Authors Posts by Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

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Words are the symphony that warms the skin and colors the silence.

Words can be like the sound of reinforcements coming over the horizon when we feel penned down by an adversary. They rescue us just as we use them to swaddle others in their warmth.

As we make the transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving, Black Friday and, eventually, the December holidays and the new year, we can take solace in the anticipation of words that provide warmth through the darker days of winter.

We might take a trip to Central Park, where the sound of sleigh bells from carriages around a corner alerts us to the appearance of an approaching horse, even as the animal might remind us of a city that predated internal combustion engines.

Just the words “sleigh ride” might inspire our minds to play a song we performed in high school.

Words can also convey the remarkable scents of the coming seasons, with the air carrying the mouthwatering Pavlovian cue from gingerbread houses or holiday cookies.

I recently attended a wedding where a few well-chosen words triggered an almost immediate and reflexive “awww” from an audience delighted to hear how much a younger brother was inspired by his older brother, the groom.

Reading about how important our coat donations are can inspire us to rummage through our closets to help a child or an adult become more comfortable in the frigid air.

Well-chosen words can provide the kind of environment that empowers people to see and appreciate everything from the inspirational image of a person overcoming physical limitations to the intricate beauty of a well-woven spiderweb shimmering in the low light of winter.

Sometimes, as when a friend or family member is going through a significant medical procedure or crisis, words or prayer or encouragement are all we have to offer, giving us something to do or say as we hope the words provide even a scintilla of comfort.

Words can feel insufficient to express how we feel or what we hope happens when someone who has been in the foreground of our lives for years seems suddenly vulnerable.

Simple tools which we all take for granted, words can take us to a peaceful beach with the sound of water lapping on the coarse sand under our feet, transporting our minds and bodies away from the cacophony of busy lives.

In big moments, athletes often suggest that they are at a loss for words. In reality, their words and emotions are undergoing so much competition that their brain experiences a word bottleneck, with a flow of ideas and words awaiting the chance to dive from the tip of their tongues to the eager ears of their friends, family and fans.

The coming holiday season is filled with diametrically opposed experiences, as the joy of opening presents and reconnecting with friends and family for the first time in months or even a year is counterbalanced by the stress and strain of those people who feel overwhelmed or alone.

People who work at suicide hotlines or as 911 operators can and do use critical words to save people’s lives, bringing their minds back from the brink, restoring hope and offering a comforting verbal lifeline.

We take words for granted because we see and hear them so often, but the right word at the right time can transcend the routine.

Finding words that resonate is akin to strolling into a restaurant and discovering a combination of familiar and exotic flavors, all mixed together with a palate-pleasing texture that energizes us.

Adrian Krainer in his lab. Photo by ©Kathy Kmonicek, 2016/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

This Sunday, Adrian Krainer is traveling to California to visit with Emma Larson, a Middle Island girl whose life he helped save, and to see an actor who played the fictional super spy James Bond.

A professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Krainer is the recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which noted Silicon Valley benefactors including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin financed seven years ago. Pierce Brosnan will host the event, which National Geographic will broadcast live starting at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Dr. Adrian Krainer and Emma Larson. Photo from Diane Larson

Krainer will split the $3 million prize money with Frank Bennett, a senior vice president of research and a founding member of Ionis Pharmaceuticals. The duo helped develop the first treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, the leading genetic cause of death among infants, which affects 1 in 10,000 births.

Prior to the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Ionis and Biogen’s treatment, which is called Spinraza, people with the most severe cases of this disease lost the ability to use their muscles and even to breathe or swallow. Many children born with the most severe symptoms died before they were 2 years old.

“No one deserves it more,” said Dianne Larson, whose 5-year-old daughter Emma has been in a trial for the drug Krainer helped develop since 2015. When Emma started the trial as a 2-year-old, she couldn’t crawl anymore. Now, she’s able to push herself in a wheelchair, stand and take steps while holding onto something. Emma refers to Krainer as the person who helped make “my magic medicine.”

People with medical needs “kind of take for granted that there’s a medicine out there,” Larson said. “You don’t think about the years of dedication and research and hours and hours and money it costs to do this.”

Bruce Stillman, president and chief executive officer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said that this award was well deserved and was rooted in basic science. Krainer’s “insights were substantial and he realized that he could apply this unique knowledge to tackle SMA,” Stillman wrote in an email. “He did this with spectacular results.”

Dr. Adrian Krainer with the Larson family, Matthew, Diane and Emma. Photo from Diane Larson

Children with the most severe case of this disease had faced a grim diagnosis. “Now those children have a treatment that will keep them alive and greatly improve the prospects for a normal life,” Stillman added.

New York recently added SMA to its newborn screening test.

Krainer, who specialized in a process called RNA splicing during his research training, began searching for ways to help people with spinal muscular atrophy in 2000.

SMA mostly originates when the gene SMN1 has a defect that prevents it from producing the SMN protein,  called survival of motor neuron. This protein is important for the motor neurons, the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles.

As it turns out, people have a backup gene, called SMN2, which produces that important protein. The problem with this backup gene, however, is that it produces the protein in lower amounts. Additionally, RNA gene splicing leaves out a segment that’s important for the stability of the protein.

Looking at the backup gene, Krainer began his SMA work by seeking to understand what caused this splicing inefficiency, hoping to find a way to fix the process so that more function protein could be made from the SMN2 gene.

Collaborating with Bennett since 2004, Krainer developed and tested an antisense olignucleotide, or ASO. This molecule effectively blocked the binding of a repressor protein to the SMN2 transcript. By blocking this repressor’s action, the ASO enabled the correct splicing of the survival of motor neuron protein.

Emma Larson standing during her Mandarin lesson at Middle Country Public Library. Photo from Diane Larson

At first, Krainer tested the cells in a test tube and then in culture cells. When that worked, he went on to try this molecule in an SMA mouse model. He then worked with Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Biogen to perform the tests with patients. These tests went through hundreds of patients in numerous countries, as diseases like SMA aren’t limited by geographic boundaries.

“Everything worked” in the drug process, which is why it took a “relatively short time” to bring the treatment to market, Krainer said.

People who have worked with Krainer for years admire his character and commitment to his work.

Joe and Martha Slay, who founded the nonprofit group FightSMA, helped recruit Krainer to join the search for a treatment.

Joe Slay recalls how Krainer made an effort to meet with children with SMA. He recalls seeing Krainer during a pickup football game, running alongside children in wheelchairs, handing them the ball and tossing it with them.

Krainer brought his family, including his three children, to meet with the SMA community. The trip had a positive effect on his daughter Emily, who said it “subliminally had an impact on wanting to work in this field.” 

Currently a third-year resident in a combined pediatric neurology residency and fellowship program, his daughter is “very excited for him and proud.” She recalls spending Christmas holidays and New Years celebrations at the lab, where she met with his friends and co-workers.

Emily Krainer said a few people in her residency know about the role her father played in developing a treatment the hospital is employing.

The treatment is the “talk of child neurology right now,” she said.

Researchers hope the recognition for the value of basic research that comes with the breakthrough prize will have an inspirational effect on the next generation.

“The idea of prizes like this is to highlight to the public that scientists spend many years working without public recognition but make really important contributions to society,” Stillman suggested.

For Larson, the research Krainer did was key to a life change.

“To me, science is hope,” Larson said. “If we didn’t have this science, we wouldn’t have any hope,” adding that she would like her daughter to become a scientist someday.

We need a unifying moment. Most of us are good people, most of us care about our families, our neighbors, our communities and the safety and soundness of our lives in America.

We need a moment when everyone can come together, regardless of their faith, background or individual beliefs, and decide that we believe in our city, state and country.

We need a moment when we are all Jewish. We need to show the people out there who are threatened by any one religion or belief that we all stand together, that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, and that we will not tolerate any level of violence against a group because we support and believe in each other.

Wearing blue, as my children and their friends did the first day after the horrific attack in Pittsburgh, is a start.

There’s a wonderful climactic scene in the Kevin Kline movie “In & Out,” (1997). A former student of Kline’s has outed him as gay just before his wedding. The town wants to remove him as a teacher, despite his dedication to his students. During a graduation ceremony, people who have known and appreciated Kline’s commitment stand up, one by one, and declare that they, too, are gay, rallying behind a teacher who meant so much to them.

Violence, discrimination and hatred toward any one group will be spectacularly difficult if the group suddenly includes everyone. I’m not suggesting that anyone changes religions. I am, however, suggesting that people stand together with Jews, Muslims, lesbian and gay populations and make it clear to anyone who would target these groups with bullying, hatred or worse that we as a unified group will not allow it.

Pursuing the death penalty against the perpetrator of this violence may be a deterrent to other people who might consider similar acts, although I suspect that the diseased minds who crave relief through murder may not care that much about their fate.

We need to send a signal beyond the death penalty for those contemplating violence. We need to tell them that the group they hate is larger than they think and the actions they are considering are unacceptable to all of us.

Just over 20 years ago this month, Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay. Ideally, today people can express their sexual preference without fear of anger or violence. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in an ideal world, so we must stand together with this generation’s Matthew Shepards.

This isn’t a political moment. This is a time when caring community members can and will stand, side by side, to make it clear that, despite our differences, despite our frustrations with each other, despite our irritation at someone who takes our parking spot, we are a community that cares.

Most people feel helpless in the face of abominable acts as in Pittsburgh. In addition to finding a time and place to stand together, we should tell people we are gay or Jewish or Muslim. We should wear those labels with pride, the way we put on a new dress, shoes or tie the first day after we buy it.

Perhaps, all week, when we pick up the phone, we should say, “Joe’s Deli, this is John and I’m Jewish. How may I help you?” Or, “It’s a great day at the store. This is Alice and I’m gay. How can I help you”

It’s impossible to hate “the others” when everyone belongs to that group. We need a unifying moment and it starts with each of us.

Gábor Balázsi. Photo by Dmitry Nevozhay

By Daniel Dunaief

An especially hot July day can send hordes of people to Long Island beaches. A cooler July temperature, however, might encourage people to shop at a mall, catch a movie or stay at home and clean out clutter.

Similarly, genes in yeast respond to changes in temperature.

Gábor Balázsi, the Henry Laufer associate professor of physical and quantitative biology at Stony Brook University, recently published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the effect of temperature changes on yeast genes.

“We are looking at single cells and at genetic systems and we can dissect and understand gene by gene with a high level of detail,” said Balázsi, who used synthetic genetic systems to allow him to dissect and understand how temperature affects these genes.

Understanding the basic science of how genes in individual cells respond to temperature differences could have broad applications. In agriculture, farmers might need to know how genes or gene circuits that provide resistance to a pathogen or drought tolerance react when the temperature rises or falls.

Similarly, researchers using genetically designed biological solutions to environmental problems, like cleanups at toxic spills, would need to understand how a change in temperature can affect their systems.

Lingchong You, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, believes the research is promising.

“Understanding how temperature will influence the dynamics of gene circuits is intrinsically interesting and could serve as a foundation for the future,” You said. Researchers “could potentially design gene circuits to program the cell such that the cell will somehow remember its experience with the fluctuating temperatures,” which could provide clues about the experience of the cell.

Balázsi suggested the goal of his work is to understand the robustness of human control over cells in nonstandard conditions.

While other researchers have explored the effects of gene expression for hundreds of genes at different temperatures, Balázsi looked more precisely at single genes and human-made synthetic gene circuits in individual cells. He discovered various effects by inserting a two-gene circuit into yeast.

At the whole-cell level when temperatures rise from 30°C to 38°C, some cells continued growing, albeit at a slower rate, while others stopped growing and started to consume their proteins.

For the second type of cells, changing temperatures can lead to cell death. If the temperature comes down to normal levels soon enough, however, researchers can rescue those cells.

“How this decision happens is a question that should be addressed in the future,” Balázsi said.

While the dilution of all proteins slows down, the chemical reactions in which they participate speed up at a higher temperature, much like children who become more active after receiving sugar at a birthday party.

At another level, certain individual molecules change their movement between conformations at a higher temperature. Proteins wiggle more between different folding conformations even if they don’t change composition. This affects their ability to bind DNA.

Balázsi said he is fortunate that he works through the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology, which partly supported the work, where he was able to find a collaborator to do molecular dynamic simulations. Based on the pioneering experiments of postdoctoral fellow Daniel Charlebois, with help from undergraduate researcher Sylvia Marshall, the team collected data for abnormal behaviors of well-characterized synthetic gene circuits. They worked with Kevin Hauser, a former Stony Brook graduate research assistant, who explained how the altered conformational movements affected how the protein and cells behaved.

The way proteins fold and move between conformations determines what they do.

Gábor Balázsi with his daughter Julianna at West Meadow Beach
Photo from Gábor Balázsi

Taking his observations and experiments further, Balázsi found that proteins that were unbound to a small molecule didn’t experience a change in their conformation. When they were linked up, however, they demonstrated a new behavior when heated. This suggests that understanding the effects of temperature on these genetic systems requires an awareness of the proteins involved, as well as the state of their interaction with other molecules.

While Balázsi explored several ways temperature changes affect the yeast proteins, he acknowledged that other levels or forces might emerge that dictate the way these proteins change.

Additionally, temperature changes represent just one of many environmental factors that could control the way the genetic machinery of a cell changes. The pH, or acidity, of a system might also change a gene or group of genes.

A main overarching question remains as to how much basic chemical and physical changes combine with biological effects to give predictable, observable changes in the behaviors of genes and living cells.

Balázsi may test other cell types. So far, he’s only looked at yeast cells. He would also like to know the order in which the various levels of reactions — from the whole cell to the molecular level — occur.

He is interested in cancer research and possibly defense applications and would like to take a closer look at the way temperature or other environmental factors impact human disease processes and progression or think about their relevance for homeland security or biological solutions to renewable energy.

Balázsi recognizes that he and others in this field have numerous hurdles to overcome to find acceptable appreciation for the application of synthetic gene circuits.

“It’s not so simple to engineer these cells reliably,” he said. “Some roadblocks need to be eliminated to convince people it’s feasible and useful.”

Balázsi suggested that the field of virology might benefit from pursuing some of these research questions. Viruses move from the environment or even from other hosts into humans. Avian influenza, for example, can begin inside a bird and wind up affecting people. These viruses “might have different expression patterns in birds versus humans,” he said.

Ultimately, he added, this kind of scientific pursuit is “multipronged and the applications are numerous.”

Will we be better than our political leaders this year?

For starters, will we get out and vote? It is one of our most important civic duties and responsibilities. Not to sound like a pedantic parent, but people risked their lives long ago so that we could become One Nation Under God. If we don’t vote, are we sending a message to our politicians that we are indifferent until something doesn’t go our way?

How can we possibly complain about the people in Albany or Washington in our representative democracy if we didn’t bother to interrupt our busy schedule to elect people who will make decisions for us?

This election isn’t about any one person, and it shouldn’t be. This isn’t a referendum on anyone other than us.

We have to make informed choices, but, even that is not enough. This year, it seems especially important to vote for the strong, courageous and thoughtful individual.

At this point, we have come down to two parties. It’s the Democrats, who say “no” to everything, and the Republicans, who, in unison, say “yes.” Our politicians shouldn’t be on two diametrically opposed teams — this country is filled with people from every team and walk of life.

It’s stunning how unified both parties are. That doesn’t seem especially valuable to the country. After all, shouldn’t Democrats know a good idea when they see it, and shouldn’t Republicans stop something they don’t think will work?

We are a country of rugged individuals. Our system of national and state governments started when people wanted more freedom from taxes, religious persecution and class systems with relatively limited mobility.

How much freedom are we exercising if we vote “all blue” or “all red,” without knowing the candidates, their positions or their ability to differentiate themselves from their party by making their own choices?

The parties have become caricatures of themselves. They are no longer a collection of ideas coming together, compromising and protecting a wide range of people: They seem to exist for their own sakes and for a specific subset of their party.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if a Democrat promised to support some Republican platforms or ideas? Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a Republican to propose something that ran contrary to their hierarchy?

Where are the men and women with big ideas, who can irritate their own party while gaining reluctant appreciation from the other side of the aisle? Since when did everyone in Washington feel like they had to be the Montagues and the Capulets in “Romeo and Juliet”?

Were Shakespeare alive today, I suspect he would have had a field day with the bickering, finger-pointing and bipolar world of politics.

If we vote along party lines, does it really matter what name is attached to the ticket? If we do, are we sending a message that we’d like our representatives to do the same thing?

Maybe, especially for this election, we should scrap the entire notion of party affiliation. After all, we’re better than a mob. Some time between now and the election, we all should get to know the candidates. If we have a chance to speak with them, we should ask them if they’re going to fall in line with other members of their party or if they’re going to think for themselves. We shouldn’t have to elect a party with each choice at the ballot. Instead, we should elect an individual who thinks for him or herself the way we do.

We should show our politicians how it’s done, by making informed choices and then asking them to do the same.

We had such a wonderful relationship. I wondered whether this was it. Could this be the one that I remember years from now, that I think about when I’m feeling down, or that I go back to when I hear the phrase “the good old days”?

It was better than good for a while. You were incredible and so supremely satisfying. There was electricity, energy and a belief that this connection was something extraordinary. It gave me so much to look forward to, day in and day out, because I knew you’d be there for me.

I was dealing with a lot this summer. My family moved to North Carolina. I lost the close proximity to the friends, neighbors and nearby family I’d taken for granted for all these years.

It was harder to see you at first. But that didn’t stop the connection, from allowing me to enjoy the promising magic ride. Maybe modern technology minimized the distance, maybe it was just some perceived link, but I believed in you, in us, from so far away.

My wife has become accustomed to the annual search for this kind of closeness with you. She’s extraordinarily supportive of my emotional well-being. She knows that I need you, even if you don’t always seem to need me. She appreciates that I don’t need to try to defeat this kind of addiction.

She knows that I had a connection with you long before she came along and she doesn’t try to get in the way of that. She hasn’t tried to change me or turn my attention to other passions. She also knows that, when all is right between you and me, she and I have a better relationship because I’m a better-adjusted person who believes anything is possible.

It was such a whirlwind this time. Even when you seemed on the precipice of disappointing, you found a way to come through. You put a smile on my face as I went to bed, knowing that you’d done it again and that the sky really was the limit.

Of course, I recognized that it would never be so spectacular for all these months. I knew there’d be some nights when I might feel like pulling away, when I might think about dedicating my time, attention and passion elsewhere. I didn’t disconnect because I wanted it to work out. I pushed the warning signs away, even if I started to feel as if the separation and the potential through the middle of the summer fell short of my hopes.

Ultimately, as you know all too well, people remember the biggest moments. When these monumental days arrived, you seemed ready.

Initially, you didn’t disappoint. But, then, something happened. It was as if the nagging concerns I had through the summer came back to haunt us. You hadn’t changed at all: It’s just that I saw the weaknesses, the deficiencies and the problems that limited you.

You fought bravely to hold on, but it just wasn’t meant to be. The Red Sox and their fans, as it turns out, will continue to move forward, driven by the belief that those 108 wins will propel them all the way to the World Series.

For me, I can only look back and smile, wondering about what could have been after that spectacular start and hope that, maybe next year, the Yankees and their dedicated fans from near and far will bask in the progression from summer success to the fall classic.

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Now what? It’s a question that affects everyone from the quarterback who wins the Super Bowl — who often says something about visiting a Disney facility — to the student who earns a college degree, to the researcher who has published a paper sharing results with the scientific community.

For some, the path forward is akin to following footsteps in the snow, moving ever closer to a destination for which a path is clear. For others, particularly those developing new technology, looking to unlock mysteries, the path is more like trudging through unfamiliar terrain.

The technology at facilities like Brookhaven National Laboratory, which includes the powerful National Synchrotron Light Source II and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, among others, enables scientists to see processes at incredibly fine scales.

While these sites offer the promise of providing a greater ability to address questions such as what causes some batteries to die sooner than others, they also cost considerable money to use, putting pressure on researchers to ask the most fruitful question or pursue research that has the greatest chance for success.

Francis Alexander. Photo from BNL

That’s where people like Francis Alexander, the deputy director of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Computational Science Initiative, and his team at BNL can add considerable value. Alexander takes what researchers have discovered, couples it with other knowledge, and helps guide his fellow laboratory scientists to the next steps in their work — even if he, himself, isn’t conducting these experiments.

“Given our theoretical understanding of what’s going on, as imperfect as that may be, we take that understanding — the theory plus the experimental data — and determine what experiments we should do next,” Alexander said. “That will get us to our goal more quickly with limited resources.”

This approach offers a mutually reinforcing feedback loop between discoveries and interpretations of those discoveries, helping researchers appreciate what their results might show, while directing them toward the next best experiment.

The experiments, in turn, can either reinforce the theory or can challenge previous ideas or results, forcing theoreticians like Alexander to use that data to reconstruct models that take a wide range of information into account.

Alexander is hoping to begin a project in which he works on developing products with specific properties. He plans to apply his knowledge of theoretical physics to polymers that will separate or grow into different structures. “We want to grow a structure with a [particular] function” that has specific properties, he said.

This work is in the early stages in which the first goal is to find the linkage between what is known about some materials and what scientists can extrapolate based on the available experiments and data.

Alexander said the aerospace industry has “models of everything they do.” They run “complex computer simulations [because] they want to know how they’d design something and which design to carry out.”

Alexander is currently the head of a co-design center, ExaLearn, that focuses on exascale, machine-learning technologies. The center is the sixth through the Exascale Computing Project. Growth in the amount of data and computational power is rapidly changing the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The applications for this type of technology range from computational and experimental science to engineering and the complex systems that support them.

Ultimately, the exascale project hopes to create a scalable and sustainable software framework for machine learning that links applied math and computer science communities to create designs for learning.

Alexander “brings to machine learning a strong background in science that is often lacking in the field,” Edward Dougherty, a distinguished professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M, wrote in an email. He is an “excellent choice to lead the exascale machine learning effort at Brookhaven.”

Alexander is eager to lead an attempt he suggested would advance scientific and national security work at the Department of Energy. “There are eight national laboratories involved and all the labs are on an equal level,” he said. 

One of the goals of the exascale computing project is to build machines capable of 10 to the 18th operations per second. “There’s this enormous investment of DOE” in this project, Alexander said.

Once the project is completely operational, Alexander expects that this work will take about 30 percent of his time. About 20 percent of the time, he’ll spend on other projects, which leaves him with about half of his workweek dedicated to management.

The deputy director recognizes that he will be coordinating an effort that involves numerous scientists accustomed to setting their own agenda.

Dougherty suggested that Alexander’s connections would help ensure his success, adding that he has “established a strong network of contacts in important application areas such as health care and materials.

The national laboratories are akin to players in a professional sporting league. They compete against each other regularly, bidding for projects and working to be the first to make a new discovery. Extending the sports metaphor, members of these labs often collaborate on broad projects, like players on an all-star team competing against similar teams from other nations or continents.

Alexander grew up in Ohio and wound up working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico  for over 20 years. He came to BNL in 2017 because he felt he “had the opportunity to build something almost from the ground up.” The program he had been leading at Los Alamos was large and well developed, even as it was still growing. 

The experimental scientists at BNL have been receptive to working with Alexander, which has helped him achieve some of his early goals.

Ultimately, Alexander hopes his work increases the efficiency of numerous basic and applied science efforts. He hopes to help experimental scientists understand “what technologies we should develop that will be feasible” and “what technologies would be most useful to carry experiments out.”

have a few questions for the newly minted Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

What did you learn through this process?

You will be judging legal cases from people from all walks of life, working together with the eight other Supreme Court justices to decide on cases that will determine the law of the land for everyone.

What’s it like to be the accused? In some cases, the accused will be as angry and defensive and frustrated as you were. How will you understand the legal issues of their cases? How will you consider the legal questions and how will you consider the implications for them?

Will you understand the fury some people might feel through the legal process? Will you appreciate their position, even as you use the law to guide your decision-making process?

Maybe not because you, after all, didn’t go through a trial. Well, you certainly didn’t go through a judicial trial. You endured an ordeal, you experienced a political maelstrom and you became a divisive figure, suffering through accusations you found abhorrent.

People prejudged you because of the claims women made about your behavior from years ago.

Will you be able to appreciate the implications of your decisions on the people awaiting them?

Will a process that you found impossibly difficult make you better at your job? Will you grow from this experience, the way people who take an impossible organic chemistry class where they have to memorize and learn structures, concepts and stoichiometry become better students?

People rarely ask for the suffering and hardship that comes during any process. It’s what makes movies about road trips so compelling: People have to overcome or surmount obstacles along the way to get closer to the destination — or the truth.

Will you learn about yourself and gain a new perspective on the country and all of its citizens now that you’ve made that trip?

In many jobs, we ask people to go beyond what might be their natural responses to people or circumstances. Firefighters race toward a burning building when they may want to run toward safety. The same holds true with the police, who enter unknown and potentially dangerous circumstances.

Doctors can’t look at a wound and screech, “Yuck, that’s so disgusting, get that away from me.”

In many jobs, we need to overcome our visceral responses, doing what’s asked and ignoring other parts of our experience because that’s what’s required.

In your case, the country asks you to make the best judgment for everyone, even the Democrats or those who might accuse others of sexual assault.

Will you be able to step out of a reflexive response that’s all too human to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone?

Taking a step away from Judge Kavanaugh, what have we all learned? We know the country is divided and we know people are prepared to find evidence to support whatever conclusions they have already drawn.

Can we become more judicial instead of prejudicial? Can we act the way we all hope Judge Kavanaugh will behave?

The downside of the instantaneous world in which we live is that we expect instant results. We want food as soon as we order it and we want to speak with everyone and anyone whenever we feel the urge, even if we’re driving, standing in a line or watching a movie.

Maybe what we’ll learn is that the judicial process requires time, effort and consideration. Perhaps we can be thankful that the fact-finding, questions and appeals process that accompanies trials will bring out enough information to render a verdict consistent with the law — not a political or any other personal belief.

Leila Esmailzada, kneeling, with another BeLocal team member Caroline Rojosoa (in the black argyle sweater) distribute trial briquettes. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

Leila Esmailzada set out to change the world but first had to perform a task that turns many people’s stomachs: clean someone else’s vomit off the floor.

The Stony Brook University graduate student, who is in the master’s Program in Public Health, traveled to Madagascar for a second consecutive summer with the nonprofit BeLocal Group to help several teams of student engineers put into place projects designed to improve the lives of the Malagasy people.

Before they could help anyone else, however, these students, many of them recent graduates from the College of Engineering, fought off a series of viruses, including a particularly painful stomach bug.

Esmailzada said she saw cleaning the vomit off the floor as part of the big picture.

“Compassion really plays into being abroad for your work and for your team, because you realize that everybody came here for a shared mission,” Esmailzada said. “What happens along the way is sometimes just a result of the path that brought them here.”

Briquettes lay out to dry in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

Indeed, beyond Esmailzada’s compassion, her ability to continue to accomplish tasks in the face of unexpected and potentially insurmountable obstacles encouraged BeLocal, a group started by Laurel Hollow residents Mickie and Jeff Nagel and Eric Bergerson, to ask her to become the group’s first executive director.

“I can’t say enough about [Esmailzada] being so resourceful over there,” said Mickie Nagel, who visited the island nation of Madagascar the last two years with Esmailzada. “She thinks about things in a different way. You can have the best product, but if you can’t connect it to the Malagasy and understand more deeply what they need, what their concerns or wants are” the project won’t be effective.

This past summer BeLocal tried to create two engineering design innovations that had originated from senior projects at SBU. In one of them, the engineers had designed a Da Vinci bridge, borrowing a model from the famous inventor, to help villagers cross a stream on their way to the market or to school. When the makeshift bridge constructed from a log or tree got washed away or cracked, the residents found it difficult to get perishable products to the market.

The first challenge the group faced was the lack of available bamboo, which they thought they had secured months before their visit.

“When the bamboo wasn’t delivered, I figured we were now going to do research on bamboo,” Nagel explained in an email, reflecting the group’s need to react, or, as she suggests, pivot, to another approach.

When they finally got bamboo, they learned that it was cut from the periphery of a patch of bamboo that borders on a national park. Government officials confiscated the bamboo before it reached BeLocal.

“We were happy to see that law enforcement recognized and acted on the ‘gray area rules’ of conserving the national park, which shows that the hard work Madagascar is putting into conservation is actually paying off,” Esmailzada said. She eventually found another provider who could deliver the necessary bamboo a few days later. This time, an important material was cut down from a local farm.

While they had the bamboo, they didn’t know how to cure it to prepare it for construction. Uncured, the bamboo could have become a soggy and structural mess. “We did try to cure [it] a few different ways, but we really didn’t have the time needed to properly treat all of it,” Nagel said. “We didn’t anticipate the bamboo not arriving cured since it was what we had been working on for months.”

Nagel credits the bridge team with adjusting to the new circumstances, constructing two girder bridges over creeks for more market research.

The BeLocal team also worked on a project to create briquettes that are healthier than the firewood the Malagasy now use for cooking. The wood produces considerable smoke, which has led to respiratory diseases and infections for people who breathe it in when they cook.

The group produced briquettes toward the end of their summer trip and presented their technique to an audience of about 120 locals, which reflected the interest the Malagasy had shown in the process during its development.

This fall, BeLocal is working on ways to move forward with sharing the briquette technique, which they hope to refine before the new year. BeLocal wants to develop clubs at Stony Brook and at the University of Fianarantsoa in Madagascar that can work together.

While BeLocal will continue to share senior design ideas on its website (www.belocalgrp.com) with interested engineers, the group is focusing its energy on perfecting the briquettes and getting them to people’s homes in Madagascar.

Nagel admired Esmailzada’s approach to the work and to the people in Madagascar.

Esmailzada said she studied how people in Madagascar interact and tried to learn from that, before approaching them with a product or process. She believes it’s important to consider the cultural boundaries when navigating the BeLocal projects, realizing that “you are not the first priority in a lot of these villagers’ lives in general. You have to understand they won’t meet and speak with you. It’s a reasonable expectation to ask maybe three times for something before you think you can get it done.”

Esmailzada also developed a routine that allowed her to shift from one potential project to another, depending on what was manageable at any given time.

The Stony Brook graduate student is delighted to be an ongoing part of the BeLocal effort.

“I love working with an organization that has the passion and vision as large as BeLocal,” she explained. “This work is fulfilling because you are working toward the chance of improving the well-being of another person or community.”

With Washington leading the way, we have become a divided nation, bickering, fighting, shouting and disagreeing as if we’re at a competing pep rally.

What are we to do?

Perhaps we need metaphors to turn the thermostat down.

To start with the obvious, perhaps we are a nation of onions. No, we don’t give everyone bad breath and, no, we don’t cause gas. We have layers, as Shrek so famously described in his eponymous movie. The surface, which everyone sees, has a layer of anger and frustration, but peel back a few of those layers and we’re filled with sympathy, empathy and concern for our friends and neighbors who, like us, are pursuing the American Dream.

Sticking with the food metaphor, perhaps we’re a kitchen stocked with incredible ingredients trucked in from all over the country. You may never have been to Idaho, but I can assure you that the simple potato in that state is remarkable for its flavor and texture.

While we have all these wonderful ingredients, perhaps we have a kitchen filled with too many cooks, who are changing recipes and oven temperatures so often that the food we’re baking will inevitably be unrecognizable and either vastly overcooked or undercooked.

Then again, perhaps we’re an enormous cruise ship in the middle of a vast ocean. We’re slowly turning but, because we’re such a huge vessel, we move and change direction at a rate that’s hard to perceive, especially when landmarks are either too far away or are masked by an enveloping fog.

Perhaps we’ve become a collection of angry bees, buzzing loudly, perceiving threats from everywhere and everyone — even inside our own honey-producing hive. Are we truly threatened from within and without, facing insurrection among the ranks of other bees, or are we surrounded by majestic purple mountains? Are we creating such cacophony that we can’t hear the birds singing around us?

We may be a batch of apples, looking suspiciously at the other fruit in the bin, wondering if any of us have turned bad, threatening the entire bunch.

Maybe we’re on a roller-coaster ride, racing up and down, screaming and shouting as we circle tracks that we fear might need repair, hoping to return to where we were so we can regain our equanimity on solid ground again.

Maybe we’ve become a boulder gathering size and momentum as it plunges down a hill. Our anger and frustration propel us forward, even as we ignore the kinds of moments and people who could, and should, unify a country. Have you been to a sporting event lately? I’m not thinking of the athletes as unifying forces.

I’m talking about the salutes to members of the military that often occur during the seventh-inning stretch in a baseball game or during a stoppage in the action in the middle of a hockey game. People throughout the stadium — those who think Trump is either a superstar or an imploding supernova — stand and cheer together, thanking these humble men and women for the sacrifice and service to our country.

Those heroes among us are the few who might do the impossible, catching the boulder or slowing it down as it cuts a path of emotional destruction through an outraged nation.

Then again, maybe the best metaphor to keep in mind amid the finger-pointing and criticism and self-doubt is the document that got us this far: the Constitution. It is the enduring net that protects the country and its citizens, even when we seem to be shadow boxing against each other on a high wire at the top of a circus tent.

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