Science & Technology

Viviana Cavaliere. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

The United States has been the site of important life events for Italian-born Viviana Cavaliere. When she was in high school, she went to Montana, where she changed her mind about her life — she had wanted to become an architect — and decided that science was her calling.

Later, when she did a summer student program at Fermilab near Chicago, she met her future husband Angelo Di Canto, who is also a physicist.

While Cavaliere has been an assistant physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory since 2017, she has been living in Switzerland, where she has been working at CERN. She is preparing for a move this month to Long Island, where she hopes to find new physics phenomena, including new particles, using the Atlas detector at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Viviana Cavaliere during a trip to Bhutan. Photo by Angelo Di Canto

Cavaliere will return to the United States with a vote of confidence in her potential and some financial support. The Department of Energy recently announced that she was the recipient of $2.5 million over five years as a part of the Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program.

“I am very honored,” said Cavaliere, who will use the funds to support the research of postdoctoral scientists in her lab, to buy equipment and to travel to conferences and to CERN.

At the heart of her research is a desire to search for new particles and new phenomena that might build on the Standard Model of particle physics.

Cavaliere is coordinating a group of about 400 physicists who are looking for new particles. Her role is to analyze the data from the Large Hadron Collider.

Indeed, officials at the Department of Energy said that Cavaliere was one of only three recipients in the Energy Frontier Program from a pool of 23 applicants because of her role at CERN.

The award “requires those who have shown leadership capability,” said Abid Patwa, program manager for the Energy Frontier Program and special assistant for International Programs in the DOE Office of High Energy Physics. Cavaliere has “already been participating and leading” studies.

Michael Cooke, who is a program manager in the Office of High Energy Physics in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, said Cavaliere’s work fits the description of a “high risk and high reward” proposal that could “steer the field in new directions.”

By using new software, Cavaliere will mine data produced in a microsecond, which is 10 to the negative sixth of a second, for ways to filter specific events.

Patwa suggested that his office urges principal investigators to be as “quantitative as possible” in their work, so that they can show how their efforts will be successful.

Viviana Cavaliere during a trip to Macchu Picchu. Photo by Angelo Di Canto

Cavaliere is not only conducting scientific research but is also part of the technological innovations.

“It helps a person’s career that they understand all aspects of what is involved in running these major experiments,” Patwa said.

Collaborators are encouraged to have balanced roles in research and hardware operations or upgrade activities, Patwa explained in an email.

Cavaliere was at CERN when the elusive Higgs boson particle was discovered in 2012. The particle, which is called the “God” particle, had been proposed 48 years earlier. The Higgs boson explains why particles have mass.

“It was a very exciting day, you could feel the joy in the corridors and I believe it was one of those days where nobody could concentrate on work waiting for the official release of the news,” Cavaliere recalled. “At the time, I thought it would be great if we had more days like those, with the excitement of the discovery.”

Cooke said that extending the work from the Higgs boson could offer promising new clues about physics. He described how Cavaliere is making high precision measurements of particle interactions involving the Higgs boson. Any discrepancy between what she finds and the predictions of the Standard Model could be a hint of new particles, he explained in an email.

“Not only will her analysis advance the field by improving the search for new physics, but the new tools she creates to capture the best data from the [Large Hadron Collider] will be applicable much more broadly,” Cooke said.

Patwa, who worked at BNL as a postdoctoral research associate and then as a staff scientist from 2002 to 2012, explained that he is “encouraged by the talented researchers joining BNL as well as other DOE national laboratories and universities.” He believes the award is a testament to her past accomplishments and to her current objectives.

When she was growing up in a town near Naples in southern Italy, Cavaliere had to choose whether to attend a classical high school or a school focused on math and physics. Particularly interested in history, she decided to study at a classical school.

During her senior year of high school, she traveled on an exchange program to Montana, where she did experiments in the lab with a “very, very good teacher. I started liking science and was undecided between chemistry and physics.”

The travel experience to the Big Sky state “opened my mind, not only about what you do in the future, but also gives you a taste of a different culture.”

When she attended the Sapienza University of Rome, she had to catch up to her colleagues, most of whom had learned more math and physics than she. It took a year and a half to reach the same point, but she graduated with her class.

When she did her postdoctoral work in Chicago, she met Di Canto, who grew up about 100 kilometers away from her in Italy as well. “My mom always makes fun of me,” Cavaliere said, because she “found her husband in the United States.”

As for work, she is inspired to use the funds and the recognition from the DOE to build on her developing career.

“There’s always some hope you’ll find something new,” she said.

Above, Kevin Reed at a presentation at the Montauk Lighthouse in July. Photo from Kevin Reed

By Daniel Dunaief

Hurricane Dorian has dominated the news cycle for weeks, as its violent winds, torrential rains and storm surge caused extensive damage throughout the Bahamas and brought flooding and tornadoes to North Carolina.

For Kevin Reed, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who models extreme weather events including hurricanes, Dorian followed patterns the climate scientist anticipates will continue to develop in future years.

“Two things that are current with Dorian are consistent with what we’d expect from a changing climate,” said Reed. Dorian became a Category 5 storm, which is the strongest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Second, the hurricane slowed down, which was also a trend that Hurricanes Harvey and Florence demonstrated.

The reason a warming climate would slow a hurricane like Dorian is that the polar regions are warming more rapidly than the tropics. That can have a “huge impact on the overall circulation” within the atmosphere, Reed said.

Indeed, what controls the speed of the jet stream, which moves hurricanes and other storm systems along over the rotating planet, is the difference in the temperature between the tropics and the poles. When the poles warm up more rapidly than the tropics, the circulation in the atmosphere can slow down and that can reduce the speed of the wind that blows the hurricane.

“Hurricanes are impacted by climate” and any change in that dynamic will have an effect on storms that can and do present a threat to the homes, businesses and lives of people in their path, Reed said.

Basic research has enhanced and improved the ability of forecasters to predict where a storm like Dorian will go, allowing meteorologists and the National Hurricane Center to provide warnings to political leaders and emergency response teams.

“Our general understanding of why storms move and go where they do has improved significantly over the last few decades,” Reed said. “Part of that can be seen in the forecast.”

Most of these forecasts are informed by numerical models. That is where Reed brings his expertise to hurricane science.

“I am a numerical modeler,” he said. “I use and help develop models to understand tropical cyclones and precipitation in general.”

Using information often taken from satellites, from in situ observations, radar along the coastlines and aircraft that fly every few hours into a storm, especially when they threaten the Caribbean or the East Coast, forecasters have had a “steady improvement in these models.”

Reed likens the process of predicting the weather or tracking a hurricane to choosing a stock. As investors and companies have become more sophisticated in the way they analyze the market or individual companies, their algorithms improve.

Investors have “added more variables” to choose companies for their investments, while forecasters have added more information from enhanced observations.

As for the ongoing coverage of hurricanes, Reed said the general population seems to have a relatively good awareness of the path and destructive power of the storms. The one area, however, that may help people focus on the potential danger from a storm comes from the way people describe these hurricanes.

Often, media outlets focus on the speed on the wind. While the wind can and does topple trees, causes property damage and disrupts power supplies, much of the damage comes from the storm surge. Rising water levels, however, is often the reason state and national officials encourage people to evacuate from their homes.

“Whether a storm is a Category 2 or a Category 3 doesn’t take into account the size of the storm,” Reed said. Hurricanes can range in size fairly dramatically. Hurricane Sandy was not even a hurricane when it made landfall, but it was so big and it impacted a much wider area that it had a much larger storm surge.

After a storm blows off into the ocean or dissipates, the scientific community then spends considerable time learning the lessons from the storm.

In the case of Dorian, researchers will explore why models initially predicted a landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm. They will look at what happened to slow it down, which will inform future versions of forecasts for other storms.

In the future, Reed hopes researchers enhance their ability to represent convective processes in the models. These involve the formation of clouds and rain, especially in the context of a storm.

“That’s something that’s constantly been a difficulty,” he said. “It’s a complex process. While we have theories to understand it, we are always improving our ways to model it.”

In the next 10 years, researchers will move past the point of trying to estimate convection and will get to the point where they run models that explicitly resolve convection, which eliminates the need to estimate it.

Reed believes investing in fundamental research is “crucial. The return on investment to society and to the country is one of the best investments you can make. We have shown that through a steady improvement in the hurricane track,” which came about because of fundamental research. “The only way to continue that improvement is through basic and applied research that leads to these outcomes.”

A native of Waterford, Michigan, which is about 45 minutes away from Detroit, Reed didn’t have any firsthand experiences with hurricanes when he was growing up. Rather than watching MTV the way his friends did, he would watch hurricane updates or tropical storm updates.

A resident of Queens, Reed enjoys traveling and has a self-described “unhealthy” commitment to the University of Michigan football team. He purchases season tickets each year and takes 6 a.m. flights from LaGuardia to Michigan, where an Uber brings him to his fellow tailgaters before home games.

As for future hurricanes, Reed said the current consensus is that they will be lower in number but higher in intensity. Hurricane forecasts expect “more intense precipitation, but less frequent” storms, he said.

The use of Narcan is demonstrated on a dummy during a training class. File photo by Elana Glowatz

At Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine, a new generation of doctors and dentists are involved in a novel approach to managing the opioid epidemic. The training includes instruction from reformed narcotic users, who act as teachers.

A 25-year-old woman recently explained to the first-year students how she became addicted to opioids at the age of 15, when a friend came over with Vicodin prescribed by a dentist after a tooth extraction.

Addiction, she said, is like having a deep itch inside that desperately needs to be scratched.

“There was nothing that could stand between me and getting high,” said the young woman, who wants to remain anonymous. “Most of the time it was my only goal for the day. At $40 a pill, I quickly switched to heroin which costs $10.” 

The university’s Assistant Dean for Clinical Education Dr. Lisa Strano-Paul, who helped coordinate the session, said that “patients as teachers” is widely practiced in medical education. This is the first year reformed narcotic users are participating in the program.

“People’s stories will stick with these medical students for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Seeing such an articulate woman describe her experiences was impactful.”

Gerard Fischer, a doctor of dental surgery candidate from St. James, took part in the patient-as-teacher session on narcotics.

“You learn empathy, a quality people want to see in someone practicing medicine,“ Fischer said. “People don’t choose to become addicted to narcotics. So, you want to understand.”

After working in dental offices over the last several years, he’s noticed that habits for prescribing painkillers are changing.

“Dental pain is notoriously uncomfortable because it’s in your face and head,” he said. “No one wants a patient to suffer.” Pain management, though, requires walking a fine line, he added, saying, “Patient awareness is increasing, so many of them now prefer to take ibuprofen and acetaminophen rather than a prescription narcotic, which could be a reasonable approach.”

Hearing the young woman tell her story, he said, will undoubtedly influence his decision-making when he becomes a practicing dentist. 

An estimated 180 medical and dental students attended the training last month. Overall, Strano-Paul said she’s getting positive feedback from the medical students about the session. 

The woman who overcame addiction and shared her insights with the medical professionals, also found the experience rewarding. 

We respect her request to remain anonymous and are grateful that she has decided to share her story with TBR News Media. For the rest of this article, we shall refer to her as “Claire.” 

Faith, hope and charity

“I told the doctors that recovery has nothing to do with science,” Claire said. “They just looked at me.”

Claire was addicted to drugs and alcohol for seven years and went to rehab 10 times over the course of five years. 

“I did some crazy things, I jumped out of a car while it was moving,” Claire said, shaking her head in profound disbelief.

She leapt from the vehicle, she said, the moment she learned that her family was on their way to a rehab facility. Fortunately, she was unharmed and has now been off pain pills and drugs for close to six years. She no longer drinks alcohol.

“Yes, it is possible to recover from addiction,” Claire said. 

People with addiction issues feel empty inside, Claire explained, while gently planting her fist in her sternum. She said that once her counselor convinced her to pray for help and guidance, she was able to recover.

“Somehow praying opens you up,” she said. 

Claire was raised Catholic and attended Catholic high school but says that she’s not a religious person. 

“I said to my counselor, “How do I pray, if I don’t believe or know if there’s a God?” 

She came to terms with her spirituality by appreciating the awe of nature. She now prays regularly. Recovery, she said, is miraculous.

Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step regimen, first published in 1939 in the post-Depression era, outlines coping strategies for better managing life. Claire swears by the “big book,” as it’s commonly called. She carefully read the first 165 pages with a counselor and has highlighted passages that taught her how to overcome addictions to opioids and alcohol. Being honest, foregoing selfishness, praying regularly and finding ways to help others have become reliable sources of her strength.

Spirituality is the common thread Claire finds among the many people she now knows who have recovered from addiction.

The traditional methods of Alcohol Anonymous are helping people overcome addiction to opioids.

Medication-assisted therapy

Personally, Claire recommends abstinence over treating addiction medically with prescription drugs such as buprenorphine. The drug, approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration since 2002, is a slow-release opioid that suppresses symptoms of withdrawal. When combined with behavior therapy, the federal government recommends it as treatment for addiction. Medication alone, though, is not viewed as sufficient. The ultimate goal of medication-assisted therapy, as described on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website on the topic, is a holistic approach to full recovery, which includes the ability to live a self-directed life.

“Medication-assisted therapy should not be discounted,” Strano-Paul said. “It improves the outcome and enables people to hold jobs and addresses criminal behavior tendencies.”

While the assistant dean is not involved with that aspect of the curriculum, the topic is covered somewhat in the clerkship phase of medical education during sessions on pain management and when medical students are involved in more advanced work in the medical training, she said. 

The field, though, is specialized.

The federal government requires additional certification before a medical practitioner can prescribe buprenorphine. Once certified, doctors and their medical offices are further restricted to initially prescribe the medicine to only 30 patients annually. Critics say no other medications have government-mandated patient limits on lifesaving treatment. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, considers the therapy to be “misunderstood” and “greatly underused.” 

In New York state, 111,391 medical practitioners are registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to prescribe opioids and narcotics. Only 6,908 New York practitioners to date are permitted to prescribe opioids for addiction treatment as at Aug. 31.

Strano-Paul for instance, pointed out that she can prescribe opioids, but is prohibited from prescribing the opioid-based drug used for addiction therapy. 

The narcotics education program is still evolving, Strano-Paul said. 

New medical student training now also includes certification for Narcan, the nasal spray antidote that revives opioid overdose victims. 

“It saves lives,” Strano-Paul said. 

In Suffolk County in 2017, 424 people died from an opioid overdose, which was 41 percent higher than the state average, according to a study titled “The Staggering Cost of Long Island’s Opioid Crisis.” The county is aware of 238 potentially lifesaving overdose reversals as of June 30 attributed to Narcan this year alone. Since 2012, Narcan has helped to save the lives of 3,864 people in the county. 

As for Claire, now a mother, she delivered her children through C-section. In the hospital, she was offered prescription opioids for pain. 

“No one will ever see me again, if you give me those pills,” she said.                

In foreground, from left, senior scientist Paul O’Connor holding an electronic board, and Science Raft Subsystem manager Bill Wahl holding a mock raft assembly. Behind O’Connor, on the left, is Sean Robinson, a technical associate, who is working on a raft in the clean room, and to the left is mechanical engineer Connor Miraval, whose image is reflected on the focal plane. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

What’s out there? It’s a question that occurs to everyone from parents sleeping at night who hear a noise in the front yard to tourists aboard a whale watching cruise off the coast of Montauk to anyone looking up at the night sky.

Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory recently took a milestone step in a long journey to understanding objects and forces deep in space when they completed shipment of the last of 21 rafts that will become a part of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, in the Cerro Pachón ridge in north central Chile.

The rafts will serve as the film in a camera that will take images that cover 40 times the area of the moon in a single exposure.

The telescope, which will be the world’s largest digital camera for astronomy, will allow researchers and the general public to view asteroids at great distances. It will also provide information about dark energy and dark matter, changes in the night sky over the course of a decade of collecting data, and data that can build on knowledge about the formation and structure of the Milky Way.

Paul O’Connor, a senior scientist at BNL’s Instrumentation Division who has worked on the LSST for 17 years, expressed appreciation for the efforts of people ranging from area high schoolers to senior scientists on the project.

“It was just a joy to see the dedication from everyone to get what needed to be done,” he said in an email. “It takes a team like that to complete a project like this.”

The LSST, which is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, involves researchers from institutions all over the world who have each played a role in moving the unique telescope toward completion.

While the rafts that will function as the film for the 3.2-gigapixel sensor array are completed, O’Connor will continue to work on commissioning the telescope, which should occur gradually until it begins providing data in October of 2022.

O’Connor said the construction of the 21 raft modules containing a total of 200 16-megapixel sensors involved “moments of drama, both good and bad.”

The first time the team brought the system into its operating temperature range of about 100 degrees below zero Celsius, some of the cool-down behavior “differed from our predictions,” he explained.

That required quick thinking to make sure the equipment wasn’t damaged. This was especially important not only because the operation needed to stay on schedule but also because the rafts are expensive and the team was operating on a budget. “Each of these rafts has an enormous cash value” and involved considerable labor to build, O’Connor added.

Bill Wahl, the science raft subsystem manager of the LSST project since 2015, described how one of the challenges involved packing and shipping such sensitive electronic materials.

“We came up with a very elegant and somewhat low-cost approach,” he said, which involved shipping these rafts in a pressurized vessel that avoided damage during any shocks in transit.

The rafts, which each weighs about 25 pounds, had a shipping weight that included protective fixtures of over 100 pounds.

Additionally, the BNL team had to deal with cleanliness, as particulates can and did cause problems. Some of the rafts didn’t function the way they should have after shipping. The BNL team went through a complete refurbishing over six months, where they took all the rafts apart and cleaned them. They upgraded the design to limit the amount of particulates, Wahl said.

While BNL built the requisite rafts, it has an additional two rafts that can replace any of those in the telescope if necessary.

These extra rafts will be stored at the observatory.

Along with the challenges and some anxiety from building such sensitive equipment, the instrumentation unit also had several high points.

In January of 2017, BNL tested one of the rafts in the clean room. Scientists constructed an image projector and projected that onto the raft with enough detail to show that every pixel was functioning correctly. O’Connor made a printout of that image and taped it to his office door.

The day of the successful test was one that the team had been anticipating for “over 10 years. When the first image was delivered, it was very gratifying to see the system was working,” he said.

While O’Connor isn’t a cosmologist, he is particularly interested in the search for dark energy. “It has been puzzling the theorists and as experimentalists, we hope to take measurements that will one day lead to a resolution of this fundamental question,” he explained.

Several teams are working on the LSST in different locations. One of them is constructing the telescope in Chile, while another is assembling the camera in California.

At this point, technicians have installed about half the rafts into the main camera cryostat. Researchers will conduct a preliminary test before populating the rest of the focal plane with all the rafts later this year, O’Connor explained.

As the LSST catalogues four billion galaxies, it will “literally be impossible” to look at these areas item by item. Informatics tools will be necessary to extract all the information, O’Connor said.

Wahl suggested that the LSST could become an important educational tool for budding astronomers.

“I’m not an astronomer or physicist,” said Wahl, who will become the chief operating officer of an instrumentation group at BNL on Oct. 1, “but from my point of view, what I find absolutely amazing is that everyone relies heavily on Google Earth to look at where they are going. In a similar way, [people] are going to do that in the sky. It’s going to give them the opportunity to be junior astronomers unlike they’ve ever been able to do.”

Indeed, the LSST will help people figure out what’s out there.

Above, Leila Esmailzada, executive director of BeLocal observes a traditional charcoal making process in Madagascar. Photo from BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

BeLocal has progressed from the drawing board to the kitchen. The nonprofit group, which was started by the husband and wife team of Mickie and Jeff Nagel as well as data scientist Eric Bergerson, has been working to improve and enhance the lives of people living in Madagascar.

BeLocal, which started in 2016, has sent representatives, including Laurel Hollow resident Mickie Nagel and executive director Leila Esmailzada, to travel back and forth to the island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent.

Working with Stony Brook University students who identified and tried to come up with solutions for local challenges, BeLocal has focused its efforts on creating briquettes that use biomass instead of the current charcoal and hardwood, which not only produces smoke in Malagasy homes but also comes from cutting down trees necessary for the habitat and the wildlife it supports.

Biochar briquettes reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. Photo from BeLocal

“In the summer of 2018 we figured out that we had something that works,” said Mickie Nagel. “We had all the agricultural waste and could turn it into fuel. Our goal is to start thinking about how to bring it into communities and into the daily lives” of people in Madagascar.

In January of this year, Esmailzada partnered up with Zee Rossi to introduce the new briquettes to residents of three villages, who were interested in the BeLocal process and offered feedback.

Rossi worked in Madagascar for three years as a part of the Agricultural Food Security Advisory Section of the Peace Corps, until he recently joined the staff at BeLocal.

At this point, BeLocal has helped create four working production sites for the briquettes, all of which are on the outskirts of the Ranomofana National Park, which Stony Brook Professor Patricia Wright helped inaugurate in 1991.

The biochar briquettes solve several problems simultaneously. For starters, they reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. The biochar briquettes are made from agricultural waste, such as corn husks and cobs, rice stalks, leaves, small sticks and even unusable waste from the production of traditional charcoal.

The briquettes also produce less smoke in the homes of the Malagasy. At this point, BeLocal doesn’t have any data to compare the particulates in the air from the briquettes.

One of the current briquette makers is generating about 2,000 of the circular fuel cells per month. As a start-up effort, this could help with several families in the villages. Nagel estimates that it takes about 12 briquettes to cook a meal for a family of four. The families need to learn how to stoke the briquettes, which are slightly different from the cooking process with the charcoal and hardwood.

Esmailzada and Rossi had planned to return to Madagascar in July, where they hoped to understand how people are using these sources of energy.

Esmailzada has taught and workshopped with the Malagasy on how to make the briquettes. Since returning to the United States, where she recently completed a master’s program in public health with a focus on community health at Stony Brook University, she was eager to see how much progress has been made.

BeLocal has continued to refine the technique for creating these briquettes. Working across the border with Stony Brook graduate student Rob Myrick, Malagasy residents have tried to char the biomass in a barrel, instead of digging a pit.

“Hopefully there will be movement” with the barrel design, Nagel said.

Myrick is working on refining the airflow through the pit, which could enhance the briquette manufacturing process.

Myrick will “work on techniques [at Stony Brook] and [Rossi] will work on the process with the villagers over there,” Nagel explained in an email. Myrick has been “such a helpful and great addition to BeLocal.”

Esmailzada and Nagel are delighted that Rossi joined the BeLocal effort.

“It’s such a natural partnership,” Esmailzada said. “He built this incredible trust with this group of really dynamic people. Having him be the liaison between us and the community really came together nicely.”

Rossi explained some of the challenges in developing a collaboration that works for the Malagasy. “One of the biggest barriers is being a foreigner,” he said. “With any new thing you present to a farmer, you have to sell yourself first. It’s really important that you connect with a farmer on a person-to-person level.”

Numerous farmers are skeptical of the ongoing commitment foreign groups will have. Many of them have experience with a foreigner or a local nongovernmental organization coming in, doing a program and “not following up,” Rossi added.

Nagel is putting together a nongovernmental organization conference to get the organizations “working on projects in the same room,” she said.

Through this effort, BeLocal hopes to create new partnerships. The organization continues to work with Stony Brook’s VIP program, which stands for vertically integrated projects.

Students from sophomore year through graduate school can continue to work on the same projects. The goal is to enable a continued commitment, which the school hopes will lead to concrete results, instead of one-year efforts that often run into obstacles that are difficult to surmount in a short period of time.

Ultimately, Nagel believes the process of building briquettes could translate to other cross-border efforts and suggested that these goals should include the kind of information crowd-sourcing that benefits from other successful projects.

BeLocal is receptive to support from Long Islanders and elsewhere.

Nagel added that projects like the briquette effort keep the context and big picture in mind.

“Helping Patricia Wright save this rain forest and the lemurs will always be a goal and we know the only way to do that is to help with alternatives to food and fuel sources, and better farming techniques so they don’t have a need to slash and burn more rain forest to add more farming fields,” Nagel said.

Peter Van Nieuwenhuizen

By Daniel Dunaief

Peter van Nieuwenhuizen was sitting at the kitchen table, paying an expensive dental bill, when he received an extraordinary phone call. After he finished the conversation, he shared the exciting news — he and his collaborators had won a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work they’d done decades earlier — with his wife, Marie de Crombrugghe.

The prize, which is among the most prestigious in science, includes a $3 million award, which he will split with Dan Freedman, a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, and Sergio Ferrara from CERN.

De Crombrugghe suggested he could use the money “for a whole new set of teeth,” if he chose.

Van Nieuwenhuizen, Freedman and Ferrara wrote a paper in 1976 that extended the work another famous physicist, Albert Einstein, had done. Einstein’s work in his theory of general relativity was incomplete in dealing with gravity.

Freedman, who was at Stony Brook University at the time, van Nieuwenhuizen and Ferrara tackled the math that would provide a theoretical framework to include a quantum theory of gravity, creating a field called supergravity.

From left, Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Sergio Ferrara, and Dan Freedman in 1980.

After 43 years, “I didn’t expect” the prize at all, said van Nieuwenhuizen. It’s not only the financial reward but the “recognition in the field” that has been so satisfying to the physicist, who continues to teach as a Toll Professor in the Department of Physics at SBU at the age of 80.

“To have one’s work validated by great leaders has just been wonderful,” added Freedman, who worked at SBU through the 1980s until he left to join MIT. He treasures his years at Stony Brook.

Freedman believes a seminal trip to Paris, where he discussed formative ideas that led to supergravity with Ferrara, was possible because of Stony Brook’s support.

The physics trio approached the problem of constructing a way to account for gravity by combining general relativity and particle physics, which were in two separate scientific communities at the time. Even the conferences between the two types of physics were separate.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has infinities when scientists add quantum aspects to it. As a result, it becomes an inconsistent theory. “Supergravity is not a replacement of Einstein’s theory, it is an extension or a completion if one is bold,” van Nieuwenhuizen explained.

The Stony Brook professor suggested that supergravity is an extension of general relativity just as complex numbers are an extension of real numbers. He added that it’s unlikely that there are other extensions of general relativity that theoretical physicists have yet to postulate.

Supergravity is “confirmed by its finiteness,” he said, adding that it suggests the existence of a gravitino, which is a partner to the graviton or the gravity-carrying boson. At this point, scientists haven’t found the gravitino.

“Enormous groups have been looking” for the gravitino, but, so far, “haven’t found a single one,” van Nieuwenhuizen said. The search for such a particle isn’t a “problem for me. That’s what experimental physicists must solve,” he said.

The work has already had implications for numerous other fields, including superstring theory, which attempts to provide a unified field theory to explain the interactions or mechanics of objects. Even if the search for a gravitino doesn’t produce such a particle, van Nieuwenhuizen suggested that supergravity still remains a “tool able to solve problems in physics and mathematics.”

Indeed, since the original publication about supergravity, over 11,000 articles have supergravity as a subject.

Collaborators and fellow physicists have reached out to congratulate the trio on winning the Special Breakthrough Prize, which counts the late Stephen Hawking among its previous winners.

The theoretical impact of supergravity “was huge,” said Martin Roček, a professor in the Department of Physics at Stony Brook who has known and worked with van Nieuwenhuizen for decades.

Whenever interest in the field wanes, Roček said, someone makes a new discovery that shows that supergravity is “at the center of many things.”

He added that the researchers are “very much deserving” of the award because the theory “offers such a rich framework for formulating and solving problems.”

Roček, who worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Hawking’s laboratory, said other researchers at Stony Brook are “all delighted” and they “hope some of the luster rubs off.”

Van Nieuwenhuizen’s legacy, which is intricately linked with supergravity, extends to the classroom, where he has invested considerable time in teaching.

Van Nieuwenhuizen is a “wonderful teacher,” Roček said. Indeed, he received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2010 based on teaching evaluations from graduate students. Roček has marveled at the way van Nieuwenhuizen prepares for his lectures, adding, “He doesn’t give deep statements and leave you bewildered. He explains things explicitly and he does a lot of calculations without being dull.”

Van Nieuwenhuizen recalled the exhilaration, and challenge, that came from publishing their paper in 1976. “We knew right away” that this was a seminal paper, he said. “The race was on to discover its consequences.”

Prior to the theory, the three could work in relative calm before the physics world followed up with more research. After their discovery, they knew the “happy, isolated life is over,” he said..

Van Nieuwenhuizen has no intention to retire from the field, despite the sudden funds from the prize, which is sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma, Yuri and Julia Milner and Anne Wojcicki.

“The idea that I would stop abhors me,” he said. “I wouldn’t know what on earth I would be doing. I consider it a privilege to give these courses, to work and be paid to do my hobby. It’s really unheard of.”

A. Laurie Shroyer File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Annie Laurie Shroyer isn’t standing on a podium somewhere, listening to the national anthem with tears in her eyes and a hand over her heart as she mouths familiar words. She hasn’t won a Nobel Prize or some other distinction that will add to a medal count or that will rise to the top of her resume.

Shroyer is, however, standing tall in an arena that matters to her and to her colleagues, mentors and collaborators.

A professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Surgery at the Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine and the without compensation health science officer in the Research and Development Office at the Northport VA Medical Center, Shroyer recently learned that two of her research papers on coronary artery bypass surgery made an impressive and important list.

Her papers were ranked 8th and 28th among a review by the Journal of Cardiac Surgery of the top 11,500 papers in her field, making Shroyer one of only two senior investigators in the world with two citations in the top 50.

Researchers often work in obscurity, toiling in a lab or on a computer late into the night, analyzing data, applying for grants and receiving constructive but sometimes critical comments from peer reviewers. What many of them hope for, apart from the stability of tenure or the opportunity to provide a breakthrough discovery that alters the way other researchers or clinicians think about a disease or condition, is to make a lasting impact with their work.

In many ways, this ranking suggests that Shroyer has accomplished that with research into a surgical procedure that is increasingly common.

Shroyer is “one of the most influential cardiovascular researchers of our era,” Faisal Bakaeen, the staff surgeon and professor of surgery at the Heart and Vascular Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, explained in an email. Shroyer’s leadership in her research is “proof of her deep intellect and genius.”

Learning that her research, which Shroyer explained was interdisciplinary, collaborative and team-based, was among the most cited in the field was “really an honor,” she said. “I was very pleasantly surprised.”

Shroyer heard about the distinction from the VA Hospital, which noticed her prominent place in the realm of coronary artery bypass surgery research. She conducted one of her studies, called the ROOBY trial for Randomized On/Off Bypass, through the Northport hospital.

That research, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and benefited from the support of the VA Cooperative Studies Program Coordinating Center and the Research and Development Offices at the Northport and Denver VA Medical centers, compared the short-term and intermediate outcomes evaluating the impact of using a heart-lung machine versus operating on a beating heart.

That trial asked focused research questions about the comparative benefits of using the machine.

Shroyer concluded that there was “no off pump advantage” across a diversity of clinical outcomes and likened the process of performing this surgery without a pump to sewing a patch onto blue jeans while a child is walking up the stairs, making the stitching process more technically demanding.

Shroyer recognizes that some doctors prefer to do the procedure without the pump. Many of them suggest they have the surgical expertise to make the process a viable one for patients.Some patients may also have specific reasons to consider off pump procedures.

As for the second highly cited paper, Shroyer worked with the STS National Adult Cardiac Surgery Database Committee team and published that in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. That paper identified the most important preoperative risk factors associated with major morbidities after surgery.

“This paper described a broad-based analytical approach which was originally developed in the VA” by Drs. Karl Hammermeister, Fred Grover, Guillermo Marshall and Shroyer working together, she explained in an email. Given that the Society of Thoracic Surgery’s database has subsequently been used to address other research questions, this early statistical modeling approach has attracted considerable interest.

In terms of the overall list, Shroyer expressed a few surprises. For starters, she noticed a larger than anticipated proportion of articles focused on the surgical procedure’s clinical outcomes. In her view, the topic is important, but not to the exclusion of research focused on evaluating the process of care and the structures of care. These include actions that care providers take on behalf of their patients, the actions patients take for themselves, and the nature of the environment where patients seek out care.

“Identifying the adverse outcomes post-CABG informs you that there is a problem, but clinical outcomes research doesn’t provide guidance on how to solve” the problem or problems identified, she said, adding that she hopes future research evaluates the processes and structures of care that may affect risk-adjusted clinical outcomes.

Shroyer also expected that the findings of several trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine would have ended the debate about off-pump versus on-pump benefits. The debate, however, is “still active,” she said.

Five years from now, Shroyer anticipates changes in the list. She hopes these high impact journals will include evaluations of novel treatments and surgeon-based characteristics, which may influence risk-adjusted outcomes.

Shroyer is pleased with the collaborators who have worked with her, as well as with the information from which she has drawn her conclusions.

“This high level of citation represents a tribute to the entire VA ROOBY trial team as well as to the STS Adult Cardiac Surgery Database and National Database Committees’ members,” she said. “In addition to terrific collaborators, I feel very blessed to have had several great mentors,” which includes Gerald McDonald and Fred Grover.

She also appreciates that she has had appointments at Stony Brook and at the Northport VA Medical Center that support her research projects.

By Daniel Dunaief

Screws can’t be the best and only answer. That was the conclusion neurosurgeon Daniel Birk at the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute came to when he was reconsidering the state-of-the-art treatment for spinal injuries. The screws, which hold the spine in place, create problems for patients in part because they aren’t as flexible as bone.

That’s where Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, headed by Fotis Sotiropoulos, plans to pitch in. Working with Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine, the two Stony Brook leaders have been immersed in uniting their two disciplines to find ways engineers can improve medical care.

Fotis Sotiropoulos

The two departments have created the Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine, which will address a wide range of medical challenges that might have engineering solutions. The institute will focus on developing organs for transplantation, neurobiological challenges and cancer diagnostics.

The institute, which already taps into the medical and engineering expertise of both departments, will move into a new $75 million building at the Research and Development Park, in 2023.

The original investment from New York State’s Economic Development Council was for an advanced computing center. The state, however, had given Buffalo the same funds for a similar facility, which meant that former Stony Brook President Sam Stanley, who recently became the president of Michigan State University, needed to develop another plan.

Sotiropoulos and Kaushansky had already created a white paper that coupled engineering and medicine. They developed a proposal that the state agreed to fund. In return for their investment, the state is looking for the development of economic activity, with spin-off companies, jobs, new industries and new ideas, Kaushansky said.

The two leaders are developing “a number of new faculty recruits to flesh out the programs that are going in the building,” Kaushansky added.

Sotiropoulos, who has conducted research in the past on blood flow dynamics in prosthetic heart valves, believes in the potential of this collaboration. “This convergence of engineering and medicine is already doing what it was intended to do,” he said. Clinicians can get “crazy sci-fi ideas, talk to engineers and figure out a way to make it happen.”

In addition to spinal cord support, researchers in engineering and medicine are working on developing algorithms to make decisions about surgical interventions, such as cesarean sections. 

A recent project from principal investigator Professor Petar Djurić, chair of SBU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Gerald Quirk, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Stony Brook Medicine, recently received $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the project is to use computer science to assist with the decisions doctors face during childbirth. A potential reduction in C sections could lower medical costs. 

“This is a fantastic example of this type of convergence of engineering and medicine,” said Sotiropoulos.”

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky. Photo from SBU

While the building will host scientists across a broad spectrum of backgrounds, researchers at Stony Brook will be able to remain in their current labs and coordinate with this initiative. Combining all these skills will allow researchers to apply for more grants and, Stony Brook hopes, secure greater funding.

“For a number of years now, the [National Institutes of Health have] really favored interdisciplinary approaches to important medical problems,” Kaushansky said. “Science is becoming a team sport. The broader range of skills on your team, the more likely you’ll be successful. That’s the underlying premise behind this.”

The notion of combining medicine and engineering, while growing as an initiative at Stony Brook, isn’t unique; more than a dozen institutions in the country have similar such collaborations in place.

“We’re relatively early in the game of taking this much more holistic approach,” said Kaushansky, who saw one of the earlier efforts of this convergence when he was at the University of California at San Diego, where he worked with the Founding Chair of the Department of Bioengineering Shu Chien. 

The Stony Brook institute has created partnerships with other organizations, including Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center.

“The more clinical people we engage, the better it is for the institute,” Sotiropoulos said.

As for the bionic spine, Kaushansky has familial experience with spinal injuries. His mother suffered through several spinal surgeries. “There’s a need for much, much better mechanical weight-bearing device that will help people with back problems,” he said.

At this point, Stony Brook has gone two-thirds of the way through the National Science Foundation process to receive a $10 million grant for this spinal cord research. Sotiropoulos suggested that a bionic spine could be “a game changer.”

While the institute will seek ways to create viable medical devices, diagnostics and even organs, it will also meet the educational mandate of the school, helping to train the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students. The school already has a program called Vertically Integrated Projects, or VIPs, in place, which offers students experiential learning over the course of three or four years. The effort combines undergraduates with graduates and faculty members to work on innovative efforts.

“These projects are interdisciplinary and are all technology focused,” Sotiropoulos said. “We bring together students” from areas like engineering, computer science and medicine, which “go after big questions,” and that the VIP efforts are structured to unite engineers and doctors-in-training through the educational process.

Through the institute, Stony Brook also plans to collaborate with other Long Island research teams at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Sotiropoulos said, adding that the scientists are “not just interested in doing blue sky research. We are interested in developing services, algorithms, practices, whatever it is, that can improve patient care and costs.”

Indeed, given the translational element to the work, the institute is encouraging a connection with economic development efforts at Stony Brook, which will enable faculty to create spin-off companies and protect their ideas. The institute’s leadership would like to encourage the faculty to “create companies to market and take to market new products and developments,” said Sotiropoulos.

Photos from SBU

Kedar Kirane Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Some day, a collection of soldiers in the Army may be sleeping in a bunker near an explosion. Their lives may depend on the ability of their bunker to crack, rather than fracture and collapse.

Kedar Kirane, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stony Brook University, recently received a $359,000 grant from the Army Research Office’s Young Investigator Program to develop a computational model to predict the fracturing behavior of woven textile composites under dynamic loading, such as blasts and other impact loads.

In his work, Kirane hopes to develop a model for how composite materials fracture.

Kedar Kirane. Photo courtesy of Mechanical Engineering/Stony Brook University

Ralph Anthenien, the division chief for mechanical sciences in the U.S. Army Research Office, described the process of granting these awards as “very selective.”

The program supports “innovative breakthroughs,” he said. Part of the charter is to fund “high risk research, which won’t have a 100 percent chance of success,” but could provide a way forward for research.

Ultimately, the hope in the work the Army funds is to “protect soldier’s lives and protect Army systems,” Anthenien continued. The research should “make everything for the Army better.”

Kirane suggested that this research could also have implications in civilian life, such as to predict automotive crashworthiness. While it’s possible to consider fractures and cracks at the atomic scale, he said he is focusing on the macro level because the structures he is studying are so large.

“If you start looking at the atomic scale, it would be impossible because we don’t have the kind of computing power we would need” to convert that into buildings, bridges or other structures, Kirane said.

He is exploring the rates of loading for these fiber composite materials and would like to understand how these objects hold up in response to a blast or a projectile hitting it, as opposed to a more gradual progression of stressors.

Kirane will not conduct any of the laboratory work that explores the fracturing and reaction of the materials. Instead, he will use public data to calibrate and verify his model. The grant supports only the development of the model, not the performance of any physical experiments.

While materials are manufactured with different procedures, he is focused on how the materials fracture, crack and branch. The work is “more of a fundamental study rather than an applied study for a particular material,” he said.

One of the areas of focus in Kirane’s research involves analyzing the branching of cracks during fracture. As the cracks branch, they multiply, causing the material to break into multiple pieces.

The speed at which load builds on an object determines its reaction. A slow buildup typically causes one crack to form, while a more rapid load can cause a single crack that can branch and rebranch to produce multiple cracks.

“Being able to model this is complicated,” Kirane said. “The more it fractures, the more energy it can dissipate.” Ultimately, he would like his model to provide the Army with an idea of how much load a structure can withstand before the developing defects compromises its integrity.

In other projects, Kirane’s work will try to extrapolate from studies of smaller objects up to much larger manufactured structures. Ideally, he’d gain a better understanding of how to extend the information up to the scale at which people live.

He starts with objects that are of various dimensions, at 10 by 10 millimeters and then doubles and quadruples the size to determine the effect on their resilience and strength. There are mechanics-based scaling laws to extrapolate the structure strength to larger sizes, Kirane explained. It depends on the material and its fracturing behavior.

“That is the use of having a model: you can do some experiments in the lab, develop the model, calibrate it, use the model to predict the response and the scaling correctly,” he said.

Kirane explained that he usually tries to get data from a published journal, especially from sources where he knows the principal investigators produce reliable research. 

Indeed, sometimes the models can suggest problems with the data.“There is some back and forth” between the bench researchers and the scientific modelers, he said.

Kirane, who joined Stony Brook two years ago, has two doctoral students in his lab, one master’s student and several undergraduates. 

A resident of Westbury, he commutes about an hour back and forth. He enjoys visiting Jones Beach and appreciates the proximity to New York City. 

Raised in Pune, India, Kirane speaks English, Hindi and Marathi, which is his native language. During his schooling, which was in English, he not only pursued his interest in science but also played a percussion instrument called the tabla and was a gymnast. He says he can’t do any of the gymnastics routines from his youth today, although he does practice yoga and his gymnastics training helps. 

As for his future work, he hopes to start collaborating with scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he’d like to conduct some research at the National Synchrotron Light Source II. He’d like to understand how rocks fracture at the atomic scales.

In his own life, Kirane said he doesn’t recognize failures but sees any result that falls short of his hopes or expectations as a learning opportunity. “If something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to retry,” he explained.

Indeed, in Kirane’s research, scientists call the process of fracturing “failure,” but that judgment depends on the context. When structures are “supposed to be sacrificial and dissipate energy by fracturing,” he said, then that “fracturing is good and not equal to failure.”

 

Timothy Glotch. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Several Stony Brook University scientists are studying the health effects of lunar dust on the human body. The accompanying article describes a recent $7.5 million, five-year award that the researchers, led by Tim Glotch in the Department of Geosciences, recently won from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. See below for email exchanges with some of the other researchers.

Fifty years after astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left those fateful first footprints on the moon, a team of scientists is hoping to ensure the safety of future astronauts who remain on the moon for longer periods of time.

Led by Tim Glotch, a professor in geosciences at Stony Brook University, the research team was awarded $7.5 million in funds over five years from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The funding will begin this fall. The goal of the multinational team, which includes researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center, the American Museum of Natural History, among many others, is to explore the health effects of lunar dust.

Different from the dust on Earth, which tends to be more rounded and small, where the sharp edges have been weathered away, lunar dust has jagged edges because the lack of atmosphere prevents the same erosion.

The group, whose work is called the Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration 2 (or RISE2) will determine the effects on exposure on cell death and genetic damage.

Glotch’s team will follow up on an earlier five-year effort that just concluded and will coordinate with seven research groups that received similar funding from the space agency.

Astronauts who were on the moon for a matter of hours sometimes developed a respiratory problem called lunar hay fever, which came from the introduction of these particles into their lungs. In preparing for missions to the moon, asteroids or other planets, NASA is preparing for considerably longer term voyages, which could increase the intensity and accumulation of such dust.

At the same time, NASA is working on dust mitigation strategies, which will hopefully prevent these particles from becoming a problem, Glotch explained.

Joel Hurowitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at SBU, is leading the reactivity study. He will take simulated minerals that are common on the moon and put them in simulated lung fluids. He and the RISE2 team may be able to provide a better understanding of the risks and preclinical symptoms for astronauts.

Hurowitz is working with Hanna Nekvasil, a professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Geosciences at SBU. Nekvasil is synthesizing pure minerals in the lab, which are analogs to the materials people would encounter on the moon.

“One of the problems we counter when trying to assess the toxicity of lunar materials to astronauts is that Earth materials” don’t have the same structure or properties, explained Nekvasil in an email. “For this reason, we plan to make new materials under conditions that more closely simulate the conditions under which the materials formed at depth and were modified at the lunar surface.”

On the medical school side, the researchers will use human lung and brain cell cultures and mouse lung cells to see how the minerals and regolith affects cell viability and cell death, Glotch said.

Nekvasil explained that the research team will also explore the effects of the function of mitochondria, which can have acute and long-term health effects.

Stella Tsirka, a professor in pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook, is leading the cytotoxicity studies and will continue to look at what happens to the lungs and the central nervous system when they are exposed to lunar dust. “What we see is some transient increase in inflammatory markers, but, so far, we have not done chronic exposures,” Tsirka said. The new study will aim to study chronic exposure.

Bruce Demple, a professor in pharmacological sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU, is leading the genotoxicity efforts.

In addition to the jagged pieces of lunar dust, astronauts also may deal with areas like the dark spots on the moon, or lunar mare, which has minerals with higher amounts of iron, which can lead to the production of acidity in the lungs.

Ideally, the scientists said, NASA would design airlock systems that remove the dust from spacesuits before they come into the astronaut’s living spaces. The work on RISE2 will help NASA “understand just how big a health problem these astronauts will face if such engineering controls cannot be put into place, and develop reasonable exposure limits to the dust,” Hurowitz explained in an email.

The most likely landing spot for the next exploration is the south pole, which is the largest impact basin in the solar system. That area may have clues that lead to a greater understanding of the chronology of events from the beginning of the solar system.

“I hope future missions will help answer questions about the timing and processes through which the moon formed and evolved,” Deanne Rogers, an associate professor of geosciences at SBU, explained in an email. Rogers, who also participated in the first RISE research effort and is married to Glotch, will conduct thermal infrared spectral imaging and relate the spectral variations to chemistry and mineral variations in surface materials.

Additionally, the south pole holds volatile elements, like ice deposits. Finding ice could provide other missions with resources for a future settlement on the moon. Water on the moon could provide hydration for astronauts and, when split into its elements, could create hydrogen, which could be used for fuel, and oxygen, which could create air.

In addition to working with numerous scientists, including coordinating with the other current NASA research efforts, Glotch is pleased that RISE2 continues to fund training for undergraduates and graduate students.

The current effort is also coordinating with the School of Journalism at Stony Brook. Science journalism classes will involve writing stories about the research, profiling the scientists and going into the field for two weeks.

Glotch, who thought seriously about becoming an astronaut until he was about 23 years old, explained that he is pleased that there appears to be a “real push to go back to the moon. I have hoped to see a new human mission to the moon or beyond since I was a kid.”

————————————————————————————————Q & A with Associate Professor of Geosciences Deanne Rogers:

What role will you play in this work? Is this similar to the contribution you made to the original RISE project?

My contribution is very similar to my role in in the original RISE project. I will be participating in Theme 2, conducting thermal infrared spectral imaging and relating the spectral variations to chemistry and mineral variations in surface materials. A major new component is developing rapid analysis algorithms and pipelines, and evaluating strategies for how to best organize and integrate the various data sets.

How much of your research time will you dedicate to RISE2?
About 15% of my research time. But there will be a graduate student who will be doing the heavy lifting (collecting, processing and analyzing the data, correlating the data with surface materials and chemistry, developing the processing algorithms).
Have you and Tim spent considerable time discussing RISE2 and did you go through numerous drafts of the proposal?
Yes.
Will you also be involved in working with undergraduates and graduate students, as well as journalism school students, through the RISE2 efforts?
Yes, I will be mentoring undergrads and grads and working with the journalism students.
Are you excited to be a part of efforts to ensure the safety of astronauts on future extended trips to the moon, asteroids and/or other planets?
Yes, I am honored and excited.
Is it especially exciting/ compelling to be working on a  NASA funded effort around the 50th anniversary of the first steps on the moon?
Yes!
Are there scientific questions you hope future lunar missions answer? Do you think future expeditions will help ask new research questions?
Yes. I hope future missions will help answer questions about the timing and processes through which the moon formed and evolved to its present state. I am also interested in hydrogen sources and hydrogen mobility on the moon. History shows that we always end up with new questions whenever we send a mission to answer existing questions.

Q and A with Assistant Profess or Geosciences Joel Hurowitz:

Will you be working with Hanna Nekvasil to take minerals she produced and put them in simulated lung fluid. Is that correct? Is this simulated lung fluid a novel concept or have other research efforts taken a similar approach to understanding the effect of exposure to elements or chemicals on the lungs?

Yes, I will be working with Hanna.  Our plan is to produce a suite of high-fidelity lunar regolith simulant materials in her laboratory, characterize them extensively to ensure that they are a good chemical and mineralogical match to the different types of soil on the Moon, and then assess how toxic they are.  Some of those toxicity experiments will involve immersing the materials she creates in simulated lung fluid and assessing what chemical reactions take place between the solid regolith simulants and the lung fluid.  Other experiments will be done in collaboration with our partners in the Stony Brook medical school, and will involve, e.g., assessing how cells, DNA, and lung tissue react to these regolith simulants.  These experiments build on work that has been done by the previous iteration of RISE (1.0), but have the added benefit that we can apply the lessons learned for assessing toxicity from our first round of research, as well as making use of this new suite of very high-fidelity simulants.

Does this work have the potential to provide future missions with early warning signs of exposure, while also generating potential solutions to lunar dust driven lung damage?

This is a question that is probably better posed to our medical school colleagues on the team, Stella Tsirka and Bruce Demple.  They could speak in a much more informed way about what types of signals we might be able to recognize from, e.g., a blood test, that an astronaut is beginning to show signs of a toxicological response to regolith.

Ultimately, I think that the best solution to lunar dust driven lung damage is to engineer the exposure problem away – NASA needs to design airlock systems that remove regolith from spacesuits before they come into the astronaut’s living spaces.  Our work will help NASA to understand just how big a health problem these astronauts will face if such engineering controls cannot be put into place, and develop reasonable exposure limits to the dust.

Is there considerable excitement at Stony Brook about the RISE2 effort? Do you have, if you’ll pardon the pun, high hopes for the research and do you think this kind of effort will prove valuable for astronauts on future long term missions to the moon, asteroids or other planets?
Absolutely – we couldn’t be more excited about all of the new research we’ll be able to perform as part of RISE 2.0, in so many areas, including better understanding the origin of the Moon and asteroids from remote and laboratory analyses, and learning how to live safely and explore efficiently on the surfaces of these solar system bodies.
 Are there novel elements to the work you’re doing?
To me, the real novelty of our part of the RISE 2.0 research lies in the combination of really disparate areas of expertise to produce a very useful research outcome for NASA.  Our team combines the expertise of: (1) geologists who understand the conditions deep within the Moon that result in the formation of the rocks and regolith that are present there today, thus enabling us to better simulate the properties of lunar soil, (2) geochemists who understand how to execute experiments between fluids and soil materials to extract the maximum information about potentially toxic compounds that result from that interaction, and (3) medical scientists who can take the geological materials we make in our labs and apply them to relevant biological materials that are the best models to understand the toxic effect of lunar soil on astronauts.  It’s a truly cross-disciplinary approach that few other groups are taking.
Could this approach also have implications for people working in areas like coal mines or regions where particulates cause lung damage?
Yes – absolutely.  So much of the science we are performing is actually grounded (if you’llpardon the pun) in earlier work that has been done to understand diseases like coal miners lung, silicosis, and asbestosis.  We’re building on that foundation of research and taking it off-Earth to understand if astronauts have to be as worried about their lung health as someone donning a mining hat and heading underground.
Given that it’s been 47 years since the last manned trip to the moon, is it exciting to contribute to efforts that will allow for future safe and extended trips back to the moon?
Of course!  These issues really need to be sorted out if we’re going to ensure that the astronauts traveling to moons, asteroids, and other planets are safe, and I’m really happy to be a part of that effort.
Are there specific geologic questions you hope future missions to the moon answer? Will future samples lead to new questions?
I think one of the biggest questions that future missions that return samples from the Moon can address will relate to the timing of formation of the largest impact basins on the Moon and whether or not they record evidence for a cataclysmic “spike” in the rate of meteorite impacts in the early history of the inner Solar System.  So much of our current thinking about when life on Earth (or anywhere else in the inner Solar System) arose is tied to the idea that it must have happened after this cataclysmic “late heavy bombardment”, and yet, we aren’t completely sure whether this spike actually happened.  If it didn’t, it might force us to rethink what conditions were like on the surface of the Earth early in its geological history and when life could’ve first began.
How much of your time (as a percentage of your research time) will you dedicate to the RISE2 work?

It will vary from year to year.  Early on, I’ll be heavily invested in starting the program of research up, but then starting in 2021, I’ll hand off some of my duties in order to work on mission operations on the Mars 2020 rover mission.  I’m the deputy principal investigator for one of the instruments that is flying aboard that rover, so the year 2021 is going to be consumed with my Mars-related work.  As things start to settle down a bit on Mars (in 2022), I’ll be able to return to my RISE research.  It’ll be really exciting to see how much progress will have been made by that time, but I’ll be planning to keep tabs on the RISE research even when I’m spending more time on the Mars 2020 mission.

Q & A with Hanna Nekvasil, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Geosciences:

Will you be synthesizing pure minerals in the lab, which are analogs to the materials  astronauts would encounter on the moon?

One of the problems that we encounter when trying to assess the toxicity of lunar materials to astronauts, is that Earth materials make poor analogs, as we know from the materials brought back to Earth from the Apollo missions.  For this reason we plan to make new materials under conditions that more closely simulate the conditions under which the materials formed at depth and were modified on the lunar surface. For this work we use the experimental equipment that we normally use to simulate the processes that form and modify igneous rocks on Earth modified for the special low oxygen conditions of the Moon.  The materials produced will simulate more closely both the compositional and textural characteristics of dust that we expect will be encountered in future manned lunar missions.
Will Joel Hurowitz use these minerals to expose them to lung fluids? 
The RISE4E team will expose cells to the new lunar regolith simulants and assess the molecular effects to understand the cytotoxic and genotoxic potential of the new, more relevant simulants. Beyond the cell-killing and DNA-damaging capacity of the materials, we will also examine their effects on the function of mitochondria: dysfunction in that organelle can have both acute and long-term health effects.
Are you excited to be a part of an effort that may one day help ensure the safety of astronauts who spend considerable time on a lunar habitat? 
I am very excited about this and I think that the diverse team that we have assembled has great potential to really move our understanding of the potential toxicity of lunar materials forward.
Is there a specific question or mission objective you hope future trips to the moon addresses?
My greatest hope is that we encounter a diverse set of new rocktypes as each new rocktype will provide a wealth of information on the origin and evolution of the Moon’s surface and interior.