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Daniel Dunaief

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Above, R.C. Murphy Junior High students Gregory Garra and Gianna Raftery with Catherine Markham in Dawn Nachtigall’s seventh-grade science class last year. Photo from Three Village school district

By Daniel Dunaief

A recent study of 57 species around the world, published in the journal Science, showed that mammals moved distances two to three times shorter in human-modified landscapes.

Catherine Markham, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, contributed to this research, adding information about the ranges for baboons in the Amboseli Baboon Research Project in Kenya.

Marlee Tucker, an ecologist at the Senckenberg Nature Research Society based in Frankfurt, Germany, led the effort, which involved working with 114 other scientists who are studying mammals around the world. Tucker “brought together all these research groups on a scale and scope that had not been undertaken before,” Markham said. “She evaluated in an unprecedented way what the implications of human expansion and development are for wildlife movement.”

According to Tucker, a reduction in animal movement could have ecological implications. “It is likely that ecosystem functions such as nutrients and seed dispersal will be altered,” she explained in an email. “However, whether these impacts are negative, positive or neutral requires further research.”

Tucker suggested that it is “important to maintain landscape connectivity so that animals can move freely,” which could include the creation of corridors that link natural landscapes.

While the study made it clear in a comprehensive way that mammals tend to move less when humans interact with them, it didn’t offer specific indications about the causes of that reduction. Some of that, scientists say, could come from fear, as mammals may avoid humans. Alternatively, some mammals might find a new and concentrated food source at garbage dumps and elsewhere that would reduce the need to travel.

Susan Alberts, a professor of biology at Duke University and a collaborator with Markham on baboon research, said that the “take home message” is that “this is a pervasive phenomenon and occurs on a large scale in the mammalian world.”

Markham has been studying baboons in Kenya at the Amboseli site since 2004. When Tucker reached out to her to see if she could contribute to this work, Markham saw an opportunity to collaborate using information she was already gathering.

Above, baboons with a radio collar in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo by Catherine Markham

As it turns out, baboons in the research project in Kenya live in what Markham describes as a “relatively pristine area” so they did not see “over the time period an increase in the human footprint index.”

Markham shared information about 22 baboons for about 900 days as a part of this research. Tucker’s overarching conclusion included areas where people weren’t encroaching on a mammal’s range. “When she compared the movement of animals living in relatively pristine environments — like the baboons in Amboseli — to the movement of animals living in areas of higher human encroachment, that lead to exciting conclusions,” Markham said. Tucker indicated that future research should focus on exploring the underlying mechanism of the reduction in movement.

In the meantime, Markham is continuing her studies on baboons, exploring the energetic consequences of group size. Larger groups tend to beat out smaller groups when they are competing for food and water in a particular habitat. At the same time, however, those larger groups have stress levels caused by group competition, as one baboon might find the constant proximity and rivalry with another baboon stressful. Baboon group sizes range from a low of around 20 to a high of about 100. Markham is exploring the tension within and between groups.

Over the past few years, Markham, who has been studying this competitive dynamic extensively, has used noninvasive techniques, such as gathering fecal samples, to look for levels of thyroid hormones, which can indicate an animal’s energetic condition.

Alberts explained that Markham was an important contributor to the work at Amboseli, adding that Markham “asks questions at the group level that the rest of us don’t.”

Within the community, Markham has been involved in recent efforts to inspire middle school students at R.C. Murphy Junior High school in Stony Brook to enjoy and appreciate science, working closely with science teacher Dawn Nachtigall, who has been at Murphy for 20 years.

In her second year at Murphy, Markham visits seventh-grade classes several times, discussing her work and explaining how to analyze images from camera traps set up in Kenya and at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown.

The students receive about 30 photos per pair, Nachtigall explained. Based on the pictures, the students have had to generate questions, which have included whether young deer spend more time with male or female parents, or whether hyenas come out more on full or new moons.

According to Nachtigall, Markham “has such a friendly veneer and an approachable affect” that she readily engages with the students. “She has this wonderful demeanor. She’s soft-spoken, but strong.”

Students in her class appreciate the opportunity to interact with a Stony Brook researcher. “By the end of the period, they are glad to have met her,” Nachtigall added. “Some of them want to become her.”

At the same time, Nachtigall and the other science teachers appreciate the opportunity to hear more from local scientists.

“We live vicariously through her,” Nachtigall said. “It really ignites our own passion for science. Seeing the real-world science for science teachers is just as exciting as it is for students.” Markham is working to post materials online so that teachers and parents can access the information.

A native of Rockville, Maryland, Markham, who joined Stony Brook in 2014, resides in St. James. When she was young, Markham enjoyed the opportunity to join class events in kayaks along the Potomac River. She occasionally saw beaver and bald eagles. Indeed, along the way toward working with baboons, she has also conducted research on bald eagles, monitoring their nests with remote cameras.

As for her work on the Science article, Markham said she is pleased that this kind of collaborative research can provide broad ranging insight to address questions that extend beyond the realm of any one lab or species.

They grew up an ocean, and a few months, apart. They spoke different languages, lived in families of different sizes, and competed at high levels in sports from different seasons.

And yet Huntington Station’s Sgt. Matt Mortensen, a Winter Olympic soldier-athlete with Team USA who competes in the luge, and Alex Duma, a sports chiropractor in New York, have been dating for close to two years.

The world of sports provides common ground for these two 32-year-olds. Duma grew up to become a Romanian women’s national swimming champion and an All-American swimmer.

Mortensen, despite living his early years on the relatively flat terrain of Long Island, dedicated his considerable athletic energy to a sport his father Jerry introduced him to when the company where he worked, Verizon, was sponsoring a luge event.

Mortensen and Duma met when she was on volunteering at Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.

He tried to ask her out for a drink and she turned him down because she didn’t want to consider dating someone she might treat as a patient.

Several months later, however, she relented when she knew he wouldn’t consult her professionally.

Once they started dating in earnest, her experience as an athlete helped prepare her for the travels, the dedication to training — and the competition.

“I understand him really well,” she said. “I’ve been an athlete myself and I do travel with athletes. I understand his lifestyle.”

That lifestyle brings challenges that would be difficult for people who weren’t born some 5,000 miles apart. Indeed, as a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, Mortensen ventures around the globe routinely, competing in World Cup competitions.

Since he was 12, Mortensen learned most of his middle school and high school lessons from work sent from St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay. He often missed celebrating his December birthday with his family because it fell during the winter luge season.

The time on the road, however, helped him grow up more rapidly and, as it turned out, gave him the opportunity to learn other cultures earlier than many of his American contemporaries.

The months he spent in Europe “helped bridge the cultural gap,” Duma said. It helped him “understand my European culture.”

At the same time, Duma came to the United States when she was 19, so she feels that “a lot of what I am is due to the American culture.”

Duma admires Mortensen’s relentless efforts to improve and compete. She has watched how he continues to work out after the season ends, even when the workouts are not required.

“He’ll go above and beyond the extra step,” she said.

As for their families, Duma grew up as an only child. On another continent, Mortensen grew up with four brothers and two sisters, in a family of nine.

“They are an amazing big family,” Duma said. “I feel so blessed to have been invited to family events,” which include Christmas and Easter.

Duma appreciates the noise, the dogs, little kids and the constant commotion, which is a marked contrast from her life in a small family, where it was “too quiet.”

Borrowing an oft-quoted line from the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Mortensen said Duma “really completes me.”

Mortensen suggested that Duma stay behind and continue to work while he was in PyeongChang. In South Korea, he finished fourth in the luge team relay, a tenth of a second behind the Austrian team for bronze. He wanted her to save up her vacation time so the athletic couple could travel on a planned trip to Hawaii. During the games, the two of them speak by FaceTime and Whatsapp.

Ultimately, what makes the relationship work, Duma said, is that her Olympic boyfriend is “such a good communicator. He’s amazing at that.”

Huntington Station luge competitor Matt Mortinson, on top, competes with teammate Jayson Terdiman in the Winterberg, Germany November 2017. Photo from USA Luge

By Daniel Dunaief

Sixth place after the first run wasn’t going to cut it. Huntington Station’s Matthew Mortensen and his partner Jayson Terdiman had flown all the way to Pyeongchang, South Korea to bring home Olympic hardware.

Mortensen, who is in the World Class Athlete Program for the United States military, has spent years preparing for this opportunity.

The tandem was ranked fifth after the World Cup season, which brings the top athletes in the sport together for competitions around the world. They knew they had the talent to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and they had an enormous time gap, at least in the high-speed world of luge, to make up to put themselves in position for a medal.

Mortensen asked Terdiman, “Hey, do you want to go for it?” Without hesitation, his teammate agreed.

Before their next run, Mortensen sacrificed control for speed, reducing the margin for error on the final race for a medal.

“I’d rather be on my face than not try to get a medal at the Olympics,” Mortensen said.

“I’d rather be on my face than not try to get a medal at the Olympics.”

— Matt Mortensen

The second ride was better than the first, until they reached turn 13. Tapping the wall was enough to set them back. They finished that race in 13th and ended the doubles competition in 10th.

Changing the sled was “risky, but they were there to compete for a medal and not just compete,” Bill Tavares, the head coach of USA Luge, said in an email.

The Olympics were not over for the luge team, however, as they had one more competition a few days later, when they joined Chris Mazdzer, who had won a silver medal in the singles competition and Summer Britcher, a singles rider for the women, in the relay.

Team USA had every reason to be optimistic, as it had finished second in a similar relay in a World Cup competition in Germany last year.

When all the teams finished, the Americans came in fourth, a mere one tenth of a second behind the Austria team, which claimed the bronze.

“Fourth place was frustrating,” Mortensen said. The team had “an opportunity to get a medal, and didn’t.”

Tavares explained the fourth-place finish was “hard for all us to take.” The team knew it not only had a chance to win a medal, but win a gold one.

Fourth place became an unfortunate pattern for the Americans in South Korea, as Team USA didn’t make it to the medal stands often as the collection of determined athletes had expected in the first week of competition.

Apart from his events, however, Mortensen has ridden some of the same emotions as his countrymen back home.

He watched with concern as teammate Emily Sweeney crashed.

Huntington Station luge competitor Matt Mortinson, on right, with teammate Jayson Terdiman. Photo from USA Luge

“For us, it was a major relief when we saw her stand up and move around,” Mortensen said.

Mortensen was also inspired by snowboarder Shaun White, who returned from an Olympic misfire at Sochi to come through with a gold medal on his final run in the half pipe competition. White was moved to tears after collecting his third gold medal.

“That type of emotion and energy embodies the Olympic spirit,” Mortensen said.

The Huntington Station athlete was also impressed by the gold medal performances of 17-year old Chloe Kim, who won her half pipe competition, and Jamie Anderson, who claimed gold in women’s slopestyle snowboarding.

This is 32-year old Mortensen’s second Olympic appearence. He came in 14th at Sochi with a different partner, Preston Griffall.

Mortensen said the overall experience is the same, with considerable positive energy at both locations.

Mortensen’s parents Jerry and Mary flew across the world to support their son and the team.

Mortensen’s coach was pleased with his effort.

“He came to compete and left nothing out there,” Tavares said.

Mortensen also has dedicated fans back home.

“We are so very proud of [Mortensen] for his incredible passion, talent and perseverance competing for many years on the world’s stage, including the Olympic games,” said Eileen Knauer, a senior vice president and chief operating officer at Huntington YMCA. Knauer has worked with Mortensen’s mother Mary at the YMCA for more than a quarter of a century.

Mortensen has six brothers and sisters.

“We are so very proud of [Mortensen] for his incredible passion, talent and perseverance competing for many years on the world’s stage, including the Olympic games.”

— Eileen Knauer

“The Mortensen family is the epitome of what the YMCA represents; youth development, healthy living and social responsibility,” Knauer said.

In the longer term, Mortensen isn’t sure what will come next in his life. His time in the world class athlete’s program ends in June and he has to decide whether to continue.

In the meantime, he and his girlfriend of the last two years, Alex Duma, who is a chiropractor in New York City, plan to vacation to Hawaii in March.

Duma, who is a former Romanian National Champion and All-American swimmer, relates to the life of a driven athlete.

“I understand him really well,” Duma said. “I understand his lifestyle, which is why this works, because I’m 100 percent on board.”

Duma said she also knows the frustration her boyfriend felt after all the years of training to compete in the Olympics.

She tries to be “as encouraging and supportive” as she can, she said. She believes time can help provide some perspective.

While the 2018 results didn’t meet Mortensen’s expectations, “it doesn’t change who he is or his character,” Duma added.

As a member of the 1156 Engineer Company in Kingston, New York, Mortensen is a “folk hero” to the members of his unit, said Lieutenant William Hayes, who is his commanding officer. “He’s one of our own,” he said. “It’s always exciting to hear his stories.”

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Smithtown native John Daly, on left, with fellow Team USA members at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeonchang. Photo by Kendall Wesenberg

By Daniel Dunaief

The third time proved that Smithtown’s John Daly could pick himself up, dust off and start all over again.

An Olympic skeleton racer, Daly had walked away from the sport he loved after a crushing ending to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Daly had been within striking distance of a coveted medal before the fourth and final race. That’s when his sled popped out of the groove at the starting line, sending him back from fourth place to 15th.

Distraught over the mistake, Daly retired from the sport, got a job and moved on with his life.

John Daly, competing in a different race, finished 16th and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. File photo

Or so he thought. The red-haired kid, as some of his friends described him years ago, returned to skeleton two years ago, despite a job with medical technology company Smith & Nephew that required him to drive nine hours from Virginia to Lake Placid to train.

Over the last two years, he has fought to make it onto his third Olympic team, a feat he accomplished in January.

Daly joined his longtime friend and teammate Matt Antoine, representing the United States at Pyeongchang.

They went head to head against a talented South Korean slider named Yung Sung-bin, who was competing on his home track. The local South Korean hero won gold in convincing fashion, while Antoine and Daly finished 11th and 16th, respectively.

Despite the finish Daly was pleased that the final chapter in his Olympic experience didn’t end at Sochi.

“I got to do four runs, lift my head up at the end, hold it high, walk off the line and wave to my family,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “That’s something I didn’t get four years ago.”

“I got to do four runs, lift my head up at the end, hold it high, walk off the line and wave to my family.”

— John Daly

Indeed, his parents Bennarda and James Daly, who trekked to Vancouver to cheer him on in 2010 and journeyed to Sochi in 2014, also supported their son in person in Pyeongchang.

“It was fun to see him happy,” his mother said. “He had a good time.”

Realistically, she said her son recognized that the odds were stacked against him in South Korea, in part because he hadn’t spent the previous four years preparing for this event, the way his competitors had.

“He was content with the way he slid,” she said. He had a couple of hits to the wall, which rob sliders, as skeleton racers are called, of critical speed. Still, he “ended on a good note and that made us all feel good.”

Daly said her son believed he had run away and hid after the Sochi games, as though he had done something wrong. He realized that wasn’t the right way to handle the mistake at the top of the Russian track.

“He came back to get closure for that race,” she said.

James Daly felt this was the best of the three Olympic games, because his son was glowing.

“He came and did what he wanted to do, and he didn’t get hurt,” Daly said of his son. “It’s all about the experience.”

“It was fun to see him happy. He had a good time.”

— Bennarda Daly

Bennarda Daly not only enjoyed watching her son rewrite his Olympic script, but she also had the chance to spend quality time with him and with her husband.

They attended speed skating events, where the Daly team cheered for fellow Americans.

The family walked around the Olympic village with outfits that have the letters USA on them, and although concerned that people might be hostile, especially in light of the ongoing tension in Asia, the atmosphere was high-spirited.

“Everyone was polite and kind” Bennarda Daly said. The hosts “went out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable.”

She was also especially pleased that her son was able to enjoy the final chapter of a long Olympic ride.

“Just to see John enjoy the village as a spectator, to go and see other people he’d met along the way and became friends with and to go to things with him was really good,” she said.

As for Daly’s skeleton future, Bennarda Daly believes her 32-year old son is truly done.

“He feels he’s gotten what he needed,” she said. “He seemed fulfilled.”

Looking back on the Olympic and athletic experiences, James Daly appreciated the journey his son took, and the places the family visited as a result.

John Daly, competing in a previous race, returned to the track after retiring from skeleton racing following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. File photo

“If it wasn’t for John, we wouldn’t have done the traveling we did,” the elder Daly said.

Daly witnessed firsthand how hard his son had to work to attend competitions.

A racing official for the sport of skeleton, James Daly enjoyed the contact he had with competitors and their families.

“You meet people from all over the country and the world,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. Each country sends their best.”

The elder Daly suggested that families angling to make future games need to recognize the roller coaster ride along the way.

“It’s not all glory,” he said. “You have to prepare yourself for the best and the worst. You could think of every kind of scenario that could happen, and then something else would happen.”

While the family traveled far and wide to frigid mountains, Daly said the bone-chilling cold disappeared each time his son hit the track.

“When he gets up there, there’s no more cold,” he said. “It’s just fun. That’s what you came for. You realize, if he could do that and get through that, he can get through anything.”

Daniel Mockler in his office at Stony Brook University. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

At first, people didn’t believe it. Now, it seems, they are eager to learn more.

Working with a talented team that included postdoctoral researchers, doctoral students and doctors, Kenneth Shroyer, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at Stony Brook University, noticed something odd about a protein that scientists thought played a supporting role, but that, as it turns out, may be much more of a villain in the cancer story.

Known as keratin 17, this protein was thought to act as a tent pole, providing structural support. That, however, isn’t the only thing it can do. The co-director of Shroyer’s lab, Luisa Escobar-Hoyos, found that this protein was prevalent in some types of cancers. What’s more, the protein seemed to be in higher concentration in a more aggressive form of the disease.

Now, working with Long Island native Daniel Mockler, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pathology, Shroyer and his team discovered that the presence of this particular protein has prognostic value for endocervical glandular neoplasia, suggesting the likely course of the disease.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, the article by Mockler and his team in the Sept. 1, 2017, issue attracted the attention of pathologists around the world. It ranked as the third highest read article in the final month of 2017, according to Medscape. It was behind two other papers that were review articles, which made it the most read primary research report in pathology in December.

The response “did exceed my expectations,” Mockler stated in an email. “I would have thought [Shroyer’s earlier] paper showing that k17 can function in gene regulation would have been more popular. But I guess this [new paper] illustrates that topics that have a possible direct impact on practicing surgical pathologists will draw a lot of attention.”

To be sure, while the recent study is an early indication of the potential predictive value of this protein, there may be some mitigating factors that could affect its clinical applicability.

“It’s premature to know what the clinical utility of this marker will be,” Shroyer said. “To determine that would require a large-scale prospective clinical trial” that would involve other patient populations and other laboratories.

Still, depending on the outcome of research currently underway in Shroyer’s lab, the protein may offer a way of determining the necessary therapy for patients with the same diagnosis.

Doctors don’t want to give patients with milder version of the disease high levels of chemotherapy, which would cause uncomfortable side effects. At the same time, they want to be as aggressive as possible in treating patients whose cancers are likely a more significant threat.

“The goal of having an excellent prognostic biomarker … is to avoid over and under treatment of patients,” suggested Mockler, who is also an attending pathologist at SBU and Stony Brook Southampton.

Shroyer was delighted with the efforts of the team that put together this well-read research. “As is true of all our clinical faculty, I want to give them every opportunity to take advantage of their ability to collaborate with research faculty in our department and throughout the cancer center and the school of medicine to advance their scholarly careers and academic productivity,” he said.

Mockler’s success and the visibility of this paper is “an excellent example of how someone with a busy clinical practice can also have a major impact on translational research,” Shroyer added.

Mockler appreciated the support and work of Escobar-Hoyos, who had conducted her doctoral research in Shroyer’s lab. She has “been the main driving force, along with [Shroyer] in the initial discovery of k17 including its prognostic implications as well as its possible function in regulating gene expression,” he said.

Mockler said he spends about 80 percent of his time on patient care, with the remaining efforts divided between research and academic pursuits. His first priority is providing “excellent patient care.”

Working with Shroyer and Escobar-Hoyos, Mockler explained that they have started looking at k17 in organ systems including the esophagus, pancreas and bladder. “We are currently looking at k17 from a diagnostic point of view in regards to bladder cancer,” he said. “Discoveries that impact the daily signout of surgical pathologists by allowing us to make better and more consistent diagnoses interests me very much.”

A resident of Kings Park, Mockler, who grew up in Hicksville, lives with his fiancée Danielle Kurkowski, who is a medical technologist of flow cytometry research and development at ICON Central Laboratories in Farmingdale.

Daniel Mockler on a recent snowboarding trip to Aspen. Photo from Daniel Mockler

Outside of his work in medicine, Mockler is an avid snowboard enthusiast. He tries to get in as many trips as possible during the winter, including a vacation a few weeks ago to the Austrian Alps. A more typical trip, however, is to western mountains or to Vermont, including Killington, Okemo and Stratton.

“To blow off steam and relax, nothing is better than being on a snow-covered mountain,” he said.

Mockler is pleased with the developments in the department. He has seen the “research goals of the department change quite significantly,” adding that Shroyer has “done a tremendous amount of recruiting.”

Mockler suggests to residents that it’s “good to get involved. I always tell them that [Shroyer] has a pretty active research lab and he likes it when residents get involved.”

As for his work on k17, Mockler is pleased that he’s been able to contribute to the ongoing efforts. Shroyer “has been doing this a while and I have seen the excitement and energy he has put into k17,” he explained, “so I know that we are onto something big.”

And so, apparently, do readers of pathology journals.

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Hi, Mr. President. Sir? If I could have a word with you? Please don’t walk away. I don’t plan on insulting you and I promise not to talk about your hair. Full disclosure: I disagree with some of the things you’ve said and done, but I like to believe that you’re trying to help the country the best way you know how.

I’m here to talk to you about this parade idea. I know you want the military branches to march in front of you, with their shiny weapons, impressive tanks and their beautiful uniforms. They have an extremely difficult job. They protect freedom and democracy, risk their lives, go where they are told, and live by a set of rules that are more challenging than the ones most of the rest of us follow.

They deserve an enormous parade.

But, wait, why stop at a single parade? Once we’ve celebrated the military, couldn’t we have a new parade every day the way that incredibly successful American company, Disney, does? Or if that’s too much, a parade of the month?

How about a parade for valedictorians and salutatorians? You could invite the top high school students to Washington to celebrate the top achievers in high school. Let’s give a few of them a chance to make speeches, to share their stories of success and to encourage others to work hard.

Let’s also celebrate scientists. Mr. President, I write about scientists every week for this newspaper and, I have to tell you, these people are inspirational. They are not just men and women from all over the world in white lab coats. They are passionate about pushing the frontier of knowledge. They are committed to curing diseases, to improving technology and to answering questions that previous
generations could only address through philosophy.

Have you been to the National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory? That facility, which cost close to a billion dollars, is awesome. It can see inside batteries as they operate, it can help understand catalysts as they are functioning, and it can help understand ways to pull dangerous particles out of the air.

Why should Sweden get all the fun when it comes to top science awards, like the Nobel Prize? How about if the United States develops its own set of science awards? You could name them the Trump Triumph as a way to celebrate science.

What about teachers? Surely a nation as incredible as ours should have a parade for its finest teachers, right? These people ignite the passion for discovery, encourage focus and discipline, and serve as valuable role models.

You could find some of the best teachers in each state, fly them to Washington, have them march in a parade and then get together to exchange ideas. Imagine how much better the best teachers would be if they met other accomplished educators from around the country in D.C.? They could create educational exchanges for their students, giving them a chance to connect with other students from out of their state.

How about corporate America? Let’s celebrate the companies that not only make the most money — which helps their stockholders and communities — but also that hire the most people. Let’s thank the CEOs who put Americans to work each year.

What about all the talented young musicians, singers and performers in the country? At the end of the
parade, they could sing a song or hold a performance that would raise money for enrichment programs.

After the military, let’s work our way through Main Street, celebrating American effort and achievement. Mr. President, you are definitely on to something great with the idea for a parade. Let’s celebrate America and encourage future effort and achievement with a plethora of parades.

Matthew Lerner, far right, with his lab group at Stony Brook University. Photo from Matthew Lerner

By Daniel Dunaief

An actor draws in members of an audience, encouraging them to understand, appreciate and perhaps even become sympathetic to a world created on a stage. The process of creating scenes for the actor, however, can also change his or her world off the stage.

A team of scientists from Vanderbilt University, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Stony Brook University recently received $3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health for four years to study how participation in a theater production can help people with autism spectrum disorders.

Matthew Lerner. Photo by Graham Chedd from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

“Theater is a venue for learning and gaining skills,” said Matthew Lerner, an assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at the Department of Psychology at SBU who is leading the Long Island part of a study that will involve about 240 participants from age 10 through 16. “The process of putting on a play with others and being able to successfully produce and perform that has key benefits to learn and practice.”

Called SENSE Theatre (for Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology), the shows were created by the project leader, Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology and investigator at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, who herself performed in stage plays before pursuing her scientific career.

Corbett writes the plays, which have themes she believes are important not only for autism but also for the general public. The topics include acceptance, belonging and diversity and offer a current of core ideas that are “part of having a condition that is unique,” she said. The plays, which typically have about 20 characters, include music and last about 45 minutes.

Tiffany Adams and Jane Goodwin participate in the SENSE Theatre program. Photo by Steve Green, Vanderbilt University

Corbett explained that the experience uses theater as a platform for teaching fundamental areas that could help people with autism spectrum disorders, including reciprocal social communication, flexible thinking and behavior and imagination.

“It also gives [the participants] an opportunity to be exposed to social situations and to engage with others in a safe and supportive environment,” she said. “They can be John today and Henry tomorrow, which allows them to expand their repertoire in a playful, fun way” which, she hopes, might help them assimilate lessons when the program ends.

Corbett has been developing SENSE Theatre for nine years. This specific multisite project will allow her to see how transportable this program is to other locations, where other investigators who have not been involved with this before can employ it with other participants.

The investigators, which include Corbett, Lerner and Susan White at the University of Alabama, will monitor the participants through psychological testing, social interaction and research EEG, or electroencephalography. This is a noninvasive way of monitoring electrical activity in the brain that involves placing electrodes on or below the scalp. The EEG testing takes about 45 minutes.

Participation is free, although members, who go through a screening process, need to contribute to the research program by completing the evaluations.

The theater program has a control study, calling Tackling Teenage Training, in which participants will “address some of the challenges of being a teen,” which include dating and puberty, knowing how to know if somebody likes or doesn’t like you and how to express desires or interests appropriately, Lerner said.

Savannah Bradley participates in the SENSE Theatre program. Photo from Steve Green , Vanderbilt University

Corbett chose to work with Lerner because of considerable overlap in their interests in using performance to provide clinical help for people with autism spectrum disorders. Lerner “has a very strong interest in theater and is able to understand the core approach” to the training and shows as a form of intervention. He is an “engaging, charismatic individual who is extremely hard-working” and is a “really good choice in terms of harnessing his energy and intelligence.”

Indeed, Lerner and Karen Levine, a licensed psychologist and the co-author of “Treatment Planning for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” developed a model in 2004 for youths with disabilities to work on social skills called Spotlight, which utilized techniques of theater games and dramatic training. Spotlight is a program of Northeast Arc, a human services organization founded in 1954 and based in Massachusetts.

The Spotlight efforts started with nine students and has expanded to include hundreds of families each year.

In early high school, Lerner met someone who would change his life. He was having dinner with the family of a friend of his younger sister’s when he noticed a boy, Ben, playing on his own in another room. Lerner asked if he could play with Ben, who was 2 at the time and was running a car back and forth across the top of a toy playhouse.

Lerner mirrored what Ben did. “He looked at me curiously and kept doing what he was doing,” Lerner recalled. “I followed him around for over two hours.”

A scene from a performance by SENSE Theatre. Photo by Steve Green, Vanderbilt University

Up to that point in his life, Lerner thought the experience with Ben was “the most fascinating two hours of my life.” He had made a connection in which he “loved the joy and challenge of trying to meet him where he was, rather than behave in a way that was consistent with what the world expected.”

Lerner studied philosophy and music at Wesleyan University. After earning his doctorate at the University of Virginia, where his dissertation explored why youths with autism experience social problems, Lerner worked at the University of Chicago and then moved to SBU in 2013.

A native of Swampscott, Massachusetts, Lerner lives in Port Jefferson with his wife Chelsea Finn, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Stony Brook Hospital Emergency Room and a nurse practitioner at SV Pediatrics in Patchogue. The couple has a 4-year-old son Everett and a 6-month-old son Sawyer.

Lerner is looking for people who would like to participate in the study. They can reach out to him by phone at 631-632-7857 or by email at lernerlab@stonybrook.edu. The first set of students will begin working in the SENSE Theatre program this spring and summer.

Corbett said the participants aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program.

“The overwhelming sentiment from those who come to see the performance is that it changes their perception of what it means to have autism,” Corbett said. After the show, some of the audience members “ask who are the children with autism.”

Parents of the actors are pleasantly surprised by the things their children are able to do, which exceed their expectations. “In one of our previous studies, parents reported that their stress went down” during the program, she said, “which appeared to be in response to the child participating in intervention.”

People spend millions of dollars each year to find compatible friends and dates.

The dating sites, the self-help books and magazines and the life coaches ask copious questions about our likes and dislikes and what we need around us.

Maybe they are missing a key question that can reveal important yet hard-to-describe details about how we feel about ourselves and the world. That question relates to our feelings for lightning rod figures.

Let’s start with Tom Brady, who just lost his third Super Bowl last Sunday, despite a heroic effort. The quarterback, who has won five other Super Bowls, is a legend, is extraordinarily successful and has one of the most impressive résumés of anyone in the game. Indeed, even people who know nothing about football — and I have a foot in that camp — know who he is and have an awareness of his remarkable success.

In a country that celebrates victories, however, he doesn’t seem to be high on the national likability scale. I’m sure there are plenty of Patriots fans who disagree and think the world loves their superhero. Sorry, but I’m sure you can find the Brady haters on the internet.

Anyway, maybe what causes them to dislike the superstar is the spectacular and well-earned self-confidence. Maybe it’s the fairy tale life. Then again, isn’t that what we all buy into when we watch Disney movies? Doesn’t his name, Tom Brady, suggests some kind of Disney superhero, who saves the day with perfectly placed passes despite defenses bearing down on him?

Then again, maybe, for some his friendship with Donald Trump is problematic.

The president has become an important compatibility filter as well. It’s hard to imagine two people agreeing to disagree calmly about a president who some believe has either saved us from the likes of Hillary Clinton or has created new and deep fault lines in the country.

Then there are those people who seem to fall into and out of favor. Watching the movie “Darkest Hour,” it’s clear that other politicians didn’t see Winston Churchill as a superhero whose destiny was to lead the British nation through one of its most challenging crises. He was the right man at the right time for an impossible job, facing what seemed like insurmountable odds.

And yet, despite his cigar-chomping, nation-inspiring heroics, it was bye, bye Winston almost immediately after World War II ended.

The same could be said of America’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani. He wasn’t exactly a legend in New York before Sept. 11, 2001, as he seemed to pick fights with everyone and anyone. And then, after 9/11, he somehow struck just the right balance for a nation in mourning, offering sympathy and support while remaining proud of the country and defiant in the face of the attack. After he left office, the bloom came off that rose quickly as well.

Then there’s George W. Bush — or “43,” if you prefer. Many people couldn’t stand him when he was in office, with his nuke-u-lar (for nuclear), his snickering and his parody-able speech patterns. And yet, these days, his image and his reputation have made a comeback, particularly today as common ground seems to be disappearing under the feet of the two major political parties.

Maybe these dating sites shouldn’t ask your hobbies, religious preferences or favorite foods. Instead, they should ask what you think of Tom Brady, the current U.S. president and the wartime prime minister of England.

From left, Deyu Lu (sitting), Anatoly Frenkel (standing), Yuwei Lin and Janis Timoshenko. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

What changes and how it changes from moment to moment can be the focus of curiosity — or survival. A zebra in Africa needs to detect subtle shifts in the environment, forcing it to focus on the possibility of a nearby predator like a lion.

Similarly, scientists are eager to understand, on an incredibly small scale, the way important participants in chemical processes change as they create products, remove pollutants from the air or engines or participate in reactions that make electronic equipment better or more efficient.

Throughout a process, a catalyst can alter its shape, sometimes leading to a desired product and other times resulting in an unwanted dead end. Understanding the structural forks in the road during these interactions can enable researchers to create conditions that favor specific structural configurations that facilitate particular products.

First, however, scientists need to see how catalysts involved in these reactions change.

That’s where Anatoly Frenkel, a professor at Stony Brook University’s Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering with a joint appointment in Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Chemistry Division, and Janis Timosheko, a postdoctoral researcher in Frenkel’s lab, come in.

Working with Deyu Lu at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and Yuwei Lin and Shinjae Yoo, both from BNL”s Computational Science Initiative, Timoshenko leads a novel effort to use machine learning to observe subtle structural clues about catalysts.

“It will be possible in the future to monitor in real time the evolution of the catalyst in reaction conditions,” Frenkel said. “We hope to implement this concept of reaction on demand.”

According to Frenkel, beamline scientist Klaus Attenkofer at BNL and Lu are planning a project to monitor the evolution of catalysts in reaction conditions using this method.

By recognizing the specific structural changes that favor desirable reactions, Frenkel said researchers could direct the evolution of a process on demand.

“I am particularly intrigued by a new opportunity to control the selectivity (or stability) of the existing catalyst by tuning its structure or shape up to enhance formation of a desired product,” he explained in an email.

The neural network the team has created links the structure and the spectrum that characterizes the structure. On their own, researchers couldn’t find a structure through the spectrum without the help of highly trained computers.

Through machine learning, X-rays with relatively lower energies can provide information about the structure of nanoparticles under greater heat and pressure, which would typically cause distortions for X-rays that use higher energy, Timoshenko said.

The contribution and experience of Lin, Yoo and Lu was “crucial” for the development of the overall idea of the method and fine tuning its details, Timoshenko said. The teaching part was a collective effort that involved Timoshenko and Frenkel.

Frenkel credits Timoshenko for uniting the diverse fields of machine learning and nanomaterials science to make this tool a reality. For several months, when the groups got together for bi-weekly meetings, they “couldn’t find common ground.” At some point, however, Frenkel said Timoshenko “got it, implemented it and it worked.”

The scientists used hundreds of structure models. For these, they calculated hundreds of thousands of X-ray absorption spectra, as each atom had its own spectrum, which could combine in different ways, Timoshenko suggested.

They back-checked this approach by testing nanoparticles where the structure was already known through conventional analysis of X-ray absorption spectra and from electron microscopy studies, Timoshenko said.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to understand the relationship between the structure of a material and its useful properties. The new method, combined with other approaches, can provide an understanding of the structure.

Timoshenko said additional data, including information about the catalytic activity of particles with different structures and the results of theoretical modeling of chemical processes, would be necessary to take the next steps. “It is quite possible that some other machine learning methods can help us to make sense of these new pieces of information as well,” he said.

According to Frenkel, Timoshenko, who transferred from Yeshiva University to Stony Brook University in 2016 with Frenkel, has had a remarkably productive three years as a postdoctoral researcher. His time at SBU will end by the summer, when he seeks another position.

A native of Latvia, Timoshenko is married to Edite Paule, who works in a child care center. The scientist is exploring various options after his time at Stony Brook concludes, which could include a move to Europe.

A resident of Rocky Point during his postdoctoral research, Timoshenko described Long Island as “extremely beautiful” with a green landscape and the nearby ocean. He also appreciated the opportunity to travel to New York City to see Broadway shows. His favorite, which he saw last year, is “Miss Saigon.”

Timoshenko has dedicated his career to using data analysis approaches to understanding real life problems. Machine learning is “yet another approach” and he would like to see if this work “will be useful” for someone conducting additional experiments, he said.

At some point, Timoshenko would also like to delve into developing novel materials that might have an application in industry. The paper he published with Frenkel and others focused only on the studies of relatively simple monometallic particles. He is working on the development of that method to analyze more complex systems.

This work, he suggested, is one of the first applications of machine learning methods for the interpretation of experimental data, not just in the field of X-ray absorption spectroscopy. “Machine learning, data science and artificial intelligence are very hot and rapidly developing fields, whose potential in experimental research we have just started to explore.”

 

Cheese, milk, butter, ice cream, yogurt. You were all such good friends. I was lucky to have known you at all.

Long ago, I developed an intolerance for you. It’s not as if you’d kill me but, let’s just say, you’d incapacitate me for a prolonged and agonizing period of time if I ever decided to ignore all the earlier experiences and indulge again.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t appreciate the quality time we shared together, the memories you forever embedded in my taste buds and in my satisfied stomach.

I’ll start with the unexpected. Yes, you, in the corner, looking all innocuous. Stand up custardy yogurt and let me recall the smooth, cool feel and consistent taste. My favorite was banana, even though I lost the second-grade spelling bee when I thought there had to be an extra “n” in there somewhere. Someone with as many vowels as there are in the name Dunaief should have recognized the superfluous nature of consonants, but alas I was too young.

Then there’s macaroni and cheese. The soft noodles and almost too-sweet cheese was like a warm, sweet bath for my mouth. After throwing snowballs at my brothers or coming in from the walk along Mud Road from Gelinas on a rainy day, the hot mac and cheese revived me enough to break out my homework and try to figure how to find a second derivative or identify feldspar (a rock-forming mineral).

Then there’s that tall carton of milk. How awesome were you with Oreos and chocolate chip cookies? I’d dip the cookies deep into the milk, hoping they’d break apart. At the end of that refreshing glass, I’d have a blend of cookie crumbs supersaturated in milk at the bottom. I tipped the cool glass toward my mouth and let those mushy morsels land gently on my unfolded tongue.

And then there’s ice cream. After a movie at Stony Brook Loews, I’d sit with my buddies at Friendly’s on Route 347 and wait as patiently as I could for everyone else to figure out what they wanted. I pretended to read the menu, particularly when I was on a date and was considering what to say next, but the choice was always the same: the mint chocolate chip sundae.

During cold winter days, particularly after a day of skiing with my family — who were patient enough for me to stop getting frustrated when I fell, learn from my mistakes and enjoy the ride — I looked forward to onion soup. Oh, the melted cheese on the top of that soup. As my wife would say, what’s better than that?

Busboys risked serious injuries to their fingers if they tried to take the Crock-Pot before I’d finished picking every piece of cheese off the sides. When I finally looked up from my cheese removal operation, I saw my mom flashing that same annoying grin I show our children when I see how satisfied they are in a moment.

Since we’re discussing cheese, how about a grilled cheese? Buttered bread with soft American cheese was an irresistible delight. I’d order several of these sandwiches at the old Jack in the Box at the corner of 25A and Main Street in Setauket.

When I was young, one of my late father’s favorite sandwiches was Swiss cheese on rye with lettuce, tomato and mustard. The first time I tried it, I smiled politely and gave it back to him. Before the end of the dairy road for me, I ordered it again and thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it was an acquired taste or maybe it brought me closer to my father, who I could imagine enjoying the life and the food as much as I did. Oh, those dairy delights.

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