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Daniel Dunaief

Young man photographing family at outdoor wedding. Horizontal shot.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Something about a posed picture brings out the prankster in me. I realize, of course, that posed pictures can and do capture a moment when a group of people come together.

In fact, I recently visited the athletic center of one of the colleges that admitted my daughter and stared, for hours, at the faces of athletes over the decades who took time out from their sports games and practices to have a picture taken. Without the uniformity and decorum, these pictures would have been a free-for-all with little structure.

And yet, in my own life, I can’t help seeing the camera and the formal process as an invitation to assert my individuality or, at the very least, to force the formality off someone’s face.

I can trace this back to formal extended family photo sessions we had when my brothers and I were young teenagers. Every so often, the aunts, uncles and cousins would get together. When they did, someone inevitably wanted to capture the moment for people to revisit years later, which, I guess, is around now, given how long ago the younger versions of ourselves forced a smile on our faces for those pictures.

So, anyway, I remember this one picture, when I was standing between both of my brothers, which made sense at the time because I am the middle child and my younger brother hadn’t decided I stopped way too early in the height department. As the photographer was getting ready to take the picture, I reached down as subtly as I could and pinched my older brother’s thigh, causing him to grin broadly at just the right moment, if you’re me — or the wrong moment, if you’re the photographer.

To her credit, my mom kept that goofy picture because, unknown to me, the photographer had taken a head-to-toe shot that clearly showed my fingers pinching my brother.

When my younger brother got married, I recall my father’s extended family all trying to line up for a family photo or, as my aunt said at the time, a fa-mi-lee pho-to, as she enunciated each syllable in a way that would cause poets to cringe. She accented all of the syllables and spoke so loudly that the camera picked up her demand to get everyone in their place.

Later, as we watched my brother’s wedding video, the whole family discovered an unknown treat. At some point, the videographer had clearly asked my uncle, one of the more serious and least playful people I ever met, if he had any marital advice for the newlyweds.

Seated in a chair by himself, with the music playing in the background and plates of hors d’oeuvres passing in and out of the frame, he paused for a moment before looking straight at the camera.

“It’s a sense of humor,” he said, cracking the smallest of wry smiles.

As my daughter and nephew prepare for their high school and college graduations, I can’t help wondering what the young men and women in the photos will be thinking when the many amateur photographers insist that they move a step to their left, lean to their right, stand up straight or open their eyes wider, no, less wide, no, wait, wider.

Hopefully, my daughter and nephew will be able to look back at pictures and see something more than a group of people celebrating one moment as they prepare for the next one. Hopefully, the camera will capture something, small though it may be, that brings a smile to their faces months or years later. Maybe the perfect imperfection will transport them back to the moment someone insisted that they “give us a natural smile” on cue.

Enyuan Hu with images that represent electron orbitals. Photo from Enyuan Hu

By Daniel Dunaief

Charging and recharging a battery can cause a strain akin to working constantly without a break. Doctors or nurses who work too long in emergency rooms or drivers who remain on the road too long without walking around a car or truck or stopping for food can function at a lower level and can make mistakes from all the strain.

Batteries have a similar problem, as the process of charging them builds up a structural tension in the cathode that can lead to cracks that reduce their effectiveness.

Working with scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Enyuan Hu, an assistant chemist at BNL, has revealed that a doughnut-shaped cathode, with a hole in the middle, is more effective at holding and regenerating charges than a snowball shape, which allows strain to build up and form cracks. 

At this point, scientists would still need to conduct additional experiments to determine whether this structure would allow a battery to hold and regenerate a charge more effectively. Nonetheless, the work, which was published in Advanced Functional Materials, has the potential to lead to further advances in battery research.

“The hollow [structure] is more resistant to the stress,” said Hu. Lithium is extracted from the lattice during charging and changes the volume, which can lead to cracks.

The hollow shape has an effective diffusion lens that is shorter than a solid one, he added.

Yijin Liu, a staff scientist at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and a collaborator on the project, suggested that the result creates a strategic puzzle for battery manufacture.

Enyuan Hu with drawings that represent images of metal 3d orbitals interacting with oxygen 2p obits, forming either sigma bonds (above) or pi bonds (below).
Photo from Enyuan Hu

“On the one hand, the hollow particles are less likely to crack,” said Liu. “On the other hand, solid particles exhibit better packing density and, thus, energy density. Our results suggest that careful consideration needs to be carried out to find the optimal balance.” The conventional wisdom about what caused a cathode to become less effective involved the release of oxygen at high voltage, Hu said, adding that this explanation is valid for some materials, but not every one.

Oxygen release initiates the process of structural degradation. This reduces voltage and the ability to build up and release charges. This new experiment, however, may cause researchers to rethink the process. Oxygen is not released from the bulk even though battery efficiency declines. Other possible processes, like loss of electric contact, could cause this.

“In this specific case of nickel-rich layered material, it looks like the crack induced by strain and inhomogeneities is the key,” said Hu.

In the past, scientists had limited knowledge about cracks and homogeneity, or the consistent resilience of the material in the cathode.

The development of new technology and the ability to work together across the country made this analysis possible. “This work is an excellent example of cross-laboratory collaboration,” said Liu. “We made use of cutting edge techniques available at both BNL and SLAC to collect experimental data with complementary information.”

At this point, Hu estimates that about half the battery community believes oxygen release causes the problem for the cathode, while the other half, which includes Hu, thinks the challenge comes from surface or structural problems. 

He has been working to understand this problem for about three years as a part of a five-year study. His role is to explore the role of the cathode, specifically, which is his particular area of expertise.

Hu is a part of a Battery500 project. The goal of the project is to develop lithium-metal batteries that have almost triple the specific energy currently employed in electric vehicles. A successful Battery500 will produce batteries that are smaller, lighter and less expensive than today’s model.

Liu expressed his appreciation for Hu’s contributions to their collaboration and the field, saying Hu “brings more than just excellent expertise in battery science into our collaboration. His enthusiasm and can-do attitude also positively impacts everyone in the team, including several students and postdocs in our group.”

In the bigger picture, Hu would like to understand how lithium travels through a battery. At each stage in a journey that involves diffusing through a cathode, an anode and migrating through the electrolyte, lithium interacts with its neighbors. How it interacts with these neighbors determines how fast it travels. 

Finding lithium during these interactions, however, can be even more challenging than searching for Waldo in a large picture, because lithium is small, travels quickly and can alter its journey depending on the structure of the cathode and anode.

Ideally, understanding the journey would lead to more efficient batteries. The obstacles and thresholds a lithium ion needs to cross mirror the ones that Hu sees in everyday life and he believes he needs to circumvent these obstacles to advance in his career.

One of the biggest challenges he faces is his comfort zone. “Sometimes, [comfort zones] prevent us from getting exposed to new things and ideas,” he said. “We have to be constantly motivated by new ideas.”

A cathode expert, Hu has pushed himself to learn more about the anode and the electrolyte.

A resident of Stony Brook, Hu lives with his wife, Yaqian Lin, who is an accountant in Port Jefferson, and their son Daniel, who attends Setauket Elementary School.

Hu and Lin met in China, where their families were close friends. They didn’t know each other growing up in Hefei, which is in the southeast part of the country.

Hu appreciates the support Lin provides, especially in a job that doesn’t have regular hours.

“There are a lot of off-schedule operations and I sometimes need to leave home at 10 p.m. and come back in the early morning because I have an experiment that requires my immediate attention. My wife is very supportive.”

As for his work at BNL, Hu said he “loves doing experiments here. It has given me room for exploring new areas in scientific research.”

Microplastic scooped from the surf off Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where there seems to be more plastic than sand. Photo by Erica Cirino

By Daniel Dunaief

Erica Cirino sails the South Pacific to cover the story of microplastic pollution in the oceans with Danish sailors and scientists. Photo by Rasmus Hytting

A specialist in investigating plastics pollution, Erica Cirino recently shared an email exchange about her concerns over a growing environmental threat. Cirino, who earned a bachelor of arts in environmental studies and a master’s of science in journalism from Stony Brook University, is a Kaplana Chawla Launchpad fellow at the Safina Center. A guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and a freelance science writer and artist, Cirino is also a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

How significant are plastics as a source of pollution in the oceans? Is the problem becoming more pronounced each year? 

Plastics are a significant source of marine debris, entering the oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons per year. However, experts don’t have a great idea of exactly how much plastic is entering the oceans because it’s so hard to quantify once it gets in the environment. 

What can people on Long Island and elsewhere do to help prevent plastic pollution?

When it comes to preventing plastic from getting into nature, including in the oceans, reducing one’s use of plastic is most certainly the answer. There are many recyclable products on the market, but these only encourage the use of more plastic — and then there’s the actual act of recycling that’s necessary for the plastic to be reused. 

To reduce your plastic use, you should make use of reusable containers such as bags, bottles and food boxes, ideally made from natural materials like wood, metal or glass. Hard plastics can be reused, but they do release small particles of plastic into the environment, particularly when washed. 

You should also pay attention to your clothing labels, because much of our clothing today is made from plastics. Opt for organic cotton, bamboo, wool and other natural fibers over plastic-based polyester, nylon and acrylic. Every time you wash synthetic plastic-based clothing, thousands of tiny plastic pieces wash off and into the wastewater system. That’s not good because water treatment can’t remove plastic (yet) and it goes directly back into the environment. 

Has recycling helped reduce the problem in the oceans or landfills?

Based off of production, waste management and pollution data, experts estimate 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic have been produced to date, and only 9 percent of that plastic has been recycled. The vast majority has been tossed in landfills or littered into the natural environment. 

Above, a deceased herring gull surrounded by plastic litter on Venice Beach, California. Photo by Erica Cirino

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

In the oceans, plastic breaks down from intact items into microscopic pieces over time, from weeks to months to years. Because there are so many different sizes of plastic in the oceans, wildlife is affected in different ways. Large pieces of plastic may injure or entangle larger animals like whales and sea turtles, while the tiniest pieces of plastic may block the digestive tracts of microscopic marine crustaceans. What’s more, the tiniest pieces of plastic (microplastic), while they sometimes pass through the guts of the animals that eat them, often contain toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from seawater. Animals that eat microplastic tend to accumulate high levels of toxins in their bodies that can cause disease, behavioral abnormalities and even death. 

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

Based on my years of walking Long Island’s beaches, I can tell you the plastics that wash ashore along the Sound tend to come mostly from New York City and Connecticut. For example, I once found a message in a plastic water bottle that someone had sent from Connecticut, according to the note inside. The note also contained a phone number and I lightly scolded the person who sent it off for tossing a plastic bottle into the Sound. But on the South Shore and the East End, there’s a lot of plastic that comes in from far off places via the Atlantic Ocean as far as Europe and Africa, even. 

What are some of the positive steps you’ve seen individuals and/or companies take to address the plastics problem? 

There are individuals doing things large and small to address the plastic pollution crisis. Some examples include the formation of beach cleanup groups, political mobilization and pushes for legislation to reduce or prohibit use of plastic items like plastic bags, expanded polystyrene food containers and plastic bottles. Others have created companies that reuse cleaned-up plastic marine debris to make clothing and other items. But the issue with that is that microplastic will shed off these items. I think the most effective efforts revolve around community projects and political action to address the core issue: which is using plastic. 

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

The biggest misconception is that recycling is a solution to the issue of plastic pollution. 

Is there a plastics message for consumers, companies and policy makers that you’d like to share on Earth Day this year?

Let’s rethink our fast and hurried plastic lifestyles this Earth Day and think about all the problems we’re causing by using fast, easy and cheap plastic. If we love nature, we need to do more to preserve it, and that involves a less consumeristic lifestyle. Let’s value the things that really matter, like friends, family and community.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

When we want to use a pronoun to refer to a deity, we use a capital letter out of respect, so that even if we’re writing about His will, we use the capital “H” in the middle of a sentence. For some, of course, the capital letter could also represent a female deity, as in, I thought I would get the job, but, apparently, She had other plans for me.

That’s so wonderfully deferential that it shows that only supreme beings merit such grammatical greatness.

But what about all the people we can’t stand, whose ideas are ruining our day or, gasp, our country?

We have long used symbols or faux letters, like an asterisk (*) to take the place of a letter or words we all know, so that we might write, “What the **** was he thinking when he cut me off for a parking spot at the supermarket?”

Nowadays, though, I think the politics of personal animus requires more than a few letter abbreviation or a casual dismissal. We need the equivalent of a literary eye roll, which can show a level of antipathy and disrespect befitting the lack of humanity, the utter depravity or the absolute inanity that defines someone’s actions or words that make us grind our teeth or snarl in frustration.

How about a super lower-case first letter of a pronoun, to make it clear that we don’t just disagree with someone, but we find that person so frustrating, evil, despicable, irritating and/or ridiculous that the person doesn’t merit a customary human pronoun? Perhaps we need a symbol that does the graffiti equivalent of writing that person’s name and spray painting an “X” or a thumbs-down sign over it.

Instead of referring to the person people either love, hate or love to hate, as he or him, we could use a diminutive placeholder for the personal pronoun, like *e seems poised to start another war to satisfy his ego, or *is idea so completely lacked substance that it’s hard to argue with *im when *e hasn’t read any intelligence reports.

On the other side, we might see a nemesis as unworthy of a typical pronoun, arguing that *he is preventing this great country from marching forward or *er ideas seem rooted in the word “no.”

But, of course, this doesn’t have to be limited to the power elite in Washington, D.C. It can refer to anyone, allowing us to alter the personal pronoun in a way that underscores our distaste for the idea, the person, or *is or *er actions.

Let’s say we’re watching a Little League game and a mother, father, grandparent or just random fan comes by and heckles an umpire. That seems so utterly absurd that, in the retelling, we might want to point out how *is words set the wrong example, or *he made me throw up in my mouth.

When we’re tapping out a text message to our friends, we might share our disgust that *he had the nerve to ask me if *er choice to date my best friend was OK.

We might realize that this person seemed eager to train *er dog to use my lawn as a bathroom or that *e was telling me how to live my life when *e apparently has no idea how to live *is.

These super lower-case pronouns can allow us to vent in code to our family and friends. We might suggest that *e is driving me crazy. If *e actually read the email or text, *e might have no idea that the subject of this diminutive pronoun is, in fact, *im.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori Chan with her dog KoKo. Photo by Joshua Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Four people get into an elevator together. They kind of recognize each other, but they’re not sure so they smile politely and nod. They’re all going to the 7th floor. On the way up, the elevator gets stuck. Mr. B, the baseball coach, looks at his watch and shakes his head. Ms. S, the soccer coach, paces back and forth, as if she’s blocking a goal. Mrs. V, the violin teacher, closes her eyes, taps her feet and imagines the rhythm of a Mozart concerto. Mrs. Jones tries to text her three children, but the elevator doesn’t get any cell service.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” Mr. B offers hopefully. “I’ve been stuck in elevators, had rain delays and all kinds of problems in the past. We’ll be fine.”

“Oh, hey Mr. B,” Mrs. Jones says, her voice shaking a bit. “It’s me, Joan Smith. I’m John’s mom.”

“Right, right, I knew you looked familiar,” Mr. B says. “Did John have a chance to go hit in the cages like I told him to?”

“No, well, he had a violin lesson, so he couldn’t,” Mrs. Jones replies. “But I know he wants to and he’ll get to the cage this weekend.”

“This weekend?” Mr. B sighs. “By then the big game will be over.”

“So, you’re the reason John couldn’t concentrate during his lesson,” Mrs. V says, as her foot stops and she swivels to face Mr. B.

“Excuse me?” Mr. B says, crossing his arms over his chest. “John has been slumping recently and we need him to start hitting again. He has tremendous potential and we’d like to see how far that will take him.”

“Wait, John Jones?” Ms. S asks, turning to the group. “John is a fantastic goalie and we need him for our club game this weekend.”

“I thought soccer was a fall sport,” Mr. B sighs.

“Right, and baseball is a spring sport and yet during our busiest season, John seems to sneak away for extra hitting and throwing,” Ms. S says.

“Well, he needs to practice all year round. What’s he going to do with soccer?” Mr. B adds.

“You’re kidding, right? You think he’s going to play baseball in college?” Ms. S asks.

“Does anyone have any idea how talented he is on the violin? Have you ever heard him play? He is way ahead of his peers on the violin and could easily play at a much higher level,” Mrs. V says.

“He never talks about the violin with me,” Mr. B says, unfolding and refolding his arms.

“Would you be interested in hearing about it? Do you think he’s figured out that you might not be a receptive audience?” Mrs. V adds.

“Now, come on, think about this: John gets to play soccer, baseball and the violin,” Mrs. Jones says. “He gets to benefit from all of your expertise and he’s passionate about all these activities. You’re all giving him experiences he’ll never forget and he’s fortunate to have these opportunities. That’s a good thing, right?”

“Yes, I suppose,” Ms. S huffs. “But if he really wants to be great at anything, he needs to commit to it year round.”

“I could say the same thing about baseball,” Mr. B says.

The elevator suddenly starts to move again.

“Yes, but he has committed to all of your activities throughout the year,” Mrs. Jones sighs. “I know, because I’m driving him and his sisters everywhere. Please understand that he does the best he can to pick and choose during overlapping events. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shop for a present to celebrate his 10th birthday.”

Sean Clouston

By Daniel Dunaief

Every year, the country pauses on 9/11, remembering the victims of the terrorist attacks and reflecting on the safety and security of the country. At the same time, a Stony Brook University study continues not only to remember the first responders but also to understand the physical and mental consequences of the work police, firefighters and other first responders performed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Benjamin Luft

Recently, Sean Clouston, an associate professor in the Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine at SBU Renaissance School of Medicine, and Ben Luft, the director of the SBU WTC Health and Wellness Program since 2003, published research in which they demonstrated a link between a protein commonly connected with Alzheimer’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in first responders.

In a small preliminary study, the researchers found a difference in the level of the protein between first responders who are battling chronic PTSD and those who aren’t battling the condition. The Stony Brook scientists published their work in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

The researchers cautioned that the presence of the markers doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about present or future changes in cognitive function.“We don’t know the specificity of the markers,” Luft explained in an email.

Amyloid is generally considered the earliest marker of Alzheimer’s disease, which includes cognitive decline. Some people, however, have significant amounts of amyloid and don’t develop problems with their thinking. Neurodegenerative diseases without amyloid rarely have severe symptoms, which don’t appear to worsen with time.

“This paper doesn’t look at cognitive symptoms,” Clouston said. “We do have papers looking at cognitive impairment and other memory-based differences. It wasn’t a part of this paper.”

The newest research is part of an ongoing program in which the university follows 11,000 responders who came to the World Trade Center. The study for this paper involved a smaller subset of this population. This type of research can and does have application to other studies of people who have traumatic experiences, the scientists suggest.

Most traumatic experiences are unique to each person, as people who suffer physical and emotional trauma in combat often confront the aftereffects of head injuries. Among the first responder population who survived the attacks on 9/11, most of them “faired pretty well physically,” Clouston said. 

“We didn’t have a lot of head injuries. Understanding PTSD in this crowd is really useful for the literature as a whole because it allows us to focus on the long-term psychiatric fallout of an event without worrying about exposures that are different.”

The scientists had at least some idea of the timing and duration of exposures. This research suggests that it might be helpful to think about the kinds of problems that cognitive impairment can cause, which might involve managing other health-related problems.

Luft added that the population they are studying shows the benefit of immediate care. “One thing for sure is that the care of the first responders has to occur very quickly,” he said. “Now that we know the history, the greatest chance you have in mitigating the effect of this type of trauma is to deal with the problem from the get-go.” 

Sean Clouston with his daughter Quinn at Benner’s Farm in Setaukt. with his daughter Quinn. Photo by Rachel Kidman

First responders have benefited from psychotherapy as well as from various pharmacological treatments. Luft suggested that they might even benefit from having therapists available in the field, where they can receive near instantaneous psychological support.

In addition to the psychological trauma, first responders have had physical effects from their work in the aftermath of the attacks, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, as well as autoimmunity issues.

People have these problems because “of the pro-inflammatory effect of PTSD itself,” said Luft. The researchers believe trauma can affect the immune system and the brain.

According to Clouston, the next step with this work is to replicate it with a larger scale. The experiment was “fairly expensive and untried in this population and novel in general, so we started small,” he explained in an email. The scientists would like to “get a larger range of responders and to examine issues surrounding symptomatology and other possible explanations.”

Clouston has been at Stony Brook for six years. Prior to his arrival on Long Island, he worked on a collaborative project that was shared between University College London and the University of Victoria. 

An expert in aging, he felt like his arrival came at just the right time for the WTC study, as many of the first responders were turning 50. After giving talks about the cognitive and physical effects of aging, he met Luft and the two decided to collaborate within six months of his arrival.

Clouston is focused on whether PTSD caused by the terrorist attacks themselves have caused early brain aging. A self-proclaimed genetics neophyte, he appreciates the opportunity to work with other researchers who have considerably more experience in searching for molecular signatures of trauma.

Clouston said his family has suffered through the trauma of cognitive decline during the aging process. His family’s struggles “definitely bring [the research] home,” reminding him of the “terror that many family members feel when they start noticing problems in their siblings, parents, spouses, etc.”

As for his work on the recent study, he said he is excited about the next steps. “Little is known about the subtypes of amyloid,” he suggested and there’s a “lot more to explore about the role [of this specific type] in the population. I do think it could be really informative about the types of symptoms.”

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

appreciate the joy of vanity license plates. They are like small puzzles that allow me to ponder their meaning while I await two or three traffic lights so I can turn left.

Sometimes they are like good movies or artwork, allowing readers to come up with their own interpretation.

My wife and I will ask each other what the combination of letters and numbers mean, offering various guesses as if we were on a game show, trying to figure out whether the letters are a message or the celebration of a successful stock that made it possible for the person to buy that lovely car.

They can reveal a car owner’s passions, for skiing, golf or for a particular person. They can also suggest how someone got the car, where the person with the car came from or how many people are in a family.

Recently, I came to a traffic light and read a license plate that suggested a sad story. In an inconspicuous maroon car that I would have otherwise overlooked, the license plate had a message of animosity.

Wow, I thought. Who would advertise an identity linked to hatred? How sad that each time the person got in the car, the license plate reinforced his or her antipathy. What could have happened that made anger so much more important than any other message or than a random collection of letters and numbers?

Then again, maybe it’s the internet’s fault. Traveling along the internet superhighway, people can’t resist sharing their disdain for everyone and everything. Maybe the anger that follows us on roads and on the heavily trafficked internet world has converged, blending into one laser-like beam of focused enmity.

Then again, that’s probably a sociological cop-out. More likely, the car owner, whom I will call Joe, has a life-defining story he’s sharing through this license plate.

Joe may have loved someone deeply and for years. He made plans about where they’d live, how many kids they’d have, what they’d do on weekends and where they’d take this small joy mobile on vacations.

One day, however, she arrived at a prearranged dinner at a diner. She looked different. Her hair was longer and had been straightened. Instead of her worn North Face jacket, she was wearing a designer coat. Her purse, which Joe noticed when she placed it delicately on the table as if it were made of glass, had also changed.

“Hey,” Joe offered. “You look so different. What’s up?”

“I am different,” she smiled behind lipstick someone else had clearly applied. When she refused the bread she usually wolfed down, Joe became nervous.

“What’s different?”

“I won the lottery. I’m thinking of changing everything about my old life.”

“How much did you win?” a suddenly excited Joe asked.

“How much is irrelevant. I’ve decided to give you a parting gift. I’m going to buy you a new car.”

Joe didn’t know what to say. A car wasn’t what he wanted or expected. Then again, he didn’t want to walk away empty handed.

When it came time to pick out a license plate, Joe wanted just the right way to express his frustration over what could have been. He tried options the DMV denied. Finally, he came up with a message that encapsulated a road not taken for his life and his car. Joe regularly drives past the home of the former love of his life, hoping she notices him and the message on his license plate: EVEIH8U.

Alexander Orlov, right, with former students, Peichuan Shen and Shen Zhao. File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Alexander Orlov knows first-hand about the benefits and dangers of technology. A native of the Ukraine, Orlov and his family lived close enough to Chernobyl that the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster forced the family to bring a Geiger counter to the supermarket. In his career, the associate professor in the Material Science and Chemical Engineering Department at Stony Brook University has dedicated himself to unlocking energy from alternatives to fossil fuels, while he also seeks to understand the environmental consequences of the release of nanoparticles.

Orlov, who is a member of a US-EU working group on Risk Assessment of Nanomaterials and has served as science adviser to several congressmen, the EU Commission and governments in Europe and Asia, recently spoke with Times Beacon Record News Media about this expanding scientific field.

Alexander Orlov File photo

TBR: Is a big part of what you do understanding the way small particles can help or hurt people and the environment?

Orlov: Yes, we have two lines of research. The first is to make efficient nanoparticles, which can help create sustainable energy by creating energy from water or by taking carbon dioxide, which is greenhouse gas, and converting it into fuel. On the other side, we have a project, which is looking at the dangers of nanoparticles in the environment, because there are more and more products, thousands, which contain nanoparticles. We are trying to understand the mechanism of release of those particles.

TBR: How do you monitor the release of nanomaterials?

Orlov: We use labels, and we track them. If they are released from consumer products, it’s not necessarily that they are immediately dangerous. They can be. We are trying to quantify how much is released.

TBR: How do you determine toxicity?

Orlov: In the scientific arena, there is a qualitative discussion, if chemicals or nanomaterials are released, they will be toxic. That is only the beginning. We need to discuss how much is released. There’s a principal in toxicology that everything is toxic. If you drink too much water, it can be toxic and you can die. Similar [rules] apply for nanomaterials. If there is a little released, the danger might be minimal. If it’s too much, that’s where you might get concerned. [The amount of a nanomaterial released] is often not quantified. That’s what we are trying to do.

TBR: How do you determine what might be toxic over a prolonged period of time?

Orlov: What we have in our studies are determined by funding. Normally, funding for scientific research has a three-year window. The studies have been done over the course of years, but not decades, and so the cumulative exposure is still an open question. Another problem is that different scientific groups study nanomaterials which are not the same. That means there are so many variants. Sometimes, navigating the literature is almost impossible.

TBR: Are the studies on toxicity keeping up with the development of new products?

Orlov: [The technology is] developing so fast. New materials are coming from different labs and have so many potential applications, which are exciting and novel in their properties. People studying safety and toxicity often can’t catch up with what they are studying in their lab.

TBR: Are there efforts to recapture nanomaterials released into the environment?

Orlov: Once released, it’s difficult to recapture. [It’s almost] like air pollution, where as soon as it’s in the atmosphere, it can go anywhere. There are industries that use nanomaterials. Soon, you’ll see 3-D printers in the household; 3-D printers would use polymers and embedded nanomaterials. There are already products like this. The question is how you would minimize consumer exposure. There are several ways: design safer products where nanomaterials aren’t going to be released; apply the standard methods of occupational safety; put equipment in ventilated environment; and you can also try to calculate the exposure.

TBR: Are you monitoring nanomaterials in some of these applications?

Orlov: The research we’ve done demonstrated that, even though you have something in polymer or in consumer products, [there is] still [the] possibility of release of nanomaterials, even though it is considered safe. The polymer itself can degrade.

TBR: Do you have any nanoparticle nightmares?

Orlov: Often, the only nightmares I have is that my understanding of the field is so minuscule given that the field is expanding so fast. The amount of knowledge generated and papers published in this is so vast that no single individual can have a comprehensive knowledge in this field. The only way to address it is to collaborate.

TBR: How is the funding environment?

Orlov: In the United States, there’s a significant amount of funding in both fundamental and applied research, but the policy priorities change in certain areas such as environmental protection, so that affects scientists who are working in the environmental area. I teach environmental classes at Stony Brook. Students ask whether it makes sense to go into environmental protection because of the current funding and general policies.

TBR: What do you advise them to do?

Orlov: I tell them priorities change. At the end of the day, would they like to have clean water and a healthy environment and healthy humans? You can find a niche. It doesn’t make sense to abandon this area.

TBR: You experienced the fallout from Chernobyl firsthand. How often do you think about this?

Orlov: I do think about this often for several reasons. There is an overlap in energy and the environment. This idea that scientific discoveries have positive and negative impacts on humanity came during that time. When I was in the Ukraine and disaster happened, I think about this a lot of times.

TBR: How does a career in science compare to your expectations?

Orlov: My original thinking is that after you get to a certain level, you have a more measured life, in terms of free time and time spent in research. I didn’t realize that the amount of funding or probability of getting funding is becoming very low. When I looked at my colleagues who were scientists 30 years ago, they had a five times higher chance of getting funding compared to right now. Being in science is not as relaxing and it can be stressful and the thing is, if you only focus on getting funding, the creativity can suffer.

TBR: Are there other examples of the dichotomy between scientific promise and destruction?

Orlov: In my introductory lecture to chemical engineers at Stony Brook, one scientist who affected more people than Stalin or Hitler was a German scientist who developed the process of converting nitrogen [gas] to ammonia [which is used for fertilizer]. Half of the population exists because of this scientific discovery. [One of the inventors, Fritz Haber, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for this work, called the Haber-Bosch process].

TBR: What else did he do?

Orlov: Haber had a dark side to him. He was involved in developing chemical weapons for Germans [which were used during World War I and World War II]. The [extension of his] discoveries killed millions of people [including Haber’s relatives in World War II after he died]. Considered the father of chemical warfare, he developed the process of weaponizing chlorine gas. This is [a way] to discuss the ethics of scientific discovery.

TBR: How would people learn about these examples?

Orlov: Stony Brook and other universities are trying to teach ethics to engineers and scientists because this is a perfect example of the dark side of science and how science and policy overlap.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss as he was better known, was born 115 years ago earlier this month. He brought us so many wonderful characters, from Horton — my favorite — to Thing One and Thing Two to the Grinch to Sam-I-Am.

A wonderful part about having children is revisiting these friends from our own childhood. Certainly, babies born today have more options, but Seuss characters continue to inhabit their world almost as much as they did ours.

Before our daughter was born, we used to read “Oh, Baby, the Places You’ll Go!” to her. Tish Rabe adapted the book from the works of Seuss.

Almost 18 years later, I’m not sure how much, or if, the words we read to her and to our son a few years later, had any impact. It was fun, however, to picture them listening to our voices as we imagined the things they’d do and, of course, the places they’d go.

Written for, and about, children, this book doesn’t address the journeys we, the parents, the readers of this and so many other books, will take with and for our children. We travel in cars with them, where, initially, every journey is a voyage of discovery.

On those trips when parents can travel with their child together, one adult might drive while the other can sit with the rear-facing seat of our infant or toddler. We point out the world around us, enabling us to see the red-tailed hawks, oak trees and changing foliage through their eyes.

Even before we focus on the world outside the car, we travel through familiar songs, stories and nursery rhymes, creating patterns that we and our children can look forward to even if we are stuck in traffic somewhere.

As our children grow up, they travel with teams, bands or Model United Nations trips outside of the usual patterns of our lives.

Our daughter ventured to towns half a mile, half an hour, half a state and almost half a world away with softball and volleyball teams, bringing her uniform, enthusiasm and a readiness to join other girls who were, seemingly yesterday, also in the early stages of life.

With her band, she ventured out of the country, traveling to Italy, where she was delighted to play for an audience that didn’t understand much English, but shared reactions to the music that needed no translation.

As our children grow up, they travel more and more often without us, going on religious retreats, visiting national monuments and taking school trips to Washington, D.C., to see the capital of our democracy and many museums.

When they are on these trips, we are delighted that they are experiencing life, making new friends and discovering the world and their role in it on their own. When they travel far enough and for long enough, we sometimes pack a bag and visit them, eager to see them in a new setting and perhaps to explore the same part of Australia that always tickled our fancy.

As they prepare to graduate from high school and move into the great unknown of college classes, friends and parties — hopefully in that order — we share their excitement and anxiety.

At some point, we hope to see them come home again, so we can hear about their lives. We also plan to visit and see their college world as it unfolds. The wonderful part of the places our children go to is that they take us, literally or figuratively, with them. The title of this chapter of their lives could be, “Oh, the places you’ll take us.”

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