Science & Technology

R.C. Murphy Junior High School and Harbor Country Day School take home honors

Great Neck South Middle School’s Team 1 edged out R.C. Murphy Junior High School of Stony Brook to take first place in the Long Island Regional Middle School Science Bowl held at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton on March 2.

Longwood Junior High School in Middle Island placed third and Harbor Country Day School in St. James placed fourth.

Twelve teams took part in the competition and were made up of four students, one alternate and a teacher who served as an adviser and coach. Presented in a fast-paced question-and-answer format, each team was tested on a range of science disciplines including biology, chemistry, Earth science, physics, energy and math.

As the winning team, Great Neck South will be awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to the National Finals in Washington, D.C., scheduled to take place from April 25 to 29. The top 16 middle school teams in the National Finals will win $1,000 for their schools’ science departments.

“The National Science Bowl has grown into one of the most prestigious and competitive science academic competitions in the country, challenging students to excel in the STEM fields so vital to America’s future,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “I am proud to oversee a department that provides such a unique and empowering opportunity for our nation’s students.”

Danielle Davey, a science teacher from Harbor Country Day School, said she was happy that her team placed in the competition. “This was our first year participating in the competition and we’re happy that we took fourth place,” said Davey. “I told my students this is about teamwork and just do your best. We are grateful to Brookhaven Lab for hosting the event and we plan to be back next year!”

Participating students received a Science Bowl T-shirt, and winning teams also received trophies, medals and banners, courtesy of event sponsor Brookhaven Science Associates, the company that manages and operates the lab for DOE.

For more information, visit www.bnl.gov.

Photos courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Tobias Janowitz with research technician Ya Gao at Cold Spring Harbor Lab Photo by ©Gina Motisi, 2019/CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s a low-tech setting with high stakes. Scientists present their findings, often without slides and pictures, to future colleagues and collaborators in a chalk talk, hoping faculty at other institutions see the potential benefit of offering them an employment opportunity.

For Tobias Janowitz, this discussion convinced him that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was worth uprooting his wife and three young children from across the Atlantic Ocean to join.

Chalk talks in most places encourage people to “defend their thinking. Here, it was completely different. They moved on from my chalk talk quickly,” said Janowitz in a recent interview.

Research technician Ya Gao and Tobias Janowitz at Cold Spring Harbor Lab. Photo by ©Gina Motisi, 2019/CSHL

Janowitz recalled how CSHL CEO Bruce Stillman asked him “what else will you do that’s important and high risk. He moved me on from that discussion within five minutes and essentially skipped a step I’d usually spend at another institution. It’s a very special place.”

Janowitz, who earned a medical degree and a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, came to the lab to work in a field where he’s distinguished himself with cancer research that points to the role of a glycoprotein called interleukin 6, or IL-6, in a specific step in the progression of the disease, and as a medical oncologist. He will work as a clinician scientist, dedicated to research and discovery and advancing clinical care, rather than delivering standard care.

As CSHL continues to develop its ongoing relationship with Northwell Health, Janowitz said he expects to be “one of the intellectual bridges between the two institutions.”

In his research, the scientist specializes in understanding the reciprocal interaction between a tumor and the body. Rather than focusing on one type of cancer, he explores the insidious steps that affect an organ or system and then wants to understand the progression of signals and interactions that lead to conditions like cachexia, in which a person with cancer loses weight and his or her appetite declines, depriving the body of necessary nutrition.

CSHL Cancer Center Director David Tuveson appreciates Janowitz’s approach to cancer.

“Few scientists are ready to embrace the macro scale of cancer, the multiple organ systems and body functions which are impaired,” Tuveson said. Janowitz is “trying to understand the essential details [of cachexia and other cancer conditions] so he can interrupt parts of it and give patients a better chance to go on clinical trials that would fight their cancer cells.”

A successful and driven scientist and medical doctor, Janowitz “is very talented and could be anywhere,” Tuveson said, and was pleased his new colleague decided to join CSHL.

Janowitz suggested that the combination of weight loss and loss of appetite in advancing cancer is “paradoxical. Why would you not be ravenously hungry if you’re losing weight? What is going on that drives this biologically seemingly paradoxical phenomenon? Is it reversible or modifiable?”

At this point, his research has shown that tumors can reprogram the host metabolism in a way that it “profoundly affects immunity and can affect therapy.” Reversing cachexia may require an anti-IL-6 treatment, with nutritional support.

As he looks for clinical cases that could reveal the role of this protein in cachexia, Janowitz has seen that patients with IL-6-producing tumors may have a worse outcome, a finding he is now seeking to validate.

At this point, treatment for other conditions with anti-IL-6 drugs has produced few side effects, although patients with advanced cancer haven’t received such treatment. Researchers know how to dose antibodies to IL-6 in the human body and treatment intervals would last for a few weeks.

Scientists have long thought of cancer as being like a wound that doesn’t heal. IL-6 is important in infections and inflammation.

Ultimately, Janowitz hopes to extend his research findings to other diseases and conditions. To do that, he would need to take small steps with one disease before expanding an effective approach to other conditions. “Are disease processes enacting parts of the biological response that are interchangeable?” he asked. “I think that’s the case.”

Eventually, Janowitz hopes to engage in patient care, but he first needs to obtain a license to practice medicine in the United States. He hopes to take the steps to achieve certification in the next year.

He plans to gather samples from patients on Long Island to study cancer and its metabolic consequences, including cachexia.

Several years down the road, the scientist hopes the collaborations he has with neuroscientists can reveal basic properties of cancer.

Tuveson believes Janowitz has “the potential of having a big impact individually as well as on everyone around him,” at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “We are lucky to recruit him and want him to succeed and solve vexing problems so patients get better.”

Janowitz lives in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory housing with his wife Clary and their three children, Viola, 6, Arthur, 4, and Albert, 2.

Clary is a radiation oncologist who hopes to start working soon at Northwell Health.

The Janowitz family has found Long Island “very welcoming” and appreciates the area’s “openness and willingness to support people who have come here,” he said. The family enjoys exploring nature.

The couple met at a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was performed by a traveling cast of the Globe in Emmanuel College Gardens in Cambridge, England.

As with many others, Janowitz has had family members who are living with cancer, including both of his parents. His mother has had cancer for more than a decade and struggles with loss of appetite and weight. He has met many patients and their relatives over the years who struggle with these phenomena, which is part of the motivation for his dedication to this work.

Most cancer patients, Janowitz said, are “remarkable individuals. They adjust the way that they interact with the world and themselves when they get life changing diagnoses.” Patients have a “very reflected and engaged attitude” with the disease, which makes looking after them “incredibly rewarding.”

Felix Hoppe-Seyler

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I enjoy doing history of science because I learn so much when delving into the past. If I am reading about cell theory and the types of tissues there are, I remember the course in microscopic techniques I took as an undergraduate at NYU.

I did not know then that the microtome to cut slices of tissue for making slides was first introduced by Johannes Purkinje. I did not know that growing bacteria on agar plates or slants in test tubes to obtain pure cultures was first done by Robert Koch. I did not know that the word “mutation,” as a change in heredity, was first introduced by Hugo de Vries. Similarly, I did not know that Bernhard Tollens first showed carbohydrates were composed of sugars.

It was William Cheselden who first demonstrated that the role of saliva was to break down food for digestion. I did not know the chemical notation for representing molecules, like CO2 being carbon dioxide was invented by Jöns Berzelius. I did not know the first person to show that oxygen binds to hemoglobin was Felix Hoppe-Seyler. But I did know that Albrecht Kossel was the first to isolate and name the nitrogenous biases of nucleic acid and he called them adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine and uracil. 

I did not know ringworm was shown to be a fungal parasite by Johann Schönlein. He also changed the name “consumption” to “tuberculosis” and made a third contribution: He was the first science professor to teach in his native tongue, German, instead of Latin to his students. It was Rudolf Leuckart who worked out the nematode parasite causing trichinosis in pork, and his work led to compulsory meat inspection in most industrial countries. The first phylogenetic tree for evolutionary history of plants or animals was constructed by Ernst Haeckel (that I did know).

Even the nouns I use as a scientist have known origins: Tissue was first introduced by Marie François Xavier Bichat at the time of the French Revolution (his 20 different tissues became the four basic tissues I learned as an undergraduate).

The cell theory was first promoted by Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann in 1838. It was changed to a cell doctrine (all cells arise from preceding cells) by Robert Remak and Rudolf Virchow. Most of the names I have mentioned lived in the 1700s and 1800s. We remember the names of 20th century scientists partly because they are published in textbooks. But if one studies a field and looks at old textbooks of about 100 years ago or more, lots of terms used in those past generations have disappeared. Also, the names of then recent scientists are abundant.

It is a curious honor to be a discoverer of something important and then 100 years after your death your role in it is no longer present in texts or scientific articles. Who remembers that Karl Gegenbaur first introduced the idea of homology into comparative anatomy (your hands, a bat’s wings and a horse’s forefeet are homologous because they have an embryonic common formation from an initial limb bud)?   

Scientists do science because they enjoy the opportunity to make discoveries. Very few will be remembered for centuries like Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All who have published will be dug up centuries from now by historians curious about the origins of ideas and processes of our own generation.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

TBR: How has science changed over the years?

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

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

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

TBR: That must change the way people conduct experiments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: What about local challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: Is that improving at all?

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

TBR: What are your future goals?

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

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

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

TBR: How many more years before you retire?

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Jensen on a container ship in the Pacific Ocean, where he was measuring marine clouds. Photo from M. Jensen

By Daniel Dunaief

They often seem to arrive at the worst possible time, when someone has planned a picnic, a wedding or an important baseball game. In addition to turning the sky darker, convective clouds can bring heavy rains and lightning.

For scientists like Michael Jensen, a meteorologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, these convective clouds present numerous mysteries, including one he hopes to help solve.

Aerosols, which come from natural sources like trees or from man-made contributors, like cars or energy plants, play an important role in cloud formation. The feedbacks that occur in a cloud system make it difficult to understand how changes in aerosol concentrations, sizes or composition impact the properties of the cloud.

“One of the big controversies in our field is how aerosols impact convection,” Jensen explained in an email. “A lot of people believe that when a storm ingests aerosols, it makes it stronger, because there are changes to precipitation and particles in the clouds.”

This process is called convective invigoration, which could make it rain more.

Another group of scientists, however, believes that the aerosols have a relatively small effect that is masked by other storm processes, such as vertical winds. 

Strong vertical motions that carry air, water and heat through the atmosphere are a signature of convective storms.

Jensen will lead an effort called Tracking Aerosol Convection Interactions Experiment, or TRACER, starting in April of 2021 in Houston that will measure the effect of these aerosols through a region where he expects to see hundreds of convective storm clouds in a year. 

From left, Donna Holdridge, from Argonne National Laboratory; Michael Jensen, kneeling; and Petteri Survo, from Vaisal Oyj in Helsinki, Finland during a campaign in Oklahoma to study convective storms. The team is testing new radiosondes, which are instruments sent on weather balloons. Photo from M. Jensen

The TRACER team, which includes domestic and international collaborators, will measure the clouds, precipitation, aerosol, lighting and atmospheric thermodynamics in considerable detail. The goal of the campaign is to develop a better understanding of the processes that drive convective cloud life cycle and convective-aerosol interactions.

Andrew Vogelmann, a technical co-manager of the Cloud Properties and Processes Group at BNL with Jensen, indicated in an email that the TRACER experiment is “generating a buzz within the community.” 

While other studies have looked at the impact of cities and other aerosol sources on rainfall, the TRACER experiment is different in the details it collects. In addition to collecting data on the total rainfall, researchers will track the storms in real time and will focus on strong updrafts in convection, which should provide specific information about the physics.

Jensen is exploring potential sites to collect data on the amount of water in a cloud, the size of the drops, the phase of the water and the shapes of the particles. He will use radar to provide information on the air velocities within the storm.

He hopes to monitor the differences in cloud characteristics under a variety of aerosol conditions, including those created by industrial, manufacturing and transportation activities.

Even a perfect storm, which starts in an area with few aerosols and travels directly through a region with many, couldn’t and wouldn’t create perfect data.

“In the real atmosphere, there are always complicating factors that make it difficult to isolate specific processes,” Jensen said. To determine the effect of aerosols, he is combining the observations with modeling studies.

Existing models struggle with the timing and strength of convective clouds.

Jensen performed a study in 2011 in Oklahoma that was focused on understanding convective processes, but that didn’t hone in on the aerosol-cloud interactions.

Vogelmann explained that Jensen is “well-respected within the community and is best known for his leadership” of this project, which was a “tremendous success.”

Since that study, measurement capabilities have improved, as has modeling, due to enhanced computing power. During the summer, Long Island has convective clouds that are similar to those Jensen expects to observe in Houston. Weather patterns from the Atlantic Ocean for Long Island and from the Gulf of Mexico for Houston enhance convective development.

“We experience sea breeze circulation,” Jensen said. Aerosols are also coming in from New York City, so many of the same physical processes in Houston occur on Long Island and in the New York area.

As the principal investigator, Jensen will travel to Houston for site selection. The instruments will collect data every day. During the summer, they will have an intensive operational period, where Jensen and other members of the TRACER team will forecast the convective conditions and choose the best days to add cloud tracking and extra observations.

Jensen expects the aerosol impact to be the greatest during the intermediate strength storms. 

The BNL meteorologist described his career as jumping back and forth between deep convective clouds and marine boundary layer clouds.

Jensen is a resident of Centerport and lives with his wife Jacqui a few blocks from where he grew up. Jacqui is a banker for American Community Bank in Commack. The couple has a 22-year-old son Mack, who is a substitute teacher at the Harborfields school district.

Jensen describes his family as “big music people,” adding that he plays euphonium in a few community band groups, including the North Shore Community Band of Longwood and the Riverhead Community Band.

As an undergraduate at SUNY Stony Brook, Jensen was broadly interested in science, including engineering. In flipping through a course catalog, he found a class on atmospheric science and thought he’d try it.

Taught by Robert Cess, who is now a professor emeritus at SBU, the class “hooked” him.

Jensen has been at BNL for almost 15 years. Over that time, he said the team has “more influence in the field,” as the cloud processing group has gone from six to 18 members. The researchers have “expanded our impact in the study of different cloud regimes and developed a wide network of collaborations and connections throughout the globe.”

As for his work in the TRACER study, Jensen hopes to “solve this ongoing debate, or at least provide new insights into the relative role of aerosols and dynamics.”

From left, Anne Churchland and Tatiana Engel. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Movies have often used an image of a devil on one shoulder, offering advice, and an angel on another, suggesting a completely different course of action. People, however, weigh numerous factors when making even the simplest of decisions.

The process the brain uses to make decisions involves excitatory and inhibitory neurons, which are spread throughout the brain. Technology has made it possible to study thousands of these important cells on an active mouse, showing areas that are active at the same time.

Anne Churchland, an associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Tatiana Engel, an assistant professor at the same facility, are collaborating on a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that will study the way neurons interact to understand the patterns that lead to decisions. 

Engel said she, Churchland and another collaborator on the project, Stanford University Professor Krishna Shenoy, applied for the funding in response to a call from the NIH to develop computational methods and models for analyzing large-scale neural activity recordings from the brain.

Churchland and Shenoy will provide experimental data for the computational models Engel’s lab will develop. The data is “huge and complex,” Engel said, and researchers need new methods to understand it. “The simple techniques don’t translate to large-scale recordings,” Engel said.

Churchland and Engel jointly hired James Roach, a postdoctoral researcher who recently earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan and works in both of their labs. 

Churchland’s lab will provide data from the mouse model, while Engel’s lab brings computational expertise.

“Little is known about how these neurons are connected to behavior,” Engel said. Their research will hope to explain the role of inhibitory cells, which may have a more finely tuned function beyond keeping cells from remaining in an excited state.

The prevailing view in the field is that inhibitory neurons provide a balancing input to the network to prevent it from generating too much excitation or creating a seizure. Inhibitors are like the regulators that tap the brakes on a network that’s becoming too active.

Excitatory neurons, by contrast, are the ones that have an important job, representing the decisions individuals make.

Churchland is going to measure neural activity using a 2-photon microscope that allows her to measure the activity of about 600 neurons simultaneously. 

“This provides an incredible opportunity to analyze the data, using tools borrowed from machine learning and dynamical systems,” she explained in an email.

What Churchland’s data has helped show, however, is that the inhibitory neurons are doing more than providing a global braking signal. “They have some dedicated role in the circuit and we don’t know what that role is yet,” Engel said.

The team will build neural circuit models to help understand how the system is wired and what role each type of cell plays in various behaviors.

“We are developing computational frameworks where we can go and analyze activities of large groups of cells and, from the data, determine how individual cells contribute to the activity of the population,” Engel said.

Brains have considerable plasticity, which means that when one area of the brain isn’t functioning for whatever reason — through an injury or a temporary blockage ‒ other areas can compensate. “The whole problem is immensely complicated to figure out what a brain area is doing normally,” she explained. The picture can “completely change when there’s brain damage.”

Research is moving in the direction of understanding and manipulating large neural circuits at once, rather than a single area at a time. 

“Models can extract general principles, which still hold true even in more complex” systems Engel said. The principles include understanding how excitatory and inhibitory cells are balanced. “Models can help you figure out what works and doesn’t work.”

Roach, the current postdoctoral researcher working with Engel and Churchland, will start with modeling and then will develop experiments to test the role of inhibitory cells. He has already worked on computer programs that interpret neurological circuits and laboratory results. He is also receiving laboratory training.

At this point, Engel and Churchland are working on basic science. Engel explained that this type of research is the foundation for translation work that will lead to an improved diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. Basic science can, and often does, provide insights and information that help those working to understand or treat disease, she suggested.

Churchland was pleased with her collaboration with Engel.

Engel is “best known for modeling work she did studying neural mechanisms of attention,” Churchland explained in an email. “She is a great addition to Cold Spring Harbor! We work together in the same building and are trying to unravel the mysteries of how large groups of neurons in the brain work together to make decisions.”

A resident of the facilities at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Engel grew up in Vologda, which is over 300 miles north of Moscow. Starting in seventh grade, she attended physics and math schools, first in her home town and then at a boarding school at the Moscow State University.

She learned to appreciate the value of science from the journals her parents subscribed to, including one for children called Kvant magazine. She solved physics problems in that magazine. “I enjoyed the articles and problems in Kvant,” she explained in an email.

As for her work, Engel suggested that there were many discoveries ahead. “It is an exciting and transformative time in neuroscience,” she said.

Third-place winners from Commack High School from left, Luke Maciejewski, Nathan Cheung, Riley Bode, Louis Vigliette and Kevin Chen. Photo from BNL
Commack and Walt Whitman high schools take home honors
Fourth-place winners from Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, from left, Rena Shapiro, Eliot Yoon, Matthew Kerner and Aiden Luebker. Photo from BNL

Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton held its annual Long Island Regional High School Science Bowl on Jan. 26. Out of 20 teams from across Long Island, Levittown’s Island Trees High School took the top spot and was awarded an all-expenses-paid trip to the National Finals in Washington, D.C., scheduled for Apr. 25 to 29. 

Old Westbury’s Wheatley School took home second place; Commack High School placed third; and Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station placed fourth.

The event was just one of the nation’s regional competitions of the 29th Annual DOE National Science Bowl (NSB). 

A series of 111 regional high school and middle school tournaments are held across the country from January through March. Teams from diverse backgrounds are each made up of four students, one alternate, and a teacher who serves as an adviser and coach. These teams face off in a fast-paced question-and-answer format where they are tested on a range of science disciplines including biology, chemistry, Earth science, physics, energy and math. The NSB draws more than 14,000 middle- and high-school competitors.

“The National Science Bowl has grown into one of the most prestigious and competitive science academic competitions in the country, challenging students to excel in the STEM fields so vital to America’s future,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “I am proud to oversee a Department that provides such a unique and empowering opportunity for our nation’s students, and I am honored to congratulate Island Trees High School for advancing to the National Finals, where they will be competing against some of the brightest science, technology and engineering students across the country.”

The top 16 high school teams and the top 16 middle school teams in the National Finals will win $1,000 for their schools’ science departments. Prizes for the top two high school teams for the 2019 NSB will be announced on a later date.

In the competition at Brookhaven Lab, participating students received a Science Bowl T-shirt and winning teams also received trophies, medals and cash awards. Prizes were courtesy of BNL’s event sponsor, Brookhaven Science Associates, the company that manages and operates the lab for DOE.

For more information, visit www.science.energy.gov

Markus Seeliger with a model of a protein kinase. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

They are like couples looking for each other on a dating website. Each side could theoretically find a range of connections. The focus in this dating game, however, has heavily favored understanding the preferences of one side. 

Markus Seeliger, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at the Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine, has taken important steps to change that, albeit in a completely different area. Instead of working with two people who are searching for a date, Seeliger studies the interactions among protein kinases, which are like switches that turn on or off cellular signals, and inhibitors, which researchers and drug companies are creating to slow down or stop the progression of diseases.

Markus Seliger

Most scientists have looked at the pairing of these molecules and protein kinases from the perspective of the inhibitor, trying to figure out if it would bind to one of the 500 protein kinases in the human body.

Seeliger, however, is exploring the coupling from the other side, looking at the selectivity of the kinases. He published recent research in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.

“People have only ever looked at the specificity from the point of view of an inhibitor,” Seeliger said. “We’ve turned it around. We’re looking at it from the perspective of kinases,” adding that kinases have been important drug targets for decades.

In an email, Michael Frohman, a SUNY distinguished professor and the chair of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences, applauded Seeliger’s efforts and said his research “is representative of the innovative work going on in many of the labs here.” 

On a first level, Seeliger discovered eight kinases that bind to a range of potential inhibitors, while the others are more selective.

Within the smaller group that binds a range of inhibitors, there was no sequence relationship between the base pairs that formed the kinases. The kinases are also not closely related in the cellular functions they regulate. They all trigger similar signaling cascades. 

Seeliger wanted to know why these eight kinases were four to five times more likely to couple with an introduced inhibitor than their more selective kinase counterparts. The Stony Brook scientist performed a three-dimensional analysis of the structure of one of these kinases at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“They have a very large binding pocket that can accommodate many different inhibitors,” Seeliger said. Indeed, he discovered this higher level of receptivity by separating out this group of eight, which also had more flexible binding sites. If the match between the configuration of the inhibitor and the kinase isn’t perfect, the kinase can still find a way to allow the molecule to connect.

For any potential inhibitor introduced into the human body, this more flexible and accommodating group of kinases could cause unintended side effects regardless of the level of specificity between the inhibitor or drug and other targets. This could have health implications down the road, as other researchers may use the properties of these kinases to switch off programs cancer or other diseases use to continue on their destructive paths.

“Studies point to the roles of protein kinases as driving (to at least allowing and permitting) cancer growth and development,” Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, explained in an email. “Therefore, one needs to inhibit them.”

Hannun described Seeliger as “very rigorous” and suggested he was an “up and coming scientist” whose “novel approach” shed significant new light on protein kinases.

In his research, Seeliger’s next step is to look at the existing database to see what other groups of kinases he finds and then determine why or how these switches have similarities to others in other systems or regions of the body.

Seeliger likened kinases to a control panel on a space shuttle. “Nothing about the sequence tells you about the role of the switches,” which would make it difficult for astronauts to know which switch to turn and in what order to bring the shuttle home.

Another question he’d like to address involves a greater understanding of the complexity of a living system. So far, he’s looked at properties of these kinases under controlled conditions. When he moves into a more complex environment, the inhibitors will likely interact and yield unexpected binding or connections.

Frohman appreciated Seeliger’s overall approach to his work and his contribution to the field. He cited the popularity of a review article Seeliger wrote that documents how drug molecules find their target binding site. Frohman said this work, which was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, was cited over 400 times in other articles.

Seeliger has been “very dedicated to moving this field forward. We were very excited about the topic and have been very pleased with the work he’s done on it since arriving at SBU,” Frohman said.

A resident of Stony Brook, Seeliger lives with his wife Jessica Seeliger, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences who works on developing drugs for tuberculosis. The couple has two young children.

“We are all very happy they are both here as independent scientists,” Frohman added.

Indeed, Hannun called Jessica Seeliger an “outstanding and highly talented scientist,” as well.

Seeliger grew up in Hanover, Germany. He became interested in science in high school when he watched “The Double Helix,” which showed the development of the structural model of DNA.

His lab currently has two postdoctoral researchers and two doctoral candidates. Ultimately, Seeliger hopes his research helps establish an understanding of the way various kinases are functionally similar in how they interact with drugs.

“We wish we would be able to design more specific inhibitors without having to test dozens and dozens of compounds by trial and error,” he explained. He hopes to continue to build on his work with kinases, including exploring what happens when mutations in these switches cause disease.

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