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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

As I ponder the next step before my pint-sized daughter leaves the proverbial nest, I recall the incongruities between what we expected, what happened and what we remember. Please find below a list of some magical and not-so-magical moments.

The birth of our daughter

What we thought would happen: We had 40, no, make it 42, weeks to get ready for the birth of our daughter who waited well past her due date to appear. We took Lamaze classes — “breathe honey, breathe, there you go” — we read baby books and we had a birth plan. I figured my wife would let me know “it’s time” when her water broke or when the squint-through-them-and-then-smile-radiantly contractions arrived. We’d jump in a taxi and a wonderfully cheerful nurse would welcome us to the hospital.

What actually happened: Our daughter really didn’t want to come out, so the doctor scheduled an induced delivery. We casually packed our small bags, drove slowly to the hospital and walked up to the entrance. Numerous drugs, two days, almost no sleep and considerable anxiety later, our daughter still hadn’t made her appearance.

What we remember: This is tough, because we recall some of the hours of confusion and anxiety, but the end result was so life altering that one of our recurring memories was of a nurse coming in, to ask how many times we changed her diaper after she spent hours in the room with us. Wait, were we supposed to change her diaper?

Early trips to the doctor

What I thought would happen: He’d examine her and tell us what a wonderful job we were doing, and would offer us timely and helpful advice about surviving without sleep.

What actually happened: She weighed less than she did at birth. Is that good? Is that bad? No, it’s normal, he assured us. Why are you giving her shots already? Can’t she get shots later? She looks so peaceful. Why are you making her cry?

What I remember: That shot seemed so painful. We don’t remember our first shots, but we both felt as if the doctor were stabbing us with a sword when he gently inserted the needle in her arm.

First steps

What we thought would happen: She’d take some steps, we’d clap, and she’d be on her way.

What actually happened: We didn’t take away her walking toy until someone told us it was keeping her from learning to walk.

What we remember: Silly us, we delayed her walking because we let her keep using the toy, but, hey, she did just fine.

First athletic event

What I thought would happen: She’d try to throw or catch and ball and I’d be thrilled with her effort.

What actually happened: She played with dandelions and chatted with her friends.

What I remember: She looked great in that red T-shirt with her mitt turned backward toward her knee.

Going to high school

What we thought would happen: She’d share her daily experiences with us and we’d laugh and offer sage advice.

What actually happened: She grunted, we growled, and now she’s graduating

What we remember: She smiled and waved at us from the volleyball court and she laughed with us while we made cookies for her friends.

Driving 

What we thought would happen: She’d drive slowly and carefully and listen to us.

What actually happened: She told us all the advice we gave her wasn’t how we drove.

What we remember: She passed her driver’s test and can do errands and drive herself around. Thank goodness.

West Meadow Beach at low tide. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

If you ever move away from Long Island, you may find relief and a longing.

The relief could take many forms. For starters, you may find a place with magnificent sidewalks that allows you to walk for miles without needing to step out into the road. Yes, there are such places, although they are mostly in urban environments, where you can watch people, find restaurants and not just bars that are open at all hours, and where you can shift from one ethnic neighborhood to another within a few blocks.

You may also find road relief, as people in other places may allow you to merge readily, may move at a different pace, and may smile and wave at you as you pass them while they are on their lawns, walking their dogs, throwing a ball with their daughters or sitting on a rocking chair on their front porches, appreciating the flow of human and avian traffic that passes by their houses.

You also may not miss the delays at the airports or the train stations, as you wonder if you’ll make it to the job interview, the meeting, the wedding or the date on time when construction, lane closures, accidents, sun glare or road flooding slow everything around you to a stop or a crawl.

You might also find yourself relieved that the delis — if you can find ones you like outside of Long Island — are much quieter, as people in other regions may not be as compelled to raise the decibel level in public to outcompete each other for stories or to place their turkey club orders.

But, then, you might also find yourself missing some key ingredient of Long Island life. There are plenty of landlocked places you can visit that have wonderful lakes, rivers and streams, but how many of them truly have Long Island’s magnificent and varied beaches?

You might miss sitting on a bluff in Port Jefferson and staring out at the harbor or looking through the channel into Long Island Sound. You might miss the chance to visit your favorite rocky beach on the North Shore, where you can walk slowly along, looking for the perfect skimming rocks, recalling the days decades ago when your grandfather taught you how to use surface tension to make a rock bounce its way far from shore.

You might miss the toughness of feet so accustomed to the uneven rocks that you pause momentarily when you see someone struggling to navigate them, remembering that you once found these rocks hard to cross as well.

You might miss the wonderful intertidal zone, which at low tide allows you to wander across rippled and water-cooled sand far from shore.

You might also miss winter beaches, where winds whip along the abandoned dunes and where, if a cold snap lasts long enough, you can see the top layer of water frozen as it heads toward shore.

If you ever took advantage of the myriad cultural and scientific opportunities on Long Island, you might also miss spectacular performances at the Staller Center, lectures and symposia at Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory or Brookhaven National Laboratory.

You might also miss the farms or vineyards on the East End, where you can admire the way rows of vines, trees or grass expand out from the road.

You might also miss the secrets hidden beneath the surface of the water. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to snorkel at Flax Pond or at a beach, you know that magnificent creatures — arthropods that live on yellow sponges and look like ancient creatures under a microscope — populate a completely different world that is within surprisingly easy reach.

Members of the quantum materials team, from left, Gregory Doerk, Jerzy Sadowski, Kevin Yager, Young Jae Shin and Aaron Stein. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Henry Ford revolutionized the way people manufactured cars through automation, speeding up the process, reducing waste and cutting costs.

Similarly, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, researchers like the newly hired Young Jae Shin, who is a staff scientist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, hopes to improve the process of automating the handling of thin flakes of material used in a next generation technology called quantum information science, or QIS.

Working with scientists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shin is looking for ways to handle these flakes, which are one atom thick, of two-dimensional layers from different materials. Stacked together, these flakes can help create structures with specific electronic, magnetic or optical properties that can be used as sensors, in communication, or encryption.

Young Jae Shin at Harvard University, where he was a post doctoral researcher. Photo from Y. Shin

“Researchers are building these kinds of customized structures manually now,” explained Kevin Yager, leader of the CFN Electronic Nanomaterials Group, in an email. “QPress [Quantum Material Press] will allow us to automate this.” At this point, QPress is just starting, but, if it works, it will “absolutely allow us to accelerate the study of these materials, allowing researchers to find optimal materials quickly,” Yager continued.

Theoretically, quantum computers overcome the limitations of other systems, Shin explained.

The flakes come from the exfoliation of thin structures taken from a bulk material. This is akin to a collection of leaves that fall around trees. According to Yager, the structures scientists hope to make would be akin to a collection of leaves from different trees, put together to make a new structure or material with specific properties. “The idea is for the robot to sift through the flakes, and identify the ‘best’ ones and to stack these together into the right structure. The ‘stacking’ will involve combining flakes of different materials,” he said.

The less desirable flakes typically are the wrong size, have tears, ripples or other defects and have contaminants. Groups of scientists are predicting the kinds of layered designs that will have desired properties.

Shin suggested that the CFN supports the needs of the end user community, as CFN is a “user-based facility.”

Physicists at Harvard and MIT plan to use the QPress to study unusual forms of superconductivity. By tapping into materials that conduct electricity without losing energy at lower temperatures, researchers may make progress in quantum computing, which could exceed the ability of the current state-of-the-art supercomputers.

Stacking the flakes can create new materials whose properties not only depend on the individual layers, but also on the angle between the stacks. Scientists can change one of these new structures from having metallic to having insulating properties, just by altering the relative angle of the atoms. The challenge, however, is that putting these fine layers together by hand takes time and generates errors which, BNL hopes, an automated approach can help reduce.

“Ultimately, we would like to develop a robot that delivers a stacked structure based on the 2-D flake sequences and crystal orientations that scientists select through a web interface” to a machine, Charles Black, the head of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at BNL, explained in a recent BNL feature. “If successful, the QPress would enable scientists to spend their time and energy studying materials, rather than making them.”

Barring unforeseen delays, scientists anticipate that they will be able to build a machine that creates these flakes, catalogs them, stacks them and characterizes their properties within three years. These functions will be available online in stages, to allow the use of the QPress prior to its completion.

Each stage in the QPress process uses computer software to reduce the effort involved in generating and interpreting usable structures.

Minh Hoai Nguyen, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University and doctoral student Boyu Wang from the Computer Vision Lab at SBU are creating a flake cataloger, which will use image analysis software to scan and record the location of flakes and their properties.

“The flakes that scientists are interested in are thin and thus faint, so manual and visual inspection is a laborious and error-prone process,” Nguyen said in the BNL feature.

At BNL, Shin is one of three scientists the Upton-based facility is hiring as a part of this effort. They are also seeking robot or imaging process experts. Shin has “been in the CFN just a short while, but is already having an impact- — for instance, allowing us to handle classes of two-dimensional materials that we were not working with before,” Yager said.

The field of quantum information science is extremely competitive, with researchers from all over the world seeking ways to benefit from the properties of materials on such a small scale. The United States has been investing in this field to develop leadership science in this area.

The University of Tokyo has developed an automation system, but Shin explained that it is still not perfect.

Yager said that numerous unknown applications are “waiting to be discovered. Researchers are working hard on real quantum computers. Prototypes already exist but creating viable large-scale quantum computers is a major challenge.”

A resident of on-site housing at BNL, Shin was born in the United States and grew up in Korea. He is married to Hyo Jung Kim, who is studying violin at Boston University. 

As for the work Shin and others are doing, Yager suggested that the effort has generated considerable interest at the CFN.

“There is huge excitement at BNL about quantum research broadly and QPress in particular,” said Yager. Shin is “a big part of this — bringing new technical knowledge and new enthusiasm to this ambitious project.”

From left, Megan Crow, Associate Professor Jesse Gillis and postdoctoral researcher Sara Ballouz Photo by Gina Motisi/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Diversity has become a buzz word in the workplace, as companies look to bring different perspectives that might represent customers, constituents or business partners. The same holds true for the human brain, which contains a wide assortment of interneurons that have numerous shapes and functions.

Interneurons act like a negative signal or a brake, slowing or stopping the transmission. Like a negative sign in math, though, some interneurons put the brakes on other neurons, performing a double negative role of disinhibiting. These cells of the nervous system, which are in places including the brain, spinal chord and retina, allow for the orderly and coordinated flow of signals.

One of the challenges in the study of these important cells is that scientists can’t agree on the number of types of interneurons.

“In classifying interneurons, everyone argues about them,” said Megan Crow, a postdoctoral researcher in Jesse Gillis’ lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “People come to this question with many different techniques, whether they are looking at the shape or the connectivity or the electrophysiological properties.”

Megan Crow. Photo by Constance Brukin

Crow recently received a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to try to measure and explain the diversity of interneurons that, down the road, could have implications for neurological diseases or disorders in which an excitatory stimulus lasts too long.

“Understanding interneuron diversity is one of the holy grails of neuroscience,” explained Gillis in an email. “It is central to the broader mission of understanding the neural circuits which underlie all behavior.”

Crow plans to use molecular classifications to understand these subtypes of neurons. Her “specific vision” involves exploiting “expected relationships between genes and across data modalities in a biologically thoughtful way,” said Gillis.

Crow’s earlier research suggests there are 11 subtypes in the mouse brain, but the exact number is a “work in progress,” she said.

Her work studying the interneurons of the neocortex has been “some of the most influential work in our field in the last two to three years,” said Shreejoy Tripathy, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Tripathy hasn’t collaborated with Crow but has been aware of her work for several years.

The interactivity of a neuron is akin to personalities people demonstrate when they are in a social setting. The goal of a neuronal circuit is to take an input and turn it into an output. Interneurons are at the center of this circuit, and their “personalities” affect the way they influence information flow, Crow suggested.

“If you think of a neuron as a person, there are main personality characteristics,” she explained. Some neurons are the equivalent of extraverted, which suggests that they have a lot of adhesion proteins that will make connections with other cells.

“The way neurons speak to one another is important in determining” their classes or types, she said.

A major advance that enabled this analysis springs from new technology, including single-cell RNA sequencing, which allows scientists to make thousands of measurements from thousands of cells, all at the same time.

“What I specialize in and what gives us a big leg up is that we can compare all of the outputs from all of the labs,” Crow said. She is no longer conducting her own research to produce data and, instead, is putting together the enormous volume of information that comes out of labs around the world.

Megan Crow. Photo by Daniel Katt

Using data from other scientists does introduce an element of variability, but Crow believes she is more of a “lumper than a splitter,” although she would like to try to understand variation where it is statistically possible.

She believes in using data for which she has rigorous quality control, adding, “If we know some research has been validated externally more rigorously than others, we might tend to trust those classifications with more confidence.”

Additionally she plans to collaborate with Josh Huang, the Charles Robertson professor of neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who she described as an interneuron expert and suggested she would use his expertise as a “sniff test” on certain experiments.

At this point, Crow is in the process of collecting baseline data. Eventually, she recognizes that some interneurons might change in their role from one group to another, depending on the stimuli.,

Crow hasn’t always pursued a computational approach to research. 

In her graduate work at King’s College London, she produced data and analyzed her own experiments, studying the sensory experience of pain.

One of the challenges scientists are addressing is how pain becomes chronic, like an injury that never heals. The opioid crisis is a problem for numerous reasons, including that people are in chronic pain. Crow was interested in understanding the neurons involved in pain, and to figure out a way to treat it. “The sensory neurons in pain sparked my general interest in how neurons work and what makes them into what they are,” she said.

Crow indicated that two things brought her to the pain field. For starters, she had a fantastic undergraduate mentor at McGill University, Professor of Psychology Jeff Mogil, who “brought the field to life for me by explaining its socio-economic importance, its evolutionary ancient origins, and showed me how mouse behavioral genetic approaches could make inroads into a largely intractable problem.”

Crow also said she had a feeling that there might be room to make an impact on the field by focusing on molecular genetic techniques rather than the more traditional electrophysiological and pharmacological approaches.

As for computational biology, she said she focuses on interpreting data, rather than in other areas of the field, which include building models and simulations or developing algorithms and software.

In the bigger picture, Crow said she’s still very interested in disease and would like to understand the role that interneurons and other cells play. “If we can get the tools to be able to target” some of the cells involved in diseases, “we might find away to treat those conditions.”

The kind of research she is conducting could start to provide an understanding of how cells interact and what can go wrong in their neurodevelopment.

Gillis praises his postdoctoral researcher for the impact of her research.

“Just about any time [Crow] has presented her work — and she has done it a lot — she has ended up convincing members of the audience so strongly that they either want to collaborate, adapt her ideas, or recruit her,” Gillis wrote in an email. 

Crow grew up in Toronto, Canada. She said she loved school, including science and math, but she also enjoyed reading and performing in school plays. She directed a play and was in “The Merchant of Venice.” In high school, she also used to teach skiing.

A resident of Park Slope in Brooklyn, Crow commutes about an hour each way on the train, during which she can do some work and catch up on her reading.

She appreciates the opportunity to work with other researchers at Cold Spring Harbor, which has been “an incredible learning experience.”

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Advice is wonderful, unless it isn’t. The giving and receiving of advice is nothing like the process of exchanging gifts around the December holidays.

Often, there is a not-so-subtle subtext to advice that sitcoms have used to relatable comedic effect. 

A comment like, “You’re wearing that to your date?” isn’t advice, per se, although the underlying message is clear: “You could do so much better.” Extending this even further, the speaker seems to suggest that the listener returns to his or her dorm room, finds something that’s not wrinkled and doesn’t smell like the gym, and then go out on the date.

With high school and college graduations on the horizon, it’s inevitable that people will share their thoughts, opinions and ideas with the person they are celebrating. Here are a few pieces of advice and the translation for them:

Advice: “You might want to study a little harder in college than you did in high school. It’s much harder.”

Translation: “You’re probably lucky to graduate from high school and you won’t be so lucky in college, so take this time to start over and get your act together. Maybe you should consider studying more than 12 hours before a test on material you read all night the day before.”

Advice: “The time goes so fast. Take the time to appreciate and seize every opportunity.”

Translation: “I missed out on a lot of things in college and I’d like to go back and take better classes, find different friends and start over again. How about if you invent a time machine while you’re in college and send me back, so I can do it right this time?”

Advice: “Not everything your professors tell you is true, accurate or in your best interests.”

Translation: “Someone told me to major in chemistry. I hated it. I did something else for a living and it would have helped to take courses that made more sense. I could really use that time machine about now. How about if you make that your senior thesis?”

Advice: “Pick your friends carefully.”

Translation: “I didn’t really like your high school friends and I wish social media didn’t exist, so you wouldn’t stay in touch with all those people who steered you the wrong way. How about if you pick the nerdy woman who’s going to start her own company some day or the intellectual guy who plans to open a new school? Maybe, instead of asking me what classes I think you should take, you should send me a list of your prospective friends. That way I can be like a Roman emperor, putting a thumbs up or thumbs down on the relationship.”

Advice: “Pizza and soda are killers for the waistline.”

Translation: “I had the “freshman 20” and it took months to lose it. I blame pizza and soda which, at college, is pretty much 90 percent of your diet. Good luck avoiding the easy sugars and carbs when you’re up late at night, having the conversation of your life and you need energy so you don’t nod off when your friend from New Zealand with the cool accent shares some story you know you’ll want to recall the next day.”

Advice: “Floss your teeth.”

Translation: “This comes from hard-earned experience. Flossing is the best way to prevent root canals and those are among the most painful procedures many of us endure as we age. That is probably the best advice for graduates leaving the nest. If you floss, the older version of yourself will be eternally grateful.”

Young man photographing family at outdoor wedding. Horizontal shot.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Something about a posed picture brings out the prankster in me. I realize, of course, that posed pictures can and do capture a moment when a group of people come together.

In fact, I recently visited the athletic center of one of the colleges that admitted my daughter and stared, for hours, at the faces of athletes over the decades who took time out from their sports games and practices to have a picture taken. Without the uniformity and decorum, these pictures would have been a free-for-all with little structure.

And yet, in my own life, I can’t help seeing the camera and the formal process as an invitation to assert my individuality or, at the very least, to force the formality off someone’s face.

I can trace this back to formal extended family photo sessions we had when my brothers and I were young teenagers. Every so often, the aunts, uncles and cousins would get together. When they did, someone inevitably wanted to capture the moment for people to revisit years later, which, I guess, is around now, given how long ago the younger versions of ourselves forced a smile on our faces for those pictures.

So, anyway, I remember this one picture, when I was standing between both of my brothers, which made sense at the time because I am the middle child and my younger brother hadn’t decided I stopped way too early in the height department. As the photographer was getting ready to take the picture, I reached down as subtly as I could and pinched my older brother’s thigh, causing him to grin broadly at just the right moment, if you’re me — or the wrong moment, if you’re the photographer.

To her credit, my mom kept that goofy picture because, unknown to me, the photographer had taken a head-to-toe shot that clearly showed my fingers pinching my brother.

When my younger brother got married, I recall my father’s extended family all trying to line up for a family photo or, as my aunt said at the time, a fa-mi-lee pho-to, as she enunciated each syllable in a way that would cause poets to cringe. She accented all of the syllables and spoke so loudly that the camera picked up her demand to get everyone in their place.

Later, as we watched my brother’s wedding video, the whole family discovered an unknown treat. At some point, the videographer had clearly asked my uncle, one of the more serious and least playful people I ever met, if he had any marital advice for the newlyweds.

Seated in a chair by himself, with the music playing in the background and plates of hors d’oeuvres passing in and out of the frame, he paused for a moment before looking straight at the camera.

“It’s a sense of humor,” he said, cracking the smallest of wry smiles.

As my daughter and nephew prepare for their high school and college graduations, I can’t help wondering what the young men and women in the photos will be thinking when the many amateur photographers insist that they move a step to their left, lean to their right, stand up straight or open their eyes wider, no, less wide, no, wait, wider.

Hopefully, my daughter and nephew will be able to look back at pictures and see something more than a group of people celebrating one moment as they prepare for the next one. Hopefully, the camera will capture something, small though it may be, that brings a smile to their faces months or years later. Maybe the perfect imperfection will transport them back to the moment someone insisted that they “give us a natural smile” on cue.

Enyuan Hu with images that represent electron orbitals. Photo from Enyuan Hu

By Daniel Dunaief

Charging and recharging a battery can cause a strain akin to working constantly without a break. Doctors or nurses who work too long in emergency rooms or drivers who remain on the road too long without walking around a car or truck or stopping for food can function at a lower level and can make mistakes from all the strain.

Batteries have a similar problem, as the process of charging them builds up a structural tension in the cathode that can lead to cracks that reduce their effectiveness.

Working with scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Enyuan Hu, an assistant chemist at BNL, has revealed that a doughnut-shaped cathode, with a hole in the middle, is more effective at holding and regenerating charges than a snowball shape, which allows strain to build up and form cracks. 

At this point, scientists would still need to conduct additional experiments to determine whether this structure would allow a battery to hold and regenerate a charge more effectively. Nonetheless, the work, which was published in Advanced Functional Materials, has the potential to lead to further advances in battery research.

“The hollow [structure] is more resistant to the stress,” said Hu. Lithium is extracted from the lattice during charging and changes the volume, which can lead to cracks.

The hollow shape has an effective diffusion lens that is shorter than a solid one, he added.

Yijin Liu, a staff scientist at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and a collaborator on the project, suggested that the result creates a strategic puzzle for battery manufacture.

Enyuan Hu with drawings that represent images of metal 3d orbitals interacting with oxygen 2p obits, forming either sigma bonds (above) or pi bonds (below).
Photo from Enyuan Hu

“On the one hand, the hollow particles are less likely to crack,” said Liu. “On the other hand, solid particles exhibit better packing density and, thus, energy density. Our results suggest that careful consideration needs to be carried out to find the optimal balance.” The conventional wisdom about what caused a cathode to become less effective involved the release of oxygen at high voltage, Hu said, adding that this explanation is valid for some materials, but not every one.

Oxygen release initiates the process of structural degradation. This reduces voltage and the ability to build up and release charges. This new experiment, however, may cause researchers to rethink the process. Oxygen is not released from the bulk even though battery efficiency declines. Other possible processes, like loss of electric contact, could cause this.

“In this specific case of nickel-rich layered material, it looks like the crack induced by strain and inhomogeneities is the key,” said Hu.

In the past, scientists had limited knowledge about cracks and homogeneity, or the consistent resilience of the material in the cathode.

The development of new technology and the ability to work together across the country made this analysis possible. “This work is an excellent example of cross-laboratory collaboration,” said Liu. “We made use of cutting edge techniques available at both BNL and SLAC to collect experimental data with complementary information.”

At this point, Hu estimates that about half the battery community believes oxygen release causes the problem for the cathode, while the other half, which includes Hu, thinks the challenge comes from surface or structural problems. 

He has been working to understand this problem for about three years as a part of a five-year study. His role is to explore the role of the cathode, specifically, which is his particular area of expertise.

Hu is a part of a Battery500 project. The goal of the project is to develop lithium-metal batteries that have almost triple the specific energy currently employed in electric vehicles. A successful Battery500 will produce batteries that are smaller, lighter and less expensive than today’s model.

Liu expressed his appreciation for Hu’s contributions to their collaboration and the field, saying Hu “brings more than just excellent expertise in battery science into our collaboration. His enthusiasm and can-do attitude also positively impacts everyone in the team, including several students and postdocs in our group.”

In the bigger picture, Hu would like to understand how lithium travels through a battery. At each stage in a journey that involves diffusing through a cathode, an anode and migrating through the electrolyte, lithium interacts with its neighbors. How it interacts with these neighbors determines how fast it travels. 

Finding lithium during these interactions, however, can be even more challenging than searching for Waldo in a large picture, because lithium is small, travels quickly and can alter its journey depending on the structure of the cathode and anode.

Ideally, understanding the journey would lead to more efficient batteries. The obstacles and thresholds a lithium ion needs to cross mirror the ones that Hu sees in everyday life and he believes he needs to circumvent these obstacles to advance in his career.

One of the biggest challenges he faces is his comfort zone. “Sometimes, [comfort zones] prevent us from getting exposed to new things and ideas,” he said. “We have to be constantly motivated by new ideas.”

A cathode expert, Hu has pushed himself to learn more about the anode and the electrolyte.

A resident of Stony Brook, Hu lives with his wife, Yaqian Lin, who is an accountant in Port Jefferson, and their son Daniel, who attends Setauket Elementary School.

Hu and Lin met in China, where their families were close friends. They didn’t know each other growing up in Hefei, which is in the southeast part of the country.

Hu appreciates the support Lin provides, especially in a job that doesn’t have regular hours.

“There are a lot of off-schedule operations and I sometimes need to leave home at 10 p.m. and come back in the early morning because I have an experiment that requires my immediate attention. My wife is very supportive.”

As for his work at BNL, Hu said he “loves doing experiments here. It has given me room for exploring new areas in scientific research.”

Maurizio Del Poeta. File photo from SBU

Maurizio Del Poeta, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, works to combat potentially deadly fungal infections. Recently, several press reports have highlighted the prevalence in New York and New Jersey of Candida auris, which is resistant to drugs and can cause death. Through an email exchange, Del Poeta shared his perspective on this fungal infection and his efforts to develop a treatment.

Are there multiple drug-resistant strains of numerous types of Candida?

Yes, there are several species of Candida that are resistant to some antifungals. For instance, Candida lusitaniae is normally resistant to amphotericin B. Candida glabrata is normally resistant to fluconazole. There are over 20 species of Candida that can cause infection in humans. Most are sensitive to antifungals. C. auris is normally resistant to all antifungals. They are resistant for mainly two reasons: (1) the target/enzyme is genetically different and, thus, the drug does not recognize the target; thus it does not bind to the target; and thus it does not inhibit it; (2) the drug is pumped out by membrane transporters. C. auris is notorious for having multiple membrane transporters.

I understand the damage from Candida is primarily among people who are immunocompromised. Is there a risk for those people who are also healthy?

Healthy people should be fine. But who is really “healthy?” Because C. auris is spreading in hospitals and nursing homes, all patients in hospitals and nursing homes are at risk: some more (e.g., cancer patients, patients with an organ transplant, patients in ICU, patients taking corticosteroids) and some patients have less risk because they are more immunocompetent, but certainly those patients could get contaminated.

What makes it so hard to eliminate Candida?

Because (1) we are not used to and (2) because we still do not know which type of disinfectant is efficacious against C. auris … Unlike other Candida infections, which are generally thought to result from autoinfection from host flora, C. auris can be transmitted between patients … C. auris requires implementation of specific infection control measures, such as those used for control of [other infections] (e.g., private room and on contact precautions). Because C. auris can survive in plastic surfaces, floors, and door knobs for weeks, it is essential that infection control measurements be implemented in the health care settings.

Does the work you’re doing offer hope, albeit in the earlier stages, for ways to treat and reduce the virulence of Candida?

Yes, our new compounds are sensitive to C. auris in vitro against the C. auris clinical isolates that are resistant to current antifungals. We are currently testing their efficacy in vivo (animals). We are doing this in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. Our compounds have different mechanism of action from the current antifungals,

Given that the symptoms of a Candida infection -— fever, weakness and aches — are so prevalent in other types of infections, are there ways to make a clinically differentiated diagnosis of Candida without taking a blood sample or conducting extensive analysis?

Unfortunately, there are not. Diagnosis of C. auris can only be made using sophisticated tests. Normal phenotypic tests are not able to identify C. auris for certain. If we want to stop (or at least control) the epidemic, anyone with a Candida infection in a hospital setting should be treated as C. auris. Hospital trafficking of nurses, doctors, visitors from and to patients with C. auris should be highly restricted. Nurses and doctors should not be allowed in cafeteria without changing gowns, particularly if they are taking care of a patient infected with C. auris and other common sense practices should be implemented; but, unfortunately, they are normally out of the window in the hospital settings … In the case of C. auris “isolating rooms” and “contact precautions” should be implemented.

How does your treatment for Candida work?

The class of compounds are “acylhydrazones.” They target the synthesis of fungal sphingolipids.

Given what you know about the prevalence of Candida, particularly in New York, and the minimal information about the specific locations where hospitals have found Candida, what would you advise anyone who might be “at risk” for Candida to do if they had elective surgery scheduled?

Elderly and immunocompromised people going to the hospital should be treated with “contact precautions.” No need for isolation unless positive for C. auris.

Is C. auris the most virulent or problematic species of Candida confronting public health professionals today?

Not really. C. glabrata is also a nasty Candida strain. What makes C. auris difficult is the resistance to drugs.

Do other species suffer through Candida infections as well?

Although humans are the most known carriers and hosts for Candida infection, other animals can also get infected such as dogs, horses and cattle. Certain Candida species are used in food production. Candida utilis extracts are used in Asia as a “salt” instead of salt because these extracts are salty and do not cause hypertension. We actually have a collaboration with the Japanese company that makes these extracts. Candida krusei is used to ferment cacao during chocolate production. Whereas C. utilis is not a human pathogen, C. krusei actually is.

How do you protect yourself, your office and your staff from the spread of the infection?

We use biosafety label 2. My lab is certified to handle BSL2 organisms, such as C. auris. We use all sorts of protective gears and standard protective procedures to make sure lab personnel are protected and to make sure we keep the microbes inside the lab. Entrance to my lab is strictly prohibited to anyone that did not receive appropriate training.

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Daniel Dunaief

Erica Cirino sails the South Pacific to cover the story of microplastic pollution in the oceans with Danish sailors and scientists. Photo by Rasmus Hytting

A specialist in investigating plastics pollution, Erica Cirino recently shared an email exchange about her concerns over a growing environmental threat. Cirino, who earned a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism from Stony Brook University, is a Kaplana Chawla Launchpad fellow at the Safina Center. A guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and a freelance science writer and artist, Cirino is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

How significant are plastics as a source of pollution in the oceans? Is the problem becoming more pronounced each year? 

Plastics are a significant source of marine debris, entering the oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons per year. However, experts don’t have a great idea of exactly how much plastic is entering the oceans because it’s so hard to quantify once it gets in the environment. 

What can people on Long Island and elsewhere do to help prevent plastic pollution?

When it comes to preventing plastic from getting into nature, including in the oceans, reducing one’s use of plastic is most certainly the answer. There are many recyclable products on the market, but these only encourage the use of more plastic — and then there’s the actual act of recycling that’s necessary for the plastic to be reused. 

To reduce your plastic use, you should make use of reusable containers such as bags, bottles and food boxes, ideally made from natural materials like wood, metal or glass. Hard plastics can be reused, but they do release small particles of plastic into the environment, particularly when washed. 

You should also pay attention to your clothing labels, because much of our clothing today is made from plastics. Opt for organic cotton, bamboo, wool and other natural fibers over plastic-based polyester, nylon and acrylic. Every time you wash synthetic plastic-based clothing, thousands of tiny plastic pieces wash off and into the wastewater system. That’s not good because water treatment can’t remove plastic (yet) and it goes directly back into the environment. 

Has recycling helped reduce the problem in the oceans or landfills?

Based off of production, waste management and pollution data, experts estimate 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date, and only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. The vast majority has been tossed in landfills or littered into the natural environment. 

Above, a deceased herring gull surrounded by plastic litter on Venice Beach, California. Photo by Erica Cirino

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

In the oceans, plastic breaks down from intact items into microscopic pieces over time, from weeks to months to years. Because there are so many different sizes of plastic in the oceans, wildlife is affected in different ways. Large pieces of plastic may injure or entangle larger animals like whales and sea turtles, while the tiniest pieces of plastic may block the digestive tracts of microscopic marine crustaceans. What’s more, the tiniest pieces of plastic (microplastic), while they sometimes pass through the guts of the animals that eat them, often contain toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from seawater. Animals that eat microplastic tend to accumulate high levels of toxins in their bodies that can cause disease, behavioral abnormalities and even death. 

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

Based on my years of walking Long Island’s beaches, I can tell you the plastics that wash ashore along the Sound tend to come mostly from New York City and Connecticut. For example, I once found a message in a plastic water bottle that someone had sent from Connecticut, according to the note inside. The note also contained a phone number and I lightly scolded the person who sent it off for tossing a plastic bottle into the Sound. But on the South Shore and the East End, there’s a lot of plastic that comes in from far off places via the Atlantic Ocean as far as Europe and Africa, even. 

What are some of the positive steps you’ve seen individuals and/or companies take to address the plastics problem? 

There are individuals doing things large and small to address the plastic pollution crisis. Some examples include the formation of beach cleanup groups, political mobilization and pushes for legislation to reduce or prohibit use of plastic items like plastic bags, expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic bottles. Others have created companies that reuse cleaned-up plastic marine debris to make clothing and other items. But the issue with that is that microplastic will shed off these items. I think the most effective efforts revolve around community projects and political action to address the core issue: which is using plastic. 

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

The biggest misconception is that recycling is a solution to the issue of plastic pollution. 

Is there a plastics message for consumers, companies and policy makers that you’d like to share on Earth Day this year?

Let’s rethink our fast and hurried plastic lifestyles this Earth Day and think about all the problems we’re causing by using fast, easy and cheap plastic. If we love nature, we need to do more to preserve it, and that involves a less consumeristic lifestyle. Let’s value the things that really matter, like friends, family and community.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

When we want to use a pronoun to refer to a deity, we use a capital letter out of respect, so that even if we’re writing about His will, we use the capital “H” in the middle of a sentence. For some, of course, the capital letter could also represent a female deity, as in, I thought I would get the job, but, apparently, She had other plans for me.

That’s so wonderfully deferential that it shows that only supreme beings merit such grammatical greatness.

But what about all the people we can’t stand, whose ideas are ruining our day or, gasp, our country?

We have long used symbols or faux letters, like an asterisk (*) to take the place of a letter or words we all know, so that we might write, “What the **** was he thinking when he cut me off for a parking spot at the supermarket?”

Nowadays, though, I think the politics of personal animus requires more than a few letter abbreviation or a casual dismissal. We need the equivalent of a literary eye roll, which can show a level of antipathy and disrespect befitting the lack of humanity, the utter depravity or the absolute inanity that defines someone’s actions or words that make us grind our teeth or snarl in frustration.

How about a super lower-case first letter of a pronoun, to make it clear that we don’t just disagree with someone, but we find that person so frustrating, evil, despicable, irritating and/or ridiculous that the person doesn’t merit a customary human pronoun? Perhaps we need a symbol that does the graffiti equivalent of writing that person’s name and spray painting an “X” or a thumbs-down sign over it.

Instead of referring to the person people either love, hate or love to hate, as he or him, we could use a diminutive placeholder for the personal pronoun, like *e seems poised to start another war to satisfy his ego, or *is idea so completely lacked substance that it’s hard to argue with *im when *e hasn’t read any intelligence reports.

On the other side, we might see a nemesis as unworthy of a typical pronoun, arguing that *he is preventing this great country from marching forward or *er ideas seem rooted in the word “no.”

But, of course, this doesn’t have to be limited to the power elite in Washington, D.C. It can refer to anyone, allowing us to alter the personal pronoun in a way that underscores our distaste for the idea, the person, or *is or *er actions.

Let’s say we’re watching a Little League game and a mother, father, grandparent or just random fan comes by and heckles an umpire. That seems so utterly absurd that, in the retelling, we might want to point out how *is words set the wrong example, or *he made me throw up in my mouth.

When we’re tapping out a text message to our friends, we might share our disgust that *he had the nerve to ask me if *er choice to date my best friend was OK.

We might realize that this person seemed eager to train *er dog to use my lawn as a bathroom or that *e was telling me how to live my life when *e apparently has no idea how to live *is.

These super lower-case pronouns can allow us to vent in code to our family and friends. We might suggest that *e is driving me crazy. If *e actually read the email or text, *e might have no idea that the subject of this diminutive pronoun is, in fact, *im.

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