Stony Brook University

In the fall, OLLI classes were contained in the Social & Behavioral Sciences building, the Charles B. Wang Center, above, and Student Activities Center this fall. Photo from Stony Brook University

Despite a rocky start to the past fall semester, members of an adult continuing education program persist in improving their lot with Stony Brook University.

“We are confident that as we move into next year, we will see an increase in new members and with returning members.”

— Diane Perillo

In January, SBU administrators invited members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program that offers workshops, lectures and activities to retired and semiretired individuals, to participate in focus groups to provide feedback on changes SBU implemented to the program during the fall semester of 2018. The changes included OLLI classes on campus being held only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays instead of every day; class duration changing from 75 minutes to 60; and OLLI students using metered parking lots on campus instead of parking in a designated area.

While members received hang tags so they wouldn’t have to put coins in the meters, they were charged an additional $75 in OLLI fees per semester for the new parking agreement. The changes led to approximately 400 past members declining to enroll in the fall of 2018.

Diane Perillo, director of finance and administration for the School of Professional Development, which oversees OLLI, said during the January focus groups, SBU administrators received positive feedback from OLLI members about the previous semester that she described as a pilot plan, and she is confident the program will grow. The School of Professional Development also surveyed members to gather their thoughts about the changes, and the director said the current program members helped provide insight on how to move forward.

“Overall members were happy with the parking that was made available to them,” Perillo said. “Membership meetings have been extremely positive, the new leadership within the School of Professional Development has been sharing information with members and, when possible, acting on requests and communicating changes to the membership.”

Perillo said there was a decline in enrollment in the fall, which was expected, and the 400 members who did not return were also surveyed. She said some did not return for workshops due to illness or having a loved one who was sick. Others reported they only attended Tuesday and Thursday in the past.

“I have already run into some people who said they are coming back.”

— John Gobler

Peter Stubberfield, in an email to The Village Times Herald, said he was one of the 400 who didn’t return to the OLLI workshops this fall due to the parking fee and reduction of class time, and he said he didn’t receive a survey from the university asking him why he didn’t continue with the program.

Perillo said new and past members have the option to sign up for OLLI workshops in the spring for $162.50 with a parking fee of $75, which is half of the yearly rate. As a rule, OLLI does not offer prorated memberships. She said spring workshops would once again be 75 minutes, and the break between classes will be reduced. While workshops are only held on campus Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the director said there are off-campus classes held Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We have seen a slight increase in membership this spring,” she said. “We are confident that as we move into next year, we will see an increase in new members and with returning members.”

John Gobler, one of the workshop leaders, said he attended one of the focus groups, and he was pleased that SBU’s administration acknowledged the drop in membership. He added that while the fall semester was rocky, he is positive about the future of OLLI.

“I know there are people coming back,” he said. “I have already run into some people who said they are coming back,” adding they told him they heard from others the program was getting better.

Sue Parlatore, a member of OLLI’s advisory board, said at first members who signed up for the fall were worried about the changes, especially parking; however, she said the university accommodated them. She said she and others found the hour between classes was too much time and were happy to hear the time has been reduced to 30 minutes.

“The university, in my opinion, they really do seem to be trying their best to make it work for us,” Parlatore said, adding that she feels the rumor that SBU does not welcome them is unfounded.

She said those who didn’t enroll again in the fall should consider coming back.

“I would encourage anybody to try it,” she said. “I think they would be very pleasantly surprised.”

Perillo is also optimistic.

“I am confident that as a community we will be able to work out a plan for fall 2019 and spring 2020 that we will re-inspire members to return and bring back their workshops,” she said. “If members choose not to return, I am confident that our current and new members will offer engaging, community-based noncredit workshops that will enable Stony Brook University’s OLLI program to continue to flourish.”

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.

Dr. David Fiorella and Eric Niegelberg. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

As American Heart Month kicks off in February, Stony Brook Medicine is finalizing plans to provide speedy help to stroke victims in Suffolk County.

“When a blood vessel supplying the brain is blocked, it is estimated that nearly two million brain cells are lost for each minute that passes, making stroke the most time sensitive diagnosis we have in medicine.”

— Dr. David Fiorella

The Stony Brook Cerebrovascular and Comprehensive Stroke Center and the Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine will launch Long Island’s first mobile stroke unit program in March. The program will include specially equipped ambulances that will be strategically based along the length of the Long Island Expressway, taking calls within 10 miles of their bases.

The hope is to ensure response times of 20 minutes or less.

“When a blood vessel supplying the brain is blocked, it is estimated that nearly two million brain cells are lost for each minute that passes, making stroke the most time sensitive diagnosis we have in medicine,” said Dr. David Fiorella, director of the stroke center and professor of neurological surgery and radiology at the Renaissance School of Medicine. “The faster we can restore blood flow to the brain the more likely that the patient will have a full recovery.”

The units will be available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., which is the window of time when most stroke calls are received.

Eric Niegelberg, associate director of Operations for Emergency Services and Internal Medicine, said an evaluation was completed to choose what time frame the mobile units would be available.

“We evaluated 911 ambulance call volume by area in the county and combined that data with what we felt was a reasonable response distance and time.”

— Eric Niegelberg,

“We looked at actual data for five years and historically the highest percentage of stroke calls come in during that time frame,” he said, adding once the program begins Stony Brook Medicine will continue to evaluate data and modify the hours based upon current call volume.

While the first unit will be deployed at Exit 57 on the LIE sometime between mid-to-late March, the second will not be in use until April and will be set up at Exit 68.

“The locations were chosen based upon call volume,” Niegelberg said. “We evaluated 911 ambulance call volume by area in the county and combined that data with what we felt was a reasonable response distance and time. Based upon this analysis the two locations were chosen. We did want locations that would provide easy North-South and East-West access.”

The units will include an in-ambulance care team, telemedicine system that enables emergency physicians and neurologists to see the patient via audio/visual conferencing, CT scanner for a standard scan and CT scan angiogram, which allows doctors to check for bleeding in the brain immediately.

Robert Simpson, district manager of Medford Volunteer Ambulance, said the mobile stroke units would be valuable to emergency response workers.

“As an EMS provider, we are always looking for ways to enhance treatment to patients,” Simpson said. “I think that it will definitely be an asset to us, especially for patients with strokes. As they say, ‘Saving time, saves the brain.’ Minutes count when someone is having a stroke as far as being able to enhance their chances of survival.”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 140,000 Americans each year.

Malagasy women break up granite stones to be used as gravel in the construction of the IUCN research center. Photo from Ali Yapicioglu

By Daniel Dunaief

After considerable planning, fundraising and coordinating, Patricia Wright welcomed a star-studded group of scientists, government officials and conservationists recently for the roof raising of the new IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center in Madagascar.

The building, which cost about $1 million, is a part of Centre ValBio, which is a conservation and research center Wright, a Distinguished Service Professor and award-winning researcher  at Stony Brook University, founded in 2003. CVB is near Ranomafana National Park in the southeastern part of the African island nation.

Above, a sketch of the IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center/Image courtesy of InSite Architecture

When it is completed this summer, the new building, which includes a green roof balcony and a central staircase and breezeway, is expected to provide research facilities for about ten scientists. They will study insects and plants, frogs and lemurs, the primates Wright has observed, researched, and shared with the public for over 30 years. Visiting scientists can apply to work at the center starting in September.

Russell Mittermeier, the Chief Conservation Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation and a research professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook, suggested that these types of efforts pay dividends.

It’s “hard to predict what will be found but history has shown us that there are endless benefits to conserving biodiversity and maintaining healthy ecosystems,” Mittermeier, the Chair of the IUCN/ SSC Primate Specialist Group, explained in an email from Madagascar.

Conservationists credit Wright with adding the new Biodiversity Centre to the larger research and conservation presence in Madagascar.“Wright was instrumental” in developing the facility, said Christoph Schwitzer, the Director of Conservation at Bristol Zoological Society and the Deputy Chair and Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “Without her, it wouldn’t be there. She started this whole project.”

The IUCN expressed its appreciation for the work Wright put in to continue to build on her track record of conservation.

At IUCN, “we highly value our collaboration with [Wright] and we understand she has established a good relationship with the Park Manager of Ranomafana National Park,” Remco Van Merm, the Coordinator of IUCN’s Saving Our Species initiative, explained in an email.

Save Our Species funds projects that “enhance the conservation of threatened species,” Van Merm added. “In the case of the new SOS Biodiversity Research Centre at Centre ValBio in Madagascar, the research that will be carried out will contribute greatly to the conservation of lemurs and other threatened biodiversity” in the national park.

Wright insisted that the new biodiversity center use local materials and workers, as she did with the construction of Namanabe Hall, its much larger sister building on the CVB campus.

Wright “wants to have the local villagers be involved in the process,” said Ali Yapicioglu, a partner at InSite, an architectural firm in Perry, New York who worked on both buildings. The sand is from the river, while the gravel comes from granite pieces that local women break down into smaller pieces.

In addition to local labor and materials, Wright ensured that InSite provided education to Malagasy residents, which included classes at the construction site. Through the building process, InSite also trained electricians.

While CVB, which is the largest biodiversity research center in the country, is well-established, it took considerable work on the Stony Brook scientist’s part to create it.

Schwitzer said Wright “fought against various forces trying to set this center up and she succeeded. She’s an excellent fundraiser.”

Madagascar has presented numerous challenges for conservation, in large part because of the changes in governments.Mittermeier recently had a “good discussion” with Andry Rajoelina about biodiversity just before Rajoelina was inaugurated as president of Madagascar last week. “Let’s see what he does” on biodiversity, Mittermeier explained. The Stony Brook professor plans to recommend that Rajoelina visit Ranomafana. 

For visitors, the CVB site offers ecotourists a firsthand opportunity to observe the charismatic lemur species, which are a part of the “Madagascar” animated films and were also the subject of an Imax movie about Wright’s work called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.”

“People who go there can see quite a few interesting lemur species in the wild,” Schwitzer said, adding that the station also gives Schwitzer “hope for lemur conservation,” he said.

The SOS lemur program originated with a 2013 published report, which included permanently managed field stations as a critical element. Research and field stations deter logging and lemur hunting, while also contributing scientific information that the government can use to set policies and make informed decisions, he added.

The lemur action plan includes the construction of this building. Schwitzer indicated that these types of initiatives, spread throughout the country, are critical to protecting species under various pressures, including habitat destruction.

“If we don’t keep up the effort, we could very well lose one,” Schwitzer said. He hastened to add that no lemurs have gone extinct in modern times, but “we can’t become complacent.” Indeed, the rarest of lemurs, the Northern Sportive Lemur, is down to 60 individuals in the world.

In the future, Schwtizer hopes Malagasy leaders and institutions will apply for international funding for themselves, as they drive the conservation goal forward.

This September, Wright will also finish an Education Center on the lower campus. On the upper campus, which is just across the road, she is building a wildlife center that will include a vet clinic, a frog breeding center, a mouse lemur facility, and a climate and drone center. The facility will also include bungalows for long-term researchers.

In addition to providing a field station for researchers, the site will also provide information accessible to the public.

“We are producing online identification systems like iNaturalist and also putting vocalizations and videos of the wildlife online,” Wright explained in an email.

Schwitzer said he has attended meetings where Wright has shared her vision for CVB with scientists and conservationists.

“Everybody looks at this and says, ‘This is cool. I want to do something like that,’” Schwitzer said.

From left, graduate students Prakhar Avasthi, Alisa Yurovsky, Charuta Pethe and Haochen Chen with director Steven Skiena, center. Photo by Gary Ghayrat/Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Steven Skiena practices what he teaches. Named the director of the Institute for AI-Driven Discovery and Innovation in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University, Skiena is using artificial intelligence to search for three staff members he hopes to hire in this new initiative.

He is looking for two tenured professors who will work in the Department of Computer Science and one who will be a part of the Department of Biomedical Informatics.

“We hope to use an artificial intelligence screen,” which Skiena calls a Poach-o-matic to “identify candidates we might not have thought of before. Ideally, the program will kick up a name and afterward, we’d bump our hand on our head and say, ‘Of course, this person might be great.’”

Steven Skiena. Photo from SBU

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have become popular areas in research institutions like Stony Brook, as well as in corporations with a wide range of potential applications, including in search engine companies like Google.

Skiena, who is a distinguished teaching professor, said he has “several candidates and we’re now actively interviewing,” adding that many departments on campus have faculty who are interested in applying machine learning in their work.

“There’s been an explosion of people from all disciplines who are interested in this,” Skiena said. He recently met with a materials scientist who uses machine learning techniques to improve experimental data. He’s also talked with people from the business school and from neuroscience.

SBU students have also shown considerable interest in these areas. Last semester, Skiena taught 250 graduate students in his introduction to data science class.

“This is a staggering demand from students that are very excited about this,” he said. Machine learning has become a “part of the standard tool kit for doing mathematical modeling and forecasting in many disciplines and that’s only going to increase.”

In an recent email, Andrew Schwartz, a core faculty at the institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook, said he believes bringing in new faculty “should attract additional graduate students that may become future leaders in the field.”

Increasing coverage of AI beyond the current expertise in vision, visualization, natural language processing and biomedical engineering can “go a long way. There are a large amount of breakthroughs in AI that seemingly come from taking an idea from one subfield and applying it to another.” Schwartz appreciates the impact Skiena, who is his faculty mentor, has had on the field.

Skiena has “managed to contribute to a wide range of topics,” Schwartz explained. His book, “The Algorithm Design Manual,” is used by people worldwide preparing for technical interviews. Knowing this book thoroughly is often a “suggested step” for people preparing to interview at Google or other tech companies, Schwartz added.

The students in Schwartz and Skiena’s labs share space and have regular weekly coffee hours. Schwartz appreciates how Skiena often “presents a puzzling question or an out-of-the-box take on a question.”

The core technical expertise at the institute is in machine learning, data science, computer vision and natural language processing.

The creation of the institute shows that Stony Brook is “serious about being one of the top universities and research centers for expertise in AI,” explained Schwartz.

A few years ago, researchers realized that the artificial intelligence models developed biases based on the kind of training data used to create them. “If you’re trying to build a system to judge resumes to decide who will be a good person to hire for a certain type of job” the system has a danger of searching for male candidates if most or all of the people hired had been male in the past, Skiena explained.

Unintentional biases can creep in if the data sets are skewed toward one group, even if the programmer who created the artificial intelligence system was using available information and patterns.

In his own research, Skiena, who has been at Stony Brook since 1988, works on natural language processing. Specifically, he has explored the meaning of words and what a text is trying to communicate.

He has worked on sentiment analysis, trying to understand questions such as whether a particular political figure who receives considerable media coverage is having a good or bad week.

Another project explores the quality of news sources. “Can you algorithmically analyze large corpuses of news articles and determine which are reliable and which are less so?” he asked. 

One measure of the reliability of a news source is to determine how much other articles cite from it. “It is important to teach skepticism of a source” of news or of data, Skiena said. 

“When I teach data science, a lot of what I teach includes questions of why you believe a model will do a good thing and why is a data source relevant,” he added.

A resident of Setauket, Skiena lives with his wife Renee. Their daughter Bonnie is a first-year student at the University of Delaware, where she is studying computer science. Their tenth-grade daughter Abby attends Ward Melville High School and joins her father for bike rides on Long Island.

Skiena, who grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, said he appreciates the university community. By working in the AI field, Skiena, who has seven doctoral students in his lab, said he often observes glitches in online models like article classification on Google News or advertisements selected for him on a website to try to figure out why the model erred. He has also developed a sense of how probability and random events work, which he said helps him not overinterpret unusual events in day-to-day life.

As for his work at the institute, Skiena hopes Stony Brook will be recognized as a major player in the field of machine learning and areas of artificial intelligence. “We have good faculty in this area already and we’re hiring more. The hope is that you reach critical mass.”

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

By Daniel Dunaief

Heather Lynch is thrilled that she’s in the first class of scientists chosen as a recipient of the National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

An associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, Lynch uses computers to study satellite images to reveal details about populations of penguins.

In addition to determining how many penguins are in an area, Lynch also can use images of the stains penguin poop leaves on rocks to determine what the penguins eat. Krill, which feeds on the underside of ice, is reddish or pinkish, while fish leave a white stain.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

A total of 11 researchers won the grants, which are a combined award from Microsoft and the National Geographic Society and were announced in December. The winners were chosen from more than 200 qualified scientists.

“This is the first grant that National Geographic and Microsoft are doing,” Lynch said. “It’s super exciting to be in the inaugural group.”

To hear from Lynch’s colleagues, she is an extraordinary candidate for a host of awards, including recognition as one of the TBR News Media People of the Year for 2018.

In addition to landing a coveted grant for her innovative research using sophisticated computers and satellite images, Lynch earlier this year made a remarkable discovery using Landsat imagery about a population of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands in the Antarctic that was largely unknown prior to her published paper.

This archipelago of nine islands, which were named because of the ice that is impenetrable in most years, was home to 1.5 million penguins, which she surveyed using a combination of photos, drone imagery and hand counting. That figure represents a substantial population of a charismatic animal whose numbers often are used as a way to determine the health of a delicate region managed by a collection of nations.

“She does such good work,” said Patricia Wright, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University and the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio, a research station in Madagascar. Her discovery of the additional Adélie penguins was “fantastic.”

Lynch received some pushback from people who thought the discovery of these penguins ran counter to the narrative about the need for conservation. Wright appreciates how Lynch shared the discovery with the public, reinforcing her scientific credibility.

“She’s an example of a scientist who doesn’t give in to political pressure,” Wright said. “It’s difficult sometimes to face up to people who have good intentions, but who don’t seem to want to accept the reality.”

While the discovery of the Adélie penguins was remarkable, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to the notion about the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, and it also doesn’t indicate that the population is soaring in a way the flightless water fowl never will. Indeed, the 1.5 million penguins may have been higher in the 1990s, although she is working to pin down exactly how much larger they might have once been.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

Lynch has also won admiration and appreciation from Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who recently won his 14th term and has focused attention on environmental issues.

“Her ability to use statistics and mathematics to further conservation biology is pioneering work and worthy of recognition,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman believes scientists and policymakers are still in the early part of the process of understanding the complexity of the ecosystems in the Antarctic.

Finding the penguins on the Danger Islands doesn’t mean the “Antarctic is any less at risk. We still have to place that discovery into its proper context and [Lynch] is helping us do that,” Englebright said.

People who have ventured to the Antarctic with her admire Lynch’s focus, energy
and stamina.

Michelle LaRue, who is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that Lynch was “the most hardworking scientist that I know.”

LaRue recalled a time when Lynch was ill, and she still got up and did her job every day.

“The work we were doing wasn’t easy,” LaRue said. “I know she didn’t feel well and she kept going. She has a lot of perseverance.”

LaRue appreciates how her fellow scientist sees the “forest for the trees,” using a combination of high technology and considerable on-site counting to understand what changes in the penguin population reveal about the region.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, has also worked with Lynch for years. He appreciates how she’s “not afraid of uncertainty. In science, it’s knowing how well you know something. She’s amazing at taking data and information, which from the natural world is messy, and analyzing it and helping people pull useful and meaningful knowledge from complex situations.”

Ron Naveen, who founded the nonprofit group Oceanites in 1987, has worked with Lynch for 11 years.

“I’m very much proud of her work ethic and the standard of excellence she brings to the job,” Naveen said.

Oceanites collaborates with Lynch and others, Naveen said, to understand how penguins have reacted to climate change in an area where temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than they have for much of the rest of the world.

Naveen recalls how Lynch, whom he describes as “petite and energetic” lugged around “amazingly heavy equipment,” including a camera for a Google Earth project.

“Whether [Lynch] is hiking, using a satellite or a drone, or lugging equipment that’s heavier than she is, she gets the data,” Naveen said.

He recalled a lab meeting with Lynch, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in the lab of William Fagan. Lynch circled the room as she wrote on the board, sharing statistical language to explain a point.

“I had no bloody idea what she was talking about,” Naveen said. “When she was done, she sat down with a smile, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, ‘Would you mind translating that into plain English?’ Without missing a beat, she did.”

By all accounts, she’s continuing to do that.

Left, Lauren Hale; above, teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night.

By Daniel Dunaief

Around this time of year, people shop for gifts for others, decorate for the holidays, and generally raise their stress level as they search for the perfect holiday plan. Somewhere in between the to-do lists and the to-buy lists, some ambitious holiday revelers also consider making a for-me list, or the equivalent of a collection of pre-New Year’s resolutions.

Often appearing in that collection is a desire to live better, to stick to a diet, to embark on a healthy lifestyle and to enjoy the moments, big and small, on the horizon in 2019.

Often overlooked in the end-of-the-year cycle is if people hope for the chance to get more sleep. That, however, may make many of those other goals — weight loss, better work performance or a calm reaction to events — more manageable.

Times Beacon Record News Media recently spoke with Stony Brook University sleep expert Lauren Hale, who is a professor of family, population and preventive medicine and teaches in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook. Hale is also the editor-in-chief of Sleep Health.

TBR: You recently published a journal article in Sleep Health in which you linked late night social media use by National Basketball Association players with their performance. Can you talk about that?

LH: This is a coarse estimate at showing that being up late is associated with worse outcomes. It’s not necessarily saying it’s only because they’re staying up late.

TBR: How much data did you examine?

LH: We looked at seven seasons of data. We were interested in how players did on games following late night tweets compared to games following no tweeting activity. … If your shooting percentage drops by 1.7 percentage points, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.

TBR: Have you extended this work to any teams?

LH: I’m talking with the Stony Brook Athletics Department to incorporate sleep hygiene into the players’ routines. We’re hoping to start with men’s basketball in the spring of 2019.

TBR: What are some sleep strategies?

LH: There is a list of sleep hygiene strategies. Many will seem like common sense. They include having a regular bedtime, which you calculate based on when you need to wake up and how many hours of sleep you need to get, limiting caffeine, tobacco and alcohol… [They also include] not eating too many heavy foods right before bed, exercising, preferably earlier in the day and reducing screen time at night.

TBR: Does the optimum number of hours of sleep change with age?

LH: Yes. Little kids sleep a lot and need a nap. As they get older, they lose the nap, but still need to sleep 9 to 11 hours. Teenagers need 8 to 10. Adults typically need 7 to 9 hours.

TBR: How do you manage sleep in your house?

LH: We have young children, so we know how challenging it can be. The younger one goes to day care and naps two hours. It’s hard to get him to go to sleep. I’m not good about putting my phone down in the hour before bed. We do have a charging location downstairs in our house, so the devices are limited in the bedroom. The children don’t watch screens in the half hour or hour before bed.

TBR: What’s the link between sleep and weight loss?

LH: Sleep duration is inversely associated with weight gain. Individuals not getting enough sleep are more likely to gain weight. The choices of food you make when you’re sleep deprived are worse. Your hormones make you hungrier and less full. The choices you make also show less self-discipline. When you’re sleep deprived, you’re unlikely to make yourself a salad.

TBR: Did you see the recent study that links sleep and anger?

LH: It is consistent with some work I’m doing on teenagers. We know sleep is important for emotional regulation. I’m not surprised that it’s linked.

TBR: Should people who want to lose weight focus on sleep?

LH: There are obesity experts who have taken on sleep as one of the three pillars of optimal health: sleep, exercise and diet. Among those three, sleep is usually the one that’s the most overlooked.

TBR: How else does sleeping affect weight?

LH: If you want to stick to your diet, stay on a regular sleep schedule that’s going to give you the sleep you need. Eating during normal activity phases — daytime for humans — prevents obesity. 

TBR: Is there evidence that too much sleep can be bad for health as well?

LH: There’s not good evidence of a casual link between long sleep and poor health. There is strong evidence that there’s an association, due to reverse causality, that shows that sicker people need more sleep. If you’re sleeping more than 11 hours, that might be a sign that you have an underlying condition that is contributing to you needing 11 hours.

TBR: What is your next sleep-related study?

LH: My primary current research is about studying teenagers and the causes and consequences of their insufficient sleep. Some of the factors that affect adolescent sleep are screen-based media use and early school start times.

TBR: Could sleep patterns be an important indicator of health?

LH: We would love to see sleep treated as a vital sign, in which every patient gets asked. It’s not asked about and it’s not, in and of itself, sufficient [for a specific diagnosis]. It’s a good marker of well-being.

TBR: Did people believe a certain amount of sleep was optimal 50 years ago and has that number risen or fallen since then?

LH: The number of recommended hours has been relatively consistent over time. There’s just more science to support the recommendations now.

Stony Brook’s iGem team pose with Randy Rettberg, president of the iGem Foundation, at the event. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook’s University’s 2018 team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition took home the university’s first gold medal during the four-day iGEM Giant Jamboree held at Hynes Convention Center in Boston in October. 

Since 2014, Stony Brook’s iGEM teams have competed at this annual event, previously receiving bronze and silver medals for their student-designed synthetic biology projects. This year’s competition involved 343 teams from around the world, including 60 from different colleges and universities in the U.S. Stony Brook was one of only seven collegiate teams from the U.S. to earn a gold medal.

Stony Brook’s iGem team pose with Randy Rettberg, president of the iGem Foundation, at the event. Photo from SBU

Led by sophomores Priya Aggarwal and Matthew Mullin, the 14-member team’s project, The Sucrose Factory, focused on the use of cyanobacteria to economically sink carbon dioxide by simultaneously producing sucrose that can be used to produce biofuels and bioplastics. Their project proposal was the only one to win all three open competitions offered by the iGEM sponsors Genscript, Opentrons and Promega. 

The iGEM competition promotes the advancement of synthetic biology through education and a competition aimed at developing an open and collaborative community of young scientists. Synthetic biology projects developed by previous SBU iGEM teams have ranged from a search for innovative treatments for diabetes and pancreatic cancer to lowering the cost of vaccine preservation. At Stony Brook, new teams are recruited each year, and members are mentored by students from previous teams and advised by Peter Gergen, director of undergraduate biology and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. 

“The Jamboree was a great experience for the 14 students on the team, and I think there may actually be some long-term potential in the ideas behind their project,” said Gergen, who said he is very proud of this interdisciplinary and talented group of students. 

In addition to Aggarwal, a human evolutionary biology major, and Mullin, a mechanical engineering major, members of Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team are Stephanie Budhan ’21, chemistry; Woody Chiang ’19, biochemistry and psychology double major; Dominika Kwasniak ’20, biochemistry; Karthik Ledalla ’21, biomedical engineering; Matthew Lee ’21, biology; Natalie Lo ’21, biology; Lin Yu Pan ’20, health science; Jennifer Rakhimov ’21, biology; Robert Ruzic ’19, biomedical engineering; Manvi Shah ’21, psychology; Lukas Velikov ’21, computer science; and Sarah Vincent ’19, biology.

More details on the team’s project are available at http://2018.igem.org/Team:Stony_Brook/Team.

Danny Bluestein and Wei-Che Chiu, a Stony Brook biomedical engineering doctoral student, with ventricular assist devices. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Some day, a doctor may save your life, repairing a calcified heart valve that jeopardizes your health. But then, the doctor may owe his or her latest lifesaving procedure to the work of people like Danny Bluestein, a professor in biomedical engineering and the director of the Biofluids Laboratory at Stony Brook University, and an international team of colleagues.

The group is working on restoring blood flow from the heart to the body using approaches for patients for whom open heart surgery is not an option.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health awarded the research crew a five-year $3.8 million grant to work on a broad project to understand ways to improve transcatheter aortic valve replacements, or TAVR, while reducing or minimizing complications from the procedure.

Danny Bluestein with his wife, Rita Goldstein. Photo from D. Bluestein

The grant is “not just about developing a new device, which we’ve been developing already for several years, but it’s also developing it in such a way that it answers challenges with disease and what clinical problems current technology offers solutions for,” Bluestein said.

TAVR provides a prosthetic valve for high-risk surgery patients. Like stents, TAVR is inserted through an artery, typically near the groin, and is delivered to the heart, where it improves the efficiency of an organ compromised by calcification on a valve and on the aorta itself.

Patients who have been candidates for TAVR are usually over 70 and often struggle to walk, as their hearts are enlarged and lose flexibility.

TAVR surgeries are performed in as many as 40 percent of such operations in some parts of Europe and the United States. The numbers have been increasing in the last couple of years as the technology has improved in different iterations of TAVR.

These valves are not only helping high-risk patients, but they are also assisting moderate and lower risk candidates.

Doctors have used TAVR for off-label uses, such as for people who have congenital difficulties with their valves, and for people who have already had open heart surgeries whose replacement valves are failing and who may be at risk for a second major heart operation.

Recovery from TAVR is far easier and less complicated than it is for cardiac surgery, typically requiring fewer days in the hospital.

Indeed, numerous researchers and cardiologists anticipate that this percentage could climb in the next several years, particularly if the risks continue to decline.

The team involved in this research effort is working with a polymer, hoping to reduce complications with TAVR and develop a way to tailor the valve for specific patients.

“If you’re a polymer person like me, you know we can make this work,” said Marvin Slepian, the director of the Arizona Center for Accelerated BioMedical Innovation at the University of Arizona. Slepian is pleased to continue a long collaboration with Bluestein, whose expertise in fluids creates a “unique approach to making something happen.”

The tandem is working with Rami Haj-Ali, the Nathan Cummings Chair in Mechanics in the Faculty of Engineering at Tel-Aviv University in Ramat Aviv, Israel. “To enable this technology, we need to better understand the current” conditions, said Haj-Ali, who uses computer methods to study the calcium deposited on the valve to understand the stages of the disease.

The valve Bluestein is proposing includes “new designs, new simulations, and new materials” that can create “less reactions with patients and overcome” problems TAVR patients sometimes face, Haj-Ali explained.

One of the significant challenges with TAVR is that it typically only lasts about five to six years.

“The idea of the NIH and this project is to extend the built-in efficiency of such a procedure,” Bluestein said. “TAVR is moving very fast to extend its functionality and durability.”

When the valve is inserted into the body, it is folded to allow it to fit through the circulatory system. This folding, however, can damage the valve, making it fail faster than in the surgical procedure.

As a part of this research, Bluestein and his team will explore ways to change the geometry of the TAVR according to the needs of the patient, which will enhance its functionality for longer. Bluestein and others will test these changing shapes through models constructed on high-performance computers, which can test the effect of blood flowing through shapes with specific physical passageways.

“Eventually, the future would involve custom designed valves, which would be optimal for the specific patient and will extend the lifespan of such a device,” Bluestein said.

A current off-label use of the TAVR valve involves assisting people born with an aortic valve that has two leaflets. Most aortic valves have a third leaflet. People with bicuspid aortic valves develop symptoms similar to those with calcification.

Going forward, Bluestein and his team plan to design valves that are specific for these patients.

A small percentage of patients with TAVR also require pacemakers. The device can interact with the electrophysiology of the heart and impair its rhythm because it creates pressure on the tissue. It is likely pushing against special nodes that generate the heart rhythm.

These studies include exploring the mechanical stress threshold that requires implantation of a pacemaker. By moving the device to a slightly different location, it may not interfere with the heart rhythm.

A resident of Melville and Manhattan, Bluestein is married to Rita Goldstein, who is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 

Bluestein was raised in Israel, where he did his doctoral work. He became intrigued by the study of the flow of blood around and through the heart because he was interested in blood as a living tissue.

As for the ongoing work, Haj-Ali is optimistic about the group’s prospects. The scientists that are a part of this effort “bring something to the table that, in combination, doesn’t exist” elsewhere, he said.

Elaine Gross, Christopher Sellers, Crystal Fleming, Miriam Sarwana and Abena Asare speak about race at ERASE Racism forum. Photo by Kyle Barr

In a politically charged time, race is seen as a third-rail issue, one that if touched leads to political headache in the case of a politician or a rough time around the holiday dinner table for everyday folks.

Which is why Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, which wishes to examine and make meaningful change to race relations in New York, said Long Island was the perfect time and place to start meaningful conversations about race and racism, both in the overt and covert displays of prejudice.

“Even though we are becoming more diverse, that doesn’t mean we have what we want going on in our schools,” Gross said. “Long Island is home to 2.8 million people so we’re not a small place, but tremendously fragmented.”

The nonprofit, which was originally founded in 2001, made its first stop at Hilton Garden Inn, Stony Brook University Nov. 29 during a five-series Long Island-wide tour called How Do We Build a Just Long Island? The mission is to start a dialogue about meaningful change for race relations in both Suffolk and Nassau counties. Four panelists, all professors and graduate students at Stony Brook, spoke to a fully packed room about their own research into the subject and took questions from the audience on how they could affect change in their own communities.

Christopher Sellers, history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy, has studied what he described as “scientific racism,” of people who look at the superiority and inferiority of other races as an objective truth, an idea that was born during the enlightenment and colonial period used to justify conquering nations overseas. It’s a form of understanding identity that lives on in many people, Sellers said.

“It’s as old as western society itself,” he said.

Race is an important issue in a county that is very segregated depending on the town and school district. An image created by the nonprofit and compiled with information from the New York State Department of Education shows a district such as Port Jefferson is made up of 80 percent white students, while in the Brentwood school district 79 percent of students are Latino and 12 percent are black.

Panelists argued that racism exists and is perpetuated through local policy. Abena Asare,
assistant professor of Modern African Affairs and History said that racism currently exists in the segregated schools, in lack of public transportation, zoning laws and other land-use policies created by local governments.

“Many of the policies on our island that insulate and produce structural racism are based on a false narrative on what Long Island was, who it is was for, and the fear of where it is going,” Asare said. “Creating new futures requires that we expose the version of the past that justifies or separates an unequal status quo.”

Crystal Fleming, an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook, spoke about how historically the idea of white supremacy is ingrained in America’s social consciousness, that lingering ideas of one race’s entitlement to security and citizenship over other races have helped perpetuate racist ideas and policy.

“When we talk about systemic racism, it’s not black supremacy, it’s not Native American supremacy, it’s not Asian supremacy, it’s white supremacy,” Fleming said. “We need to be brave and talk frankly about these matters.”

Miriam Sarwana, a graduate student in psychology at Stony Brook, said after the civil rights movement of the 1960s racism did not simply die, but it became subtle, only used in the safety of the home. This is compounded by the lack of interaction between races on a daily basis.

“These biases are influenced by the social, societal and cultural [elements] in our lives, and can be influenced both directly and indirectly,” Sarwana said. “A white adult has little or no interaction with African-Americans, and then starting childhood this person may be exposed to negative images of African-Americans.”

The panelists said that the extreme segregation in school districts has resulted in an even greater disparity of resources and attention for nonwhite races. The issue, Asare said, after the forum, was that the 125 public school districts on Long Island have remained insular, leading to communities becoming disparate and inclusive. She said the best way to deal with this is to consolidate school districts, even along town lines, which could lead to bigger savings for school districts, more resources to less-served districts and allow for better cross-pollination of races between schools.

“The fact that those types of discussions are not normally occurring here speaks to a larger issue, that segregation works for a lot of people around Long Island,” Asare said.

The final Erase Racism forum in this series will be held Dec. 10 at the Radisson Hotel in Hauppauge at 6 p.m. Visit www.eraseracismny.org for more information or to register for the event.

Social

9,211FansLike
0FollowersFollow
1,138FollowersFollow
33SubscribersSubscribe