Stony Brook University

Brendan Boyce, center, with Xiangjiao Yi, left, and Jinbo Li, who are graduate students at the University of Rochester. Photo by Jianguo Tao.

By Daniel Dunaief

Chances are high you won’t see Dr. Brendan Boyce when you visit a doctor. You will, however, benefit from his presence at Stony Brook University Hospital and on Long Island if you have bone or soft tissue lesions and you need an expert pathologist to diagnose what might be happening in your body.

A professor at the University of Rochester for 20 years, the internationally renowned Boyce joined the Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU in November, splitting his time between Rochester and Long Island.

Dr. Ken Shroyer, the chair of the Department of Pathology, reached out to Boyce with an unusual bone tumor case last spring. After that discussion, the two considered the possibility of Boyce adding his bone and soft tissue pathology expertise to the growing department. Boyce was receptive to the idea, particularly because his daughter Jacqueline lives in Woodbury with two of his seven grandchildren.

For local patients, Boyce adds a relatively rare expertise that could shorten the time for a diagnosis and improve the ability for doctors to determine the best course of action during surgeries.

“While the patient is already undergoing a surgical procedure, the preliminary diagnosis can guide the process of the surgery,” said Shroyer. “That’s difficult to achieve if we are dependent on an outside consultant. It happens, more or less in real time, if Boyce can look at the slides as they are being prepared and while the patient is still on the operating table.”

Prior to Boyce’s arrival, Stony Brook functioned the same way most academic medical centers do around the country when it came to bone and soft tissue cancers or disorders.

“There are only a handful of soft tissue and bone surgical pathology subspecialists around the country,” Shroyer said. “There’s an insufficient number of such individuals to make it practical like this at every medical school in the country.”

Many of these cases are “rare” and most pathologists do not see enough cases to feel comfortable diagnosing them without help from an expert, Boyce explained.

Boyce “was recruited here to help this program at Stony Brook continue to grow,” Shroyer said. “He enhances the overall scope of the training we can provide to our pathology residents through his subspecialty expertise. Everything he does here is integrated with the educational mission” of the medical school.

While bone and soft tissue tumors are relatively rare compared to other common cancers, such as colorectal or breast cancer, they do occur often enough that Stony Brook has developed a practice to diagnose and treat them, which requires the support of experts in pathology. Stony Brook hired Dr. Fazel Khan a few years ago as the orthopedic surgeon to do this work.

“To establish a successful service, there needs to be a mechanism to financially support that service that’s not solely dependent on the number of cases provided,” Shroyer said.

Boyce’s recruitment was made possible by “investments from Stony Brook University Hospital and the School of Medicine, in addition to support from the Department of Orthopedics and Pathology.”

Shroyer was thrilled that Boyce brings not only his expertise but his deep and well-developed background to Stony Brook.

It was “important to me that he was not only a highly skilled surgical pathologist, but also was a physician scientist, which made him a very attractive recruit,” Shroyer said.

Indeed, while Boyce will provide pathology services to Stony Brook, he will continue to maintain a laboratory at the University of Rochester.

Boyce’s research is “focused on the molecular mechanisms that regulate the formation of osteoclasts and their activity,” Boyce said. He emphasizes the effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines and NF-Kappa B, which are transcription factors that relay cytokine signaling from the cell surface to the nucleus.

These factors drive osteoclast formation and activity in conditions affecting the skeleton, which include rheumatoid arthritis, postmenopausal and age-related osteoporosis and cancers affecting the skeleton.

Osteoclasts degrade bone, which carve out deformities or the equivalent of potholes in the bone, while osteoblasts help rebuild the bone, repaving the equivalent of the roads after the osteoclasts have cleared the path. There are over a million sites of bone remodeling in the normal human skeleton and the number of these increases in diseases.

Boyce has studied various aspects of how bone remodeling occurs and how it becomes disturbed in a variety of pathological settings by using animal models. He uses cellular and molecular biological techniques to answer these questions.

On behalf of Boyce and three other researchers, the University of Rochester Medical Center just finished licensing a compound to a company in China that he recently contacted, which will do animal studies that will test the toxicity of a treatment for myeloma.

At this point, Boyce is applying in July for another five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for research in his Rochester lab. He hopes to renew another NIH grant next year, which he has for four years. After he renews that grant, he will continue writing up papers and studies with residents and collaborating on basic science at Stony Brook as well.

Boyce and his wife Ann, have three children and seven grandchildren. Originally from Scotland, Boyce has participated in Glasgow University Alumni activities in the United States, including in New York City, where he walked in this year’s Tartan Parade with his daughters and their children.

As for his work at Stony Brook, Boyce is enjoying the opportunity to contribute to the community.

“The setting and faculty are very nice and congenial and I’ve been made to feel welcome,” he said.

By Donna Deedy

Few D-Day veterans are alive today, but you can find three of them at Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, where an award ceremony was held June 6 in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious operation in military history.

One hundred World War II veterans were presented with the Governor’s Proclamation for the occasion, while Phillip DiMarco and Frank DePergola were decorated with the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and Charles Cino was decorated with the New York State Medal for Merit. All three men participated in the Normandy invasion.

Ninety-seven-year-old DiMarco was among the first wave of soldiers to storm the beach. “I’m just grateful to have survived,” he said.

Two-thirds of his fellow troopers perished in the first 30 minutes of battle, according to information provided by the state. DiMarco’s group suffered from wounds, hunger, exhaustion and trench foot and survived on green apples and stagnant water doped with halazone tablets, a chlorine-based water purifier. 

“Our World War II heroes and heroines who came of age during the Great Depression, gave new meaning to the words, duty, service, sacrifice, courage and honor,” said Fred Sganga, executive director of the veterans home. “They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs.”

War veterans often are understandably reluctant to talk about their horrific war experiences — it’s clearly too painful to relive. At their advanced ages, speaking also requires tremendous effort. Their stories live on through oral history and past memorials. But these men have stories to share from which history can be garnered. After 75 years, their summaries of what happened are often succinct and to the point. 

“There was this man who didn’t like Jews, and we got him,” 96-year-old DePergola said. DePergola was part of D-Day plus 10, meaning his troop arrived 10 days after the initial invasion. He was one of only four people to survive the war out of a platoon of 20, his daughter Jean Pulizzi said.

In his campaign in Germany and Poland, DePergola encountered what they thought were abandoned buildings, only to discover upon entering about 30 captives: Jews, Catholics and Muslims. It was essentially a concentration camp. The stench inside, he said, was intense and unforgettable. The people, he said, were emaciated and wore black and white striped uniforms.

“They were glad to see us,” DePergola said.

While on assignment from headquarters to retrieve maps, DePergola encountered two German soldiers in the woods in Metz, France. He took them captive with a German Luger pistol he had taken off another German officer earlier, since he forgot his issued rifle at headquarters, and returned to base with the captive soldiers. For this, he was awarded a Bronze Star, a military badge of heroism.

For Thursday’s ceremony, DePergola insisted on wearing his favorite cap, which bears the Purple Heart badge, an emblem that recognizes war injuries. DePergola was shot in the knee during battle, but back then, he said, you remained on active duty.  

Cino was 18 years old when he stormed the Normandy beaches. He was responsible for transporting under the cover of darkness thousands of troops in a landing ship tank, or LST, an amphibious boat capable of landing on shore carrying tanks, cargo and troops. Cino, when he heard it was the 75th anniversary of D-Day nodded, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He could utter only one full sentence, “I was there.” Then he closed his eyes. 

Both DePergola and DiMarco, in addition to their experience at Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II during the harsh winter in 1945.

The D-Day ceremony included color guards and live musicians, who sang patriotic tunes and played the bugle. About half of the veterans in attendance were in wheelchairs, and despite their limitations, tapped their toes to the music. Many were able to salute the flag. Some veterans wiped tears from their eyes, particularly when the room sang the lyrics to “God Bless America.” 

During World War II, 900,000 New Yorkers went to the battlefield; 43,000 did not come home. 

The nation’s largest population of World War II vets live at Long Island State Veterans Home

 

All photos by Donna Deedy

Many of Madagascar’s iconic lemur species such as this black-and-white ruffed lemur are critically endangered. Photo by Daniel Burgas

By Daniel Dunaief

As a part of an ambitious reforestation plan announced in March, Madagascar’s newly elected president Andry Rajoelina explained that he wanted to change the way his nation off the southwest coast of the African continent was known, from the Red Island to the Green Island.

An international collection of scientists, including lemur expert and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, recently weighed in on other ways Rajoelina can help conservation goals for the country through a five-step solution they outlined in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We are all very concerned” about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, said Wright. “We know that only with a collaborative effort can we push things in the right direction.”

Madagascar, which has numerous species endemic to the island nation, including many of the lemurs Wright studies, is known as the island of red clay in part because deforestation has exposed much of the clay underlying the country. This clay has eroded into rivers, which have washed into the ocean.

“If you flew over the whole island, it would be very sad” because of all the exposed red clay from deforestation, Wright said.

She remains optimistic about Rajoelina’s goals and the potential for achieving them. The president “talked about going on the offensive and reforestation is one of his platforms,” she said. “It’s most important to reforest with endemic species,” as opposed to eucalyptus and pine.

Unlike in other countries, where politicians sometimes view conservation and economic development as forces pulling in opposite directions, Malagasy leaders acknowledge and recognize the benefit of preserving unique habitats that are home to the rare and threatened species of Madagascar.

“If you destroy all the forests, you destroy all the water and they will no longer be able to farm,” Wright said. “The natural wildlife and habitats are closely connected to their well-being. One of the biggest industries is ecotourism, which supports many industries on the ground. It’s not like there’s a line between people and wildlife.”

Indeed, the scientists acknowledge the importance of financial growth for the country that dovetails with their conservation goals.

“Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development,” Julia Jones of Bangor University, in Wales, who led the study, said in a press release. “It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making.”

The people of Madagascar have many of the same needs as those in other countries, as they seek jobs, health care, and good schooling, Wright said. “These families are closer to not having enough food to eat and they are much poorer if the natural resources are all destroyed.”

Concerned about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, Jones contacted Wright, who suggested the team enlist the help of Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

“It was just a matter of bringing together some of the key players in conservation for 20 years,” explained Wright.

The group generated a list of five priorities.

First on the list is tackling environmental crime. The scientists suggest using new technologies, including remote sensing and rapid DNA barcoding, to allow forest rangers and others to identify protected species. To improve this effort, however, the Ministry of Justice also needs to enhance the way it reacts to environmental crimes.

The researchers suggest prosecuting and fining those who traffic in rosewood or the critically endangered species for the pet trade. They see progress in this arena in the northeastern part of the island nation, where prosecutors have effectively charged some people who have sold rosewood.

Second, the group recommends investing in protected areas. The researchers urge greater investment in policy, legal and economic conditions that encourage additional investment in nature, which could include improving infrastructure to develop tourism around protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and debt for nature swaps.

Critically endangered species such as these ploughshare tortoises may be extinct in the wild within the next few years if illegal collection isn’t stopped. Photo by Chris Scarffe

Third, the scientists urge that major infrastructure developments limit the impact on biodiversity. The current environmental impact assessment law is over 20 years old and needs an update to require the use of environmental assessment. This component also includes a greater commitment to enforcement.

Fourth, the scientists suggest strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources. Most farmers can’t get certification for their land, which reduces the incentive for them to invest in settled agriculture and potentially exacerbates forest clearance. A review of tenure laws could help local landowners and biodiversity.

Finally, researchers recognize a growing crisis in fuel wood. They urge an investment in reforestation efforts, which could provide environmental and economic benefits.

While these steps are important for Rajoelina and the government in Madagascar, Wright suggests several ways Long Islanders can help. She urges school teachers to cover Madagascar in their classes. Teachers in the area who are interested in gathering information about the island nation can write to Wright at Patricia.Wright@stonybrook.edu.

She also urges people to become involved through social media, which they can use to have fundraisers through organizations like PIVOT, an organization committed to improving health in developing nations like Madagascar and strongly encourages people to visit Madagascar, where they can enjoy the benefits of ecotourism.

Visitors to Madagascar would have the incredible opportunity to witness the varied biodiversity for themselves.“We have charismatic lemurs,” Wright said, although many of them are critically endangered. Even if they can’t travel that far, people can support students who wish to study abroad.

“I don’t think health and wildlife are separated,” Wright said. “The health of the people depends on us preserving natural resources.”

She is looking forward to the Annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from July 30 through August 3. “Hopefully, we will be going forward with the next step during or shortly after that meeting.”

The medical arm of Stony Brook University held its 45th convocation ceremony May 23 at the Staller Center. The event was the first time medical degrees were presented under the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University moniker.

Of the 129 receiving medical degrees, 53 of the graduates were hooded by a family member who has a doctoral degree. At a hooding ceremony, each degree candidate is named and receives a hood. The family members on hand for the SBU hooding included 36 parents, 11 siblings and three spouses, according to a press release from the university. Others were hooded by a faculty mentor.

Graduates, who range in age between 25 and 45, will begin their training this summer at medical facilities in New York state and around the country.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, School of Medicine dean, introduced the graduates, and New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker delivered the convocation address.

Kaushansky talked about the obstacles that face the medical profession, including budget deficits that hamstring state hospitals, Medicare and Medicaid cutbacks and malpractice insurance premiums going up. He also reminded the graduates that they now take on the responsibility of life-long learning as advances are continually made in the medical field.

“As physicians you will be frequently in the position to affect life-altering decisions,” he said.

Zucker reminded the graduates that one day they will be in a position to save a person’s life.

“Be daring and help your patients should others turn a blind eye,” he said. “And remember that the stethoscope allows our ears to listen to the patient’s heart sounds, but it’s our heart that hears their words and their life stories.

The convocation speaker also said as doctors manage the challenges such as exhaustion, missed family gatherings and losing patients, they will experience tears of their own.

“You will find yourself as we all have in a room where the tears are your own because a child never had a chance to look with awe at the giraffes at the zoo,” he said, adding that in those times doctors must remind themselves that they did all they could, but it wasn’t meant to be.

“Let those experiences become lessons about being human and ask questions of your mentors and colleagues,” he said. “Foolish is the one who fails to wonder why.”

Firefighter Cliff Lesmeister greets Selden resident Bob Short for the second time at SBU Hospital. Photo by David Luces

“It means everything that he was there — he knew,” Bob Short, a Selden resident said of Cliff Lesmeister, a Port Jefferson Station resident and New York City firefighter. The man had rushed to his aid after he crashed his car and stopped on a lawn in Selden and went into cardiac arrest Feb. 25. 

Lesmeister and Olivia Hoerner were presented with a community award. Photo by David Luces

Four months later, Short and Lesmeister reunited for the first time since the incident at Stony Brook University Hospital May 28. The 28-year veteran of the FDNY and Olivia Hoerner, an EMT from the Selden fire department, were presented with the Stony Brook University Heart Institute’s HeartSaver Community Award. 

Lesmeister was off-duty and was parked on the other side of the road taking a phone call when he witnessed Short’s car crash. He and a bystander ran across a street, called 911, broke the car window to rescue Bob and started performing CPR. In a short time, the Selden EMS/fire department responded, and Bob was taken to the Heart Institute. After 15 days of treatment, which included a protected percutaneous coronary intervention procedure, Short was released March 12. 

When asked if he remembered anything from that day. Short said he doesn’t remember a thing and when he regained consciousness his wife told him he had suffered a heart attack. 

Lesmeister and Short’s wife Dawn embrace. Photo by David Luces

“Something was wrong — I had to act, and I was just happy I was there,” the FDNY firefighter stationed in Astoria said. 

Short stated he didn’t know what he could say to the firefighter and said he didn’t know if he’s supposed to be here or not supposed to be here after all that has happened. 

“You are supposed to be here,” Lesmeister reassured him. 

Recipients of the HeartSaver Community Award are recognized for delivering exemplary cardiac care to the community at large by the Heart Institute’s Chest Pain Center and Door-to- Balloon Committee.

By Heidi Sutton

The Long Island State Veterans Home (LISVH) in Stony Brook honored our fallen heroes with a Memorial Day ceremony on May 24.

The special event featured speeches from Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley); Colonel James McDonough Jr., director of the New York State Division of Veterans Services; County Executive Steve Bellone (D); and was attended by many veterans living at the LISVH, elected officials including Assemblyman Steve Engelbright (D-Setauket) and Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and many veteran service organization members. 

Rabbi Joseph Topek gave the invocation, Rev. Gregory Leonard gave the benediction, Father Thomas Tuite gave a Veterans Prayer and Lee Ann Brill, Miss NY Senior America 2017, sang lovely renditions of “Star Spangled Banner,” “Wind Beneath My Wings, “Amazing Grace and “God Bless America.”

The afternoon commenced with a wreath laying ceremony conducted by James Carbone, World War II veteran and LISVH member, at the Walk of Heroes on the grounds; a color guard, firing detail and taps memorial by Marine Corps League East End Detachment 642, and a “Tolling of the Bells” memorial service led by LTC Marion McEntee, deputy director of nursing at the LISVH.

Rabbi Topek said it best in his opening prayer. “Today we remember those who have laid down their lives in service of our country, who in the words of President Lincoln have laid the most costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom … May we the citizens of the United States remain mindful of those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom in the many conflicts of the past — Veterans of World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Persian Gulf War … May their memories always be a blessing to our nation today and every day.”

Photos courtesy of Doreen Guma and Congressman Zeldin’s office

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. addresses the crowd at Stony Brook University’s 2019 commencement May 24. Photo by Greg Catalano

Less than a week after Stony Brook University’s commencement ceremony, the school’s president will also be moving on.

On May 28, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees announced that SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. will take on the role of president at MSU at a special meeting. Trustees chair Dianne Byrum said the goal was “to identify the best person possible to lead Michigan Student University.”

Melanie Foster, co-chair of MSU’s 18-member search committee, commented on the
announcement at the May 28 meeting.

“I know the Spartan community has been profoundly troubled by the events of the past years that have shaken confidence in the institution.”

— Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

“Today represents a pivotal moment in MSU’s 164-year history as we begin what I am confident will be an engaged and exciting future under the leadership of Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.,” she said.

Stanley was in East Lansing for the announcement along with his wife and three of his four children.

“MSU is one of the world’s leading research universities, and I am grateful to the Board of Trustees and the Presidential Search Committee that so ably represented the entire MSU community for giving me the opportunity to serve this great institution,” Stanley said in a statement on the school’s website. “MSU’s core strength is its amazing students, superb faculty, dedicated staff and proud alumni, and I cannot wait to get to campus to meet with you and learn from you.”

Previous MSU president Lou Anna Simon resigned from the position in January 2018 after being criticized for how she handled allegations that the university’s doctor Larry Nassar molested female gymnasts and athletes. Since the resignation, the school has been led by interim presidents.

In his statement, Stanley commented on the scandal.

“I know the Spartan community has been profoundly troubled by the events of the past years that have shaken confidence in the institution,” he said. “We will meet these challenges together, and we will build on the important work that has already been done to create a campus culture of diversity, inclusion, equity, accountability and safety that supports all of our endeavors.”

State University of New York Chancellor Kristina Johnson will work with the SUNY board of trustees to appoint an interim president, according to a press release from SUNY. A campus search committee also will be assembled to conduct a national search for a permanent president.

“Under Dr. Stanley’s leadership, Stony Brook University has become a vibrant center of research and one of the most highly regarded universities in the nation,” Johnson said. “His commitment to advancing technologies and research in environmental protection and renewable energy has been among many of Dr. Stanley’s most notable accomplishments. On behalf of the entire SUNY family, we celebrate his achievements.”

Stanley will be Michigan State University’s 21st president and will begin his term at
MSU Aug. 1. 

Photo by Jim Harrison/SBU Athletics

The Stony Brook Athletic Department held its annual awards ceremony, “The Wolfies” on May 13 in the Island Federal Arena and several student-athletes received hardware.

The 2019 Senior Athletes of the Year were Ryland Rees (Port Coquitlam, British Columbia) of men’s lacrosse and Shania Johnson (Frederick, Md.) of women’s basketball.

The 2019 Junior Athletes of the Year were baseball’s Nick Grande (Smithtown) and women’s lacrosse Ally Kennedy (North Babylon).

Track and field’s Luke Coulter (Jamesport) and women’s soccer Sofia Manner (Helsinki, Finland) took home Sophomore Athlete of the Year honors.

The 2019 Freshman of the Year honors went to Miles Latimer (Fairfax, Va.) of the men’s basketball team and Jamie Wei (Chiayi City, Taiwan) of women’s tennis.

Senior Michael Thompson (Wallkill) of track and field and senior Ana Carrion-Rodriguez (La Linea, Spain) of women’s tennis were the winners of the Male and Female Senior Scholar-Athlete awards.

Sophomore TJ Morrison (Yonkers) from football and senior Julie Johnstonbaugh (Neshanic Station, N.J.) of women’s soccer were presented the Athletic Director’s award by Stony Brook Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron for their embodiment of Stony Brook Athletics’ ideals and core values.

A brand new award in 2019, redshirt sophomore Andrew Garcia (Harlem) won the Comeback Athlete of the Year award. After sitting out from playing competitive basketball for two years, he came back to play in all 33 games this season, averaging 22 minutes per contest. At the end of it all, he earned America East Sixth Man of the Year honors.

The Male and Female Danni Kemp Teammate award, was given to student-athletes nominated by their teammates. The award is named in honor of Danni Kemp, the softball student-athlete who passed away in 2017 from brain cancer. Her parents, Cliff and Melinda Kemp, presented the awards on Monday night to senior Chris Pedone (Port Jefferson Station) of men’s lacrosse and sophomore Danielle Petrovich (Cortlandt Manor) of softball.

Senior Darian Sorouri (Wilmington, Del.) of track and field and graduate student Emily Costello (Webster) received the Seawolves Impact award. These honors are given to a student-athlete who has demonstrated exceptional contributions to his or her sport on the playing surface as well as within the campus and community.

Another new award in 2019, the Noah Farrelly Spirit of the Seawolf award, is given to a male and female student-athlete who exemplifies the passion and pride for their Stony Brook Athletics experience that Noah felt in his short time here. The winners were Carrion-Rodriguez of women’s tennis and junior Cameron Avery (Christchurch, New Zealand) of cross country/track and field.

Junior Sam Kamara (Carteret, N.J.) of football and senior Katelyn Corr (Suffield, Conn.) of softball received the male and female NSCA All-American award. The award recognizes an individual’s athletic accomplishments and their dedication to strength and conditioning.

On May 24, more than 7,500 graduates, ranging between the ages of 18 and 72, joined the nearly 200,000 Seawolves worldwide as Stony Brook University celebrated its 59th commencement.

Award-winning actor Alan Alda, a 2016 TBR News Media person of the year, received an honorary degree at the ceremony.  The polymath is the inspiration behind the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV show “M*A*S*H.”

Alda talked about the importance of connection during his address.

“It takes work,” he said. “But here’s the thing — if you dig down under the surface to bring to the surface your own dream, your own thing that motivates you, that makes you want to help other people that is born from your sense of generosity. The work you do to accomplish that dream won’t seem like work. It’ll seem like fun. That’s how it’s been for me. And you may find, as I’ve found, that the dream you start out with can morph into some other dream and another dream after that.”

Greg Marshall, SBU class of 1988, also received an honorary degree. He is the inventor of Crittercam and a Stony Brook University Marine Sciences master’s program alumnus. Crittercam a video/audio system that allows humans to study wildlife behavior by experiencing the world through an animal’s perspective on land or in the sea.

 

Gordon Taylor with technician, Tatiana Zaliznyak. A Raman microspectrometer is pictured in the background. Photo by J. Griffin

By Daniel Dunaief

Something is happening in the Twilight Zone of the ocean, but it’s unclear exactly who is involved and how fast the process is occurring. 

Plants and animals are eating, living, defecating and dying above the so-called Twilight Zone and their bodies and waste are falling toward the bottom of the ocean. But most of that matter isn’t making it all the way to the ocean floor.

That’s where Gordon Taylor, a professor and director of the NAno-RAMAN Molecular Imaging Laboratory at the School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, comes in. 

Taylor and Professor Alexander Bochdansky of Old Dominion University recently received a $434,000 three-year grant to study the way microorganisms eat, process and convert organic carbon — i.e., carbon that’s a part of living organisms like plants, sea birds and whales — into inorganic carbon, which includes carbon dioxide, carbonate, bicarbonate and carbonic acid.

“The inorganic carbon moves back and forth among these four chemical species,” Taylor explained in an email. Understanding the rate at which carbonic acid builds up can and will help lead to a greater awareness of ways the ocean, which used to have a pH around 8.2 — which is slightly basic, as opposed to levels below the neutral 7— is becoming more acidic.

Above, incubators that Alexander Bochdansky has used in Bermuda. The ones Taylor and Bochdansky will analyze will be smaller than these, which won’t require such a large A-frame to deploy. Images courtesy of A. Bochdansky

They will start by deploying the traps at a single depth, about 985 feet, along the ocean off the coast of Virginia. “We are going to look at who the players are,” Bochdansky said. “There might be only a few key players that degrade this organic carbon. With [Taylor’s] great methods, we can measure the uptake rate in single microbes. This is really exciting.”

The Twilight Zone received its name because it is 650 to 3,300 feet below the surface of the water. Some faint light reaches the top of that zone, but most of that region, which includes creatures that use bioluminescence to attract or find prey, is pitch black.

“The directory of which inventories and fluxes decrease [is] still poorly understood,” Taylor said. “Animals eating the material is one mechanism and we don’t know how important that is compared to microbial decomposition or remineralization,” adding that the goal of this project is to “better define the role of microorganisms in returning carbon to the inorganic pool.”

Taylor is exploring this area with new tools that will allow a greater depth of understanding than previously possible. His group has developed new experimental approaches to apply Raman microspectrometry to this problem. The organisms they examine will include bacteria, fungi and protozoans.

Their experiment will explore which organisms are recycling organic carbon, how fast they are doing it and what factors control their activities. Through this approach, Taylor will be able to see these processes down to the level of a single cell as the instrument can identify organisms that have consumed the heavy isotope tracer.

The Raman microspectrometer uses an optical microscope with a laser and a Raman spectrometer. This tool will measure samples that are micrometers thick, which is smaller than the width of a human hair. The microspectrometer can obtain data from a 0.3-micrometer spot in a cell and he has even produced spectra from single viruses.

The scientists will place phytoplankton common to the region in incubators that Bochdansky developed. They will use a heavy carbon isotope, called carbon 13, that is easy to find through these experiments and see how rapidly microorganisms that colonize are incorporating the isotopically labeled carbon.

Taylor and Bochdansky received funding for the project through the Biological Oceanography Program at the National Science Foundation in the Directorate of Geosciences. Twice a year, the division makes open calls for proposals on any topic of interest to researchers. The scientists submit 15 pages of text that the NSF sends to peer reviewers. A panel meets to evaluate the reviews and ratings and decides which projects to fund.

Bochdansky and Taylor have been “acquainted for a long time and have shared similar interests,” Taylor said.

The carbon experiments in the Twilight Zone account for about a quarter of the work Taylor is doing in his lab. The other research also employs Raman microspectrometry. The United States only has one or two other facilities that do environmental research comparable to the one in Taylor’s lab at Stony Brook. Europe also has three such tools, which can look into single cells using lasers.

One of the other projects Taylor hopes to get funded involves studying the distribution of microplastics in the ocean. “The instrument I have is one of the best tools to look at microscopic plastic particles,” because it identifies the plastic polymer and its source, said Taylor, who is awaiting word on funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The other work involves exploring viruses that attack plankton.

“We are exploring Raman methods for early detection of viruses that attack plankton,” Taylor explained. Every organism in the ocean has at least one virus that has evolved to attack it.

As for his work on the Twilight Zone, Taylor said the area acts as a filter of sorts because less than 20 percent of the organic material entering at the top exits at the bottom.

Bochdansky added that these microbes are critical to processes that affect oceans and the planet.

“That’s something people often overlook,” Bochdansky said. “We can’t understand the ocean if we don’t understand it at the level or the scale that’s relevant to microbes.”

Bochdansky is thrilled to work with Taylor, who he’s known for years but will collaborate with for the first time on this project.

“In my lab, we have measured the turnover and release of carbon dioxide,” Bochdansky said. In Taylor’s lab, he measures “the actual feeding of microbial cells.”

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