Stony Brook University

From left, Evan Sohn, co-founder of the Sohn Conference Foundation; Benjamin Martin, associate professor at Stony Brook University; and Bill Ackman, co-founder of the Pershing Square Foundation and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management at an awards dinner. Photo by Melanie Einzig/PSSCRA

By Daniel Dunaief

Up and coming scientists are often stuck in the same position as promising professionals in other fields. To get the funding for research they’d like to do, they need to show results, but to get results, they need funding. Joseph Heller, author of “Catch 22,” would certainly relate.

A New York-based philanthropy called the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance is seeking to fill that gap, providing seven New York scientists with $600,000 each over the course of three years.

In the fifth annual competition, Benjamin Martin, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at Stony Brook University, won an award for his study of zebrafish models of metastatic cancer. Martin is the first Stony Brook researcher to win the prize.

Working with Assistant Professor David Matus, whose lab is across the hall and whose research team conducts weekly group meetings with Martin’s lab, Martin is able to see in real time the way grafted human tumor cells spread through blood vessels to other organs in the transparent zebrafish.

“It’s been very challenging to understand what process cancer cells are using to metastasize and leave the blood vessels,” said Olivia Tournay Flatto, the president of the Pershing Square Foundation. “With this technology, he can see what’s happening. It’s a really powerful tool.”

The work Martin presented was “really appealing to the whole board, and everybody felt this kind of project” had the potential to bring data and insights about a process researchers hope one day to slow down or stop, said Flatto.

This year, about 60 early-stage investigators applied for an award given specifically to researchers in the New York City area. When he learned that he won, Martin said, “There was some dancing going on in the living room.” He suggested that the award is a “validation” of his research work.

The process of a cancer cell leaving a blood vessel is “basically a black box” in terms of the mechanism, Martin said. It’s one of the least understood aspects of metastasis, he added.

Indeed, a developmental biologist by training, Martin is hoping to discover basics about this cancer-spreading process, such as an understanding of how long it takes for cancer cells to leave blood vessels. The process can take hours, although it’s unclear whether what he’s seen is typical or abnormal.

Martin would like to identify how the cancer cells adhere to the blood vessel walls and how and why they leave once they’ve reached their target.

Metastatic cancer is likely using the same mechanism the immune system uses to travel to the sites of infection, although researchers still need to confirm several aspects of this model.

Moving in involves interactions with white blood cells, including macrophages. With white blood cells, an area of infection or inflammation becomes activated, which triggers a reaction of adhesion molecules called selectins.

By watching a similar transport process in cancer, Martin and Matus can “see things people haven’t seen before” and can explore way to inhibit the process, Martin suggested.

He is hoping to find ways to stop this process, forcing cancer cells to remain in the blood vessels. While he doesn’t know the outcome of a cancer cell’s prolonged stay in the vessel, he predicts it might end up dying after a while. This approach could be combined with other therapies to force the cancer cells to die, while preventing them from spreading.

Through this grant, Martin will also study how drugs or mutations in selectins generate a loss of function in these proteins, which affects the ability of cancers to leave the blood vessel.

Martin plans to use the funds he will receive to hire more postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. He will also purchase additional imaging equipment to enhance the ability to gather information.

Martin appreciates that this kind of research, while promising, doesn’t often receive funding through traditional federal agencies. This type of work is often done on a mouse, which is, like humans, a mammal. The enormous advantage to the zebrafish, however, is that it allows researchers to observe the movement of these cancer cells, which they couldn’t do in the hair-covered rodent, which has opaque tissues.

“There’s a risk that these experiments may not work out as we planned,” Martin said. He is hopeful that the experiments will succeed, but even if they don’t, the researchers will “learn a great deal just from seeing behaviors that have not been observed before.”

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of project the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance seeks to fund. They want scientists to “put forward the riskiest projects,” Flatto said. “We are ready to take a chance” on them.

One of the benefits of securing the funding is that the alliance offers researchers a chance to connect with venture capitalists and commercial efforts. These projects could take 20 years or more to go from the initial concept to a product doctors or scientists could use with human patients.

“We are not necessarily focused on them starting a company,” Flatto said. “We think some of those projects will be able to be translated into something for the patient,” which could be through a diagnosis, prevention or treatment. “This platform is helpful for young investigators to be well positioned to find the right partners,” he added.

Aaron Neiman, the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at SBU, suggested that this award was beneficial to his department and the university.

“It definitely helps with the visibility of the department,” Neiman said. The approach Matus and Martin are taking is a “paradigm shift” because it involves tackling cells that aren’t dividing, while many other cancer fighting research focuses on halting cancer cells that are dividing.

Neiman praised the work Martin and Matus are doing, suggesting that “they can see things that they couldn’t see before, and that’s going to create new questions and new ideas,” and that their work creates the opportunity to “find something no one knew about before.”

From left, Libo Wu, Zhangjie Chen (both are doctoral students on the ARPA-E project), Ya Wang, Xing Zhang (graduated), Muzhaozi Yuan and Jingfan Chen (both are doctoral students on the NSF project). Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Picture a chalkboard filled with information. It could include everything from the basics — our names and phone numbers, to memories of a hike along the Appalachian Trail, to what we thought the first time we saw our spouse.

Diseases like Alzheimer’s act like erasers, slowly moving around the chalkboard, sometimes leaving traces of the original memories, while other times removing them almost completely. What if the images, lines and words from the chalk could somehow be restored?

Ya Wang with former student Wei Deng at Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ya Wang, a mechanical engineering assistant professor at Stony Brook University, is working on a process that can regenerate neurons, which could help with a range of degenerative diseases. She is hoping to develop therapies that might restore neurons by using incredibly small magnetic nanoparticles.

Wang recently received the National Science Foundation Career Award, which is a prestigious prize given to faculty in the early stages of their careers. The award lasts for five years and includes a $500,000 grant.

Wang would like to understand the way small particles can stimulate the brain to rebuild neurons. The award is based on “years of effort,” she said. “I’m happy but not surprised” with the investment in work she believes can help people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“All neuron degeneration diseases will benefit from this study,” Wang said. “We have a large population in New York alone with patients with neuron degeneration diseases.” She hopes the grant will help trigger advancements in medicine and tissue engineering.

Wang’s “work on modeling the dynamic behavior of magnetic nanoparticles within the brain microenvironment would lay the foundation for quantifying the neuron regeneration process,” Jeff Ge, the chairman and professor of mechanical engineering, said in a statement.

Wang said she understands the way neurodegenerative diseases affect people. She has watched her father, who lives in China, manage through Parkinson’s disease for 15 years.

Ge suggested that this approach has real therapeutic potential. “This opens up the exciting new possibility for the development of a new microchip for brain research,” he said.

At this point, Wang has been able to demonstrate the feasibility of neuron regeneration with individual nerve cells. The next step after that would be to work on animal models and, eventually, in a human clinical trial.

That last step is a “long way” off, Wang suggested, as she and others will need to make significant advancements to take this potential therapeutic breakthrough from the cell stage to the clinic. 

She is working with a form of coated iron oxide that is small enough to pass through the incredibly fine protective area of the blood/brain barrier. Without a coating, the iron oxide can be toxic, but with that protective surface, it is “more biofriendly,” she said.

The size of the particles are about 20 nanometers. By contrast, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick. These particles use mechanical forces that act on neurons to promote the growth or elongation of axons.

Ya Wang. Photo from SBU

As a part of the NSF award, Wang will have the opportunity to apply some of the funds toward education. She has enjoyed being a mentor to high school students, some of whom have been Siemens Foundation semifinalists. Indeed, her former students have gone on to attend college at Stanford, Harvard and Cal Tech. “I was very happy advising them,” she said. “High school kids are extremely interested in the topic.”

A few months before she scored her NSF award, Wang also won an Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy award for $1 million from the Department of Energy. In this area, Wang also plans to build on earlier work, developing a smart heating and cooling system that enables a system to direct climate control efforts directly at the occupant or occupants in the room.

Extending on that work, Wang, who will collaborate in this effort with Jon Longtin in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at SBU and Tom Butcher and Rebecca Trojanowski at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is addressing the problem in which the system no longer registers the presence of a person in the room.

Wang has “developed an innovation modification to a simple, inexpensive time-honored position sensor, but that suffers from requiring that something be moving in order to detect motion,” Longtin explained in an email. The sensors can’t detect a person that is not moving. The challenge, Longtin continued, is in fooling the sensor into thinking something is there in motion to keep it active.

Wang described a situation in which a hotel had connected an occupant-detecting system to its HVAC system. When a person fell asleep in the room, however, the air conditioning turned off automatically. On a hot summer night, the person was frustrated. She put colored paper and a fan in front of the sensor, which kept the cool air from turning off.

Instead of using a fan and colored paper, the new system Wang is developing cuts the flow of heat to the sensor, which enhances its ability to recognize stationary or moving people.

Wang and her colleagues will use low-power liquid crystal technology with no moving parts. “The sensor detects you because you are a human with heat,” she said. “Even though you are not moving, the amount of heat is changing.”

The sensor will be different in various locations. People in Houston will have different temperature conditions than those in Wisconsin. Using a machine-learning algorithm, Wang said she can pre-train the system to respond to different people and different conditions.

She has developed a smart phone app so that the house can react to the different temperature preferences of a husband and wife. People can also choose night or day modes.

Wang also plans to work on a system that is akin to the way cars have different temperature zones, allowing one side of the car to be hotter than the other. She intends to develop a similar design for each room.

By Rita J. Egan

As soon-to-be Stony Brook University graduates filled Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium May 18, the college celebrated a milestone of its own with a record-breaking 7,350 students donning caps and gowns. This year marked the largest graduating class in the university’s history.

Among the degrees awarded were 4,530 bachelor’s, 2,035 master’s, 620 doctoral and professional and 265 certificates, according to the university. The Class of 2018 included graduates from 43 states and 73 countries ranging in age from 18 to 77. SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. acknowledged a few of the members of the Class of 2018 for extraordinary accomplishments. Among them was Ann Lin for being the first in her family to attend college and for her studies on genes associated with survival from cancer being published.

Stanley said 10 graduating members of the women’s lacrosse team could not be present due to practicing on the road for their NCAA tournament game. The team was ranked first in the country and undefeated during the regular season, but lost in the quarterfinals of the tournament to Boston College the next day.

Tracy Smith, poet laureate of the United States, accepted an honorary degree at the ceremony. She shared some advice with the graduates advising them to use words with care, integrity, and discipline.

“Every mindful action has the potential to be troubling,” she said after accepting her award. “Be poets pushing your words, your thoughts, your wishes and your dreams to a place where ‘troubling’ is possible.”

The day before graduation, SBU School of Medicine held its traditional doctoral hooding ceremony where students officially earn their MD degrees. Nearly half of the 126 graduates were hooded by a parent or other family member with a doctoral degree. The graduates begin their residency training in July.

This post was updated May 21.

From left, Jon Longtin, Sotirios Mamalis and Benjamin Lawler. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly Coke and Pepsi designing a better soda. It’s not Nike and Reebok creating a more efficient sneaker. And, it’s not McDonald’s and Burger King uniting the crown and the golden arches. At Stony Brook University, it is, however, a combination of energy systems that haven’t historically worked together.

“Fuel cells and engines have been seen as competing technologies,” said Sotirios Mamalis, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at SBU. “The truth of the matter is that these two technologies are very complementary because of their operating principals.”

Indeed, Mamalis is the principal investigator on a multi-year project to create a hybrid fuel cell-engine system that recently won a $2.3 million award from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Working with Benjamin Lawler and Jon Longtin at Stony Brook and Tom Butcher, leader of the Energy Conversion Group at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Mamalis plans to build a system that uses solid oxide fuel cells partnered with a split-cylinder, internal combustion engine. The engine system will use the tail gas from the fuel cell to provide additional power, turning the inefficiency of the fuel cell into a source of additional energy.

“These ARPA-E awards are extremely competitive,” said Longtin, adding “If you land one of these, especially a decent-sized one like this, it can move the needle in a lot of ways in a department and at the university level.” The group expects that this design could create a system that generates 70 percent fuel to electricity efficiency. That is well above the 34 percent nationwide average.

Reaching that level of energy efficiency would be a milestone, said Longtin, a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stony Brook. The core of the idea, he suggested, is to take the exhaust from fuel cells, which has residual energy, and run that through a highly tuned, efficient internal combustion engine to extract more power. The second part of the innovation is to repurpose the cylinders in the engine to become air compressors. The fuel cell efficiency increases with higher pressure.

A fuel cell is a “highly efficient device at taking fuel and reacting it to produce DC electricity,” Lawler said. One of its down sides, aside from cost, is that it can’t respond to immediate needs. An engine is the opposite and is generally good at handling what Lawler described as transient needs, in which the demand for energy spikes.

The idea itself is ambitious, the scientists suggested. “These projects are high-risk, high-reward,” said Mamalis. The risks come from the cost and the technical side of things.

The goal is to create a system that has a disruptive role in the power generation market. To succeed, Mamalis said, they need to bring something to market quickly. Their work involves engineering, analysis and design prior to building a system. The project could involve more tasks to reduce technical risk but “we’re skipping a couple of steps so we can demonstrate a prototype system sooner than usual,” Mamalis said.

They will start by modeling and simulating conditions, using mathematical tools they have developed over the years. Once they have modeling results, they will use those to guide specific experimental testing. They will take data from the engine simulation and will subject the engine to conditions to test it in a lab. 

“The biggest challenges will be in changing the operation of each of these two technologies to be perhaps less than optimal for each by itself and then to achieve an integrated system that ends up far better,” Butcher explained in an email. “The target fuel-to-electricity efficiency will break barriers and be far greater than is achieved by conventional power plants today.”

Butcher, whose role will be to provide support on system integration concepts and testing, suggested that this could be a part of distribution power generation, where power is produced locally in addition to central power plants. People have looked into hybrid fuel cell-gas turbine systems in the past and a few have been installed and operational, Mamalis explained. The problem is with the cost and reliability.

Mamalis and his colleagues decided they can tap into the inefficiency of fuel cells, which leaves energy behind that a conventional engine can use. The reason this works is that the fuel cell is just inefficient enough, at about 55 percent, to provide the raw materials that a conventional engine could use. A fuel cell that was more efficient, at 75 or 80 percent, would produce less unused fuel in its exhaust, limiting the ability of the system to generate more energy.

The team needs to hit a number of milestones along the way, which are associated with fuel cell development and engine and hybrid system development.

The first phase of the work, for which the team received $2.3 million, will take two years. After the group completes Phase I, it will submit an application to ARPA-E for phase II, which would be for an additional $5 million.

Lawler suggested that fundamental research made this kind of applied project with such commercial potential possible. “The people who did fundamental work and [were involved in] the incremental steps led us to this point,” he said. “Incremental work leads to ground-breaking ideas. You can’t predict when groundbreaking work will happen.”

The other researchers involved in this project credit Mamalis for taking the lead on an effort that requires considerable reporting and updating with the funding agency.

Every three months, Mamalis has to submit a detailed report. He also participates in person and on conference calls to provide an update. He expects to spend about 90 percent of his time on a project for which the team has high hopes.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this,” Longtin said. “These folks are pivotal and we have developed into a very capable team, and we have been setting our sights on larger, more significant opportunities.”

Stony Brook University Hospital nurses and EMS workers held an informational picket May 16. Photo from Anna Maria Amicucci

Some employees at a local hospital are tired of tightening their belts.

Approximately 75 Stony Brook University Hospital nurses and EMS workers represented by the New York State Public Employees Federation held an informational picket and press conference May 16. The goal was to inform the community about a severe long-term shortage of health care workers at the hospital, high medical staff turnover and pay inequity.

EMS workers joined Stony Brook University nurses for an informational picket May 16. Photo from Jason Schmidt

Before the rally, PEF President Wayne Spence said the organization represents more than 2,000 nurses and EMS workers at SBU hospital.

“My members have been very patient in trying to get parity or close to parity with surrounding hospitals,” Spence said.

He said the hospital is a level-one trauma center transporting patients from hospitals where staff members make more than the average SBU worker. Nurses at St. Charles Hospital make at least $3,500 more per year, Southside Hospital in Bay Shore about $9,500 and Huntington roughly $11,000 more, according to Spence.

Even with state benefits, Spence said SBU health care workers’ compensation isn’t equal to surrounding private hospitals. According to the federation president, other institutions compensate employees to go back to school to achieve higher degrees and offer certain days off around holidays. A Stony Brook nurse can work three to five years without having off Christmas Day, he said. Spence said many rely on working overtime to make up the difference in salary and at times they are not able to break for meals, adding that medical staff working without a break can lead to crucial errors, such as making a mistake in medicine dosage. Many long-term employees are asking themselves why they are staying with Stony Brook.

“There was once a time where you stayed with the state system for the state pension,” Spence said. “But guess what? Northwell and other unions have now offered comparable compensation and fringe benefits that can now be comparable to the state. So, the state is not competing anymore.”

“Stony Brook hospital has always been a leader in cutting-edge medicine and research. It is time that it becomes a leader in staff recruitment and retention.”

— Anna Maria Amicucci

Paramedic Jason Schmidt said he independently compared paramedic salaries to other institutions like Northwell Health’s hospitals and found many emergency workers can make as much as $20,000 per year more than SBU workers. While Schmidt said it’s always been known that one can’t get rich working for state institutions, he said with health insurance costs increasing and pay freezes, many of his colleagues are working more than one job. He said he felt it was important for the workers to ban together and picket.

“It’s so frustrating this has been going on for so long,” Schmidt said. “We deserve more.”

Registered Nurse Anna Maria Amicucci said during her 18 years working at SBU she has been through furloughs and hasn’t received a pay increase in four years.

“We’re picketing to bring awareness to our state representatives about the gap in compensation between Stony Brook hospital and neighboring, competing institutions,” Amicucci said.

The nurse said she has seen a steady flow of new hires over the last couple of years receive their training at SBU and then leave for other institutions where they have been offered higher pay. Amicucci said in understaffed units the hospital has been paying more overtime to make up for the shortfall.

Nurses take part in an informational picket at Stony Brook University Hospital May 16. Photo from Renee Golde

“Stony Brook hospital has always been a leader in cutting-edge medicine and research,” she said. “It is time that it becomes a leader in staff recruitment and retention. A critical step in achieving that goal is putting its staff at par with our peers.”

Renee Golde, a registered nurse with the hospital for two-and-a-half years, said after working as an ultrasound technician, she went back to college to become a nurse. She said working for Stony Brook hospital is something she always wanted to do, and she wants to stay and bring about change to keep nurses at the institution. She said she hopes the administration will see that the employees want to stay and are just asking to close the salary gap.

“I stay because I love the people I work with,” Golde said. “I love my patients and I love being a Stony Brook nurse.”

Stony Brook released a statement through Kali Chan, director of medicine media relations at Stony Brook Medicine, when asked about the workers’ concerns

“Stony Brook University Hospital is supportive of our nurses, EMTs and paramedics,” Chan wrote. “We work every day to foster a positive work environment where all employees are valued and respected.”

Helena Roura, on right, will graduate from Stony Brook University with her daughter Anastasia, center, May 18. In the past, the two have commuted to school together along with Roura’s son, Xavier, left. Photo from Helena Roura

As graduates of Stony Brook University fill Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium this year, one mother will be there to cheer on her daughter, but with a much closer seat than other parents in attendance.

Helena Roura and her daughter, Anastasia Roura, both of Mastic, are doubly excited for graduation day. Both will be receiving their diplomas along with more than 7,000 graduates Friday, May 18. For Helena Roura, 44, the day has been years in the making.

“Sometimes you can’t do it all at the same time. Sometimes you have to do it in piecemeal. It doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish everything that you want to.”

— Helena Roura

The wife and mother graduated from William Floyd High School in 1991, and she said she attended college for a short time like most of her peers. When she and her now-husband, Miguel, got engaged, she said she decided to concentrate on having a family. The couple first lived in Japan when her husband was in the Navy, and it was where both her children, Anastasia, 24, and Xavier, 23, were born.

“I made myself a promise that someday I would go back to college and finish my education, but for then my life was dedicated to raising my two children,” the mother said.

Returning to the United States in 1994, she hoped to go back to college once her kids were in school but  realized with all their activities, the timing still wasn’t quite right. After her
children graduated from William Floyd High School, her daughter in 2011 and her son in 2012, she knew the time had come to continue her studies.

“I wasn’t done learning,” she said. “I loved being in school. I loved learning. I knew I needed more and that I wanted more.”

Roura started her new college journey in September 2013 at Suffolk County Community College. Both of her children were at SCCC when she started, and during her time there she said she grew to love sociology after her daughter recommended a class. When the mother graduated from SCCC in May 2015 with a fine arts degree in photography, she applied to and was accepted by six colleges and chose SBU because her daughter was having such an enjoyable experience there. At SBU she took on a double major — sociology and anthropology.

Helena Roura and Anastasia Roura try on their graduation gowns. Photo from Stony Brook University

The mother and daughter have commuted and studied together ever since, and due to having similar course requirements with her daughter majoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, they have taken a few of the same classes together at SBU.

“It was actually really amazing to have someone in your class with you — on this journey with you — who you can look to for guidance and as not only peers, not only family but as best friends going to class together,” the daughter said of attending school with her mom.

The two admitted to giggling at times in classes, and both said they believe their shared educational journey has made their relationship, which was already close, even closer.

“It allowed our relationship to level up,” Anastasia Roura said. “I think that sometimes people aren’t able to have that opportunity, and I was so blessed to be able to have that. We take the things that we learn in class, and we bring them home and talk about them at the kitchen table.”

The daughter said she and her brother were never embarrassed about their mother returning to school later in life. She said she would advise young people who may find themselves in a similar situation to help out their parents with adjusting to college life and the responsibilities that come with it.

Helena Roura shared advice for those thinking about resuming education later in life, despite an already demanding schedule.

“We take the things that we learn in class, and we bring them home and talk about them at the kitchen table.”

— Anastasia Roura

“Sometimes you can’t do it all at the same time,” she said. “Sometimes you have to do it in piecemeal. It doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish everything that you want to, but I knew I wanted to be married and have my family and have my babies. And I knew my education was so important to me.”

The mother said she’s not done with her college studies. She has already met with her adviser and is applying for a master’s program in both nutrition and public health. She said she also plans to pursue a doctoral degree.

Her daughter said while she jokes that she took her time so the two could graduate together, she said sharing the milestone on the same day just worked out that way, and she’s happy it did.

“We’re able to celebrate each other, our education, our degrees, and I just think it’s really amazing,” the daughter said.

Al Anderson, a Vietnam vet, tries out the new virtual reality device at the Long Island State Veterans Home. Photo by Kyle Barr

It was something straight out of science fiction.

On May 2, the residents and patients at Long Island State Veterans Home on the Stony Brook University campus put on stubby virtual reality goggles and headphones. After just a few seconds, they were transported to another place entirely.

A veteran experiences what it would be like to fly a fighter jet through a new virtual reality device being used at Long Island State Veterans Home. Photo by Kyle Barr

Vietnam veteran Al Anderson moved his head from side to side, up and down. He was no longer on Long Island but in Mozambique, Africa. To the left was a baby hippo and to the right grass plains of golden brown. One of the home’s recreational therapists spun Anderson around in his wheelchair, and then the VR changed, and he was suddenly in a suburban backyard where hummingbirds were feeding from a trough hanging above his head.

“It puts you right there, and if I had this available to me when I started to have some problems with [post-traumatic stress disorder], it would put me out of where I am to another place,” Anderson said. “If I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had this available to me, I could put it on and probably fall right back asleep without having a problem.”

Residents and patients of the veterans home were able to try one of the new 10 MyndVR devices now part of the home’s recreational therapy tools. MyndVR is a company based out of Dallas, Texas, that tries to provide VR technology to the elderly in retirement communities and home health care services. Directors at the home hope this will become a part of regular therapy.

“It’s not just a video game, it’s actually very therapeutic,” said Michelle Cheslak, the director of therapeutic recreation. “It stimulates their cognitive ability to recall a memory. Maybe it unlocks a memory of Paris, maybe a honeymoon that they’re now reliving. Think about it. They’re probably not going to be able to go to Paris ever again, now they can travel wherever they want, right from their seat.”

“It stimulates their cognitive ability to recall a memory. Maybe it unlocks a memory of Paris, maybe a honeymoon that they’re now reliving.”

— Michelle Cheslak

The VR headset allows those who wear it to experience full sensual awareness as the headset tracks head movement and changes audio direction based on where the person is facing.

Deputy Executive Director of the Long Island State Veterans Home Jonathan Spier said that the veterans home is the first in the country to use VR for therapy.

“My goal is to really try to use this with my veterans who suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD,” Spier said. “Some [residents] are just too physically disabled to go out into the community, so this is some technology to let that veteran go anywhere in the world.”

The money for the VR headsets was provided through a grant from the non-profit Bowlers to Veterans Link, an organization made up of bowlers and bowling alley owners who raise money for veteran causes.

“For the people who do the work, and try and heal the veterans, [local veteran centers] are the most appreciative of the value from that,” said John Laspina, the chair of the BVL board of directors and president of Maple Family Centers.

Some of the different VR experiences include NASCAR racing, a tour through Paris, taking off in a fighter jet and swimming with dolphins among several others. Though the devices are not physically intensive, Spier said people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders will not be able to use the devices.

“Some [residents] are just too physically disabled to go out into the community, so this is some technology to let that veteran go anywhere in the world.”

— Jonathan Spier

“It’s like I’m there, either taking off and landing,” said Vietnam veteran and adult day health care patient James Saladino about the fighter jet experience.

Veteran Ronald Kelson served in England from 1954 to 1956. He never got to visit Paris, but with virtual reality, he was able to get a small tour.

“I saw all of London, but I didn’t get to see all of Europe,” Kelson said. “You feel like you’re part of it.”

Executive Director Fred Sganga said he wants technology like this to help remove the stigma that nursing homes are depressing, monotonous places.

“We’re thrilled to be cutting edge,” Sganga said. “A nursing home should not be a boring place. I have an obligation to provide my residents with an outstanding quality of life. We like to say our residents have better social lives than we do.”

Cheslak said that as younger veterans arrive at the veterans home, there is a growing desire and need for more technologically-based therapy.

“We’re getting more younger veterans coming in who are computer savvy,” Cheslak said. “They have iPhones and iPads, and they’re looking for that new technology, for that action. People in their 60s and 70s want to go scuba diving again, they want a thrill.”

Romeil Sandhu with his dog June. Photo courtesy of Romeil Sandhu

By Daniel Dunaief

Romeil Sandhu has had a busy year.

Last fall, the U.S. Air Force awarded him a $450,000 three-year grant, called the Young Investigator Research Program. At the beginning of this year, Sandhu won a $500,000 National Science Foundation Career Award.

The assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Stony Brook University is working in several directions on basic research that could help with everything from network security to autonomous cars.

The awards are a “tremendous accomplishment,” Allen Tannenbaum, a distinguished professor of computer science and applied mathematics/statistics at SBU, explained in an email. Sandhu won the career award on his “first try, which is very unusual. The Air Force award is a very high honor for a young researcher.”

Tannenbaum was Sandhu’s doctoral thesis adviser at Georgia Tech. Tannenbaum recruited Sandhu to join Stony Brook University and described Sandhu’s work as going in a “very promising direction.”

The Air Force funding is a new direction in which Sandhu is developing a theory around how to incorporate user input in three-dimensional autonomous systems that rely on two-dimensional imaging information.

An example of this, Sandhu explained, is where a soldier might make judgments maneuvering a vehicle around potentially deadly situations. His work involves translating three-dimensional interactive feedback controls based on two-dimensional imaging systems.

“When you take a video of a car, it’s in two dimensions,” he explained. The computer link between the collected images and the reality relies on geometric properties.

With most autonomous computer systems, a human is involved in the process, to prepare for what is called the “unknown unknown.” That is a term used to describe situations in which there is no way to predict all possible events.

Through his Air Force work, Sandhu ideally would like to seek greater autonomy for some of these self-directed systems. Removing human input entirely, however, generates a risk that may be too great. That is the case in cancer treatment as well as the systems used to protect soldiers. The work he is doing with the Air Force explores how to fuse human and computer-assisted decision making.

The NSF award, meanwhile, will use the confluence of geometry and control to explore vulnerability in time-varying networks. Sandhu is tackling problems in social systems, communication systems and cancer biology and biomedical informatics.

“We can devise this idea of a network, which is the same way with cancer and proteins,” he said. One protein sends a signal to another, causing a cascade of reactions that often promote cancer.

Sandhu is interested in how microfluctuations can pave the way to larger disruptions. In the social setting, such information may infect individuals or groups and such dynamics may allow it to influence macroscopic audiences.

“The prevailing idea is that there exist several changes that pave the way to a larger catastrophic failure,” he explained in an email. 

The grant is designed to exploit everything that can be modeled as a part of a network, to understand their vulnerability. Viral information and trending stories, Sandhu said, might have one dynamic, while conspiracy theories might have another. He would like to see how such information gains traction and spreads.

The way people interact occurs through multiple networks. Sandhu is studying how models can exploit real-world behavior. Geometry, he suggests, can begin to assist on more complex modeling problems that are time varying and multilayered.

When he describes how he studies systems such as cancer, he likens the process to a waterbed. A drug or therapy may knock out a specific gene, which could limit cancer’s growth. When that gene changes, however, it creates a wave along the bed, enabling another potential genetic process to occur. While it has a more precise definition in control, it is akin to sitting on a waterbed in suppressing one sequence only to give rise to another.

Sandhu, who arrived at Stony Brook University in 2016, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and then spent over a decade going to school in Georgia, where he earned his doctorate at Georgia Tech.

In some ways, Sandhu’s Huntsville background, which includes lettering in high school soccer for four years as a center midfielder, is similar to one of the challenges in perception he studies through his work. 

“Think of me as one person in a network,” he said. “In a lot of the research we look at, we want to know how microfluctuations such as myself give way to a larger perception.”

Sandhu explained that the general perception of Huntsville and Alabama is different from his experience.

Most people are surprised that Huntsville has the second largest research park in the nation, at Cummings Research Park. Huntsville also has numerous aerospace companies.

The city generally ranks highly as one of the more educated in the country, he said. This is due in large part to the tech community that supports the government. The town is largely influenced by NASA and the surrounding military aerospace community, which Sandhu believes impacted his worldview, career path and research initiatives.

Indeed, one of the goals Sandhu has for his NSF grant is to help educate the high school students of people serving in the military. He said he appreciated the military families who were such an integral part of his upbringing.

Sandhu has two doctoral students and two master’s students in his lab. He also plans to participate in the Simons Summer Research Program at SBU where he will add a high school student. He is excited about the next phase of his research.

“The best part is the challenges that lie ahead,” he explained in an email. “Whether it is targeted therapy and cancer research, social computing and/or interactive computing, we are just beginning to understand very complex issues. Our hope is that we can make a contribution.”

BeLocal winners from left, Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian, Manuela Corcho, Johnny Donza and their thesis advisor Harold Walker. File photo

In its inaugural year of facilitating student engineering projects to improve the quality of life in Madagascar, BeLocal Group had an enviable problem.

The organization, which was founded by husband and wife team Jeff and Mickie Nagel of Laurel Hollow and Eric Bergerson of Forest Hills, had so many high-quality projects with the potential to solve daily challenges in Madagascar that they had trouble selecting the winner of the $2,500 prize.

“We had really robust debates amongst the entire BeLocal team,” Jeff Nagle said, referring to about eight projects that met several important criteria, including an expectation of impact, innovation and quality of engineering.

Luke Papazian, left, and Johnny Donza, two of the members of the winning team, along with a model of their da Vinci bridge. Photo from Mickie Nagel

Indeed, the BeLocal Group is highlighting the winner and seven finalists on its website, BeLocalGrp.com.

“We saw so many good projects,” Bergerson said. “It’s ultimately about the transfer of knowledge and empowerment.”

The nine members of the judging panel awarded the BeLocal Prize for Student Innovation May 2 to a team that worked on a bridge to cross a stream near the village of Mandrivany. Led by Johnny Donza, the team, which includes Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian and Manuela Corcho, designed a da Vinci bridge, so named after the famed Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched a design for a similar bridge in 1502.

Villagers had been using a log to cross the stream. A broken log was difficult to replace because the island nation is confronting significant deforestation.

Instead of using valuable trees to construct the bridge, the Stony Brook University team turned to the plentiful bamboo.

Donza came up with the idea for the design after watching a video on YouTube of the Rainbow Bridge in China. A few clicks later, he said he stumbled on the da Vinci bridge, which is a simpler concept.

Stony Brook students produced a range of designs. Many homes in Madagascar cook their food inside, where they produce smoke from briquettes. The children who stay inside during cooking time struggle with breathing problems, as the particulates from the briquettes create a hazard.

Jeff Nagel said they don’t have a lot of aeration in their homes. Inhaling the fumes from briquettes made of raw wood or poorly made charcoal causes respiratory disease.

Michael Downey led a team that presses a mash made by another Stony Brook team including Timothy Hart into briquettes using biowaste from rice husks and casaba peels.

“Most people, when [they] graduate, they start working or go into an office and sit behind a computer. This is a chance to go to the opposite side of the world and help people.”

— Johnny Donza

The device, which is made of bamboo, PVC tubing and some nuts and bolts, can produce four briquettes in a minute, Downey said. The other members of Downey’s team were Robert Michael, Adam Smith and Arie Spiel.

“The charcoal burns cleaner than regular wood,” Downey added.

The ideas for specific needs came from a trip BeLocal coordinated last summer in which graduate students Acacia Leakey and Leila Esmailzada traveled with Mickie Nagel to Madagascar with video cameras to learn about local needs.

This summer, BeLocal will send a larger contingent of students to Madagascar. Hart, Donza and Downey will travel with Sean Peters, Sunny Cheng and Robert Myrick. The team will build four prototypes of various designs. Donza and Downey were excited about their postgraduation trip to the island of lemurs.

“Most people, when [they] graduate, they start working or go into an office and sit behind a computer,” Donza said. “This is a chance to go to the opposite side of the world and help people.”

Downey added that the “whole point of becoming an engineer is to change the world.”

While the students are exploring new areas with their designs, BeLocal is also planning to broaden out its work. The organization is looking to gather information and foster innovation in other countries next year. It has also spoken with faculty at several other universities, as well as with nongovernmental organizations.

“It is the goal of BeLocal to provide the leverage of global innovation to challenges sourced around the globe,” Bergerson said in an email.

By Eric Rashba, M.D.

Dr. Eric Rashba

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is generally considered to be reaching epidemic numbers, especially among people over age 60. This condition, which is characterized by an erratic, irregular heartbeat, can cause problems ranging from unpleasant symptoms to serious problems like heart failure or stroke.

At the Stony Brook Heart Rhythm Center, our physicians and entire team of heart rhythm experts are constantly working to help people with AFib live better and longer. These are some of the important new state-of-the-art therapies:

Reducing stroke risk for people with atrial fibrillation

People with AFib have a 5 to 7 percent increased risk of having a stroke compared to people without AFib. To help prevent strokes, blood thinners such as warfarin or direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs) are prescribed. Most people do well with medication, but some experience bleeding problems or have other reasons why blood thinners aren’t the best option. 

At the Heart Rhythm Center, our specialists are treating appropriate patients with an implantable heart device, called Watchman™, to offer lifelong protection against stroke. For people who have AFib that’s not caused by a heart valve problem, the device provides an alternative to the lifelong use of blood thinners by blocking blood clots from leaving the heart and possibly causing a stroke. 

Miniaturized pacemaker for people with bradycardia

Bradycardia, also called slow heart rate, is when the heart beats at 60 times a minute or less. Not everyone with a slow heart rate needs a pacemaker — the presence of symptoms and the type of rhythm disorder are key. At our Heart Rhythm Center, for people whose slow heart rate can be treated with a pacemaker in just one of the four heart chambers, we use a pacemaker that is 93 percent smaller than traditional pacemakers, called Micra™. It is the world’s smallest pacemaker available and it offers some big benefits to the patient. 

Conventional, bulkier pacemakers are visible under the skin and have a lead wire that is threaded from the pacemaker into the heart. Our team implants the Micra pacemaker in the electrophysiology lab where the device is placed aboard a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) and moved up to the heart through the femoral vein in the leg. The device lasts for about a decade, and because it is so small, another one can be added to the same heart chamber years down the road when needed. The patient can also be safely scanned using certain types of full-body MRI.  

Zero-radiation ablation

Ablation is a procedure that uses cauterization to burn or scar the electric pathways that trigger the arrhythmia or abnormal heart rhythm. During a conventional ablation procedure, real-time X-ray, called fluoroscopy, is used and it delivers the equivalent radiation of up to 830 chest X-rays. At Stony Brook, my colleague, Dr. Roger Fan routinely performs complex ablations for AFib without any fluoroscopy at all. This important advance eliminates radiation exposure to the patient, with the same excellent results as conventional ablation. Zero-radiation ablation is such an important advance for the overall health of the patient, since excessive radiation can lead to medical problems over the long term. 

Questions about your heart’s rhythm? Call Dr. Rashba at 631-444-3575 or call 631-444-3278. Interested in learning more about your heart health? Take the free heart health online risk assessment at www.stonybrookmedicine.edu/hearthealth.

Dr. Eric Rashba is the director of the Heart Rhythm Center at the Stony Brook University Heart Institute.

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