Stony Brook University

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

Steven Skiena. Photo from SBU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: How much data did you examine?

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

TBR: Have you extended this work to any teams?

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

TBR: What are some sleep strategies?

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

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

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

TBR: How do you manage sleep in your house?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: How else does sleeping affect weight?

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

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

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

TBR: What is your next sleep-related study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weisen Shen in front of a twin-otter airplane in the Antarctic during the 2017-18 season. Photo by Zhengyang Zhou

By Daniel Dunaief

Ever sit alone in a house and hear noises you can’t explain? Was that the wind, the house settling (whatever that means) or the cat swatting at the string hanging from the blinds?

Those sounds, which are sometimes inexplicable and are called ambient noise, are often hard to trace, even if we walk around the house and listen outside every room.

Weisen Shen
Photo by John Griffin

For Weisen Shen, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, ambient noises deep below the Antarctic continent and elsewhere can be and often are clues that unlock mysteries hidden miles below the frozen surface.

A geoscientist who uses computer programs in his research, Shen would like to study the temperature well below the surface. He developed an in-house code to understand and interpret seismic data.

The speed at which Earth rumbling passes from one area to another can indicate the relative temperature of an area. Seismic activity moves more slowly through warmer rocks and moves more rapidly through colder crust, which has a higher rigidity. According to Shen, these temperature readings can help provide a clearer understanding of how much heat is traveling through the surface of the solid Earth into the ice sheet.

Shen traveled to the Ross Ice Shelf in the 2015-16 season and ventured to the South Pole in the 2017-18 season. He is currently seeking funding to go back to the Antartica. Earlier this year, he published an article in the journal Geology in which he found evidence that the lithosphere beneath the Transantarctic Mountains is thinner than expected.

Shen pointed out that seismic properties aren’t just related to temperature: They can help determine the density of the material, the composition and the existence of fluid such as water. He looks for surface geology and other types of geophysical data to detect what is the dominant reason for seismic structure anomalies. He also uses properties other than speed, such as seismic attenuation and amplitude ratios, in his analysis.

This kind of information can also provide an idea of the underlying support for mountain ranges, which get built up and collapse through a lithographic cycling.

As for ambient noises, Shen explained that they can come from ocean fluctuations caused by a hurricane, from human activities or, most commonly, from the bottom of the ocean, where the dynamic ocean wave constantly pushes against the bottom of the earth. By processing the noises in a certain way, he can extract information about the materials through which the noise traveled.

Shen published an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research in which he discussed a noise source in Kyushu Island in the Japanese archipelago. “The noise is so subtle that people’s ears will never catch it,” he said. “By deploying these very accurate seismic sensors, we will be able to monitor and study all the sources of those noises, not just the earthquakes.”

Studying these lower volume, less violent noises is especially helpful in places like Antarctica, which is, Shen said, a “quiet continent,” without a lot of strong seismic activity. He also uses the images of earthquakes that occur elsewhere, which travel less violently and dramatically through Antarctica.

Shen decided to study Antarctica after he earned his doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I have this ambition to get to all the continents,” he said. In graduate school he told himself, “If you ever want to get that work done, you have to crack this continent.”

During his postdoctoral work, Shen moved to St. Louis, where he worked at Washington University in the laboratory of Doug Wiens, professor of Earth and planetary sciences.

In addition to conducting research in Antarctica, Shen collaborated with Chen Cai, a graduate student in Wiens’ lab. Together with other members of the Washington University team, they used seismic data in the Mariana Trench to show that about three to four times more water than previously estimated traveled beneath the tectonic plates into the Earth’s interior.

That much water rushing further into the Earth, however, is somehow offset by water returning to the oceans, as ocean levels haven’t changed dramatically through this part of the water cycle process.

“People’s estimates for the water coming out is probably out of balance,” Wiens said. “We can’t through millions of years bring lots of water through the interior. The oceans would get lower. There’s no evidence” to support that, which means that “an upward revision of the amount of water coming out of the Earth” is necessary. That water could be coming out through volcanoes or perhaps through the crust or gas funnels beneath the seafloor, he suggested.

Wiens praised all the researchers involved in the study, including Shen, whom he said was “very important” and “wrote a lot of the software we used to produce the final images.”

A resident of Queens, Shen lives with his wife Jiayi Xie, who works as a data scientist at Xaxis, a subcompany of the global media firm GroupM. The couple has an infant son, Luke.

Shen grew up in the southwestern part of China. When he was younger, he was generally interested in science, although his particular passion for geoscience started when he was in college at the University of Science and Technology of China, USTC, in Hefei, Anhui, China.

The assistant professor, who teaches a geophysics class at Stony Brook University, currently has two graduate students in his lab. He said he appreciates the support Stony Brook provides for young faculty.

As for his work, Shen is excited to contribute to the field, where he enjoys the opportunity and camaraderie that comes from exploring parts of Earth that are relatively inaccessible. He feels his detailed studies can help change people’s understanding of the planet.

Erase Racism is holding events across Long Island. Photo from Erase Racism website

A Syosset nonprofit and a Stony Brook University department are teaming up to open up a public dialogue pertaining to one of Long Island and America’s oldest societal problems.

ERASE Racism, a regional organization founded in 2001 that advocates for public policy to promote racial equality in housing, education and more, and SBU’s Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy, a department founded in 2017 that provides a forum for the promotion of various forms of student and faculty engagement on the same issues, will co-host the first of a series of forums meant to jump start a community conversation on racial inequality.

The series of forums, entitled How Do We Build a Just Long Island? will kick off at the Hilton Garden Inn on the SBU campus Nov. 29 at 6 p.m.

“This whole thing is premised on the fact that everybody can educate themselves,” ERASE Racism President Elaine Gross said in an interview. “It’s not about anyone calling anyone a racist. It’s not a blame and shame kind of thing. Let’s make sure we have all the facts, let’s make sure we understand the context.”

Gross said so far about 400 people have registered to attend the event. She said from the organization’s inception its goal has been to identify institutional and structural racism and seek to educate the public about the history that has led to places like Long Island being so racially segregated today.

“It is embedded — it doesn’t require that all of the players be racist people, or bad people, it only requires that people go along with the business as usual,” she said.

Christopher Sellers, SBU history professor and director of the center, said part of the thinking behind the forums is to frame the conversation in a way for people not exposed to racial inequality or injustice on a daily basis to see barriers and exclusions they may not have viewed as such. He said the goal is to ultimately expand the discussion from the confines of the campus and into the community. He called Long Island the perfect place to begin this dialogue.

“Demographic change causes people to get more defensive and fall back on these racializing tool kits they may have picked up from their own past,” he said, adding that data suggests Long Island has become more racially diverse during recent decades, specifically seeing an increase in those of Hispanic descent.

Sellers said he feels a sense of urgency to begin a wide discussion on racial intolerance despite the perception from many that in the decades since the civil rights movement society has made sufficient progress in creating a just America for all. In “Hate Crime Statistics, 2017” released Nov. 13, the FBI reported a 17 percent increase in incidents identified as hate crimes from 2016 to 2017, with nearly 60 percent of those incidents being motivated by racial or ethnic bias. From 2015 to 2016 there was a roughly 5 percent increase in these incidents. From 2014 to 2015, hate crimes went up by about 7 percent.

“We need as a university to do something, we as academics can no longer sit on our hands,” Sellers said. “This is maybe a more urgent matter than we’ve considered before.”

Gross said the aim of the events is education.

“We didn’t plan to be doing this at a time when the country is so divided and there’s so much overtly biased comments, racist comments being said at the highest levels,” Gross said. “We planned this because we felt that even though with all of the work that we’ve done, we felt that was really needed was a regional public discussion and understanding of how things are connected.”

To register for the event and to get more information on the remainder of the forums — slated for Riverhead, Hempstead, Melville and Hauppauge — visit www.eraseracismny.org.

Students will now be enrolled in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Photo from Stony Brook University

The day before Thanksgiving, Stony Brook University showed its gratefulness for the employees of an East Setauket hedge fund firm.

On Nov. 21, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., SBU’s president, announced that Stony Brook University School of Medicine has been renamed the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. The programmatic name change honors employees of East Setauket-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies who have donated to SBU through the decades, according to the university. Jim Simons, former SBU math department chair and co-founder of Renaissance Technologies, and his wife, Marilyn, kicked off the donations more than 35 years ago. Since then, more than $500 million has been donated by 111 Renaissance families, according to a press release from SBU.

“By sharing their talents, their time and their philanthropic giving over the years, 111 current and former employees of Renaissance, almost all of whom did not graduate from Stony Brook University, have committed to Stony Brook’s success and have given generously of their time and treasure to advance the mission of New York’s premier public institution of higher education,” Stanley said in a statement. “It is fitting that we name the academic program that has a tremendous impact on so many in recognition of this generosity and vision as the Renaissance School of Medicine.”

Marilyn Simons commended the Renaissance employees for their generosity in a statement.

“Stony Brook University is an important institution in the Long Island community and it’s certainly had a significant impact on Jim’s and my life,” she said. “Support from Renaissance, particularly for the university’s work in the sciences, medical research and the delivery of health care services, has enhanced the university’s medical services to the Long Island community.”

The name change has faced some opposition in the past few months from residents of the surrounding communities, including members of the North Country Peace Group, a local activist group. Members Myrna Gordon and Bill McNulty attended a Stony Brook Council meeting in December 2017. The council, which serves as an advisory board to the campus and SBU’s president and senior officers, gave Gordon, McNulty and another community member the opportunity to discuss their reasons for opposing the name change, according to Gordon. She said eight months ago, the activist group also submitted a petition with 800 signatures protesting the name change to SUNY trustees and Carl McCall, chairman of the board of trustees.

Gordon said in a phone interview the protesters object to some of the ways Renaissance makes its money, including investing in private prison systems. They also took exception to the financial contributions to the campaign of President Donald Trump (R) and alt-right groups by former co-CEO Robert Mercer, who has since stepped down.

Despite the opposition to the new program name, Gordon said she and other NCPG members are proponents of the university and many of them attend educational, cultural and sporting events at the campus on a regular basis.

Andrew Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

In the era of social media, people reveal a great deal about themselves, from the food they eat, to the people they see on a subway, to the places they’ve visited. Through their own postings, however, people can also share elements of their mental health.

In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Schwartz, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, teamed up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to describe how the words volunteers wrote in Facebook postings helped provide a preclinical indication of depression prior to a documentation of the diagnosis in the medical record.

Using his background in computational linguistics and computational psychology, Schwartz helped analyze the frequency of particular words and the specific word choices to link any potential indicators from these posts with later diagnoses of depression.

Combining an analysis of the small cues could provide some leading indicators for future diagnoses.

“When we put [the cues] all together, we get predictions slightly better than standard screening questionnaires,” Schwartz explained in an email. “We suggest language on Facebook is not only predictive, but predictive at a level that bears clinical consideration as a potential screening tool.”

Specifically, the researchers found that posts that used words like “feelings” and “tears” or the use of more first-person pronounces like “I” and “me,” along with descriptions of hostility and loneliness, served as potential indicators of depression.

By studying posts from consenting adults who shared their Facebook statuses and electronic medical record information, the scientists used machine learning in a secure data environment to identify those with a future diagnosis of depression.

The population involved in this study was restricted to the Philadelphia urban population, which is the location of the World Well-Being Project. When he was at the University of Pennsylvania prior to joining Stony Brook, Schwartz joined a group of other scientists to form the WWBP.

While people of a wide range of mental health status use the words “I” and “me” when posting anecdotes about their lives or sharing personal responses to events, the use of these words has potential clinical value when people use them more than average.

That alone, however, is predictive, but not enough to be meaningful. It suggests the person has a small percentage increase in being depressed but not enough to worry about on its own. Combining all the cues, the likelihood increases for having depression.

Schwartz acknowledged that some of the terms that contribute to these diagnoses are logical. Words like “crying,” for example, are also predictive of being depressed, he said.

The process of tracking the frequency and use of specific words to link to depression through Facebook posts bears some overlap with the guide psychiatrists and psychologists use when they’re assessing their patients.

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” typically lays out a list of symptoms associated with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, just to name a few.

“The analogy to the DSM and how it works that way is kind of similar to how these algorithms will work,” Schwartz said. “We look at signals across a wide spectrum of features. The output of the algorithm is a probability that someone is depressed.”

The linguistic analysis is based on quantified evidence rather than subjective judgments. That doesn’t make it better than an evaluation by mental health professional. The algorithm would need more development to reach the accuracy of a trained psychologist to assess symptoms through a structured interview, Schwartz explained.

At this point, using such an algorithm to diagnose mental health better than trained professionals is a “long shot” and not possible with today’s techniques, Schwartz added.

Schwartz considers himself part computer scientist, part computational psychologist. He is focused on the intersection of algorithms that analyze language and apply psychology to that approach.

A person who is in therapy might offer an update through his or her writing on a monthly basis that could then offer a probability score about a depression diagnosis.

Linguistic tools might help determine the best course of treatment for people who have depression as well. In consultation with their clinician, people with depression have choices, including types of medications they can take.

While they don’t have the data for it yet, Schwartz said he hopes an algorithmic assessment of linguistic cues ahead of time may guide decisions about the most effective treatment.

Schwartz, who has been at SBU for over three years, cautions people against making their own mental health judgments based on an impromptu algorithm. “I’ve had some questions about trying to diagnose friends by their posts on social media,” he said. “I wouldn’t advocate that. Even someone like me, who has studied how words relate to mental health, has a hard time” coming up with a valid analysis, he said.

A resident of Sound Beach, Schwartz lives with his wife Becky, who is a music instructor at Laurel Hill Middle School in Setauket, and their pre-school-aged son. A trombone player and past  member of a drum and bugle corps, he met his wife through college band.

Schwartz grew up in Orlando, where he met numerous Long Islanders who had moved to the area after they retired. When he was younger, he used to read magazines that had 50 lines of computer code at the back of them that created computer games.

He started out by tweaking the code on his own, which drove him toward programming and computers.

As for his recent work, Schwartz suggested that the analysis is “often misunderstood when people first hear about these techniques. It’s not just people announcing to the world that they have a condition. It’s a combination of other signals, none of which, by themselves, are predictive.”

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