Stony Brook University

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.”

On May 10 Stony Brook University students gathered at the campus’ Roth Pond to participate in the Roth Pond Regatta. The annual event, hosted by Undergraduate Student Government, is held to help students blow off some steam before finals as they take to the 200-yard pond in handmade cardboard boats. This year marked the event’s 30th anniversary and featured the Dr. Seuss and All Things Seussical theme. 

Dr. Frank S. Darras presents a signed baseball from the Stony Brook Medicine kidney transplant program to the 1969 World Champion Miracle Mets player Edward Kranepool. Photo from Stony Brook University

Ed Kranepool has proven once again that miracles do happen, especially when one is part of a team.

The former baseball player, who was a member of the Miracle Mets in 1969, received a new kidney last week at Stony Brook University Hospital thanks to a kidney paired exchange. Kranepool said before the transplant he had two teams — his family, and the Mets organization.

Dr. Frank S. Darras, medical director of Transplantation Services, back row left, and Dr. Wayne Waltzer, director of Kidney Transplantation Program, back row right, discuss four life-changing kidney swap surgeries in one day May 10. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

“Now I have an extended team,” he said. “I have our donors here today who certainly without them this program doesn’t exist, and you have to be forever grateful to them.”

Kranepool, 74, received a kidney from Deborah Barbieri, who was hoping to donate a kidney to her husband, but it turned out she wasn’t a match for him due to their different blood types. However, it turned out she was a match with Kranepool. Her husband Al Barbieri received a kidney the same day donated from Port Authority police officer Brian Cooney.

At a May 10 press conference at the hospital, three days after Kranepool, the Barbieris and Cooney underwent their procedures, they joined Dr. Frank Darras, medical director of Transplantation Services, and Dr. Wayne Waltzer, director of Kidney Transplantation Program, to discuss their experiences.

Darras said many with a need for a new kidney are on a waiting list for months or even years. More than 113,000 Americans are waiting for a transplant of some kind, and 80,000 are waiting for a kidney transplant. Out of those 80,000, 8,000 of them live in New York state.

He said many times a family member or friend wants to help a patient, but their blood types don’t match, like in the case of the Barbieris, or the potential donor has health problems of their own. Because of those long odds, he called the donors heroes.

“They do this to help somebody else,” Darras said.

He said Cooney’s altruistic call to the program set the paired exchange chain in motion.

“With that came the reality that we can do a paired exchange, because when he was tested the highest person of his blood type, blood type A, was Mr. Barbieri,” Darras said. “So, then we looked at his wife, who had been a willing donor for a couple of months as blood type AB, which is the most uncommon blood type, and we ran the AB blood list, and Mr. Kranepool was the highest on the AB list with the longest waiting time. So that’s what triggered us to get to this point today.”

The doctor said after the surgery, the remaining kidney of Cooney and Deborah Barbieri would grow and compensate to do 75-80 percent of the work, and there is no significant decrease in life expectancy or increase in kidney failure. He said patients have lived entire lives with a sole kidney, and those who receive one before undergoing dialysis treatments tend to do better. Kranepool was not at the point where he needed dialysis, and Darras said it would have been difficult for him due to high blood pressure and diabetes. A patient on dialysis can gain another five to seven years, while one who receives a new kidney can live another 15 years or more.

Waltzer added there is a discrepancy between those who need a kidney and those who donate. In 2018 there were only 1,619 living donor transplants in the state of New York and 1,047 deceased organ donors. He said the national visibility that Kranepool has given the cause could benefit everyone in need of an organ.

Cooney, 45, a former NYPD officer, said when he responded to Ground Zero after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, he witnessed devastation and, in the years that followed, more tragedy as first responders died from 9/11-related diseases. He said he realized how fortunate he is.

“I’d have a blessed life and a blessed career,” Cooney said. “I have very few problems to speak of and nothing to complain about.”

“It’s very difficult to see when you sit there with people who are next to you one day in the chair, and the next day they’re not there.”

— Al Barbieri

It was a few months ago he placed a call to the transplant center, and he said a few days after a visit to the hospital for a general checkup and consultation, he received the call that he was a match for someone.

“Sure enough I was able to set a chain in motion,” he said.

Al Barbieri, a volunteer firefighter in Glenwood Landing since 1982, said he was grateful for all the help in him getting his new kidney. He was placed on dialysis in 2016, four hours at a time, and he has seen many fellow patients lose their battles against kidney disease.

“It’s very difficult to see when you sit there with people who are next to you one day in the chair, and the next day they’re not there,” he said.

At the brink of crying, the organ recipient said he felt fortunate that he could now see his children graduate and be able to go to their weddings and meet his future grandchildren one day.

“Police officers are here in the world today, so firefighters can have heroes too,” he said.

Deborah Barbieri said that dialysis had made it difficult for the couple to go places, especially on vacation, something both of them are looking forward to doing once again.

“I decided to take a shot and go on the list, and it’s the best thing I ever did,” she said.

Kranepool said he felt fortunate to have Deborah Barbieri and Cooney step forward, and he wants to see the same happen for others by continuing to raise awareness. Last year, the former Mets player held press conferences around Long Island to urge residents to sign organ donation forms, and he said he plans to continue spreading the word about the importance of organ donations.

“You get that call,” he said. “I mean, they saved your life.”

This summer, Kranepool said he’s looking forward to spending time in the Hamptons with his wife, and also celebrating in the 50th anniversary of the Miracle Mets in June.

On the day he received the call that there was a donor for him, Kranepool said he had just finished telling his wife to stay positive about his situation. Then 10 minutes later the phone rang.

“It was like magic,” he said. “Something really happened right there.”

A rendering of Suskityrannus hazelae by Andrey Atuchin

By Daniel Dunaief

Even the name Tyrannosaurus rex seems capable of causing ripples across a glass of water, much the way the fictional and reincarnated version of the predator did in the movie “Jurassic Park.”

Long before the predatory dinosaur roamed North America with its powerful jaws and short forelimbs, some of its ancestral precursors, whom scientists believed were considerably smaller, remained a mystery.

A team of scientists led by Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, shed some light on a period in which researchers have found relatively few fossils when they shared details about bones from two members of T. rex’s extended ancestral family in New Mexico. 

These fossils, which they named Suskityrannus hazelae, help fill in the record of tyrannosauroid dinosaurs that lived between the Early Cretaceous and latest Cretaceous species, which includes T. rex.

Sterling Nesbitt, assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech, with a partial fossil of Suskityrannus hazelae found in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

The researchers, which included Alan Turner, an associate professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University, chronicled the history of these fossils from the Late Cretaceous period, or about 92 million years ago.

“Getting a chance to understand the origin of something is compelling,” said Turner. “Having a discovery like Suskityrannus, which helps us understand how the body plan of tyrannosauroids evolved, is super interesting.” The fossils reveal the “humble beginnings” of a group that would “later dominate North American terrestrial ecosystems.”

Indeed, the new dinosaur was considerably more modest in size than future predators. The Suskityrannus, which included one individual that wasn’t fully grown when it died after living at least three years, measured about three feet at the hip, weighed about 100 pounds, and was about nine feet long, which made it more like a full grown male wolf, albeit longer because of its extended tail.

Scientists had found earlier tyrannosaur relatives from the Early Cretaceous as well as T. rex and its closest relatives near the end of the Late Cretaceous. They were missing data about tyrannosaurs from the middle of the group’s history because fossils from this time period are so rare.

The researchers cautioned that this paper, which was published in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution, does not suggest that Suskityrannus was a direct ancestor of T. rex. It does, however, fill a fossil gap in the extended T. rex family.

Suskityrannus hazelae,

The Suskityrannus species has a broad mouth and a muscular skull. Additionally, the bones in its foot were built in a way that made it good at absorbing shocks.

As far as fossil specimens, the bones from this finding are “well represented” across various parts of this creature’s anatomy, including a “lot of limb anatomy and a good portion of the skull and vertebral column,” Turner said. 

This collection of bones help define where on the evolutionary map this new species belong. Some of the anatomical characteristics in this new species appear to be well-suited for future predators, even as they likely also provided an adaptive advantage for the Suskityrannus. 

“These are features that were already in place much earlier” than this new species needed them, Turner said. They may have been adaptations that helped with their agility or with the environment in which they lived. Eventually, evolution turned them into the kinds of anatomical features that made them useful when T. rex eventually grew to as large as 16 tons.

“That’s something you see often in evolution: the way a species is using [its anatomy] isn’t always necessarily what the features evolved for,” Turner said. “Evolution can only work with what it has. What we see with Suskityrannus is that it had these things that became important later on.”

Turner’s role was to help compile and analyze the enormous amount of data that came out of this discovery. He explored how the number of species changed along the boundary between the first half of the Late Cretaceous and the second half of the Late Cretaceous periods, adding that the process of exploring and analyzing such a discovery can take years. 

Indeed, Turner first saw the fossil in 2007. “The studies take a long time and you can get lost in the details,” he said. “You do try and keep the big picture in your head. That’s the thing that makes [the work] interesting.”

Alan Turner while conducting fieldwork in Kenya last summer. Photo by Eric Gorscak

Turner became a part of this work through his connection to Nesbitt. The two scientists attended graduate school together at Columbia University. They have been doing field work together since 2005.

Nesbitt explained in an email that he thought of including Turner immediately “because he is an expert on aspects of paleobiology and theropods, plus he is an excellent colleague to work on papers with.”

In the research paper, the scientists have created an artistic rendering of what this new species might have looked like. While Turner acknowledges that the image involves a “bit of an artistic license,” the image is also “bound by what we know.” 

Nesbitt said this finding provides information about the theropods as a whole. “We really don’t know why T. rex and its closest relatives got so big,” he said, but researchers do know this happened at the end of the Cretaceous period, after 80 million years of being relatively small.

Turner lives in Port Jefferson with his wife, Melissa Cohen, who is the graduate program coordinator in the Department of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University. The couple has two children.

Turner, who grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, recalls a field trip when he was 17 that encouraged him to pursue a career in paleontology. He was conducting research in Montana and he was exploring dinosaurs and sharing a sense of camaraderie with others on the expedition.

“I remember feeling like that was an affirming experience,” Turner said.

As for the discovery of Suskityrannus, Turner shared the wonder at finding a new species, something he’s been a part of eight times with dinosaurs in a career that now includes 11 years at Stony Brook.

“It’s always pretty exciting when you get to work on something that’s new,” he said.

On April 10, approximately 80 students and alumni took to the campus to protest what they felt were Americans with Disabilities Act violations. Photo by Allilsa Fernandez

A student-led rally over handicapped access across campus has opened up a dialogue at Stony Brook University.

A broken handicapped button at SBU. Photo by Allilsa Fernandez

On April 10, approximately 80 students and alumni took to the campus to protest what they felt were Americans with Disabilities Act violations. The rally was organized by the Disability Rights Coalition and co-sponsored by the Graduate Student Employees Union. The coalition is an alliance of campus activists led by Naji Nizam, a junior at SBU majoring in business, and Allilsa Fernandez, former Peer Mental Health Alliance president and Stony Brook alumna.

Complaints included broken handicapped buttons on doors, snow on wheelchair ramps during the winter and a failure on the university’s part to post information regarding accessibility at university events.

After the protest, Nizam, who has a rare neuromuscular condition, and former student Jacqueline Albin talked with Jeff Barnett, assistant dean of students.

“I appreciated the fact that Jeff came out to hear our concerns, and I took that as a sign that the school is willing to work with us,” Nizam said in an email.

An Undergraduate Student Government Senate meeting followed April 18 that Nizam said he was unable to attend due to being out of town, but Fernandez was able to attend. Richard Gatteau, SBU vice president for student affairs and dean of students, tried to address student’s concerns. Fernandez said Gatteau told the group that all the handicapped accessibility buttons had been repaired, but she said the next day, she found a few on campus that were still broken.

Fernandez said while something like a broken handicapped button may seem trivial to many, sometimes a door with a broken button leads to a bathroom, and a handicapped student or faculty member may have to go across campus to find another one.

“That’s so inhumane,” she said.

Fernandez said she became aware of accessibility problems when she had major surgery a year ago. She attended an SBU Student Life Awards ceremony due to Peer Mental Health Alliance, which she founded, being nominated for awards. She needed certain accommodations for the event, as at the time she was unable to walk long distances or stand for long periods of time. She needed a large amount of amoxicillin drugs provided by an online pharmacy. She said she didn’t know who to contact because it wasn’t mentioned in the event flyer or email, and while she eventually found a person to contact, according to Stony Brook’s Use of Campus Facilities policy, availability of reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities must be clearly stated on all brochures, notices, bulletins, advertisements and invitations for seminars and other activities. Fernandez said she has noticed some improvement with the statement being included in event information.

“The biggest victory so far is bringing up the conversation and bringing these issues to light as more people are coming forward.”

— Jacqueline Albin

Albin said while she is not handicapped, she became familiar with those who were encountering accessibility issues while she was looking into the school’s resources when it comes to mental illnesses. She said meeting students who had trouble opening doors or with finding elevators opened up her eyes to issues faced by those with disabilities. She said while she is optimistic about changes she hopes administrators will schedule more meetings with students in the near future.

“The biggest victory so far is bringing up the conversation and bringing these issues to light as more people are coming forward,” she said.

According to SBU spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow, SBU’s Office of Facilities and Services has implemented a new program where custodial staff will check doors every day and report issues needing immediate intervention.

Sheprow said students also have resources available to them to report accessibility issues, including the Student Accessibility Support Center that students who require accessibility resources to services and accommodations can contact. Students may also contact the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, which helps to ensure that the campus environment is safe and accessible. Transportation and Parking Operations, in conjunction with SASC, offers transportation services for university community members who require an accommodation due to disability or injury.

Maintenance issues such as broken handicapped buttons, elevator issues and snow removal concerns can be reported to the school’s West Campus Academic Building, and non-urgent maintenance issues that do not present a safety concern can be reported through the school’s FIXIT system.

Photo by Jim Harrison/SBU Athletics

The No. 17 Stony Brook women’s lacrosse team gave its eight seniors something to celebrate about, topping Binghamton at LaValle Stadium, 20-4, on Friday night on Senior Day. The victory marked the team’s seventh in a row and moves the Seawolves to 6-0 in America East play.

“Senior Day is an emotional day so there’s a lot of moving parts with the lineup being different and honoring your seniors and the seniors coming to the reality that it’s the last home game of the regular season and that they don’t have too much time left as far as being a college athlete,” said head coach Joe Spallina.

“We always try to funnel the emotion. I loved the way we responded to the emotion of Senior Day. We came out and were very business-like and we continued the momentum that we’ve had during our winning streak,” he added.

Stony Brook headed into the locker room with a 15-1 lead and didn’t look back en route to the 16-goal victory. Taryn Ohlmiller (Islip) led the offensive attack with seven points from four goals and three assists. Ally Kennedy (North Babylon) was once again big on the offensive attack, recording all of her five goals in the first half as well as an assist.

Kasey Mitchell (Port Jefferson Station) was a standout on her special day, recording a career-high five points from a hat trick and two helpers. All three of her scores came from the free position.

Nicole Bifulco (Huntington) also had a Senior Day to remember, scoring on both shots she took to earn a pair of goals. Keri McCarthy (Hauppauge) also got in on the scoring with her fellow seniors, putting in a highlight-worthy behind-the-back shot in the first half.

Goals also came from Siobhan Rafferty (Long Beach) (2), Rayna Sabella (Mount Sinai), Sarah Pulis (Baldwin) and Nicole Rizzo (Syosset). Goalkeeper Anna Tesoriero (Huntington) got the win in net after recording two saves. Gabrielle Cacciola (Wading River) made a save in the second half.

Kennedy has scored in all 15 games this season and Rafferty has notched at least one point in each contest. Ohlmiller has now moved up to No. 4 in program history in career points (252) and Kennedy is eighth with 189. Mackenzie Burns (West Sayville) led the team in ground balls (4) and also had five draw controls along with McCarthy and Kennedy.

Stony Brook is 16-1 all-time against Binghamton, winning its last nine matchups. The team was Penn State bound, meeting with the Nittany Lions on Tuesday. Results were not available as of press time.

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The Stony Brook University women’s basketball team welcomed a special top recruit to its ranks April 24 as Amelia Garcia, of Centereach officially became a member of the team through the school’s Team IMPACT program.

Team IMPACT is a national nonprofit organization based in Boston that connects children facing serious or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams, forming life-long bonds and life-changing outcomes.

The 11-year-old Centereach native was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2012 and is an avid fan of the Seawolves.

Joined by her family and friends as well as members of the basketball team, Amelia took part in a special draft day celebration where she signed an official letter of intent to join the team and received a customary team jersey, T-shirt and basketball shoes.

“It’s a special day for us, as we welcome Amelia into our Seawolves family,” said Caroline McCombs, head basketball coach.

Sophomore forward Oksana Gouchie-Provencher said when the team found out they had been matched with a die-hard Stony Brook women’s basketball fan, they were all excited. 

“We are so happy to welcome you to our team and be a part of our journey,” she said. 

As a member of the team, Amelia will attend Seawolves practices, games, team dinners, events and more.

Since 2011, Team IMPACT has matched more than 1,700 children with more than 500 colleges and universities in 49 states, reaching over 50,000 participating student-athletes.

Compliments of Anita Jo Lago

Hometown: Stony Brook

Day job: Production Manager for Marketing and Communications at Stony Brook Medicine.

“The rapid pace of invention in photography technologies has changed what we are capable of capturing. The art in photography is expanding and nothing seems impossible in terms of imagining what a photo can be of, look like or what camera (or mobile device) it can be taken with. Creativity has no boundaries and is never ending. To be riding that wave at this moment is very exciting.”

Photographer: “I started taking photos back in the late ‘80s on film cameras. I got more serious in 2002 when I started travelling and wanted to capture what I saw during walks around cities. After my office changed locations in 2014, I found myself passing the Frank Melville Park in Setauket daily. That sparked my curiosity in nature and started my latest adventure in photography.”

Favorite camera: “I find the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5D Mark 4 to be very challenging and rewarding cameras.”

Favorite lenses: “For macro photography (extreme close-up photography), Nikon 200mm f/4, Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 and Canon 65mm f/2.8 are all fantastic lenses. They have taught me a true test of patience. Zoom lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G, Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E have a great range for capturing wildlife near and far.”

Favorite location: “Frank Melville Park is a hidden treasure. The environment and “vibe” of the park is peaceful. The Red Barn, Mill House and Bates House give the sense of history of the land and community. The North and South Ponds, the trails, the gardens, all contribute in ‘packing a punch’ when it comes to the beauty of nature and wildlife. Experiencing rare bird sightings, watching eggs hatch, nestlings learning to fly, bird migrations, reemerging turtles after winter hibernation, beekeeping … there are millions of happenings, hours of enjoyment, something for everyone. Every visit is a memorable one. Imagine taking photos there!

Other hobbies: “Besides spending time watching wildlife year-round, I enjoy computer technology, learning about mute swans, craft beer and finding a great slice of pizza!”  

Best advice to get that perfect shot: ‘Take photos of things that you’re immersed in, that you feel a deep connection with and that you love being around. If you shoot often enough, there comes a point where you don’t realize you have a camera in your hands and that your eye is looking through the viewfinder. There, you are in the zone — you found the sweet spot. Those are the photos that you will cherish as perfect.”

Favorite aspect about taking photos: Getting lost looking through the viewfinder. The excitement of seeing what I’m seeing is astonishing. There is so much discovery unfolding in nature that goes unnoticed. To have an opportunity to share those photo stories with others is extremely gratifying. It’s fulfilling to connect others to things they may never have an opportunity to experience and see firsthand.” 

Lori Chan, standing, in the lab with doctoral student Jiabei He. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s like a factory that makes bombs. Catching and removing the bombs is helpful, but it doesn’t end the battle because, even after many or almost all of the bombs are rounded up, the factory can continue to produce damaging products.

That’s the way triple-negative breast cancer operates. Chemotherapy can reduce active cancer cells, but it doesn’t stop the cancer stem cell from going back into the cancer-producing business, bringing the dreaded disease back to someone who was in remission.

Scientists who stop these cancer stem cells would be doing the equivalent of shutting down the factory, reducing the possible return of a virulent type of cancer.

Lori Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, recently published research in Cell Death & Disease that demonstrated the role of a specific gene in the cancer stem cell pathway. Called USP2, this gene is overexpressed in 30 percent of all triple-negative breast cancers.

Inhibiting this gene reduced the production of the tumor in a mouse model of the disease.

Chan’s results “suggest a very important role [of this gene] in cancer stem cells,” Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, explained in an email.

Lori Chan with her dog KoKo. Photo by Joshua Lee

Chan used a genetic and a pharmacological approach to inhibit USP2 and found that both ways shrink the cancer stem cell population. She used RNA interference to silence the gene and the protein expression, and she also used a USP2-specific small molecular inhibitor to block the activity of the USP2 protein.

With the knowledge that the cancer stem cell factory population needs this USP2 gene, Chan inhibited the gene while providing doxurubicin, which is a chemotherapy treatment. The combination of treatments suppressed the tumor growth by 50 percent.

She suggested that the USP2 gene can serve as a biomarker for the lymph metastasis of triple-negative breast cancer. She doesn’t know if it could be used as a biomarker in predicting a response to chemotherapy. Patients with a high expression of this gene may not respond as well to standard treatment.

“If a doctor knows that a patient probably wouldn’t respond well to chemotherapy, the doctor may want to reconsider whether you want to put your patient in a cycle for chemotherapy, which always causes side effects,” Chan said.

While this finding is an encouraging sign and may allow doctors to use this gene to determine the best treatment, the potential clinical benefit of this discovery could still be a long way off, as any potential clinical approach would require careful testing to understand the consequences of a new therapy.

“This is the beginning of a long process to get to clinical trials and clinical use,” Hannun wrote. Indeed, researchers would need to understand whether any treatment caused side effects to the heart, liver and other organs, Chan added. 

In the future, doctors at a clinical cancer center might perform a genomic diagnostic, to know exactly what type of cancer an individual has. Reducing the cancer stem cell population can be critically important in leading to a favorable clinical outcome.

A few hundred cancer cells can give rise to millions of cancer cells. “I want to let chemotherapy do its job in killing cancer cells and let [cancer stem cell] targeted agents, such as USP2 inhibitors, prevent the tumor recurrence,” Chan said. 

She urges members of the community to screen for cancer routinely. A patient diagnosed in stage 1 has a five-year survival rate of well over 90 percent, while that rate plummets to 15 to 20 percent for patients diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

The next step in Chan’s research is to look for ways to refine the inhibitor to make it more of a drug and less of a compound. She is also interested in exploring whether USP2 can be involved in other cancers, such as lung and prostate, and would be happy to collaborate with other scientists who focus on these types of cancers.

For Chan, the moment of recognition of the value of studying this gene in this form of breast cancer came when she compared the currently used drug with and without the inhibitor compound. With the inhibitor, the drug becomes much more effective.

A resident of Stony Brook, Chan lives with her husband, Joshua Lee, who is working in the same lab. The couple, who have a 1½-year-old rescue dog from Korea named KoKo, met when they were in graduate school.

Concerned about snow, which she hadn’t experienced when she was growing up in Taiwan, Chan started her tenure at Stony Brook five years ago on April 1, on the same day a snowstorm blanketed the area. “It was a very challenging first day,” she recalled. She now appreciates snow and enjoys the seasonal variety on Long Island.

Chan decided to pursue a career in cancer research after she volunteered at a children’s cancer hospital in Taiwan. She saw how desperate the parents and the siblings of the patient were. In her role as a volunteer, she played with the patients and with their siblings, some of whom she felt didn’t receive as much attention from parents who were worried about their sick siblings.

“This kind of disease doesn’t just take away one person’s life,” Chan said. “It destroys the whole family.” When she went to graduate school, she wanted to know everything she could about how cancer works.

Some day Chan hopes she can be a part of a process that helps doctors find an array of inhibitors that are effective in treating patients whose cancers involve the overexpression of different genes. “It would be a privilege to participate in this process,” she said.

Belle (Emma Watson) comes to realize that underneath the hideous exterior of the Beast (Dan Stevens) there is the kind heart of a Prince in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic directed by Bill Condon. © 2016 Disney Enterprises inc. All Rights Reserved.

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook will host a concert by the Stony Brook Wind Ensemble on the Main Stage on Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Conducted by Bruce Engel, the program will include Samuel Barber’s “Overture to the School for Scandal,” Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony (1st movement),” “Bolero by Maurice Ravel, “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin, “Beauty and the Beast” by Allan Menken and “Pines of the Appian Way” by Ottorino Respighi/

Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students and seniors. For more information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

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