Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University’s Larry Swanson, center, with fellow Ocean Acidification Task Force members Carl Safina, left, and Malcolm Bowman, right. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Larry Swanson has led research teams over far-flung water bodies, worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a commissioned officer for 27 years and has been a fixture at Stony Brook University for over three decades. 

A former dean at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at SBU and current professor, Swanson, who is a member of New York’s Ocean Acidification Task force, was recently interviewed by Times Beacon Record News Media about his life in science.

TBR: How has science changed over the years?

Swanson: Some of the most significant things are the electronic tools that we have today. If you go back to when I was starting, if you wanted a water sample, and to collect temperature at five miles deep in the ocean, it was a very, very long tedious process. 

When you got that water sample on deck, if you wanted to simply measure salinity, you had to do a chemical titration. If you were doing that over five miles deep, below the first 1,000 meters, you might take a sample every half a mile or something like that. You couldn’t take a lot of samples. 

Now, you lower an instrument and you get a continuous trace of temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and other parameters, every few tenths of a meter. We are sort of overwhelmed with data now.

TBR: That must change the way people conduct experiments.

Swanson: When I first started, every data point you collected was extremely valuable and if you lost it, you really lost a lot of time, a lot of energy. It was something you could never recover. With modern instrumentation, you can do so much more and do much of it remotely; you don’t have to go to sea for seven or nine months to do that.

TBR: What are some of the biggest discoveries in your field?

Swanson: This is not necessarily things I have done. The theory of plate tectonics was established. We drilled through the crust of the earth to the mantle and we have discovered hydrothermal vents. We’ve got enough data now that we’re collecting through satellites, direct measurement in oceans in more detail, that we can really talk about changes in the global environment, whether it’s temperature increase, carbon dioxide increase and so forth. 

Those are all things that have taken place over my lifetime in oceanography. We can see what we’re doing to ourselves much more clearly today because of new technology.

TBR: What is one of the great debates in science today?

Swanson: I think trying to understand the impacts of climate change is at the forefront for everyone that’s dealing with ocean and atmospheric sciences. We don’t know all the answers and we haven’t convinced everyone it’s an issue. 

Whether or not it’s driven by people, that [debate] will continue for years to come. We’re going to bear some of the consequences of climate change before we’ve adequately convinced people that we’ve got to change our lifestyle.

TBR: What about local challenges?

Swanson: The notion of ocean acidification and how rapidly it’s changing is a local challenge. What will the consequences of it be if we don’t try to ameliorate it and what do we need to do in order to make it less of a problem? How are we going to build resiliency and reverse it?

TBR: Is there a scientific message you wish people knew?

Swanson: Scientists in general do not communicate well with the public and part of the problem is because we speak in jargon. We don’t talk to [the public] in proper ways that meet their level of understanding or knowledge. We’ve done that poorly. 

For another thing, scientists can be faulted with regard to developing policy. The scientists’ work is never done. If you go to Congress and they ask, “What are we going to do to fix the problem?,” scientists will say, “Give me more money for research and I’ll get back to you.” 

So, there’s a disconnect in terms of time frames over which we operate. [Members of Congress] operate 2 to 4 years out, while scientists operate sometimes over lifetimes. We haven’t been able to bridge that gap.

TBR: Is that improving at all?

Swanson: One of the great things that Stony Brook now has is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is helping all the scientists here that are willing to participate in trying to do a better job of communicating. It’s making a difference and having an impact that is meaningful. It’s always good to try to put your science in the most simplistic terms possible, even if it’s a drawing or cartoon that’s helpful.

TBR: What are your future goals?

Swanson: I am hopeful  the new task force can come up with a meaningful ocean acidification action plan. I’m very pleased to be part of that group.

TBR: If you were to start your oceanography career today, what would you do differently?

Swanson: If I were to start over, I would get a master’s degree in oceanography, not a doctorate, and then I would try to get an environmental law degree. The reason I would probably do that is that I think environmental law is the best way to make an immediate impact on society. I firmly believe that one should not be an environmental lawyer until one is a fairly good scientist.

TBR: How many more years before you retire?

Swanson: I’d say a maximum of three and a minimum of one. I’m often asked, “Why are you still working?” First of all, I enjoy it and I think one of the exciting things about being an oceanographer is that there’s never been a dull day. 

Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang. Photo from Matthew Lerner’s lab

By Daniel Dunaief

This is the second half of a two-part series on autism research conducted by Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang.

 Last week we focused on the work of Stony Brook University graduate student Hyunsik Kim, who used three criteria to diagnose autism. This week we will feature the work of another SBU graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Erin Kang, who specifically explored the types and severity of communication difficulties autistic children have. 

Words and the way people use them can offer clues about autism. Looking closely at pronoun reversals, speech delays, perseveration and 10 other characteristics, Kang determined that the number of features was a “powerful predictor of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.” 

In a paper published online in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Kang grouped children from 6 to 18 years old into different subgroups based on their communication patterns and used a statistical method that allows the data to “speak for itself,” in terms of finding groups based on the patterns of how the communication difficulties are associated and to classify them.

According to Kang, heterogeneity is an important feature of autism spectrum disorder. “There has been a greater effort into understanding whether subgroups exist in ASD populations,” she explained in an email. By examining the atypical communication characteristics, she found four subgroups. These groups differed from each other, not only with autism, but on multiple measures, including the occurrence of anxiety or depression and with intellectual disabilities.

The communication difficulties occur at different rates within the autism children throughout Long Island that Kang studied.

Kang said her work has been “building on the previous literature,” although many of the previous studies focused on characterizing autism for children who were younger than 6.

“There are few studies on specific symptoms (e.g., stereotyped speech) across the body of literature,” she explained, adding that she’s passionate about exploring the trajectory of development over time with or without intervention. 

She and her co-authors, Ken Gadow and Matthew Lerner, who are also at Stony Brook University, are working on a follow-up paper that attempts to explore how changes in the pattern of communication challenges examined in the paper relate to other clinical aspects and outcomes.

Kang believes her results have clinical implications that will help in understanding autism. Atypical communication features are a good predictor of diagnostic status. “This can provide an advantage in assessing social communication profiles in autism,” she said. “It’s hopefully valuable in a low-resource setting.”

Parents might be asked 13 questions on a checklist, which could serve as an initial screening for more comprehensive autism evaluations, rather than a multiple checklist that could take a while for parents to complete. The different categories had specific features that distinguished them. 

“There’s been quite a bit of work in the speech and language field,” said Lerner, an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University and Kang’s mentor. “This approach allowed us to ask about some of the specific types of language differences we often see.”

Lerner said what Kang found is that specific characteristics do tend to cluster together in “interesting and unique ways that can tell us more about the communicative phenotype of autism.”

One of the groups, which she called “little professors,” had speech patterns with considerable perseveration. In perseveration, a person repeats a word or phrase, even when a question or stimulus that might elicit that phrase no longer continues. As an example, Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man” frequently repeated the number of minutes until Judge Wapner was on TV.

“These kids would benefit more from a group-based social skills intervention that specifically integrated interacting with peers,” Kang said. People in this group had the highest percentage of wanting a friend, but difficulty with relating to peers.

“They will benefit especially from interventions that help them build skills in interacting with peers,” she explained.

She also suggested that the best way to make a reliable diagnosis is to collect as much information as possible, which could include observations and electrophysiological data.

Kang acknowledged that some of the responses from the parents or teachers of people with autism contain bias. “There can be a lot of potential especially in terms of these subjective measures,” she said.

Indeed, through Lerner’s lab, Kang has been trying to include more uses of neurological measures and other methodology that is less subject to biases.

“Hopefully, by looking at these more objective measures, we can help integrate information from these different levels,” she said.

A resident of East Northport, Kang lives with her husband, musician Sungwon Kim, who works as a freelancer on Broadway musicals. The couple, who have a young son, met in Boston when she was working at Boston Children’s Hospital and he was a student at Berklee College of Music. 

Kang’s first experience with autism was in high school, when she acted as a mentor to a second grader. When she entered college at the University of California at Berkeley, she studied molecular and cellular biology and psychology.

Lerner said that Kang is a “truly remarkable young scholar” and is “among the best I’ve seen at her stage to be able to look at her clinical experiences, which drive the questions that strike at the core of how we understand and treat autism.”

Lerner appreciates how she is driven to understand autism from neurons in the brain all the way up to the classification and treatment.

“She is somebody who is completely undaunted by taking on new questions or methodologies because she has an idea of what they’re going to mean,” Lerner said. “She has worked with [autistic children] and has tried to understand where they are coming from.”

Kang questions assumptions about what autism is, while also exploring its development.

“She is able to see and discover clinical strengths that manifest in the kinds of questions she asks,” explained Lerner. “She is a part of the next generation of where my field is going, and I hope we can catch up to her.”

Kang appreciates the work-life balance she has struck on Long Island, where she feels like the pace of life is “quiet and calm during the week,” while it’s close enough to New York City to enjoy the cultural opportunities.

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

By Melissa Arnold

Classical music has a long-held reputation for being upscale — there’s something about it that feels refined, polished and graceful. The Department of Music at Stony Brook University is passionate about demystifying the genre, making the works of Mozart, Brahms and others enjoyable for everyone.

Each year, the Stony Brook University Orchestra invites the community to join them for their Family Orchestra Concert, an hour-long performance meant for all ages, including young children. This year’s concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5 at the Staller Center for the Arts’ Main Stage.

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

“[This event] used to be called the children’s concert, but we didn’t want to give the impression that it’s just for children — the whole family comes along, and there’s something for everyone to enjoy,” said conductor Susan Deaver, who’s led the orchestra since 2000.

The ensemble is comprised of over 70 Stony Brook students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as a handful of area high schoolers. Many of the students aren’t music majors and come from a variety of disciplines. In fact, the majority are studying biomedical engineering.

“So many of these students have been in music all their lives and don’t want to let it go,” Deaver said. “We have a lot of great players, and it’s a real blend of disciplines, the common denominator being a love of playing orchestral music.”

 This year’s concert theme will highlight dance in orchestral music, with each piece either having “dance” in its title or creating a sense of dance and movement. The repertoire features recognizable pieces including selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Bach’s Minuet in G, along with some that might be unfamiliar, like Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka. 

The program will also feature works by Brahms, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Borodin. Dancers under the direction of SBU’s faculty member Amy Yoop Sullivan will collaboarte with the orchestra.

A highlight of each year’s concert is a solo performance from a grade school musician in Stony Brook’s Young Artist program. Open to grades 6 through 12, the program allows young musicians to enhance their musicianship and ensemble performance skills. Students are encouraged to enter an annual concerto contest, where a panel of impartial judges chooses a student to play at the concert.

This year’s contest winner, 12-year-old pianist Viviane Kim, will play Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major.

“I wasn’t really nervous because I’d practiced a lot. I played the song for my family, my friends, and anyone else who came to our house,” said Viviane, a seventh-grader at Port Jefferson Middle School. “It also helped that only three people were listening,” she joked.

Viviane, who also plays the flute, comes from a musical family — her father, Alan Kim, plays piano as well, and her grandmother is a violinist. “I played piano all the time when Viviane was a baby, and she took a natural interest in it. She started playing around the same time she started reading,” her father said. 

Michael Hershkowitz, executive director of Community Music Programs for the university, sees the annual concert as a chance to expose the audience to something new and wonderful.

“It’s important for classical musicians to be as accessible as possible and to break down barriers for people wanting to try it. A lot of people have an impression that classical music is just old and stuffy,” Hershkowitz said. “I think that dance is one of my favorite themes we’ve done — so much of music is tied to motion and bringing people together. And once you see a classical concert, you want to do it more.”

All seats for the Family Orchestra Concert are $5. For tickets and information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

For more information about the University Orchestra, contact the Stony Brook Department of Music at 631-632-7330 or visit www.stonybrook.edu/music.

Erwin Staller. Photo from Stony Brook University

The Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University is preparing to celebrate the life of Long Island real estate developer and philanthropist, Erwin Staller. A memorial service has been set for April 27 at the venue to remember the SBU benefactor who died Feb. 11, at age 97, at his Lloyd Harbor home.

“Over the years, Erwin Staller’s commitment to the center and to the university was steadfast,” said Alan Inkles, director of the Staller Center. “He, along with his wife Pearl [affectionately called Freddie], his son Cary and the extended family, has been a true supporter of the arts and has been the foundation of the center’s success.”

After his father’s death in 1987, Staller and his family donated the first seven-figure gift to SBU of $1.8 million. The donation resulted in the establishment of The Staller Center for the Arts in memory of his parents, Max and Mary Staller. The developer received the Stony Brook Medal for Extraordinary Service in 1989 and an honorary doctorate of humane letters at SBU in 2001. He also served on the Stony Brook Foundation board of trustees for more than 30 years and was founding chair of Stony Brook Foundation Realty.

“It was always a pleasure to have him and Freddie in the audience knowing how much he enjoyed all kinds of performances,” Inkles said. “As a philanthropist, adviser and friend to the arts, the university and to the region, he will be greatly missed.”

In a letter sent to SBU faculty after Staller’s passing, SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said the initial donation of $1.8 million helped “create a foundation for the Staller’s legacy of philanthropy at Stony Brook University spanning 35 years.” Staller and his wife also funded Staller Scholars, which provides scholarships for graduate music students pursuing doctorates in the Department of Music.

The university credits Staller for championing a project to have a campus hotel for more than 23 years until its fruition in 2013. As a result, the roadway between Hilton Garden Inn and the Administration building will be dedicated as Erwin P. Staller Way.

Stanley said Staller, his wife, family and friends joined together in supporting the Staller Center’s mission, and to date they have contributed more than $16 million to fund various programs.

“As we reflect on Erwin’s myriad contributions in time and treasure to benefit our students, faculty, staff and our community, though I will miss him dearly, I am inspired by Erwin Staller’s vision and focus, and in the knowledge that his powerful legacy will live on at Stony Brook for generations to come,” Stanley said.

Staller was raised in Hempstead where he graduated from Hempstead High School. He attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania before enlisting in the U.S. Army and served in the Signal Corps during World War II. In 1946, Staller married Pearl Friedman, whom he had dated in high school, and the couple had five children.

In the late 1950s, Staller and his father co-founded Hauppauge-based Staller Associates, and became among the first entrepreneurs to develop retail shopping centers on Long Island. A supermarket, drugstore and a U.S. Post Office anchored each of their early shopping centers. Together, the father-son duo developed numerous shopping centers, office and industrial buildings on Long Island and in Connecticut.

Staller is survived by his wife, four children and their spouses, and nine grandchildren.

The memorial service will be held April 27 at 1 p.m. The Staller Center is located at 100 Nicolls Road in Stony Brook.

‘Come for the film, stay for the talk’

By Kevin Redding

It began more than 15 years ago with a group of film lovers gathered around the television on Oscar night. Lyn Boland, a former lawyer and adjunct professor from Setauket, was among them, and as she and her friends gushed over clips from the year’s Best Documentary Feature category, she wondered: Why can’t we ever see any of these powerful films?

‘Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story’ will be screened at Theatre Three on May 20.

Around this time, she was called on by her law partner, and a fellow cinephile, to help rebuild the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council’s faltering film program. Boland had just recently watched “Spellbound,” the Academy Award-nominated doc about a group of eight young students competing in the Scripps National Bee; it was exciting, artistic, moving and it made Boland cry. It seemed obvious what to do with the local cinema program.

“Let’s make it a documentary series,” she recalls saying to her friend. While the initial concept was to hold screenings around the work primarily of local filmmakers, this proved to be difficult and limiting. So, members of the program’s board decided to pluck documentaries straight from the source: high-profile film festivals, from the Hamptons International Film Festival to DOC NYC to Tribeca Film Festival to Stony Brook Film Festival, and more, where new, important works are debuted, and the voices of blossoming filmmakers are heard for the first time. 

And thus, in the fall of 2005, the first Port Jefferson Documentary Series was born. “The idea was to make a place where we can actually see these films while they’re still very current,” Boland, one of three co-directors of the now-14-year series, said. “I think that this particular area on Long Island has a well-educated population, people who want to stay up-to-date, and, for some people, watching a documentary is a great way for them to go into depth on an important issue for a couple hours.”

She continued, “We used to travel to Cinema Arts Centre [in Huntington] to see documentaries, and it seems like there was this giant hole in our ability to see independent films like these in this area. Our criteria now is that the film is new and not available elsewhere, has critical acclaim, and tells an important story.”

Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council and the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, the spring 2019 season of the award-winning documentary series begins March 4 and will run until May 20. The seven-film lineup will be spread across several local venues, including Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson; the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook; the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook; and Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School, 351 Oxhead Road, in Stony Brook. 

Each of this year’s emotional and thought-provoking films will be followed up by  a Q&A session with guest speakers involved in the documentary, like directors, producers, the movies’ subjects and outside experts. 

They include the compelling journalism-focused “The Panama Papers”; “Under the Wire,” about a heroic Sunday Times correspondent who was killed while covering the war in Syria; “Weed the People,” in which medical cannabis is posed as “a human rights issue”; as well as “Liyana,” “City of Joel,” “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” and “Emanuel,” about the Charleston church shooting.

As is the case every year, the documentaries are selected by the series’ seven-member film board, or “The Film Ladies,” as they are called — made up of Boland, fellow co-directors Barbara Sverd and Wendy Feinberg, as well as board members Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross, Lorie Rothstein and Lynn Rein. 

Each member sees upward of 100 documentaries during the preliminary film festival blitz, and whittle their favorites down to 10 or less to present to the board. Out of that batch, seven films, one from each person, are selected to be screened. From the get-go, the board member assumes responsibility for “her” film, presenting it to the board, writing press releases and making sure the venues have all the right equipment for a proper screening. 

“The earlier we get the film, the better it is for us because then we can actually help the filmmakers and expose their film    we like getting them early in their emergence,” said Boland. 

“There’s also the discovery aspect of it. For example, we just saw a film we’re considering for the fall that hasn’t been anywhere, no film festivals so far, but we saw it and it was great. The idea that you could see somebody’s first documentary, really help them along in the huge process [is rewarding],” she said. 

Because of the series’ longevity, its members have developed a relationship with the many distributors of the films, as well as their directors, most of whom are just pleased to have more eyes on their work. 

Last summer the Port Jefferson Documentary Series held a special screening of “RBG,” which focused on the life and career of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and which was recently nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.  

In the early years of the series, they showed “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a film that went on to win the Oscar in 2008, and in 2017, Daniel McCabe, the director of “This Is Congo,” an immersive, and brutal, examination of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussed his film after the screening.

The board, supported by ticket receipts and a grant from Suffolk County, routinely pays filmmakers to come out and discuss the film in their Q&As, but McCabe actually donated his fee back to them that night, saying “You are the people that really make this happen … You’re the ones who really deserve this money.” 

“We have a responsibility to curate really well,” Boland explained. “Because we get public funds, we can’t just run anything … it’s a high bar to get to be one of the seven documentaries we select.”

Among the upcoming films, Boland is particular excited about “The Panama Papers.”

“Our series reflects the value of journalism,” she said. “[The director] is very good at taking a complicated topic and turn it into a very exciting film. It has you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s going to happen next.”

Sverd’s favorite is “Under the Wire,” which will be shown at Stony Brook University and will involve the college’s School of Journalism. 

“Over the years, the documentary has become an extremely important and effective tool for information and social change,” she said. “All of these are very special films to whoever chooses them.”

Feinberg, a retired teacher who joined the board in fall 2014, recognized a highlight for her this year: the closing night music film “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story,” an “interesting, educational, heartbreaking”  film about a blues harmonica player who formed an interracial band. 

“Other than being a cinephile, I love music and love music of such varying genres,” Feinberg said. “I try to always push for one music documentary, and I’m usually successful when I see that the audience really responds to the film. I remember we had one gentleman say to me, ‘Every time you screen a film, every one is better than the one before, I don’t know how you do that.’ Feedback like that warms my heart, and confirms that we’re doing something good and lasting.”

Boland agrees and encourages community members to show up and help grow the series. “These films compel us and can introduce you to a powerful, personal story you might not ever have heard,” she said. 

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from March 4 to April 15 and at 7:15 p.m. on May 20 (see sidebar for locations). Tickets, which are sold at the door, are $8 per person. (No credit cards please.) If you would like to volunteer, please call 631-473-5200. For more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

Film schedule:

The spring season will kick off with “The Panama Papers” at Theatre Three on March 4. Leaked by an anonymous source to journalists in 2015, the Panama Papers were an explosive collection of 11.5 million documents, exposing the use of secretive offshore companies to enable widespread tax evasion and money laundering. Director Alex Winter speaks to the journalists who worked to ensure the release and examines how it reshaped our understanding of corruption in the highest tiers of government.  Moderated by Tom Needham, host of “The Sounds of Film” on WUSB, guest speaker will be Kevin Hall, chief economics correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning senior investigator for McClatchy newspapers in Washington, D.C.

“Under the Wire,” the chilling and inspiring documentary about Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent, and photojournalist Paul Conroy as they enter war-ravaged Syria in February of 2012 to cover the plight of trapped and slaughtered civilians in Homs, a city under siege by the Syrian Army, heads to the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University on March 11. Deliberately targeted by Syria’s top leaders, Colvin was killed in a rocket attack that also gravely wounded Conroy, who eventually managed to escape. Co-sponsored by the Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, guest speakers include Catherine Colvin (Marie Colvin’s sister) in person and Paul Conroy, photojournalist (via Skype). 

The season continues on March 18 at The Long Island Museum with “Weed the People.” Through the emotional stories of children fighting cancer, the documentary educates mainstream audiences about medical cannabis as a human rights issue and begets the unsettling question at the heart of the film: If weed is truly saving lives, why doesn’t the government want people to access it? Guest speakers include  director Abby Epstein and cancer survivor and co-founder of NYC Botanics, Jill Fagin. Screening will be held in the museum’s Gillespie Room, located in the Carriage House Museum. 

“Liyana,” which will be screened at Robert Cushman Murphy Junior High School on April 1, is a touching and unique film set in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Told by five children who were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, this extraordinary film uses animation and narrative to illustrate their plight. Ultimately hopeful, this is a visually beautiful and unforgettable film presented in a poetic and creative style.  “Liyana” has recently been nominated for the prestigious 2019 Cinema Eye Honors Award for Nonfiction Filmmaking for the Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation Award. Guest speaker will be executive producer Susan MacLaury.

The series continues with “City of Joel” at Theatre Three on April 8. The town of Monroe, which lies 50 miles north of New York City and deep within the Hudson Valley, is one of the fastest-growing Hasidic communities in the country. Shot over several years with seemingly boundless access, Emmy-winning director Jesse Sweet’s documentary observes the simmering tensions that have come to define the community, and the myriad ways in which the town’s divide echoes the country’s as well. Co-sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, the guest speaker will be the film’s subject, B.J. Mendelson.

In collaboration with the Long Island Museum’s Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island exhibit, “Emanuel” will be screened on April 15 in the museum’s Gillespie Room. The documentary highlights the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 and is a poignant story of justice, faith, love and hate. Featuring intimate interviews with survivors and family members, this film examines the healing power of forgiveness. Sponsored by The Law Offices of Michael S. Ross in Smithtown,  Building Bridges in Brookhaven, the Bethel AME Church and the Multicultural Solidarity Group, guest speaker will be producer Dimas Salaberrios.

The series concludes with “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story” at Theatre Three at 7:15 p.m. on May 20. The documentary follows the complex story of a man many call the greatest harmonica player of all time. The film features Butterfield’s music and words, along with firsthand accounts from his family, his band mates and those closest to him, with appearances by David Sanborn, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and more. Co-sponsored by the Long Island Blues Society and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, the evening will be moderated by  WUSB’s Tom Needham with guest speaker executive producer/producer Sandra Warren. A prefilm blues concert with Kerry Kearney, Frank Latorre, Gerry Sorrentino and Mario Staiano will be held at 6 p.m. (Combo concert, film and Q&A ticket is $15.)

From left, Hyunsik Kim, Associate Professor Matthew Lerner and Erin Kang. Photo from Lerner’s lab

By Daniel Dunaief

This is part one of a two-part series on autism research conducted by Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang.

If someone in a family behaves in ways that are difficult to understand, the family might look for a support group of people with similar characteristics, visit a doctor or seek to document and understand patterns.

Finding a doctor who has seen these types of behaviors, speech patterns or actions before could provide comfort, as the physician may either engage in a course of treatment or provide context and understanding for the current behaviors. The doctor may also offer advice about any likely changes in behaviors in the near or distant future.

For researchers, understanding a range of symptoms, some of which might be below the threshold to meet a specific diagnosis, can lead to a more specific awareness of a condition, which could help guide patients toward an effective treatment.

Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang, graduate students in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, recently published papers examining autism, hoping to get a more specific understanding of subtle differences and symptoms.

Kim was looking for a better way to conceptualize autism. He used advanced statistical methods to compare three theoretical perspectives to find the one that best characterized the symptoms.

“According to my study, autism is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but is dimensional [and is] comprised of three related spectra of behaviors,” he explained. 

Researchers can characterize everyone’s autism symptoms through a combination of levels in each domain.

Each of these three areas can range from very mild to severe.         As an analogy, Kim suggested considering the quality of being introverted. A person can be mildly, moderately or highly introverted, which offers a continuum for the dimension of introversion.

In a dimensional approach that involves exploring these three different categories, researchers can get a better understanding of the symptom profiles.

“For decades, people thought of autism as purely categorical,” said Matthew Lerner, an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University. “You either have it or you don’t. In fact, autism was thought of as the easiest diagnosis to make.”

Kim, however, has “a goal of answering the fundamental question: what are we talking about when we’re talking about autism?” Lerner said. “Slowly, autism has morphed from the most categorical to the most dimensional. Literally, people talk about the spectrum when they talk about autism.”

With a dimensional approach based on levels of the three major domains for diagnosing autism, Kim suggested that researchers and doctors could better understand people who fall just below the current diagnosis for autism.

“It’s especially important to identify individuals who show a borderline range of symptoms, who barely fail to meet the diagnostic criteria of a given disorder, and provide them with appropriate treatments,” Kim explained.

Ideally, he hopes a dimensional approach incorporates the severity of symptoms into the current diagnostic system to promote better treatment procedures and outcomes.

Kim recognized that he could have just as easily created a dimensional approach that incorporates a greater number of criteria. His statistical analysis, however, revealed that the three dimensions provide the parsimonious explanation about autism symptoms.

Kim analyzed data from a parent questionnaire. He recognized that self-reporting by parents may underestimate or overestimate the severity of symptoms. He believed the over and under estimate of symptoms likely “evened out.”

Lerner suggests this multidimensional approach has numerous implications. For starters, it can help capture more of the types of symptoms in a diagnosis. It can also highlight the specific area of autism a clinician might want to target.

“We should be focusing on the factors that are most relevant for the individual and which are getting in their way,” Lerner said.

Treating autism broadly, instead of focusing on specific symptoms, may be “misguided,” Lerner added. A more specific characterization of autism could also help advance the field of neurogenetic research. “With more contemporary genetic analysis, we can use findings like this as a road map for what those genetic differences mean,” he said.

For his next step, Kim hopes to expand this work to observational data, adding that to the existing pool of information from parental questionnaires.

“People go on a home visit and take video of autistic kids interacting with others,” Kim said. “We can have some people code their behavior.”

More broadly, Kim would like to answer fundamental questions about the classification and conceptualization of mental disorders by using advanced quantitative modeling and other data-driven approaches. He believes a factor may represent a person’s vulnerability to developing a specific mental disorder.

A high level of this factor, combined with life stressors or adversity, would make it more likely that a person develops a disorder. As someone who studies psychology, Kim said he is well aware of his own emotional patterns and he tries to use his training to help himself cope.

He is not particularly comfortable doing public speaking, but he tells himself that whatever anxiety he feels is normal and that his practice, knowledge and expertise should allow him to succeed.

A resident of Middle Island, Kim lives with his wife Jennifer. The couple has two young children. Kim describes his wife as a “really good” amateur baker, who bakes cakes, muffins, cookies, macaroons, chiffon cakes and more. He has encouraged her to start her own YouTube channel and one day they hope to open a bakery that is online and offline.

As for his autism work, he hopes the dimensional approach is “incorporated into the assessment stage so that individuals do not merely receive a diagnosis, but are informed of their unique symptom profiles, so that clinicians can take them into consideration.” 

Stony Brook University’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium during a football game. File photo

By David Luces

In response to the decision of state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy, almost 800 people have signed a petition calling for Stony Brook University officials to change the name of the football stadium that bears his name.

The petition was posted to Change.org Feb. 12 by Stony Brook College Democrats, alongside support by other organizations such as SBU’s LGBTA club, House of SHADE and Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

“While some will use my votes to paint me as anti-LGBTQ nothing could be further from
the truth.”

— Kenneth LaValle

The petition states if the university wishes to be an inclusive community, it means no longer idealizing an individual who voted for “the torture of LGBTQ* youth.”

“Stony Brook University has a responsibility to protect all of its students, especially those who come from marginalized communities,” the petition page reads. “No student should have the name of their oppressor looming over them at graduation. No student should have to see their oppressor glorified in their home.”

The bill banning gay conversion therapy for minors was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 25, in conjunction with the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

LaValle has put out two statements on the matter. The first reads he is opposed to gay conversion therapy; however, he chose not to vote for the ban because it would undermine the current legal process for determining medical misconduct, which leaves it up to professionals on state review boards to decide whether or not to ban the medical practice, according to a Feb. 13 article in The Statesman.

In a letter that was sent to university President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., which was shared to TBR News Media by LaValle’s director of communications, the senator defended his stance again.

“I voted ‘no’ on this bill because I strongly believe that trained medical professionals, who across the board have stated that the practice of conversion therapy is archaic and inhumane, should be determining misconduct, not elected officials,” LaValle said. “I try to thoughtfully study an issue and base my votes on facts to avoid unintended consequences. While some will use my votes to paint me as anti-LGBTQ nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout my tenure, I have been a supporter of civil rights for all groups. That being said our laws have to be workable and satisfy constitutional requirements.”

The senator has been responsible for several projects and expansions at the university over the years, including the creation of the roughly $27 million football stadium in 2002, which is credited with helping bring Division 1 athletics to the school. He also helped raise $21.1 million for a renovation of Island Federal Credit Union Arena in 2012, which was a collaborative effort between state legislators and university officials.

This is not the first time the university has fielded calls to rename Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. In 2009 there was a short-lived campaign led by students to rename the football stadium after the senator voted against a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in New York state.

“We think it’s important that the university take into account that this is not the first time LaValle has failed to represent the students at Stony Brook,” said Cecelia Masselli, president of Stony Brook College Democrats.

Lauren Sheprow, Stony Brook University’s media relations officer, sent a statement on the university’s behalf.

“At this point, Lavalle’s voting history does not reflect the values of diversity and inclusion which Stony Brook University claims to hold.”

— Charlie Scott

“The New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo got it right — not only on conversion therapy but also on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act,” she said. “That said, you may have seen the letter that The Statesman published outlining Senator LaValle’s concerns about the conversion therapy bill as drafted, along with his history of legislative support for equality for the LGBTQ* community. It’s an important letter for members of the campus community to read.”

Charlie Scott, the president of the Stony Brook LGBTA club, said Lavalle’s legacy does not mandate his name be on the stadium.

“At this point, Lavalle’s voting history does not reflect the values of diversity and inclusion which Stony Brook University claims to hold,” Scott said. “Lavalle didn’t give anything to Stony Brook. He was a well-known name on a committee that moved funds toward Stony Brook University. The money wouldn’t be withdrawn without his support at this point. We owe him nothing.”

Masselli said students on campus have been receptive to the petition. Members and peers in the LGBTQ community have expressed enthusiasm about the petition as well.

The political science major added that her club and other campus groups hope to speak with university officials, but in the meantime, they want to continue to collect more signatures and make more people aware of the petition. They have also discussed the possibility of a protest or rally in front of the stadium, but first, they have to see whether or not university officials are responsive to the petition.

Masselli said if LaValle’s actions as a legislator got his name on the stadium, his actions as a legislator could get his name removed as well.

“To us, one vote in favor of gay conversion therapy is enough to make this request,” she said.

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

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

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

— Diane Perillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John Gobler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perillo is also optimistic.

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

Markus Seeliger with a model of a protein kinase. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

They are like couples looking for each other on a dating website. Each side could theoretically find a range of connections. The focus in this dating game, however, has heavily favored understanding the preferences of one side. 

Markus Seeliger, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at the Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine, has taken important steps to change that, albeit in a completely different area. Instead of working with two people who are searching for a date, Seeliger studies the interactions among protein kinases, which are like switches that turn on or off cellular signals, and inhibitors, which researchers and drug companies are creating to slow down or stop the progression of diseases.

Markus Seliger

Most scientists have looked at the pairing of these molecules and protein kinases from the perspective of the inhibitor, trying to figure out if it would bind to one of the 500 protein kinases in the human body.

Seeliger, however, is exploring the coupling from the other side, looking at the selectivity of the kinases. He published recent research in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.

“People have only ever looked at the specificity from the point of view of an inhibitor,” Seeliger said. “We’ve turned it around. We’re looking at it from the perspective of kinases,” adding that kinases have been important drug targets for decades.

In an email, Michael Frohman, a SUNY distinguished professor and the chair of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences, applauded Seeliger’s efforts and said his research “is representative of the innovative work going on in many of the labs here.” 

On a first level, Seeliger discovered eight kinases that bind to a range of potential inhibitors, while the others are more selective.

Within the smaller group that binds a range of inhibitors, there was no sequence relationship between the base pairs that formed the kinases. The kinases are also not closely related in the cellular functions they regulate. They all trigger similar signaling cascades. 

Seeliger wanted to know why these eight kinases were four to five times more likely to couple with an introduced inhibitor than their more selective kinase counterparts. The Stony Brook scientist performed a three-dimensional analysis of the structure of one of these kinases at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“They have a very large binding pocket that can accommodate many different inhibitors,” Seeliger said. Indeed, he discovered this higher level of receptivity by separating out this group of eight, which also had more flexible binding sites. If the match between the configuration of the inhibitor and the kinase isn’t perfect, the kinase can still find a way to allow the molecule to connect.

For any potential inhibitor introduced into the human body, this more flexible and accommodating group of kinases could cause unintended side effects regardless of the level of specificity between the inhibitor or drug and other targets. This could have health implications down the road, as other researchers may use the properties of these kinases to switch off programs cancer or other diseases use to continue on their destructive paths.

“Studies point to the roles of protein kinases as driving (to at least allowing and permitting) cancer growth and development,” Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, explained in an email. “Therefore, one needs to inhibit them.”

Hannun described Seeliger as “very rigorous” and suggested he was an “up and coming scientist” whose “novel approach” shed significant new light on protein kinases.

In his research, Seeliger’s next step is to look at the existing database to see what other groups of kinases he finds and then determine why or how these switches have similarities to others in other systems or regions of the body.

Seeliger likened kinases to a control panel on a space shuttle. “Nothing about the sequence tells you about the role of the switches,” which would make it difficult for astronauts to know which switch to turn and in what order to bring the shuttle home.

Another question he’d like to address involves a greater understanding of the complexity of a living system. So far, he’s looked at properties of these kinases under controlled conditions. When he moves into a more complex environment, the inhibitors will likely interact and yield unexpected binding or connections.

Frohman appreciated Seeliger’s overall approach to his work and his contribution to the field. He cited the popularity of a review article Seeliger wrote that documents how drug molecules find their target binding site. Frohman said this work, which was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, was cited over 400 times in other articles.

Seeliger has been “very dedicated to moving this field forward. We were very excited about the topic and have been very pleased with the work he’s done on it since arriving at SBU,” Frohman said.

A resident of Stony Brook, Seeliger lives with his wife Jessica Seeliger, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences who works on developing drugs for tuberculosis. The couple has two young children.

“We are all very happy they are both here as independent scientists,” Frohman added.

Indeed, Hannun called Jessica Seeliger an “outstanding and highly talented scientist,” as well.

Seeliger grew up in Hanover, Germany. He became interested in science in high school when he watched “The Double Helix,” which showed the development of the structural model of DNA.

His lab currently has two postdoctoral researchers and two doctoral candidates. Ultimately, Seeliger hopes his research helps establish an understanding of the way various kinases are functionally similar in how they interact with drugs.

“We wish we would be able to design more specific inhibitors without having to test dozens and dozens of compounds by trial and error,” he explained. He hopes to continue to build on his work with kinases, including exploring what happens when mutations in these switches cause disease.

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

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

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

— Dr. David Fiorella

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Eric Niegelberg,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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