Authors Posts by Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

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Staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Germany’s Centre for Advanced Materials during a recent meeting to discuss a future collaboration, from left, Oleg Gang, group leader for Soft and Bio Nanomaterials; Norbert Huber, the director of the ZHM; Charles Black, the director of the CFN; Patrick Huber, a principal investigator; Priscilla Antunez and Dario Stacchiola, group leader for the Interface Science and Catalysis team. Photo by Joseph Rubin/BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Priscilla Antunez is a scientist with some unusual expertise. No, she doesn’t run experiments using a rare or expensive piece of equipment; and no, she hasn’t developed a way to understand the properties of unimaginably small particles that assemble themselves and may one day help run future technology.

What Antunez brings to the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, or CFN, at Brookhaven National Laboratory is a background in business. That puts her in a position to help the scientists who run experiments at the CFN or the researchers at BNL, or elsewhere, who study the properties of catalysts or self-assembling small materials.

“This opportunity for me is a maximization of my impact on science,” said Antunez, who joined BNL from Illinois’ Argonne National Laboratory in December. If she were to run her own lab, she would be involved in a project or a handful of projects. “[At BNL] I have the opportunity to help many scientists with their work,” she said.

Priscilla Antunez Photo by Joseph Rubin/BNL

Her assistance will take numerous forms, from acknowledging and celebrating the science the 30 researchers at the CFN and the 600 scientists from around the world who visit the center perform, to developing broader and deeper partnerships with industry.

Her long-term goal is to build a strategy around specific projects and establish partnerships to advance the science and technology, which might include industry.

“We are trying to make [the information] widely available to everyone,” Antunez said. “We are proud of what they’re doing and proud of how we’re helping them accomplish their goals. We’re ultimately getting their science out there, helping them with viewership and readership.”

She is already writing the highlights of scientific papers, which she hopes to share widely.

In addition to sending research updates to the Department of Energy, which sponsors the BNL facility, Antunez will also try to broaden the audience for the research by sharing it on LinkedIn, posting it on the website, and, in some cases, sending out email updates. The LinkedIn page, for now, is by invitation only. Interested readers can request to join at https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8600642.

Antunez takes over for James Dickerson, who has become the first chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports, where he leads the technical and scientific aspects of all activities related to CR’s testing and research, including food and product safety programs. Antunez and Charles Black, the director of the CFN, decided to expand Antunez’s role as assistant director.

Her job is “to help the CFN develop its overall strategy for making partnerships and nurturing them to be successful and have impact,” Black explained in an email.

“For the CFN to thrive in its second 10 years of operations will require us to form deeper relationships with scientific partners, including CFN users, research groups around the world, industries and other national labs,” he said.

Indeed, Black, Oleg Gang, who is the group leader for Soft and Bio Nanomaterials, Dario Stacchiola, the group leader for the Interface Science and Catalysis team, and Antunez recently met with Norbert and Patrick Huber, from Hamburg’s Centre for Advanced Materials.

“We had group and individual discussions to explore complementary areas of research,” said Antunez.

After scientists from the centers meet again to develop research plans, she can “help as much and as early as the CFN scientists need.” She can also coordinate between the CFN and the Contracts Office if the center needs a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement.

The scientist encourages CFN scientists to visit whenever they believe they have an idea that might have an application. She’s had meetings with the Tech Transfer Office and CFN groups and is hoping to put more such gatherings on the calendar.

The CFN is continuing to grow and will be adding five or six new scientific staff positions, Black said. Antunez will “oversee a strategy that helps all CFN staff form deep, productive partnerships that produce new nanoscience breakthroughs.

Black explained that it was an “exciting, challenging, important job and we’re thrilled to have someone as talented and energetic as [Antunez] to take it on.”

Indeed, Antunez was such an effective researcher prior to venturing into the business world that the CFN had tried to hire her once before, to be a postdoctoral researcher in the area of self-assembly. At that time, Antunez had decided to move toward business and took a job at Argonne National Laboratory. “In the end it has worked out well for CFN, because [Antunez] gained valuable experience at Argonne that she has brought to BNL and is using every day,” said Black.

The CFN has divided the work into five groups, each of which has a team leader. Antunez is working on their current partnerships and recruiting needs. She meets with the group leaders during regular management meetings to discuss overall plans, work and safety and the required reports to the DOE.

Antunez lives in Mineola with her husband, Jordan S. Birnbaum, who is the chief behavioral economist at ADP. When she was in college at Universidad de Sonora, Antunez wanted to double major in science and contemporary dance. At the public university in Mexico at the time, she had to choose one or the other, despite an invitation from one of the founding professors of the school of dance to major in dance.

Nowadays, Antunez, who earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Southern California, goes to the gym and takes yoga and dance classes, but doesn’t study the art form anymore.

With her science background, Antunez anticipated becoming a teacher. Her current work allows her to share her expertise with scientists. She has also been able to work with some postdoctoral researchers at BNL.

As for her work, Antunez appreciates the opportunity to build connections between scientists and industry. “Most of our technologies are on the basic research side and so the partnerships are much more fluid, which gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of our strategic partners,” she said.

Daniel Dunaief

reader wrote in to request a column about the search for missing items. The following is my attempt to oblige that request.

Right now, someone, somewhere is looking for something. Whatever it is, a birthday card bought three months ago for that special day tomorrow, a scarf that matches an outfit perfectly or a piece of paper from an art store for a critical presentation, will cost less in time and money to purchase anew than the time it takes to search through the house.

And yet most people don’t want to give up the search because they figure they’ll find it, save themselves the trip and prove to their spouses that they aren’t completely hopeless.

The search for stuff can go from the manic “Where’s my hat, where’s my hat, where’s my hat,” to the humorous “Oh, haaat, where are you? Come to me, hat. Wouldn’t you like to share a spring day outside?” to the gritted-teeth angry “I know I put the hat here and it’s not here, which means it either walked away on its own or someone picked it up and put it somewhere else.”

When stuff disappears, we return to the same location over and over, searching the closet, flipping the cushions off the couch repeatedly, only to put them back and throw them off again, hoping that, somehow, the magic that caused the item to disappear will bring it back through our frantic search.

Most of us aren’t like Seinfeld or my super-organized sister-in-law, whose garage is probably better coordinated and arranged than most Home Depots. I recognize, of course, that my wife and I are on the other end of that spectrum. I’m not sure how the people with the organizational gene do it. I look at a pile of stuff and separate out everything into broad categories. There’s junk I might need outside, junk I might need inside, junk I can’t readily identify — and then I stare at it.

At some point, my frustration at my inability to sort through it becomes sufficiently high that I put the pile back together and, lo and behold, the junk makes it almost impossible to find one specific item, even if what I seek is in that pile. My life is filled with figurative haystacks and my ability and my patience to search for the needles is minimal.

When I’m hunting for something, I close my eyes and try to retrieve from my memory the last time I saw it. Aha! I think. It was in the living room. No, maybe the dining room. No, no, I’m sure it was the kitchen.

Sometimes, I break down and buy the stupid item again, knowing that I need a specific type of tape, a matching pair of socks or something that I can’t fake having because something like it —- a Hawaiian shirt versus a button-down Oxford shirt — just won’t do.

When I return with the desired item, I take a moment to try to figure out where best to put it so I can find it again the next day or in a week, if I’m that organized. I walk slowly around the house, examining the piles of stuff that I just searched through, knowing that the piles are seeking recruits to join them. I come across an unusual and little used location, which I’m sure I’ll remember. As I find the perfect place for the redundant item, far from the all-consuming clutter, I sometimes discover that the joke’s on me: The original birthday card or missing sock await in exactly the same location.

Dr. David Fiorella with patient Danielle Santilli who received a new treatment for aneurysms. Photo by Greg Filiano

By Daniel Dunaief

desk@tbrnewsmedia.com

Danielle Santilli grappled with numerous discomforts, from headaches to nausea to dizziness, especially when she traveled in a car or stood up quickly. After a series of tests, however, she learned she had a wide-necked bifurcation aneurysm, which is one of the more common types of aneurysms.

A diagnosis that has potentially severe consequences, an aneurysm is an area in a blood vessel that grows like a balloon. If it ruptures, it can cause dangerous bleeding.

Santilli became a patient of Stony Brook Medicine’s interventional radiologist and professor of neurological surgery and radiology David Fiorella. Santilli was thrilled with the timing, as Fiorella was a co-principal investigator on a recently completed U.S. Food and Drug Administration study for a minimally invasive surgical technique that involves implanting a Woven EndoBridge or WEB.

“I feel very fortunate,” Santilli said of the opportunity to be one of the first to receive the treatment.

The FDA approved the use of the WEB in January. European doctors have used it effectively since 2011.

The WEB is a spherical structure that’s braided out of fine-shaped memory filaments of metal called nitinol, which is a combination of nickel and titanium. The WEB behaves more like a rubber band than a paper clip and wants to return to its original shape. Doctors insert it into a microcatheter in the femoral artery near the groin. Once they release it in an aneurysm and stretch it out, the WEB expands into a spherical shape inside the blood vessel.

The body grows new tissue over the aneurysm neck along the metal mesh, which is akin to sealing off a well.

The alternative for people with this type of aneurysm can often involve more invasive, open-brained surgery, Fiorella said.

The procedure takes about 40 minutes and often requires a one-night hospital stay. Patients with a WEB procedure also require aspirin for a short period, compared with six months of a blood thinner and then aspirin for much longer periods for other surgical alternatives.

Fiorella explained that there were two types of aneurysms. An unruptured version typically doesn’t have any symptoms. Doctors usually discover these through a screening for other symptoms or because of a family history. Patients in this group sometimes receive scans for different and unrelated reasons.

Robert Walsh, a 66-year-old retiree and resident of South Jamesport, went to a doctor to check himself out after his younger sister died earlier this year from an aneurysm. Tests revealed that he, too, had an aneurysm.

A month after his sister died, Walsh had the WEB procedure.

Fiorella and his staff “are probably the best I’ve ever encountered,” Walsh said. “I’m impressed with him and his entire staff for everything they did, with follow-ups, calling in prescriptions, getting my pre-op ready. I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Fiorella.”

People with a ruptured aneurysm are dealing with bleeding into their brain. This typically causes symptoms like the worst headache people have ever had, vomiting or a loss of consciousness of rapid neurological deterioration.

The survival rate for people in these circumstances is lower and depends on whether they make it to the hospital.

The WEB is helpful for patients who have a ruptured aneurysm. Other techniques, such as stents, are not usable for patients under these conditions.

“A lot of other tools are off the table” with a ruptured aneurysm, but the WEB is “very effective,” Fiorella said.

Some potential patients with a wide-necked bifurcation may not be good candidates for a WEB because their aneurysm is too small or too large for the device.

Stony Brook has extensive experience with the WEB. Doctors who want to perform a similar procedure at other hospitals need extensive training from experienced physicians who can prepare them for the procedure.

Long Island residents should know they have a “major center right here that’s doing work that surpasses anything going on in Long Island or, in most cases, in the city” with endovascular surgery, Fiorella said.

Santilli feels the doctor “saved my life,” and is delighted that she “doesn’t have to worry about using a blood thinner.”

The procedure changed the way Santilli and her family live. They are making healthier lifestyle choices. She and her husband Frank are cutting back on smoking, and she is also buying fruit instead of sugary snacks for the house.

Santilli said she feels fortunate that Fiorella was able to perform the procedure.

“I feel like I got a second chance,” she said.

Daniel Dunaief

What better day than today, March 14, to celebrate numbers? In case you haven’t heard, math teachers around the country have been getting in on the calendar action for 31 years, designating the day before Caesar’s dreaded Ides of March as pi day, because the first three numbers of this month and day — 3, 1, 4 — are the same as pi, the Greek letter that is a mathematical constant and makes calculations like the area and circumference of a circle possible.

We can become numb to numbers, but they are everywhere and help define and shape even the non-perfectly circular parts of our lives.

We have a social security number, a birth date, a birth order, height and weight, and a street address, with a latitude and longitude, if we’re especially numerically inclined.

Numbers save us, as computer codes using numbers keep planes from flying at the same altitude. Numbers tell us what to wear, as the temperature, especially around this time of year, dictates whether we take a sweatshirt, jacket or heavy coat.

We use them when we’re ordering food, paying for a meal in a restaurant and counting calories. They are a part of music as they dictate rhythms and tempos, and of history, allowing us to keep the order of events straight.

We use numbers to keep track of landmarks, like the year of our graduation from high school or college, the year we met or married our partners, or the years our children were born.

Numbers help us track the time of year. Even a warm day in February doesn’t make it July, just as a cold day in June doesn’t turn the calendar to November.

People complain regularly that they aren’t good at math or science, and yet they can calculate the time it takes to get to school to pick up their kids, get them home to do their homework, cook dinner and manage a budget, all of which requires an awareness of the numbers that populate our lives.

We know when to get up because of the numbers flashing on the phone or alarm clock near the side of our bed, which are unfortunately an hour, 60 minutes or 3,600 seconds ahead thanks to daylight savings time. Many of our numbers are in base 10, but not all, as our 24-hour clocks, 24-hour days, 12-month years and seven-day weeks celebrate other calculations.

Numbers start early in our lives, as parents share their children’s height and weight and, if they’re preparing themselves for a lifetime of monitoring their children’s achievements, their Apgar scores.

Children read Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” We use numbers to connect the dots in a game, drawing lines that form an image of Dumbo or a giraffe.

Numbers progress through our elementary education — “I’m 10 and I’m in fifth grade” — and they follow us in all of our activities: “I got a 94 on my social studies test.”

Imagine life without numbers, just for 60 seconds or so. Would everything be relative? How would we track winners and losers in anything, from the biggest house to the best basketball team? Would we understand how warm or cold the day had become by developing a sliding scale system? Would we have enough ways to capture the difference between 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 71 degrees?

Objects that appear uncountable cause confusion or awe. Look in the sky and try to count the stars, or study a jar of M&Ms and try to calculate the number of candies.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a number tells its own tale — it was a six-alarm fire, I had 37 friends at my birthday party or I walked a mile in a circle, which means the diameter of that circle was about 1,680 feet — thanks to pi.

Stony Brook University’s Larry Swanson, center, with fellow Ocean Acidification Task Force members Carl Safina, left, and Malcolm Bowman, right. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Larry Swanson has led research teams over far-flung water bodies, worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a commissioned officer for 27 years and has been a fixture at Stony Brook University for over three decades. 

A former dean at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at SBU and current professor, Swanson, who is a member of New York’s Ocean Acidification Task force, was recently interviewed by Times Beacon Record News Media about his life in science.

TBR: How has science changed over the years?

Swanson: Some of the most significant things are the electronic tools that we have today. If you go back to when I was starting, if you wanted a water sample, and to collect temperature at five miles deep in the ocean, it was a very, very long tedious process. 

When you got that water sample on deck, if you wanted to simply measure salinity, you had to do a chemical titration. If you were doing that over five miles deep, below the first 1,000 meters, you might take a sample every half a mile or something like that. You couldn’t take a lot of samples. 

Now, you lower an instrument and you get a continuous trace of temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and other parameters, every few tenths of a meter. We are sort of overwhelmed with data now.

TBR: That must change the way people conduct experiments.

Swanson: When I first started, every data point you collected was extremely valuable and if you lost it, you really lost a lot of time, a lot of energy. It was something you could never recover. With modern instrumentation, you can do so much more and do much of it remotely; you don’t have to go to sea for seven or nine months to do that.

TBR: What are some of the biggest discoveries in your field?

Swanson: This is not necessarily things I have done. The theory of plate tectonics was established. We drilled through the crust of the earth to the mantle and we have discovered hydrothermal vents. We’ve got enough data now that we’re collecting through satellites, direct measurement in oceans in more detail, that we can really talk about changes in the global environment, whether it’s temperature increase, carbon dioxide increase and so forth. 

Those are all things that have taken place over my lifetime in oceanography. We can see what we’re doing to ourselves much more clearly today because of new technology.

TBR: What is one of the great debates in science today?

Swanson: I think trying to understand the impacts of climate change is at the forefront for everyone that’s dealing with ocean and atmospheric sciences. We don’t know all the answers and we haven’t convinced everyone it’s an issue. 

Whether or not it’s driven by people, that [debate] will continue for years to come. We’re going to bear some of the consequences of climate change before we’ve adequately convinced people that we’ve got to change our lifestyle.

TBR: What about local challenges?

Swanson: The notion of ocean acidification and how rapidly it’s changing is a local challenge. What will the consequences of it be if we don’t try to ameliorate it and what do we need to do in order to make it less of a problem? How are we going to build resiliency and reverse it?

TBR: Is there a scientific message you wish people knew?

Swanson: Scientists in general do not communicate well with the public and part of the problem is because we speak in jargon. We don’t talk to [the public] in proper ways that meet their level of understanding or knowledge. We’ve done that poorly. 

For another thing, scientists can be faulted with regard to developing policy. The scientists’ work is never done. If you go to Congress and they ask, “What are we going to do to fix the problem?,” scientists will say, “Give me more money for research and I’ll get back to you.” 

So, there’s a disconnect in terms of time frames over which we operate. [Members of Congress] operate 2 to 4 years out, while scientists operate sometimes over lifetimes. We haven’t been able to bridge that gap.

TBR: Is that improving at all?

Swanson: One of the great things that Stony Brook now has is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is helping all the scientists here that are willing to participate in trying to do a better job of communicating. It’s making a difference and having an impact that is meaningful. It’s always good to try to put your science in the most simplistic terms possible, even if it’s a drawing or cartoon that’s helpful.

TBR: What are your future goals?

Swanson: I am hopeful  the new task force can come up with a meaningful ocean acidification action plan. I’m very pleased to be part of that group.

TBR: If you were to start your oceanography career today, what would you do differently?

Swanson: If I were to start over, I would get a master’s degree in oceanography, not a doctorate, and then I would try to get an environmental law degree. The reason I would probably do that is that I think environmental law is the best way to make an immediate impact on society. I firmly believe that one should not be an environmental lawyer until one is a fairly good scientist.

TBR: How many more years before you retire?

Swanson: I’d say a maximum of three and a minimum of one. I’m often asked, “Why are you still working?” First of all, I enjoy it and I think one of the exciting things about being an oceanographer is that there’s never been a dull day. 

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

When my daughter drives to a crosswalk and a pedestrian is crossing, she feels terrible if the person on foot starts to jog or sprint, pushing him or herself to move more quickly so my daughter can continue on her way.

My daughter also gets annoyed if the person suddenly slows down.

Life is full of those “just right” moments. If our hot chocolate is too hot, we risk burning the roofs of our mouths. If it’s too cold, it doesn’t have the desired effect of warming us up. 

It’s what makes the Goldilocks story so relatable. The father’s bed is too hard, the mother’s is too soft, but the baby’s bed is just right.

When my family searched for new beds, we collapsed into one mattress after another, imagining a good night’s sleep, just the right book or a good movie with perfectly balanced sound.

Most salespeople spend their careers trying to find the right fit for someone, whether it’s a shoe, bed, car, house or any of the myriad items that fill my email box overnight while I sleep.

Life involves the constant search for just right. If we won every game we played, the competition wouldn’t be strong enough and we wouldn’t push ourselves to get better. A movie with absolutely no adversity can be charming, but it can also wear thin quickly, as the lack of suspense can lead us to wonder whether a dystopian conflict is pending.

Even in the world of friendships, we search for just-right friends. We generally don’t seek friends who want to talk to us all the time, or who can barely make time for us. We also don’t want friends who agree with everything we say. A few people, public figures and otherwise, seem eager to find people who reinforce their brilliance regularly. I would prefer to find people with viewpoints that differ from my own, which force me to defend my ideas and allow me incorporate new perspectives into my thinking or behavioral patterns.

Just right for any one person can and often is different from just right for someone else, which enhances the notion that we can find someone who is a great match or complement for us.

Ideally, the non-just-right shoes, weather, girlfriends, boyfriends or jobs teach us more about ourselves. Why, we wonder, didn’t that work? Once we figure that out, we have a better chance at understanding what does.

Sometimes, like the bed that doesn’t feel comfortable at first but eventually becomes the only one that affords us a quality sleep, we grow into a role and find that the previous tasks or conversations, which had seemed so odious initially, are a much better fit than we originally thought, as a result of the changes in ourselves.

And, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There’s the rub.” The pursuit of just right in any context can change as we age. Our high school tastes in music, clothing, cars, houses, jobs or any other choices can and do change with each landmark reunion, making it more difficult to know what we want or what we’re searching for.

While I share my daughter’s guilt when a pedestrian rushes across the crosswalk to let me go or prevents me from running down that person, I’m not as frustrated by someone who slows down. I try to determine, watching that person pause in the middle of the street, how this might be a “just right” moment for the pedestrian.

Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang. Photo from Matthew Lerner’s lab

By Daniel Dunaief

This is the second half of a two-part series on autism research conducted by Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang.

 Last week we focused on the work of Stony Brook University graduate student Hyunsik Kim, who used three criteria to diagnose autism. This week we will feature the work of another SBU graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Erin Kang, who specifically explored the types and severity of communication difficulties autistic children have. 

Words and the way people use them can offer clues about autism. Looking closely at pronoun reversals, speech delays, perseveration and 10 other characteristics, Kang determined that the number of features was a “powerful predictor of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.” 

In a paper published online in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Kang grouped children from 6 to 18 years old into different subgroups based on their communication patterns and used a statistical method that allows the data to “speak for itself,” in terms of finding groups based on the patterns of how the communication difficulties are associated and to classify them.

According to Kang, heterogeneity is an important feature of autism spectrum disorder. “There has been a greater effort into understanding whether subgroups exist in ASD populations,” she explained in an email. By examining the atypical communication characteristics, she found four subgroups. These groups differed from each other, not only with autism, but on multiple measures, including the occurrence of anxiety or depression and with intellectual disabilities.

The communication difficulties occur at different rates within the autism children throughout Long Island that Kang studied.

Kang said her work has been “building on the previous literature,” although many of the previous studies focused on characterizing autism for children who were younger than 6.

“There are few studies on specific symptoms (e.g., stereotyped speech) across the body of literature,” she explained, adding that she’s passionate about exploring the trajectory of development over time with or without intervention. 

She and her co-authors, Ken Gadow and Matthew Lerner, who are also at Stony Brook University, are working on a follow-up paper that attempts to explore how changes in the pattern of communication challenges examined in the paper relate to other clinical aspects and outcomes.

Kang believes her results have clinical implications that will help in understanding autism. Atypical communication features are a good predictor of diagnostic status. “This can provide an advantage in assessing social communication profiles in autism,” she said. “It’s hopefully valuable in a low-resource setting.”

Parents might be asked 13 questions on a checklist, which could serve as an initial screening for more comprehensive autism evaluations, rather than a multiple checklist that could take a while for parents to complete. The different categories had specific features that distinguished them. 

“There’s been quite a bit of work in the speech and language field,” said Lerner, an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University and Kang’s mentor. “This approach allowed us to ask about some of the specific types of language differences we often see.”

Lerner said what Kang found is that specific characteristics do tend to cluster together in “interesting and unique ways that can tell us more about the communicative phenotype of autism.”

One of the groups, which she called “little professors,” had speech patterns with considerable perseveration. In perseveration, a person repeats a word or phrase, even when a question or stimulus that might elicit that phrase no longer continues. As an example, Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man” frequently repeated the number of minutes until Judge Wapner was on TV.

“These kids would benefit more from a group-based social skills intervention that specifically integrated interacting with peers,” Kang said. People in this group had the highest percentage of wanting a friend, but difficulty with relating to peers.

“They will benefit especially from interventions that help them build skills in interacting with peers,” she explained.

She also suggested that the best way to make a reliable diagnosis is to collect as much information as possible, which could include observations and electrophysiological data.

Kang acknowledged that some of the responses from the parents or teachers of people with autism contain bias. “There can be a lot of potential especially in terms of these subjective measures,” she said.

Indeed, through Lerner’s lab, Kang has been trying to include more uses of neurological measures and other methodology that is less subject to biases.

“Hopefully, by looking at these more objective measures, we can help integrate information from these different levels,” she said.

A resident of East Northport, Kang lives with her husband, musician Sungwon Kim, who works as a freelancer on Broadway musicals. The couple, who have a young son, met in Boston when she was working at Boston Children’s Hospital and he was a student at Berklee College of Music. 

Kang’s first experience with autism was in high school, when she acted as a mentor to a second grader. When she entered college at the University of California at Berkeley, she studied molecular and cellular biology and psychology.

Lerner said that Kang is a “truly remarkable young scholar” and is “among the best I’ve seen at her stage to be able to look at her clinical experiences, which drive the questions that strike at the core of how we understand and treat autism.”

Lerner appreciates how she is driven to understand autism from neurons in the brain all the way up to the classification and treatment.

“She is somebody who is completely undaunted by taking on new questions or methodologies because she has an idea of what they’re going to mean,” Lerner said. “She has worked with [autistic children] and has tried to understand where they are coming from.”

Kang questions assumptions about what autism is, while also exploring its development.

“She is able to see and discover clinical strengths that manifest in the kinds of questions she asks,” explained Lerner. “She is a part of the next generation of where my field is going, and I hope we can catch up to her.”

Kang appreciates the work-life balance she has struck on Long Island, where she feels like the pace of life is “quiet and calm during the week,” while it’s close enough to New York City to enjoy the cultural opportunities.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Wait, was that at me? How am I supposed to know? She’s still waving. I could wave back, but what if she’s waving to someone else. Should I put my stupid hand in the stupid air and risk the possibility of looking stupid?

Yes, this happened to me many times during my adolescence. How was I supposed to react when someone I kind of knew, or maybe wanted to know, was waving in my direction? Sometimes, I pretended I didn’t see the person waving, while I casually looked around to see if anyone near me was responding. I probably looked like I had a neck twitch, as I scanned the area to see if it was safe to wave.

These days, the waving conundrum has taken a different form, especially after we moved away from the tristate area. It appears that the Northeast and Southeast have different rules for waving. In the Northeast, we wave when someone we know well walks by us in the car. If they don’t see us, perhaps we offer a quick and polite tap on our horn, just to let them know we saw them and we’ll likely text or email them later.

If someone we’re pretty sure we don’t know waves, we immediately assume that someone else is the recipient of their gesture — they have a small dog on the loose and we better slow down, or their children are playing a Nerf gun game and might dart into the street. If they continue to wave, we squint for a while, trying to figure out if maybe they’ve lost weight. It could be they’re someone we might have met casually at one of our kids sporting events, or they want us to sign a petition, or even buy a product we’re sure we don’t need because we can’t stand all the crap we already have in our own house.

Of course, if we have our defensive curled upper-lip action going too quickly, we might scare away our son’s teacher, our daughter’s assistant coach or a new neighbor who has introduced herself to us four times.

In the Southeast, however, the rules are different. Most of the people in the passing cars wave when I walk the dog. Yes, we have a dog and, no, you can’t pet him even though he’s pulling as hard as he can to get to you because I have to bring him back inside so I can do some writing. I’ve stopped trying to figure out the source of the amicable gesture and I wave back. My son, who sometimes accompanies me on these dog walks, wondered, “Hey, do you know that person?” He is still playing by the rules of the Northeast.

I explained that I wave at every car, even the likely empty parked vehicles in case someone is sitting in them, because that’s what you do here. I told him I’ve conducted my own experiment, where I don’t wave and I see what happens. More often than not, the person slows down and waves even more vigorously, as if to say, “Hey, I’m waving here. Now it’s your turn.”

Kids in the modern era seem to have solved the waving problem. They do a quick head nod, which could be a response to a similar gesture from someone else or it could be a way of reacting to music no one else hears. Then again, they’ve probably figured out how to make a thinner, acne-free virtual version of themselves wave at cartoon versions of their friends.

From left, Hyunsik Kim, Associate Professor Matthew Lerner and Erin Kang. Photo from Lerner’s lab

By Daniel Dunaief

This is part one of a two-part series on autism research conducted by Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang.

If someone in a family behaves in ways that are difficult to understand, the family might look for a support group of people with similar characteristics, visit a doctor or seek to document and understand patterns.

Finding a doctor who has seen these types of behaviors, speech patterns or actions before could provide comfort, as the physician may either engage in a course of treatment or provide context and understanding for the current behaviors. The doctor may also offer advice about any likely changes in behaviors in the near or distant future.

For researchers, understanding a range of symptoms, some of which might be below the threshold to meet a specific diagnosis, can lead to a more specific awareness of a condition, which could help guide patients toward an effective treatment.

Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang, graduate students in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, recently published papers examining autism, hoping to get a more specific understanding of subtle differences and symptoms.

Kim was looking for a better way to conceptualize autism. He used advanced statistical methods to compare three theoretical perspectives to find the one that best characterized the symptoms.

“According to my study, autism is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but is dimensional [and is] comprised of three related spectra of behaviors,” he explained. 

Researchers can characterize everyone’s autism symptoms through a combination of levels in each domain.

Each of these three areas can range from very mild to severe.         As an analogy, Kim suggested considering the quality of being introverted. A person can be mildly, moderately or highly introverted, which offers a continuum for the dimension of introversion.

In a dimensional approach that involves exploring these three different categories, researchers can get a better understanding of the symptom profiles.

“For decades, people thought of autism as purely categorical,” said Matthew Lerner, an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University. “You either have it or you don’t. In fact, autism was thought of as the easiest diagnosis to make.”

Kim, however, has “a goal of answering the fundamental question: what are we talking about when we’re talking about autism?” Lerner said. “Slowly, autism has morphed from the most categorical to the most dimensional. Literally, people talk about the spectrum when they talk about autism.”

With a dimensional approach based on levels of the three major domains for diagnosing autism, Kim suggested that researchers and doctors could better understand people who fall just below the current diagnosis for autism.

“It’s especially important to identify individuals who show a borderline range of symptoms, who barely fail to meet the diagnostic criteria of a given disorder, and provide them with appropriate treatments,” Kim explained.

Ideally, he hopes a dimensional approach incorporates the severity of symptoms into the current diagnostic system to promote better treatment procedures and outcomes.

Kim recognized that he could have just as easily created a dimensional approach that incorporates a greater number of criteria. His statistical analysis, however, revealed that the three dimensions provide the parsimonious explanation about autism symptoms.

Kim analyzed data from a parent questionnaire. He recognized that self-reporting by parents may underestimate or overestimate the severity of symptoms. He believed the over and under estimate of symptoms likely “evened out.”

Lerner suggests this multidimensional approach has numerous implications. For starters, it can help capture more of the types of symptoms in a diagnosis. It can also highlight the specific area of autism a clinician might want to target.

“We should be focusing on the factors that are most relevant for the individual and which are getting in their way,” Lerner said.

Treating autism broadly, instead of focusing on specific symptoms, may be “misguided,” Lerner added. A more specific characterization of autism could also help advance the field of neurogenetic research. “With more contemporary genetic analysis, we can use findings like this as a road map for what those genetic differences mean,” he said.

For his next step, Kim hopes to expand this work to observational data, adding that to the existing pool of information from parental questionnaires.

“People go on a home visit and take video of autistic kids interacting with others,” Kim said. “We can have some people code their behavior.”

More broadly, Kim would like to answer fundamental questions about the classification and conceptualization of mental disorders by using advanced quantitative modeling and other data-driven approaches. He believes a factor may represent a person’s vulnerability to developing a specific mental disorder.

A high level of this factor, combined with life stressors or adversity, would make it more likely that a person develops a disorder. As someone who studies psychology, Kim said he is well aware of his own emotional patterns and he tries to use his training to help himself cope.

He is not particularly comfortable doing public speaking, but he tells himself that whatever anxiety he feels is normal and that his practice, knowledge and expertise should allow him to succeed.

A resident of Middle Island, Kim lives with his wife Jennifer. The couple has two young children. Kim describes his wife as a “really good” amateur baker, who bakes cakes, muffins, cookies, macaroons, chiffon cakes and more. He has encouraged her to start her own YouTube channel and one day they hope to open a bakery that is online and offline.

As for his autism work, he hopes the dimensional approach is “incorporated into the assessment stage so that individuals do not merely receive a diagnosis, but are informed of their unique symptom profiles, so that clinicians can take them into consideration.” 

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

So, what was it like to be in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sunday during the?

For starters, employers warned their staff about heavy traffic around the Spectrum Center and about parking challenges. They suggested working from home on Friday and over the weekend, if possible, to avoid delays.

As a result, for the entire weekend, the car traffic around this manageable city seemed even lighter than usual. People couldn’t drive too close to the Spectrum Center, but it was nothing like Yankee Stadium or Citi Field before or after a game against a heated rival, or even against a middling team on a warm Saturday in July.

The city rolled out much tighter security than usual, putting up fences around a nearby bus station and restricting walking traffic into the outskirts of the stadium to ticket holders only. 

Once inside, I felt as if I had become a Lilliputian in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Men and women of all ages made 6 feet seem like a minimum height for admission. I felt like a kid who sneaks onto a ride at Disney World despite falling well below the clown’s hand that indicates “you must be this tall to enter.”

The clothing choices reflected a wide variety of fashion statements. Some had come to be seen, decked out in fine suits, flowing dresses and high-heeled shoes. Others strutted around in sweatpants and sweatsuits, donning the jerseys of their favorite players.

Celebrities walked among the commoners, much the same way they do at the U.S. Open. Several people approached a slow-moving and frail-looking Rev. Jesse Jackson to shake his hand. Jackson later received warm applause from the crowd when he appeared on the jumbotron large-screen display.

As taller teenagers, who were well over 6 1/2 feet tall, brushed past us, we wondered whether we might see any of them at this type of event in the next decade. They were probably thinking, and hoping, the same thing.

The game itself, which was supposed to start at 8 p.m., didn’t commence until close to 8:30, amid considerable pomp and circumstance.

The crowd saluted each of the players as they were introduced. The roar became considerably louder for local hero Kemba Walker, the shooting star for the Charlotte Hornets who scored 60 points in a game earlier this season.

The crowd also showered old-timers Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki with affection, saluting the end of magnificent careers that included hard-fought playoff battles and championship runs. The two elder statesmen didn’t disappoint, connecting on 3-point shots that also energized the crowd.

While the All-Star game sometimes disappoints for the token defense that enables teams to score baskets at a breakneck pace, it does give serious players a chance to lower their defenses, enjoying the opportunity to smile and play a game with the other top performers in their sport.

Wade and Nowitzki, who each have infectious smiles, grinned on the court at their teammates, competitors and fans after they sank baskets.

A first-half highlight included a bounce pass alley-oop from North Carolina native Steph Curry to team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the end, Team LeBron beat Team Giannis, 178-164.

The halftime show proved an enormous success, as rapper and North Carolina product — via Germany — J. Cole performed “ATM,” “No Role Modelz,” and “Love Yourz.” The young woman sitting near us knew every word of the songs, swaying, rocking and bouncing in her seat.

I asked her if she knew Cole would be performing and she said, “Of course.” I asked her whether she liked the basketball or the halftime show better. She said she enjoyed both.

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