer who played a seminal role in advancing American rocket science] spoke in his last year. The point of the space program was not to beat the Russians. It was to prepare for the day when the sun burns out and we have to leave Earth and go somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine everybody shipping off to another heavenly body.

DD: Getting back to Kelly, how difficult do you think Kelly’s mission was?

TW: Scott Kelly’s adventures were a test of the human body and the psyche. Being that removed from anybody you could talk to and see must be a terrible stress. That’s what he and others in the space station are chosen for.

DD: Do people like Kelly still need “the right stuff” to be astronauts?

TW: It’s the same except anyone coming into the program is more confident that these things can be done. For Mercury astronauts, these things were totally new. The odds against you, the odds of death, were very high.

DD: What advice did you give to Kelly when he started writing his book?

TW: Begin at the beginning. So many of the astronauts and other people who have memorable experiences will start with the adventure to get you interested. Then, the second chapter, suddenly you’re saying, “Harold Bumberry was born in 1973,” and it makes you take a deep breath [and say], ‘OK, here it comes.” Whereas starting at the beginning always works.

DD: What do you think of the movies made about your books?

TW: I think they’re terrible. Three of my books were made into movies and I disliked them all. The reason being they didn’t do it like I did. You can’t do a lot of things in a movie that you can in print. You’re better at presenting themes, better at dialogue. You can hear it, you can’t get inside a mind of a character the way you can in print. Movies don’t have time.

DD: What impact did Scott Kelly’s being inspired by your book have on you?

TW: It’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.

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