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Mircea Cotlet. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

An innovative scientist in the world of nanostructures, Mircea Cotlet recently scored Inventor of the Year honors from Battelle.

A principal investigator and materials scientist in the Soft and Bio Nanomaterials Group at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cotlet has conducted a wide range of research over his dozen years on Long Island.

The distinction from Battelle, which manages BNL through Brookhaven Sciences Associates, honors researchers who have made significant scientific or engineering contributions that have societal or financial impacts.

“The award recognizes [Cotlet’s] ongoing contributions to materials science at BNL, specifically his work on low-dimensional semiconductors, 1-D nanowires, and tiny 0-D nanocrystals called quantum dots,” Katy Delaney, a Battelle spokesperson, explained in an email.

Researchers who have worked with Cotlet believe he deserves the honor.

Cotlet is an “extraordinary scientist” who “stands out” for his thorough work and creative approach” said Deep Jariwala, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Jariwala has known Cotlet for over two years and has collaborated with him over the last year.

Cotlet has “really laid the foundational ground in understanding the rules that govern charge and energy transfer across hybrid quantum confined materials systems that comprise quantum dots, organic molecules–two-dimensional materials as well as biologically photoactive materials,” Jariwala added.

The technologies will impact the science and technologies of sensing, displays and energy harvesting in the future, Jariwala predicted.

Eric Stach, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania who had previously worked at the CFN, said Cotlet “tries to figure out ways of putting together disparate systems at the nanoscale.”

By combining these materials, Cotlet is able to “improve the overall performance” of systems, Stach continued. “He’s trying to tune the ability of a given material system to capture light and do something with it.”

Cotlet recently partnered self-assembled two-dimensional nanoparticles, such as the one-atom-thick graphene, with light-absorbing materials like organic compounds.

The result enhances their ability to detect light, which could be valuable in medical imaging, radiation detection and surveillance applications. The mini-partnership boosted the photoresponse of graphene by up to 600 percent by changing the structure of the polymer.

Indeed, a defense contractor has shown an interest in research they could use for low light level detection applications, Cotlet said.

Like other scientists at BNL, Cotlet not only conducts his own research, but he also helps other scientists who come to the Department of Energy facility to use the equipment at the CFN, to make basic and translational science discoveries.

Cotlet patented a self-assembly process before he published it.

He is continuing conversations with a big company that is exploring the benefits of this type of approach for one of its product, while he is also working with the technology transfer office at BNL to look at the development of photodetectors for low light applications.

“Having graphene and the conductor polymer would absorb light from ultraviolet to visible light,” Cotlet said.

The physics changes from bulk to nanoparticles to nanocrystals, Cotlet said, and he engineers the smaller materials for a given function.

“We basically like to play with the interface between different types of nanomaterials,” he said. “We like to control the light-simulated process.”

Working at an energy department site, he also has experience with solar panels and with light-emitting diodes.

Jariwala described the science as extending to interfaces that also occur in nature, such as in photosynthesis and bioluminescence. “By combining techniques and materials that we have developed and looked at, we hope to answer fundamental mechanistic questions and provide insights into long-standing questions about biological energy conversion processes,” he wrote.

As far as some of the current materials he uses, Cotlet works on graphene and the transition metal dichalcogenides and he explores their potential application as quantum materials. He tries to look for emerging properties coming out of nanomaterials for various applications, but most of his efforts are in basic science.

Jariwala explained that he and Cotlet are seeking to understand the efficient transduction of energy in quantum sized systems when they are brought close to one another in an orderly fashion.

After his upbringing in Romania, where he attended college, Cotlet appreciated the opportunity to learn from one of the pioneering groups in the world in single-molecule microscopy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, where he studied for his doctorate.

He also did a fellowship at Harvard, where he worked on unique microscopy, and then went on to conduct postdoctoral work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked on protein folding and on optimal imaging methods.

Cotlet arrived at the CFN just as the facility was going online.

“The CFN went beyond its original promise for cutting edge science,” he said. The center has been, and he continues to hope it will be, the best place he could dream of to conduct research.

The postdoctoral researchers who have come through his lab have all been successful, either leading their own projects or joining commercial teams.

Up until he was 18, Cotlet wasn’t focused on science, but, rather, anticipated becoming a fighter pilot. He discovered, however, that he had a vision defect.

“All my childhood, I was set up to become a fighter pilot,” but the discovery of a condition called chromatopsy changed his plans.

A resident of Rocky Point, Cotlet lives with his wife, Ana Popovici, who is an administrative assistant at BNL, and their middle school daughter.

As for his future work, he is interested in building on the research into quantum materials.

“I’m looking forward to trying to integrate my research” into this arena, he said.

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Breaking up is spectacularly awkward, highly charged and, in retrospect, filled with humorous potential. Two people get together for a picnic, where a public scene might be difficult for the recipient.

“Want some tabouli? What is tabouli anyway?”

“No thanks, and I don’t know what it is. You ordered it, not me.”

“Good point, so, I was thinking. It’s probably a good time for us to separate.”

“Um, what, excuse me?”

The lip quivers, the breathing becomes short and erratic and the eyebrows, shoulders and neck all droop at the same time.

“No, yeah, I mean, you’re great and this has been a total blast but, you know, it’s just, I don’t know, it’s not working for me.”

“A total blast? You’d call this a total blast? Besides, nothing is perfect. I know my family can be difficult and I know I wake up with bad breath and I do, on occasion, correct your speech, but we can work around that. Don’t you want to try to make it work?”

“I’m thinking that it’s probably time to do other things. I’m thinking of moving to Vancouver and you hate the cold.”

“Vancouver? Really? Wait, have you been seeing other people? You and my sister get along a little too well. As soon as you start dating her, she won’t be interested. I know I share genes with her, but she’s a horrible person who has ruined my life over and over again.”

“No, really, this has nothing to do with your sister. I wouldn’t do that to you or myself, especially after what you just said.”

“Oh, so, now there’s something wrong with my sister? At least she’s not dumping me.”

“No, no, I think we have a great friendship and I’d like to stay in touch.”

“You’d like to stay in touch? After all we’ve been through, you’re offering me your friendship? You’re not even that good of a friend. You rarely listen and you forget all the important dates in the year and you always want to go to the same restaurants, even though we have so many other choices.”

“Right, exactly, I’m so boring, so maybe you’re ready to be done with me?”

“Why do we have to end it now? It’s not like I was expecting to marry you. I can’t imagine having a younger version of you in the house. You can somehow shoot baskets from all over a gym floor that land in a hoop, but you have no ability to throw the dirty T-shirt you wore to play basketball into a much larger hamper that’s also closer to the ground, even though you roll the shirt into a ball.”

“I agree. You could do so much better.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of better people out there, but we had some fun, right? We were supposed to go to that dinner next Saturday with the Smiths. They’re your friends, so maybe we should see what works between now and then?”

“It’s OK, I already canceled that.”

“What? That horrible person Jessica Smith knew you were going to break up with me before I did? How could you do this to me?”

“Sorry, I didn’t tell them anything. I just said we couldn’t make it.”

“We couldn’t make it because you were going to break up with me today over tabouli. You’re an idiot.”

“Right, well, maybe we shouldn’t stay in touch?”

“Oh, so now I’m not good enough to be your friend?”

“I’m going to be a boring idiot elsewhere.”

“Wait, you’re leaving me?”

“Yes, and I’ve googled ‘tabouli.’ It’s a Lebanese salad with vegetables, wheat and parsley, just so you know.”

Fusheng Wang. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Long Island’s opioid-related use and poisoning, which nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, was higher among lower income households in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Looking at hospital codes throughout New York to gather specific data about medical problems caused by the overuse or addiction to painkillers, researchers including Fusheng Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Stony Brook University, George Leibowitz, a professor in Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare, and Elinor Schoenfeld, a research professor of preventive medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook, explored patterns that reveal details about the epidemic on Long Island.

“We want to know what the population groups are who get addicted or get poisoned and what are the regions we have to pay a lot of attention to,” Wang said. “We try to use lots of information to support these studies.”

Data from The Journal

The Stony Brook team, which received financial support from the National Science Foundation, explored over 7 years of hospital data from 2010 to 2016 in which seven different codes — all related to opioid problems — were reported.

During those years, the rates of opioid poisoning increased by 250 percent. In their report, the scientists urged a greater understanding and intervening at the community level, focusing on those most at risk.

Indeed, the ZIP codes that showed the greatest percentage of opioid poisoning came from communities with the lowest median home value, the greatest percentage of residents who completed high school and the lowest percentage of residents who achieved education beyond college, according to the study.

In Suffolk County, specifically, the highest quartile of opioid poisoning occurred in communities with lower median income.

Patients with opioid poisoning were typically younger and more often identified themselves as white. People battling the painkilling affliction in Suffolk County were more likely to use self-pay only and less likely to use Medicare.

In Suffolk County, the patients who had opioid poisoning also were concentrated along the western section, where population densities were higher than in other regions of the county.

The Stony Brook scientists suggested that the data are consistent with information presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has found significant increases in use by women, older adults and non-Hispanic whites.

“The observed trends are consistent with national statistics of higher opioid use among lower-income households,” the authors wrote in their study. Opioid prescribing among Medicare Part D recipients has risen 2.84 percent in the Empire State. The data on Long Island reflected the national trend among states with older residents.

“States with higher median population age consume more opioids per capita, suggesting that older adults consume more opioids,” the study suggested, citing a report last year from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Nationally, between 21 to 29 percent of people prescribed opioids for pain misused them, according to the study, which cited other research. About 4 to 6 percent of people who misuse opioids then transition to heroin. Opioid costs, including treatment and criminal justice, have climbed to about $500 billion, up from $55.7 billion in 2007, according to a 2017 study in the journal Pain Physician.

The findings from the current study on Long Island, the authors suggest, are helping regional efforts to plan for and expand capacity to provide focused and targeted intervention where they are needed most.

Limited trained staff present challenges for the implementation of efforts like evidenced-based psychosocial programs such as the Vermont Hub and Spoke system.

The researchers suggest that the information about communities in need provides a critical first step in addressing provider shortages.

New York State cautioned that findings from this study may underreport the burden of opioid abuse and dependence, according to the study. To understand the extent of underreporting, the scientists suggest conducting similar studies in other states.

Scientists are increasingly looking to the field of informatics to analyze and interpret large data sets. The lower cost of computing, coupled with an abundance of available data, allows researchers to ask more detailed and specific questions in a shorter space of time.

Wang said this kind of information about the opioid crisis can provide those engaging in public policy with a specific understanding of the crisis. “People are not [generally] aware of the overall distribution” of opioid cases, Wang said. Each hospital only has its own data, while “we can provide a much more accurate” analysis, comparing each group.

Gathering the data from the hospitals took considerable time, he said. “We want to get information and push this to local administrations. We want to eventually support wide information for decision-making by the government.”

Wang credited his collaborators Leibowitz and Schoenfeld with making connections with local governments.

He became involved in this project because of contact he made with Stony Brook Hospital in 2016. Wang is also studying comorbidity: He’d like to know what other presenting symptoms, addictions or problems patients with opioid-related crises have when they visit the hospital. The next stage, he said, is to look at the effectiveness of different types of treatment.

A resident of Lake Grove, Wang believes he made the right decision to join Stony Brook. “I really enjoy my research here,” he said.

Brendan Boyce, center, with Xiangjiao Yi, left, and Jinbo Li, who are graduate students at the University of Rochester. Photo by Jianguo Tao.

By Daniel Dunaief

Chances are high you won’t see Dr. Brendan Boyce when you visit a doctor. You will, however, benefit from his presence at Stony Brook University Hospital and on Long Island if you have bone or soft tissue lesions and you need an expert pathologist to diagnose what might be happening in your body.

A professor at the University of Rochester for 20 years, the internationally renowned Boyce joined the Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU in November, splitting his time between Rochester and Long Island.

Dr. Ken Shroyer, the chair of the Department of Pathology, reached out to Boyce with an unusual bone tumor case last spring. After that discussion, the two considered the possibility of Boyce adding his bone and soft tissue pathology expertise to the growing department. Boyce was receptive to the idea, particularly because his daughter Jacqueline lives in Woodbury with two of his seven grandchildren.

For local patients, Boyce adds a relatively rare expertise that could shorten the time for a diagnosis and improve the ability for doctors to determine the best course of action during surgeries.

“While the patient is already undergoing a surgical procedure, the preliminary diagnosis can guide the process of the surgery,” said Shroyer. “That’s difficult to achieve if we are dependent on an outside consultant. It happens, more or less in real time, if Boyce can look at the slides as they are being prepared and while the patient is still on the operating table.”

Prior to Boyce’s arrival, Stony Brook functioned the same way most academic medical centers do around the country when it came to bone and soft tissue cancers or disorders.

“There are only a handful of soft tissue and bone surgical pathology subspecialists around the country,” Shroyer said. “There’s an insufficient number of such individuals to make it practical like this at every medical school in the country.”

Many of these cases are “rare” and most pathologists do not see enough cases to feel comfortable diagnosing them without help from an expert, Boyce explained.

Boyce “was recruited here to help this program at Stony Brook continue to grow,” Shroyer said. “He enhances the overall scope of the training we can provide to our pathology residents through his subspecialty expertise. Everything he does here is integrated with the educational mission” of the medical school.

While bone and soft tissue tumors are relatively rare compared to other common cancers, such as colorectal or breast cancer, they do occur often enough that Stony Brook has developed a practice to diagnose and treat them, which requires the support of experts in pathology. Stony Brook hired Dr. Fazel Khan a few years ago as the orthopedic surgeon to do this work.

“To establish a successful service, there needs to be a mechanism to financially support that service that’s not solely dependent on the number of cases provided,” Shroyer said.

Boyce’s recruitment was made possible by “investments from Stony Brook University Hospital and the School of Medicine, in addition to support from the Department of Orthopedics and Pathology.”

Shroyer was thrilled that Boyce brings not only his expertise but his deep and well-developed background to Stony Brook.

It was “important to me that he was not only a highly skilled surgical pathologist, but also was a physician scientist, which made him a very attractive recruit,” Shroyer said.

Indeed, while Boyce will provide pathology services to Stony Brook, he will continue to maintain a laboratory at the University of Rochester.

Boyce’s research is “focused on the molecular mechanisms that regulate the formation of osteoclasts and their activity,” Boyce said. He emphasizes the effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines and NF-Kappa B, which are transcription factors that relay cytokine signaling from the cell surface to the nucleus.

These factors drive osteoclast formation and activity in conditions affecting the skeleton, which include rheumatoid arthritis, postmenopausal and age-related osteoporosis and cancers affecting the skeleton.

Osteoclasts degrade bone, which carve out deformities or the equivalent of potholes in the bone, while osteoblasts help rebuild the bone, repaving the equivalent of the roads after the osteoclasts have cleared the path. There are over a million sites of bone remodeling in the normal human skeleton and the number of these increases in diseases.

Boyce has studied various aspects of how bone remodeling occurs and how it becomes disturbed in a variety of pathological settings by using animal models. He uses cellular and molecular biological techniques to answer these questions.

On behalf of Boyce and three other researchers, the University of Rochester Medical Center just finished licensing a compound to a company in China that he recently contacted, which will do animal studies that will test the toxicity of a treatment for myeloma.

At this point, Boyce is applying in July for another five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for research in his Rochester lab. He hopes to renew another NIH grant next year, which he has for four years. After he renews that grant, he will continue writing up papers and studies with residents and collaborating on basic science at Stony Brook as well.

Boyce and his wife Ann, have three children and seven grandchildren. Originally from Scotland, Boyce has participated in Glasgow University Alumni activities in the United States, including in New York City, where he walked in this year’s Tartan Parade with his daughters and their children.

As for his work at Stony Brook, Boyce is enjoying the opportunity to contribute to the community.

“The setting and faculty are very nice and congenial and I’ve been made to feel welcome,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Daniel Dunaief

am in the news business. I also write columns. Today, I’d like to conflate the two, tackling the ubiquitous topic of “fake news.” Don’t run away, figuratively speaking! I’m not going to write about politics or politicians. I’m going to share fake news from my world.

10. I am a Yankees fan.

What makes that fake? It’s accurate, but it’s also fake because I’ve always been a Yankees fan. While the statement isn’t false, it’s not news because news suggests that it’s something new. It’s not fake per se, but also not news and that’s what makes it fake news.

9. I enjoy the time my kids are away.

What makes that fake? The fake element to this is that I enjoy the time they’re home, so I don’t exclusively enjoy the time they’re away. I may have smiled at and with my wife and, yes, I’ve found myself laughing out loud now and then for no particular reason in public, knowing that no one will glare at me, but it’s fake news to suggest I only enjoy this time.

8. I reveled in the movie “Rocketman.”

What makes that fake? While the movie was compelling and it offered details about superstar singer Sir Elton John’s childhood, it was a look behind the curtain at his early pain. I sympathized with him as he dealt with family challenges and personal demons, but I can’t say that I reveled in the biopic. I felt moved by his struggles and I appreciate how much he had to overcome to live the balanced life that he seems to have now. The gift of his musical genius may have been enough for the world to appreciate him, but not to give him what he wanted or needed when he was younger.

7. I have a wonderful dog.

What makes that fake? My dog has wonderful moments, but I wouldn’t characterize him as wonderful. He needs training, chews on furniture, jumps on people and barks at things I can’t see, which isn’t so wonderful when I’m conducting interviews with people in other states or when I’m in the middle of a delicate peace negotiation between children who don’t seem to have missed each other all that much when they were apart.

6. I detest logic.

What makes that fake? I enjoy logic. It follows rules and patterns. It only appears that I detest logic in this column because I’m trying to make a point about fake news.

5. I’m worried about the Earth.

What makes that fake? I’m not just worried about the land: I’m also concerned about the air, the water, biodiversity and a host of other limited resources.

4. I use real words.

What makes that fake? People who rely on a computer spellchecker will find numerous words that appear to be incorrect or that are underlined in red in my science columns. Words like nanomaterials, which are super small structures that hold out hope for future technologies such as medical devices or sensors, don’t register at all. If you asked a spellchecker, my columns are rife with fake words.

3. I use fake words.

What makes that fake? I love the double negative element to this. It’s fake to say I use fake words, because I also use real words.

2. I only use small words.

What makes that fake? I categorically refute the notion that I only use minuscule words. Check out the word “ubiquitous” at the top of this column.

1. I always lie.

What makes that fake? If I always lied, that would make the confession true, which would mean I don’t always lie, which would make the statement fake.

The flexible and logic-challenged fake news has become a tool to dismiss information, opinions and realities that people find disagreeable. It provides a convenient way to ignore news that may have more than a kernel of truth to it.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaityln Dever in a scene from the movie. Photo by Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

By Daniel Dunaief

Although it’s getting a lot of buzz, few moments in “Booksmart” are worth the price of admission. It’s just not that funny, charming, unique, innovative or engaging.

The story follows two high school girls, Amy (played by Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein) who are at the top of their class. Academic overachievers, they suddenly realize on the eve of their graduation that their classmates have done well academically too, have gained admission to top colleges and seem to have engaged in a social scene that clearly hasn’t included them. The two best friends spend the rest of the film trying to make up for lost party time on their last day of high school.

The antics that follow mirror the shenanigans of “Superbad,” albeit from a female perspective. The problem is that this film from Annapurna Pictures doesn’t do for awkward high school girls what “Bridesmaids” did for rowdy and raucous women.

Amy and Molly have their own little world, which includes an extended dance sequence on the street and an endless stream of compliments about how great each of them looks. While these moments of connection, which likely originated from years of a developing and co-dependent friendship, appear to be genuine and reflect their friendship, they can’t and don’t replace more substantial memories or interactions that allow them to coexist, and feel like they might be thriving, on their booksmart island.

Just about everyone else in the film is a woefully underdeveloped character. Jason Sudeikis, who is married to debut director Olivia Wilde, plays Principal Brown. Clearly exhausted and burned out by his job, Brown can’t stomach the holier-than-thou attitude Molly demonstrates when she lectures him.

He shuts the door on her until later, Amy and Molly discover that he moonlights as an Uber driver. Yeah, funny stuff. Well, it could have been, but it doesn’t play out especially well, even when the girls accidentally share some raunchy sounds from a phone he’s charging in his car.

Jessica Williams, who plays teacher Miss Fine, is a 20-something version of Molly and Amy, relating well to them because she clearly followed a similar school-committed path. She weaves in and out of the film, sharing a few details about breaking free of the bonds of commitment and academic dedication, but again, her character is neither especially funny or poignant.

“Booksmart” is desperate for the equivalent of a McLovin, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse in “Superbad.” Sure, he’s ridiculous and awkward and overwhelmed by various moments, but he’s amusing, awkward and desperate in ways that are charming and relatable.

The other characters in “Booksmart” are one-dimensional. Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, plays the offbeat Gigi, who seems rich and strange. She floats in and out of scenes with Skyler Gisondo, who plays Jared. Neither character adds much and yet they each enter scenes like unwanted weeds and then disappear, only to spring up again.

While “Booksmart” has an interesting premise, with two intelligent seniors eager to catch up on the social scene they missed through academic dedication, it fails to deliver memorable scenes or compelling dialogue.

Rated R, “Booksmart” is now playing in local theaters.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We pack our cars, suitcases and purses. We bring cameras, camcorders, extra batteries, chargers and cards filled with positive messages and gifts.

At this time of year, we bear witness to the conclusion of one educational course — primary, middle or high school, college or even graduate school — as we and the graduate prepare for the next step.

In between bites from the buffet, we pause for proud pictures with the graduate and we share our admiration for what he or she has accomplished even as we anticipate the next adventure.

Most of these ceremonies involve walking, sitting, standing and cheering, eating and driving. The action takes a backseat to the words and sentiment that mark the occasion. The graduation speakers offer personal anecdotes and words of wisdom, even as they recognize that short speeches, particularly for those eager to fill an empty stomach or discharge a full bladder, are a welcome part of the day.

While we’re milling around, we have ample opportunities to impart our own wisdom, to share encouraging words and to provide the kind of tailwind that accelerates the next phase of life.

So, what do we say? Did we pack our belongings, but neglect to choose from the wealth of words that can fill a sail with air, that can help us feel capable of defying gravity, that can enable us to see through this moment to a magnificent future?

How often do we watch an interview with someone who has accomplished the unimaginable, who doesn’t know what to say or who is it at a loss for words when someone shoves a microphone in that person’s direction?

We have time to consider the right words, to be supportive, and to make our trip to another state or another school meaningful, even if the graduate is too close to the focal point of his or her life to know how to react to the torrent of feelings and thoughts.

We can rely on a Hallmark card, a Thesaurus or a set of clichés to share our thoughts, or we can take a moment to find the right words, in between all our packing, our search for the right gift and our purchasing plane tickets.

Someday, a daughter graduate may be sitting on a plane heading for a meeting in Salt Lake City and may wonder how she got there and whether she can succeed in the next phase. Maybe she’ll recall the moment you took her aside, placed your hand on her shoulder, smiled in her eyes and suggested she paved her own path with perspiration — if she appreciates alliteration.

She may recall how you enveloped her hand in yours when you reminded her that everything, even a moment of weakness, provides opportunities for the next success. Perfection, she’ll recall as she remembers how you accidentally spit on her cheek when you started to speak, isn’t about the perfect achievement but about the perfect effort.

She will recall the moment you told her how much she inspired you with her awareness of the needs of others and with her grace under pressure.

If your graduate is anything like the ones in my family, for whom skepticism and cynicism hover nearby, he or she may roll their eyes and search for a phone to text a friend to ask if the recipient of the message can believe what you just said.

Someday, the graduate or that friend may borrow a word, phrase or idea from the ones you shared, providing fuel to a tank that seemed empty and converting the next impossible task into a reality.

Many of Madagascar’s iconic lemur species such as this black-and-white ruffed lemur are critically endangered. Photo by Daniel Burgas

By Daniel Dunaief

As a part of an ambitious reforestation plan announced in March, Madagascar’s newly elected president Andry Rajoelina explained that he wanted to change the way his nation off the southwest coast of the African continent was known, from the Red Island to the Green Island.

An international collection of scientists, including lemur expert and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, recently weighed in on other ways Rajoelina can help conservation goals for the country through a five-step solution they outlined in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We are all very concerned” about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, said Wright. “We know that only with a collaborative effort can we push things in the right direction.”

Madagascar, which has numerous species endemic to the island nation, including many of the lemurs Wright studies, is known as the island of red clay in part because deforestation has exposed much of the clay underlying the country. This clay has eroded into rivers, which have washed into the ocean.

“If you flew over the whole island, it would be very sad” because of all the exposed red clay from deforestation, Wright said.

She remains optimistic about Rajoelina’s goals and the potential for achieving them. The president “talked about going on the offensive and reforestation is one of his platforms,” she said. “It’s most important to reforest with endemic species,” as opposed to eucalyptus and pine.

Unlike in other countries, where politicians sometimes view conservation and economic development as forces pulling in opposite directions, Malagasy leaders acknowledge and recognize the benefit of preserving unique habitats that are home to the rare and threatened species of Madagascar.

“If you destroy all the forests, you destroy all the water and they will no longer be able to farm,” Wright said. “The natural wildlife and habitats are closely connected to their well-being. One of the biggest industries is ecotourism, which supports many industries on the ground. It’s not like there’s a line between people and wildlife.”

Indeed, the scientists acknowledge the importance of financial growth for the country that dovetails with their conservation goals.

“Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development,” Julia Jones of Bangor University, in Wales, who led the study, said in a press release. “It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making.”

The people of Madagascar have many of the same needs as those in other countries, as they seek jobs, health care, and good schooling, Wright said. “These families are closer to not having enough food to eat and they are much poorer if the natural resources are all destroyed.”

Concerned about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, Jones contacted Wright, who suggested the team enlist the help of Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

“It was just a matter of bringing together some of the key players in conservation for 20 years,” explained Wright.

The group generated a list of five priorities.

First on the list is tackling environmental crime. The scientists suggest using new technologies, including remote sensing and rapid DNA barcoding, to allow forest rangers and others to identify protected species. To improve this effort, however, the Ministry of Justice also needs to enhance the way it reacts to environmental crimes.

The researchers suggest prosecuting and fining those who traffic in rosewood or the critically endangered species for the pet trade. They see progress in this arena in the northeastern part of the island nation, where prosecutors have effectively charged some people who have sold rosewood.

Second, the group recommends investing in protected areas. The researchers urge greater investment in policy, legal and economic conditions that encourage additional investment in nature, which could include improving infrastructure to develop tourism around protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and debt for nature swaps.

Critically endangered species such as these ploughshare tortoises may be extinct in the wild within the next few years if illegal collection isn’t stopped. Photo by Chris Scarffe

Third, the scientists urge that major infrastructure developments limit the impact on biodiversity. The current environmental impact assessment law is over 20 years old and needs an update to require the use of environmental assessment. This component also includes a greater commitment to enforcement.

Fourth, the scientists suggest strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources. Most farmers can’t get certification for their land, which reduces the incentive for them to invest in settled agriculture and potentially exacerbates forest clearance. A review of tenure laws could help local landowners and biodiversity.

Finally, researchers recognize a growing crisis in fuel wood. They urge an investment in reforestation efforts, which could provide environmental and economic benefits.

While these steps are important for Rajoelina and the government in Madagascar, Wright suggests several ways Long Islanders can help. She urges school teachers to cover Madagascar in their classes. Teachers in the area who are interested in gathering information about the island nation can write to Wright at Patricia.Wright@stonybrook.edu.

She also urges people to become involved through social media, which they can use to have fundraisers through organizations like PIVOT, an organization committed to improving health in developing nations like Madagascar and strongly encourages people to visit Madagascar, where they can enjoy the benefits of ecotourism.

Visitors to Madagascar would have the incredible opportunity to witness the varied biodiversity for themselves.“We have charismatic lemurs,” Wright said, although many of them are critically endangered. Even if they can’t travel that far, people can support students who wish to study abroad.

“I don’t think health and wildlife are separated,” Wright said. “The health of the people depends on us preserving natural resources.”

She is looking forward to the Annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from July 30 through August 3. “Hopefully, we will be going forward with the next step during or shortly after that meeting.”

Stock photo
Daniel Dunaief

By Daniel Dunaief

We generally don’t have to look too far to find difficult marriages. But what about the unions that reside inside us?

Determination and doubt travel together when we’re making a decision, when we’re confronting the naysayers and when we’re preparing for the next steps in our lives.

Sure, I could take the harder assignment, prove something to myself or my boss, venture into the unknown in my area of expertise, or I could stick with what I know, take jobs that will be manageable and remain in my comfort zone.

Determination is often considered the more admirable member of this marriage. Such fortitude pushes us to set new expectations and to venture into arenas where the risks we take could cause physical or emotional bruises.

We see determination when we look at the faces of people running up a hill, returning home late from work, or practicing their musical instruments until they develop rings on their lips or red welts on their necks.

When we’re seeking inspiration, we read about or consider the determination of others, who overcome financial, emotional or logistical limitations and exceed everyone’s expectations but their own. Determination is akin to an off-road vehicle that we maneuver into untrodden or difficult terrain, hoping our suspension and alignment can handle the sudden and unexpected contours of a landscape better suited for pictures or studies of nature than for travel.

While it has a bad reputation, doubt, like the blue girl Sadness from the movie “Inside Out,” also has its place. Doubt can, of course, make the determined part of ourselves even more steadfast, as we seek to prove to ourselves and everyone else that we can and will accomplish anything.

Doubt is the rain that can make the sunshine that much sweeter.

Doubt also can spring from reason and understanding, as in, “I doubt climbing to the top of that tree, when I haven’t maneuvered to the top of a tree in years, is a good idea.” Yes, doubt can and does save us, not just from embarrassment but from injuries, discomfort or dead ends.

Reflexively ignoring doubt as an unwelcome voice whispering in our ear carries risks that may be unnecessary, such as ignoring a “Beware of the Dog” sign before jogging through a stranger’s yard.

So, how do we deal with this married couple? Do we let determination rule the day most of the time, while we periodically give doubt the chance to share concerns about obstacles and consequences?

The answer depends on the circumstance. What is the downside to acknowledging, understanding and appreciating the origin and potential benefit of a doubt?

This doubt shouldn’t need to hide behind the punch bowl, sit in the dark with the coats in a back bedroom, or wait in the car while determination gets to run wild, pushing our limits.

We should consider doubt — whether we or someone else expresses it — in the open, allowing ourselves to ponder and plan for the difficulties ahead, giving ourselves a chance to make informed decisions and to see a few steps into the maze of our future.

Our doubt may help us find a better course of action, redirecting and refocusing a determination that enables us to persevere over the course of a future filled with potential but riddled with uncertainty.

If our determination makes a better case than our doubt, at least we’ve benefited from the marriage that lives in us. Indeed, at its finest, determination should not only understand and appreciate doubt, but this tenacity should also use concerns and objections as motivation, giving determination the opportunity to win over the concerns doubt expresses.

Bruce Stillman. Photo courtesy of CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Bruce Stillman, the president and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, was recently awarded the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award for his contributions to research about the way DNA copies itself. The 60-year-old prize, which Stillman will receive in a ceremony in October and that he shares with his former postdoctoral fellow John Diffley, includes a financial award of $100,000 Canadian dollars that he can spend however he’d like.

A native Australian, Stillman, who has been at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory since 1979, recently shared his thoughts about the award, research at the lab and his concerns about science in society with Times Beacon Record News Media. 

How does it feel winning the Gairdner Award?

It’s one of the most prestigious awards in the life sciences in the world and it’s certainly a great honor to win it and to join the list of spectacular scientists in the history of the award. There are some really fantastic scientists who I very much admire who have received this award.

How does it relate to the research you’ve conducted?

The field of DNA replication and chromosome inheritance was recognized. It is something I’ve devoted my entire career to. There are a lot of people that have made important contributions to this field. I’m pleased to be recognized with [Diffley] who was my former postdoc. [It’s validating] that the field was recognized.

Has CSH Laboratory been at the cutting edge of discoveries using the gene-editing tool CRISPR?

Cold Spring Harbor didn’t discover CRISPR. Like many institutions, we’ve been at the forefront of applying CRISPR and gene editing. The most spectacular application of that has been in the plant field. Zachary Lippman, Dave Jackson and Rob Martienssen are using genetic engineering to understand plant morphogenesis and development, thereby increasing the yield of fruit. Hopefully, this will be expanded into grains and have another green revolution.

CSHL has also been making strides in cancer research, particularly in Dave Tuveson’s lab, with organoids.

Organoids came out of people studying development. Hans Clevers [developed organoids] in the Netherlands … Tuveson is at the forefront of that. The full promise hasn’t been realized yet. From what I’ve seen, we are quite excited about the possibility of using organoids as a tool to get real feedback to patients. It is rapidly moving forward with the Lustgarten Foundation and with Northwell Health.

What are some of the other major initiatives at CSHL?

The laboratory’s investment about 10 or 15 years ago in understanding cognition in the brain has paid off enormously. Neuroscientists here are at the forefront of understanding cognition and how the brain does computation in complicated decisions. [Scientists are also] mapping circuits in the brain. It took a lot of investment and kind of the belief that studying rodent cognition could have an impact on human cognition, which was controversial when we started it here, but has paid out quite well. At the same time, we are studying cognitive dysfunction particularly in autism. 

Any other technological advances?

There’s been a real revolution in the field of structural biology… [Researchers] have the ability to look at single biological molecules in the electron microscope. It shoots electrons through a grid that has individual biological molecules. The revolution, which was done elsewhere by many people actually, led to the ability to get atomic resolution structures of macro molecular complexes. 

Cold Spring Harbor invested a lot of money, well over $10 million to build a facility and staff a facility to operate this new technology. I’ve been working on this area for about 12, 13 years now … Our structural biologists here in neuroscience, including neuroscientists Hiro Furukawa and Leemor Joshua-Tor have really helped introduce a lot of new biology into CSHL.

What are some of the newer efforts at the lab?

One of the big new initiatives we started is in the field of cancer. As you know by looking around, there’s an obesity epidemic in the Western world. We started a fairly large initiative, understanding the relationship between obesity and cancer and nutrition, and we’re not unique in this. We’re going to have some significant contributions in this area. 

Cancer cells and the tumor affect the whole body physiology. The most severe [consequence] is that advanced cancer patients lose weight through a process called cachexia. We hired [new staff] in this new initiative, renovated a historic building, the Demerec building at a fairly substantial expense, which was supported by New York State. 

What will CSHL researchers study related to obesity?

We’re absolutely going to be focusing on understanding mostly how obesity impacts cancer and the immune system, then how cancer impacts the whole body physiology. Hopefully, once we start to understand the circuits, [we] will be able to intervene. If we can control obesity, we will by logic reduce cancer impact.

What worries you about society?

What worries me is that there is a tendency in this country to ignore science in policy decisions … The number of people not getting vaccinated for measles is ridiculous. There is this kind of pervasive anti-science, anti-technology view that a lot of Americans have. They want the benefits of science and everything that can profit for them. 

There are certain groups of people who misuse data, deliberately abuse misinformation on science to promote agendas that are completely irrational. One of the worst is anti-vaccination. … We should as a society have severe penalties for those who choose to go that route. They shouldn’t send their children to schools, participate in public areas where they could spread a disease that effectively was controlled. Imagine if polio or tuberculosis came back?

How is the lab contributing to education?

People need to act like scientists. It’s one of the reasons we have the DNA Learning Center, to teach people to think like scientists. If 99.99 percent of the evidence suggests [something specific] and 0.01 percent suggest something [else], you have to wonder whether those very small and vocal minority are correct.

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