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Daniel Dunaief

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

How do you compete with the Big Mac and plastic straw?

That’s the dilemma facing the Democratic Party. You see, beyond squaring off against the tweets and the sideshows, the Democrats are hoping to win the hearts and minds of voters against a billionaire president who endorses products and ideas that carry broad appeal for his base and for some voters on the fence.

People don’t want to be told how to live their lives. They don’t want a government to say, “Hey, red meat isn’t good for you. Stop eating it and focus on the foods that will keep you healthy and be good for the Earth.” They also don’t want to give up something, like a plastic straw, that has been a part of their lives forever.

Now, there are plenty of solid arguments for reducing red meat and for cutting back on plastic straws. Those straws, among many other forms of plastic, are killing marine life. Plastics are so prevalent in marine waters that whales are dying of starvation because they have more than 80 pounds of plastic in their stomachs.

But that’s not what some voters think or care about. That dead whale probably didn’t eat the plastic straw that the voter used. And, even if it did, the plastic straw is only one of many other plastics that the mammal ate. Besides, it was probably a plastic straw that someone in China threw into the ocean or that an illegal immigrant used and discarded. I recycle my plastics, so why shouldn’t I use them as often as I’d like?

The problem for Democrats is simpler than that, though. It’s really a question of the present versus the future. As we are currently constructed, we, the American people, aren’t accustomed to sacrifice. It’s not considered a modern virtue by a president who says what he thinks and does what he likes. We want what we want when we want it. We are the culture of instant gratification. Someone says something awful about us, we want to hit back.

It’s why some people adore the president. He is the ultimate counterpuncher, he says what he thinks and he always wants the last word. Misspelling that word is irrelevant and, in its own way, it appeals to some people because proper spelling seems so elitist.

It’s also why he can roll back environmental laws designed to protect endangered species. Sure, long term, we might lose a few snakes, birds or trees, but we will also be able to make more money from the land, create more jobs and live for the present.

The great, big, beautiful tax cut helped boost the stock market. Why? Companies used that extra money to buy back their stock. That didn’t do much to help the economy or create jobs. It didn’t enhance the companies’ revenues or encourage corporations to take risks to fund important research or pursue innovative ideas. It was a for-the-present gift to companies which boosted their current bottom lines.

Conspiracy theories fit into the mold of a present focus. Until irrefutable facts come to the public’s attention, these theories — including some about how or even whether disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein died — burn like a bonfire, without requiring a discussion or even a preparation for an unknown future.

Looking past the present to the future that will affect our children and grandchildren is difficult. Besides, instead of worrying about what the world will look like in 20, 30 or 50 years’ time, we can sit down with the younger generation, pull up a chair, and eat a Big Mac and drink a sugar-filled soda through a plastic straw. Democrats need to create a picture that makes whatever changes they seek understandable, worthwhile and palatable.

By Daniel Dunaief

Screws can’t be the best and only answer. That was the conclusion neurosurgeon Daniel Birk at the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute came to when he was reconsidering the state-of-the-art treatment for spinal injuries. The screws, which hold the spine in place, create problems for patients in part because they aren’t as flexible as bone.

That’s where Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, headed by Fotis Sotiropoulos, plans to pitch in. Working with Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine, the two Stony Brook leaders have been immersed in uniting their two disciplines to find ways engineers can improve medical care.

Fotis Sotiropoulos

The two departments have created the Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine, which will address a wide range of medical challenges that might have engineering solutions. The institute will focus on developing organs for transplantation, neurobiological challenges and cancer diagnostics.

The institute, which already taps into the medical and engineering expertise of both departments, will move into a new $75 million building at the Research and Development Park, in 2023.

The original investment from New York State’s Economic Development Council was for an advanced computing center. The state, however, had given Buffalo the same funds for a similar facility, which meant that former Stony Brook President Sam Stanley, who recently became the president of Michigan State University, needed to develop another plan.

Sotiropoulos and Kaushansky had already created a white paper that coupled engineering and medicine. They developed a proposal that the state agreed to fund. In return for their investment, the state is looking for the development of economic activity, with spin-off companies, jobs, new industries and new ideas, Kaushansky said.

The two leaders are developing “a number of new faculty recruits to flesh out the programs that are going in the building,” Kaushansky added.

Sotiropoulos, who has conducted research in the past on blood flow dynamics in prosthetic heart valves, believes in the potential of this collaboration. “This convergence of engineering and medicine is already doing what it was intended to do,” he said. Clinicians can get “crazy sci-fi ideas, talk to engineers and figure out a way to make it happen.”

In addition to spinal cord support, researchers in engineering and medicine are working on developing algorithms to make decisions about surgical interventions, such as cesarean sections. 

A recent project from principal investigator Professor Petar Djurić, chair of SBU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Gerald Quirk, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Stony Brook Medicine, recently received $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the project is to use computer science to assist with the decisions doctors face during childbirth. A potential reduction in C sections could lower medical costs. 

“This is a fantastic example of this type of convergence of engineering and medicine,” said Sotiropoulos.”

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky. Photo from SBU

While the building will host scientists across a broad spectrum of backgrounds, researchers at Stony Brook will be able to remain in their current labs and coordinate with this initiative. Combining all these skills will allow researchers to apply for more grants and, Stony Brook hopes, secure greater funding.

“For a number of years now, the [National Institutes of Health have] really favored interdisciplinary approaches to important medical problems,” Kaushansky said. “Science is becoming a team sport. The broader range of skills on your team, the more likely you’ll be successful. That’s the underlying premise behind this.”

The notion of combining medicine and engineering, while growing as an initiative at Stony Brook, isn’t unique; more than a dozen institutions in the country have similar such collaborations in place.

“We’re relatively early in the game of taking this much more holistic approach,” said Kaushansky, who saw one of the earlier efforts of this convergence when he was at the University of California at San Diego, where he worked with the Founding Chair of the Department of Bioengineering Shu Chien. 

The Stony Brook institute has created partnerships with other organizations, including Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center.

“The more clinical people we engage, the better it is for the institute,” Sotiropoulos said.

As for the bionic spine, Kaushansky has familial experience with spinal injuries. His mother suffered through several spinal surgeries. “There’s a need for much, much better mechanical weight-bearing device that will help people with back problems,” he said.

At this point, Stony Brook has gone two-thirds of the way through the National Science Foundation process to receive a $10 million grant for this spinal cord research. Sotiropoulos suggested that a bionic spine could be “a game changer.”

While the institute will seek ways to create viable medical devices, diagnostics and even organs, it will also meet the educational mandate of the school, helping to train the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students. The school already has a program called Vertically Integrated Projects, or VIPs, in place, which offers students experiential learning over the course of three or four years. The effort combines undergraduates with graduates and faculty members to work on innovative efforts.

“These projects are interdisciplinary and are all technology focused,” Sotiropoulos said. “We bring together students” from areas like engineering, computer science and medicine, which “go after big questions,” and that the VIP efforts are structured to unite engineers and doctors-in-training through the educational process.

Through the institute, Stony Brook also plans to collaborate with other Long Island research teams at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Sotiropoulos said, adding that the scientists are “not just interested in doing blue sky research. We are interested in developing services, algorithms, practices, whatever it is, that can improve patient care and costs.”

Indeed, given the translational element to the work, the institute is encouraging a connection with economic development efforts at Stony Brook, which will enable faculty to create spin-off companies and protect their ideas. The institute’s leadership would like to encourage the faculty to “create companies to market and take to market new products and developments,” said Sotiropoulos.

Photos from SBU

American Gun Laws

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I have an obvious question for the National Rifle Association: Why fight gun control?

Yeah, yeah, I get it. You and many others don’t want a repeal of the Second Amendment, which was written well before the creation of assault weapons that enabled deranged Americans to kill their fellow citizens
at an unfathomable rate.

But don’t gun manufacturers want gun control? After all, wouldn’t it be better to produce a product that stayed out of the wrong hands?

Let’s take a look at the difference between gun manufacturers and car manufacturers. On the one hand, you have companies producing vehicles where safety is a top priority. In addition to meeting the stringent requirements of the law, some car manufacturers add features like a way to block text or phone signals from getting into a car while someone is driving.

Wow, what a concept. The car manufacturers don’t make the phones. People have died doing all kinds of activities with their phones, taking selfies in dangerous locations and not paying attention to their environment in general because they are so focused on their phones.

And yet, some of these car manufacturers are protecting drivers from their own unsafe impulses that could harm them and others — sounds familiar? — by preventing the dangerous combination of phone use and driving. If we buy into the notion that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” shouldn’t gun manufacturers make an effort to find out which people are more likely to kill other people, and not sell these destructive weapons to them?

In 1996, three years before the Columbine, Colorado, shooting became one of the first in what has now become a painful and familiar collection of mass murders in locations ranging from schools to houses of worship to malls during back-to-school sales, Congress passed a budget that included the Dickey Amendment, named after U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas). That amendment prevented the government from funding research that might lead to the conclusion that gun control was necessary.

Say what? Yeah, but, in light of recent tragedies, a law was passed last year clarifying that the Centers for Disease Control can actually fund research about guns. And, yet, the CDC still can’t lead to any advocacy for gun control.

If guns make most people safer, why don’t gun manufacturers want to know which people, specifically, shouldn’t have a gun? The idea of background checks and red flags are all fine, but they may not be sufficient.

If a virus broke out anywhere in the country that threatened to kill a room full of people in minutes, we would want the CDC not only to understand how to treat those who might have that virus immediately, but also to provide warning signs to others about any symptoms that might lead to an outbreak of that virus.

The CDC is way behind in its research in part because that 1996 amendment effectively dampened any effort to conduct the kind of studies that would lead to a greater understanding of gun violence.

Sure, the Federal Bureau of Investigation could and should find people who might be a threat to society. With the help of the CDC, the FBI might have a better idea of where to look. 

The well-funded NRA, however, would do itself — and society — a huge favor if it put its considerable financial muscle behind an independent effort to understand how to recognize those people who shouldn’t have any kind of gun, let alone an assault rifle capable of mass murder in a minute. The NRA doesn’t even need to call it gun control, just firearms research.

We the people may have a right to own guns, but we also have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Wouldn’t gun control research, supported by the NRA, ensure that we could live our lives without fear of the wrong people owning the wrong guns?

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Before the summer ends, go to the beach and close your eyes. Most of us are visually dominant, so we go somewhere like West Meadow Beach and look at everything from the boats and ferries out on the Long Island Sound to the young children running back and forth in and out of the water to the light sparkling across the waves.

While all of those are spectacular sensory stimuli, they are only a part of experiences we might otherwise take for granted at a local beach. Our ears can and do pick up so many seasonal cues. We might hear a seagull calling from the top of a bathroom hut to birds flying along the shore. Apart from the music that emanates from phones and radios along the crowded beach, we can hear the wind rustling through umbrellas, the sound of a young couple laughing about the ridiculous thing their friend did the night before, or the splashes a skimming rock makes as it gets farther away from shore. On a day with limited visibility, we can listen to boats calling to each other with their deep horns.

Our skin is awash in cues. As clouds float overhead, we appreciate the incredible temperature difference between the sun and the shade. Combined with a sudden gust of wind, our skin feels unexpectedly cool as we wait for that same wind to escort the cloud away. We take off our shoes and allow our feet, which carry the rest of our bodies hither and yon, to appreciate other textures. We dig our toes into the warm sand and lift our heels, allowing the grains of sand to trickle back to join their granule brethren.

We walk to the edge of the water and feel as if we’ve left the office, the shop, the lawn or the screaming kids far away. The lower water temperature draws away the heat that’s built up inside of us. If the surf kicks up, we can slide into the soft sand, sinking up to our ankles in the moistness.

Our feet can appreciate the fixed ripples on a sandbar that are smooth, soft and uneven.

As we walk up the beach, we can test the ability of our soles to manage through rocks often smoothed over by years of wave and water. We bend our knees more than normal to cushion the impact of a hard or uneven rock.

Our noses anticipate the beach before we leave the house. We lather coconut-scented sunscreen on our bodies and across our faces. As we get closer to the beach, we may pick up the marshy whiff of low tide. When we pull into a hot parking lot, the sweet and familiar ocean spray fills our lungs.

Once we’re swimming, our taste buds recognize the enormous difference between the waters of the Sound and a chlorinated pool. When we leave the sea, we head to the warm blanket or towel to partake of foods we associate with the beach, like the sandwiches we picked up at the deli on the way over, the refreshing iced tea or the crispy potato chips.

We saunter over to the ice cream truck, looking at a menu we’ve known for years. While we scan the offerings, we lick our lips and imagine the taste of the selections, trying to get those small bumps on our tongues to help us with the decision. We know how fortunate we are when the most difficult decision we have to make resolves around choosing the right ice cream to cap off a day that reminds us of the pleasures of living on Long Island.

Timothy Glotch. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Several Stony Brook University scientists are studying the health effects of lunar dust on the human body. The accompanying article describes a recent $7.5 million, five-year award that the researchers, led by Tim Glotch in the Department of Geosciences, recently won from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. See below for email exchanges with some of the other researchers.

Fifty years after astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left those fateful first footprints on the moon, a team of scientists is hoping to ensure the safety of future astronauts who remain on the moon for longer periods of time.

Led by Tim Glotch, a professor in geosciences at Stony Brook University, the research team was awarded $7.5 million in funds over five years from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The funding will begin this fall. The goal of the multinational team, which includes researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center, the American Museum of Natural History, among many others, is to explore the health effects of lunar dust.

Different from the dust on Earth, which tends to be more rounded and small, where the sharp edges have been weathered away, lunar dust has jagged edges because the lack of atmosphere prevents the same erosion.

The group, whose work is called the Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration 2 (or RISE2) will determine the effects on exposure on cell death and genetic damage.

Glotch’s team will follow up on an earlier five-year effort that just concluded and will coordinate with seven research groups that received similar funding from the space agency.

Astronauts who were on the moon for a matter of hours sometimes developed a respiratory problem called lunar hay fever, which came from the introduction of these particles into their lungs. In preparing for missions to the moon, asteroids or other planets, NASA is preparing for considerably longer term voyages, which could increase the intensity and accumulation of such dust.

At the same time, NASA is working on dust mitigation strategies, which will hopefully prevent these particles from becoming a problem, Glotch explained.

Joel Hurowitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at SBU, is leading the reactivity study. He will take simulated minerals that are common on the moon and put them in simulated lung fluids. He and the RISE2 team may be able to provide a better understanding of the risks and preclinical symptoms for astronauts.

Hurowitz is working with Hanna Nekvasil, a professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Geosciences at SBU. Nekvasil is synthesizing pure minerals in the lab, which are analogs to the materials people would encounter on the moon.

“One of the problems we counter when trying to assess the toxicity of lunar materials to astronauts is that Earth materials” don’t have the same structure or properties, explained Nekvasil in an email. “For this reason, we plan to make new materials under conditions that more closely simulate the conditions under which the materials formed at depth and were modified at the lunar surface.”

On the medical school side, the researchers will use human lung and brain cell cultures and mouse lung cells to see how the minerals and regolith affects cell viability and cell death, Glotch said.

Nekvasil explained that the research team will also explore the effects of the function of mitochondria, which can have acute and long-term health effects.

Stella Tsirka, a professor in pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook, is leading the cytotoxicity studies and will continue to look at what happens to the lungs and the central nervous system when they are exposed to lunar dust. “What we see is some transient increase in inflammatory markers, but, so far, we have not done chronic exposures,” Tsirka said. The new study will aim to study chronic exposure.

Bruce Demple, a professor in pharmacological sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU, is leading the genotoxicity efforts.

In addition to the jagged pieces of lunar dust, astronauts also may deal with areas like the dark spots on the moon, or lunar mare, which has minerals with higher amounts of iron, which can lead to the production of acidity in the lungs.

Ideally, the scientists said, NASA would design airlock systems that remove the dust from spacesuits before they come into the astronaut’s living spaces. The work on RISE2 will help NASA “understand just how big a health problem these astronauts will face if such engineering controls cannot be put into place, and develop reasonable exposure limits to the dust,” Hurowitz explained in an email.

The most likely landing spot for the next exploration is the south pole, which is the largest impact basin in the solar system. That area may have clues that lead to a greater understanding of the chronology of events from the beginning of the solar system.

“I hope future missions will help answer questions about the timing and processes through which the moon formed and evolved,” Deanne Rogers, an associate professor of geosciences at SBU, explained in an email. Rogers, who also participated in the first RISE research effort and is married to Glotch, will conduct thermal infrared spectral imaging and relate the spectral variations to chemistry and mineral variations in surface materials.

Additionally, the south pole holds volatile elements, like ice deposits. Finding ice could provide other missions with resources for a future settlement on the moon. Water on the moon could provide hydration for astronauts and, when split into its elements, could create hydrogen, which could be used for fuel, and oxygen, which could create air.

In addition to working with numerous scientists, including coordinating with the other current NASA research efforts, Glotch is pleased that RISE2 continues to fund training for undergraduates and graduate students.

The current effort is also coordinating with the School of Journalism at Stony Brook. Science journalism classes will involve writing stories about the research, profiling the scientists and going into the field for two weeks.

Glotch, who thought seriously about becoming an astronaut until he was about 23 years old, explained that he is pleased that there appears to be a “real push to go back to the moon. I have hoped to see a new human mission to the moon or beyond since I was a kid.”

————————————————————————————————Q & A with Associate Professor of Geosciences Deanne Rogers:

What role will you play in this work? Is this similar to the contribution you made to the original RISE project?

My contribution is very similar to my role in in the original RISE project. I will be participating in Theme 2, conducting thermal infrared spectral imaging and relating the spectral variations to chemistry and mineral variations in surface materials. A major new component is developing rapid analysis algorithms and pipelines, and evaluating strategies for how to best organize and integrate the various data sets.

How much of your research time will you dedicate to RISE2?
About 15% of my research time. But there will be a graduate student who will be doing the heavy lifting (collecting, processing and analyzing the data, correlating the data with surface materials and chemistry, developing the processing algorithms).
Have you and Tim spent considerable time discussing RISE2 and did you go through numerous drafts of the proposal?
Yes.
Will you also be involved in working with undergraduates and graduate students, as well as journalism school students, through the RISE2 efforts?
Yes, I will be mentoring undergrads and grads and working with the journalism students.
Are you excited to be a part of efforts to ensure the safety of astronauts on future extended trips to the moon, asteroids and/or other planets?
Yes, I am honored and excited.
Is it especially exciting/ compelling to be working on a  NASA funded effort around the 50th anniversary of the first steps on the moon?
Yes!
Are there scientific questions you hope future lunar missions answer? Do you think future expeditions will help ask new research questions?
Yes. I hope future missions will help answer questions about the timing and processes through which the moon formed and evolved to its present state. I am also interested in hydrogen sources and hydrogen mobility on the moon. History shows that we always end up with new questions whenever we send a mission to answer existing questions.

Q and A with Assistant Profess or Geosciences Joel Hurowitz:

Will you be working with Hanna Nekvasil to take minerals she produced and put them in simulated lung fluid. Is that correct? Is this simulated lung fluid a novel concept or have other research efforts taken a similar approach to understanding the effect of exposure to elements or chemicals on the lungs?

Yes, I will be working with Hanna.  Our plan is to produce a suite of high-fidelity lunar regolith simulant materials in her laboratory, characterize them extensively to ensure that they are a good chemical and mineralogical match to the different types of soil on the Moon, and then assess how toxic they are.  Some of those toxicity experiments will involve immersing the materials she creates in simulated lung fluid and assessing what chemical reactions take place between the solid regolith simulants and the lung fluid.  Other experiments will be done in collaboration with our partners in the Stony Brook medical school, and will involve, e.g., assessing how cells, DNA, and lung tissue react to these regolith simulants.  These experiments build on work that has been done by the previous iteration of RISE (1.0), but have the added benefit that we can apply the lessons learned for assessing toxicity from our first round of research, as well as making use of this new suite of very high-fidelity simulants.

Does this work have the potential to provide future missions with early warning signs of exposure, while also generating potential solutions to lunar dust driven lung damage?

This is a question that is probably better posed to our medical school colleagues on the team, Stella Tsirka and Bruce Demple.  They could speak in a much more informed way about what types of signals we might be able to recognize from, e.g., a blood test, that an astronaut is beginning to show signs of a toxicological response to regolith.

Ultimately, I think that the best solution to lunar dust driven lung damage is to engineer the exposure problem away – NASA needs to design airlock systems that remove regolith from spacesuits before they come into the astronaut’s living spaces.  Our work will help NASA to understand just how big a health problem these astronauts will face if such engineering controls cannot be put into place, and develop reasonable exposure limits to the dust.

Is there considerable excitement at Stony Brook about the RISE2 effort? Do you have, if you’ll pardon the pun, high hopes for the research and do you think this kind of effort will prove valuable for astronauts on future long term missions to the moon, asteroids or other planets?
Absolutely – we couldn’t be more excited about all of the new research we’ll be able to perform as part of RISE 2.0, in so many areas, including better understanding the origin of the Moon and asteroids from remote and laboratory analyses, and learning how to live safely and explore efficiently on the surfaces of these solar system bodies.
 Are there novel elements to the work you’re doing?
To me, the real novelty of our part of the RISE 2.0 research lies in the combination of really disparate areas of expertise to produce a very useful research outcome for NASA.  Our team combines the expertise of: (1) geologists who understand the conditions deep within the Moon that result in the formation of the rocks and regolith that are present there today, thus enabling us to better simulate the properties of lunar soil, (2) geochemists who understand how to execute experiments between fluids and soil materials to extract the maximum information about potentially toxic compounds that result from that interaction, and (3) medical scientists who can take the geological materials we make in our labs and apply them to relevant biological materials that are the best models to understand the toxic effect of lunar soil on astronauts.  It’s a truly cross-disciplinary approach that few other groups are taking.
Could this approach also have implications for people working in areas like coal mines or regions where particulates cause lung damage?
Yes – absolutely.  So much of the science we are performing is actually grounded (if you’llpardon the pun) in earlier work that has been done to understand diseases like coal miners lung, silicosis, and asbestosis.  We’re building on that foundation of research and taking it off-Earth to understand if astronauts have to be as worried about their lung health as someone donning a mining hat and heading underground.
Given that it’s been 47 years since the last manned trip to the moon, is it exciting to contribute to efforts that will allow for future safe and extended trips back to the moon?
Of course!  These issues really need to be sorted out if we’re going to ensure that the astronauts traveling to moons, asteroids, and other planets are safe, and I’m really happy to be a part of that effort.
Are there specific geologic questions you hope future missions to the moon answer? Will future samples lead to new questions?
I think one of the biggest questions that future missions that return samples from the Moon can address will relate to the timing of formation of the largest impact basins on the Moon and whether or not they record evidence for a cataclysmic “spike” in the rate of meteorite impacts in the early history of the inner Solar System.  So much of our current thinking about when life on Earth (or anywhere else in the inner Solar System) arose is tied to the idea that it must have happened after this cataclysmic “late heavy bombardment”, and yet, we aren’t completely sure whether this spike actually happened.  If it didn’t, it might force us to rethink what conditions were like on the surface of the Earth early in its geological history and when life could’ve first began.
How much of your time (as a percentage of your research time) will you dedicate to the RISE2 work?

It will vary from year to year.  Early on, I’ll be heavily invested in starting the program of research up, but then starting in 2021, I’ll hand off some of my duties in order to work on mission operations on the Mars 2020 rover mission.  I’m the deputy principal investigator for one of the instruments that is flying aboard that rover, so the year 2021 is going to be consumed with my Mars-related work.  As things start to settle down a bit on Mars (in 2022), I’ll be able to return to my RISE research.  It’ll be really exciting to see how much progress will have been made by that time, but I’ll be planning to keep tabs on the RISE research even when I’m spending more time on the Mars 2020 mission.

Q & A with Hanna Nekvasil, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Geosciences:

Will you be synthesizing pure minerals in the lab, which are analogs to the materials  astronauts would encounter on the moon?

One of the problems that we encounter when trying to assess the toxicity of lunar materials to astronauts, is that Earth materials make poor analogs, as we know from the materials brought back to Earth from the Apollo missions.  For this reason we plan to make new materials under conditions that more closely simulate the conditions under which the materials formed at depth and were modified on the lunar surface. For this work we use the experimental equipment that we normally use to simulate the processes that form and modify igneous rocks on Earth modified for the special low oxygen conditions of the Moon.  The materials produced will simulate more closely both the compositional and textural characteristics of dust that we expect will be encountered in future manned lunar missions.
Will Joel Hurowitz use these minerals to expose them to lung fluids? 
The RISE4E team will expose cells to the new lunar regolith simulants and assess the molecular effects to understand the cytotoxic and genotoxic potential of the new, more relevant simulants. Beyond the cell-killing and DNA-damaging capacity of the materials, we will also examine their effects on the function of mitochondria: dysfunction in that organelle can have both acute and long-term health effects.
Are you excited to be a part of an effort that may one day help ensure the safety of astronauts who spend considerable time on a lunar habitat? 
I am very excited about this and I think that the diverse team that we have assembled has great potential to really move our understanding of the potential toxicity of lunar materials forward.
Is there a specific question or mission objective you hope future trips to the moon addresses?
My greatest hope is that we encounter a diverse set of new rocktypes as each new rocktype will provide a wealth of information on the origin and evolution of the Moon’s surface and interior.

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Airports are funny places, if you don’t have to fly anywhere. In no particular order, I’d like to share some observations after myriad recent summer flights.

Cost of food and drinks: It’s not quite as high as the U.S. Open prices, but it’s pretty close. You can buy a water for the same price as you’d buy a case of 24 waters at a supermarket or a drugstore.

Jennifer Aniston still sells magazines: Every news store has numerous magazines near the instant sugar and the ways to improve bad breath. At least one, if not all, of these editorial products typically features Jennifer Aniston because, even at 50 years old, Rachel from “Friends” still helps sell magazines.

Perfect place for claustrophobes — yes, that’s a word — to feel claustrophobic: Despite the ongoing construction, LaGuardia still features incredibly close hallways that are reminiscent of former baseball stadiums, albeit without the smell of hot dogs or the sound of a crowd roaring to life after a home run.

Caste system in the air: We board by group number because that’s what the airlines, in their infinite wisdom and desire to divide us into the “haves” and “have nots” have decided is the best way to wring a few extra bucks out of its customers. So, naturally, those of us unwilling to shell out a few extra shekels — that’s the Israeli currency, but I put it in here because of the alliteration — have to board in group 9. What I especially love about this group, which is often the largest one, is that the airline workers rarely even say the number. After they board group 8, they’ll say, “OK, and everyone can board now.” Why even give us a number if we are “all the rest”? Just put “last” or “loser” or “cheap bastard” on our tickets and call it a day. Seriously, this group boarding system is reminiscent of the Hindu caste system, where the group 9 people are the equivalent of Harijans or “Untouchables.” Ooh, that was a good movie which had nothing to do with flying or with the caste system, although Nitti did take an unintended flight before he was waiting in the car.

Bags: Is it just me, or have the storage spaces on the airlines become smaller even as people lug two and three pieces of furniture, I mean baggage, onto the plane? Of course, the people in groups 1 and 2 could easily store a couch in the limited overhead space, while the group 9 crowd isn’t allowed to take a miniature backpack.

Pretzels or cookies: Really? That’s what the food has come down to on airplanes? No more, “chicken or fish” from the flight attendants. Nowadays, they seem magnanimous when they offer us a choice of carbohydrates. Sometimes, they even let us take one of each, but they wink as if we’re not supposed to tell anyone. Oops, did I just blow their secret?

Manipulative timing: Airlines finally seem to have mastered the art of under promising and over delivering. When flights leave on time, they arrive 30 minutes or more early. When they leave 30 minutes later than anticipated, they somehow arrive on time. It probably makes passengers happier to arrive earlier, but it makes the concept of “on time” less of an accomplishment. The airlines seem to have created their own timing curve.

Rating the flight: We’re barely on the ground before the airlines want to know how they did. Well, they arrived early (surprise, surprise); they gave the happy people in the higher groups of the plane the requisite pretzels; and they didn’t have time to serve drinks or pretzels to the underappreciated fliers from group 9.

Wellington Rody. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Straightening teeth involves moving, changing and reconfiguring the bone and the gums that hold those teeth in place. While the gums and bone adapt to the suddenly straight teeth, the roots may encounter unusual stress that makes them more prone to deterioration.

That’s not particularly welcome news for hormone-riddled teenagers who are maneuvering through the minefield of adolescence with a mouth full of metal. Fortunately, however, significant root damage that threatens the health and stability of teeth occurs in only about 5 percent of the cases of people with braces.

Wellington Rody. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

The challenge for people whose roots resorb in response to orthodonture is that most patients don’t show signs of problems until the process is well under way.

Wellington Rody Jr., the chair of the Department of Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry at the Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine, hopes to change that.

Rody, who joined the staff at Stony Brook last May, received a $319,000 grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to find biomarkers that may show early signs of periodontal disease and dental resorption.

Rody explained that he is “searching for noninvasive markers of root destruction.” Once orthodontists start moving teeth around, a major side effect can be that roots are compromised, to varying degrees. It’s a “common side effect with everybody that wears braces,” but it is usually minor with no clinical relevance.

Currently, the only way to discover root destruction from braces is through X-rays or CT images. “The problem is that when we find those things, as a clinical orthodontist, sometimes, it’s already too late,” Rody said.

Since biomarkers of bone destruction and root destruction may overlap, the focus of his research is to search for biomarkers that can differentiate between the two processes and find the markers that are more specific to root destruction. A few biomarkers of root destruction have been proposed, but there aren’t enough studies to validate those markers. 

Rody will be searching for markers in both saliva and gum fluid. He anticipates that a panel of biomarkers may be more successful than trying to focus on one marker only.

If the markers, which Rody has been developing in collaboration with Shannon Holliday, at the Department of Orthodontics at the University of Florida, and Luciana Shaddox, from the Department of Periodontology at the University of Kentucky, are effective, they will likely provide guidance to clinicians so that high-risk patients may have their treatment plan adapted to prevent further damage.

The type of molecules Rody is searching for include proteins, lipids, metabolites and RNAs. He has been using proteomics, but in this NIH grant, he received enough funding to extend the analysis to other molecules.

According to Rody, there are many predisposing factors for bone loss in the literature. Predisposing factors for root destruction in the dentition also exist but are not well validated.“Genetics definitely plays a major role,” but as far as he is concerned “there is not genetic testing that is 100 percent reliable.”

Until he discovers a reliable biomarker, Rody, who maintains a clinical practice at Stony Brook about one and a half days a week, suggests taking follow-up X-rays after initiating orthodontic treatment, to make sure the “roots are behaving properly,” he said.

A patient who develops serious root destruction may need active monitoring. If the resorption is severe enough, orthodontists typically recommend stopping treatment for a period of one to five months, which is called a “holiday,” and then resume treatment. 

Wellington Rody on vacation in California with his family. Photo from W. Rody

It is only recommended if the patient shows signs of moderate or severe root destruction. Another option is to interrupt treatment early and accept some compromises in the final results 

“We try to get the patient out of braces as soon as possible” in cases of severe root resorption, Rody explained.

Rody has been working in this area since 2014. He received initial funding from the American Association of Orthodontists Foundation. He started by simulating bone and root destruction in a lab and looking for different molecular signatures between the two processes and has already published articles that highlight these differences.

The current NIH study will allow for the search for potential biomarkers. If the group finds them, the next step would be to try to validate them through a process that is expensive and requires large trials.

Ultimately, if and when he finds those biomarkers, Rody said he can use them in a noninvasive way to closely monitor a patient with periodic X-rays. He also might adjust the treatment regime to make sure the patient receives positive results without compromising the prognosis for his or her teeth in the longer term.

Rody believes orthodontics are worth the risk of root resorption, as patients who develop this side effect will likely keep their teeth for many years if not for their whole lives, even with some reduction in their roots.

“Considering all the benefits that orthodontic treatment can bring, in terms of function and cosmetics, it’s still justifiable” but the patient and his or her parents need to understand the risks and benefits associated with braces, he said. 

The teeth that are typically affected by root resorption are the upper front teeth.

Originally from Vitória in Brazil, which is six hours by car north of Rio de Janeiro, Rody lives in Port Jefferson with his wife, Daniela, and their 14-year-old daughter, Thais. 

As for his research, Rody explained that a major goal is to “detect the process [of root resorption] before it becomes severe.” If he does, he will be able to “revise the course of treatment and make sure we don’t allow destruction” of roots and the potential consequences for teeth to reach a high level.

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We spend our lives searching. We look for friends in elementary school with whom we can share a laugh or a meal. We seek the right clothing and supplies so that we fit in.

As we age, the searches change. We hunt for fulfilling jobs, long-term romantic or career partners, places to live, cars that will meet our needs, and homes in communities that will welcome us and our families.

Through all of these searches, people wander into and out of our lives. If we’re fortunate enough, we might know someone from the time we’re 3 years old with whom we continue to meet, laugh, and exchange work stories or ideas and challenges.

Sitting in cars waiting for our children to emerge from their orchestra rehearsals or milling about in the entrance to an auditorium after a concert, we may see the same familiar faces, smile at the people next to us, and appreciate how they have supported all of our children with equal energy and commitment, congratulating our son or daughter on their solos or appreciating the remarkable live performance they just witnessed.

As we age, we inevitably lose people. Some drift out of our lives when their interests diverge from ours, even though they remain in the same town. Others take jobs in a new state and follow a different schedule in a new time zone.

When our friends or family members die, the losses are permanent. Except in photos, videos and in our imaginations, we won’t see their faces, smell their perfume or hear their infectious and distinctive laugh echo around a room.

We often say to family members and close friends, “So sorry for your loss.”

While death is a loss, it’s also a reminder of what we found. The person who has left us may have attended the same school, lived on the same block or gone to the same conference many years ago. A blur of people enter and leave our lives, sometimes for as short as a few seconds because we give them change at a store or take their reservations when we’re working for a ferry company, or other times when we’re waiting with them at the DMV to get a new license in a new state. Other times, the people who will become an ongoing part of our lives find us, just as we found them.

Their death brings sadness and a hole in the fabric of our lives. Some cultures tear a hole in their garments to tell the world about the missing piece that comes with mourning.

These moments are also an opportunity to celebrate the fact that we forged a connection and that we played an important role in each other’s lives.

Connections begin when we reach out to strangers who become friends and to men and women who become life partners. Every day, we have the opportunity to appreciate what we’ve found in the people who populate our lives, the ones we choose to call to share the news about a promotion, those whose support and consideration remind us of who we are.

When we stray from a path that works, these found friends can bring us back to the version of ourselves we strive to be. Each loss reminds us not only of who that person was in general, but also of what we discovered through our interactions. These important people provide common ground and experiences and are as much a part of who we are as the image staring back at us in the mirror. We didn’t just find them. Ideally, we found the best of ourselves through the experiences we shared with them.

Daniel Dunaief

When I was younger, I was the best baseball player who ever lived. OK, maybe that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration. Maybe I was a decent player who had a few good games, surrounded by periods of agonizing ineffectiveness, miserable failure and frustrating inadequacies.

Baseball, as its numerous fans will suggest regularly, is a game of failure. And yet those exquisite moments of success — when we break up a no-hitter, get to a ball that seemed destined for open grass or develop the speed to outrun the laser throw from the outfield — make us feel as if we can do anything.

Recently, I have found myself frustrated beyond the normal measure of perspective because I feel as if I’ve lost a step or six when I play softball. My current athletic deficiencies seem to be a harsh reminder of the inexorable journey through time.

As I return from the game in the car, I sometimes bark questions at myself, wondering how I missed an easy pop-up, or how I lunged for yet another pitch I should have hit. My family, who comes to the games to support me, watches me dissolve into a puddle of self-loathing.

Yes, I know, it’s not my finest hours as a parent and I know I’m setting a terrible example. And yet something inside of me, which is both young and old, can’t control the frustration. I’m an older version of the kid who was so annoyed with his own deficiencies that he kicked a basketball over some trees. OK, maybe they were hedges and I probably threw the ball, but in my memory the offending orb traveled a great distance.

So, what was and sometimes is missing from my life that caused these games to be so important? Other than talent, conditioning, plenty of sleep and a commitment to practicing, my biggest problem was, and sometimes still is, a lack of perspective.

People suffer through much greater hardships than a decline in limited athletic skills. Life is filled with challenges and inspiration. People overcome insurmountable odds, push themselves far beyond any expectations by taking small steps for mankind or even small steps for themselves when they weren’t expected to walk at all.

As I know, I am fortunate in many ways to have the opportunity and time to play softball at all. To be sure, I recognize that perspective isn’t what people generally need when they care about something large or small: They need focus. Artists spending countless hours painting, writing, revising, editing or reshooting a scene for a movie to enable the reality of their art to catch up to their vision or imagination often lose themselves in their efforts, forgetting to eat, to call their parents or siblings, to sleep or to take care of other basic needs.

Considerable perspective could prevent them from finding another gear or producing their best work.

And yet perspective, particularly in a moment like a softball game, can soothe the escalated competitor and give the father driving a car with his supportive family a chance to appreciate the people around him and laugh about his inadequacies, rather than dwell on them.

In a movie, perspective often comes from a camera that climbs high into the sky or from someone looking through a window at his children playing in a yard or at a picture of his family in a rickety rowboat. Perhaps if we find ourselves tumbling down the staircase of anger, frustration or resentment, we can imagine handrails we can grab that allow us to appreciate what we have and that offer another way of reacting to life.

Maureen O’Leary wraps fossils during an expedition in Mali. Photo by Eric Roberts

By Daniel Dunaief

Mali is filled with challenges, from its scorching hot 125 degree temperatures, to its sudden rainstorms, to its dangers from militant and terrorist-sponsored groups.

The current environment in the landlocked country in West Africa makes it extraordinarily difficult to explore the past in a region that includes parts of the Sahara Desert, but that, at one point millions of years ago, was part of a waterway called the Trans-Saharan Seaway.

Maureen O’Leary, professor of anatomical sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, led three expeditions to Mali, in 1999, 2003 and 2008, collecting a wide array of fossils and geological samples from areas that transitioned from an inland seaway that was about 50 meters deep on average to its current condition as a desiccated desert.

Maureen O’Leary and Eric Roberts with Mali guards. Photo from Maureen O’Leary

On her third trip, O’Leary quickly left because she decided the trip was too dangerous for her and the scientific team. Rather than rue the lack of ongoing access to the region, however, O’Leary pulled together an international team of researchers from Australia, the United States and Mali to look more closely and categorize the information the research teams had already collected from the region.

“We made the most of a bad situation,” O’Leary said. “It is a silver lining, to some degree.”

Indeed, O’Leary and her collaborators put together a paper for the June 28 issue of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History that is over 170 pages and contains numerous images of fossils, as well as recreations of a compelling region during a period from 100 million to 50 million years ago. This time period coincided with one of the five great prehistoric extinction events, during the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary.

O’Leary characterized some of the more exciting fossil finds from the region, which include the first reconstruction of ancient elephant relatives and large predators such as sharks, crocodiles and sea snakes.

The size of some of these creatures far exceeds their modern relatives. For example, O’Leary’s scientific colleagues estimate that a freshwater catfish was about 160 centimeters in length, which is four times the total size of a modern catfish. The larger catfish dovetails with similar observations the researchers had made about sea snakes in 2016 and 2017. They started to knit this trend into a preliminary hypothesis in which a phenomenon known as island gigantism may have played a role in selecting for these unusually large creatures.

“Species become bigger in these environments,” O’Leary said, suggesting that other scientists have made similar observations. “It’s not clear what causes that kind of selection.”

Above, some of the species that lived in and around the TransSaharan Seaway, including an extinct species of crocodile. Illustrated by Lucille Betti-Nash/ Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University.

 

In addition to studying vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, scientists including Eric Roberts at James Cook University in Australia looked at the geology of the region. Roberts helped name and describe many of the formations in the area. This provides context for the lives of creatures who survived in an environment distinctly different from the modern milieu of the Sahara Desert.

Roberts, who is a part of the Sedimentary Geology & Paleontology Research Group that has nicknamed themselves Gravelmonkeys, explained that his initial efforts in Mali came from the fieldwork over a course of weeks when he explored the rock sequences and took copious notes on them.

He suggested that the region still represents a geoscience frontier, in part because it is so difficult to get to, takes serious logistics to do fieldwork and is hard to maintain research.“Over many years, I have worked with collaborators on the project to analyze the samples in many different ways and especially to compare our notes and analytical results with descriptions of rocks and geological formations in other parts of the Sahara and further afield in Africa to understand how they are different and how they correlate,” he said.

O’Leary suggested that the paper provides some context for climate and sea level changes that can and have occurred. During the period she studied, the Earth was considerably warmer, with over 40 percent of today’s exposed land covered by water. Sea levels were about 300 meters higher than current levels, although the Earth wasn’t home to billions of humans yet or to many of the modern day species that share the planet’s resources.

Robert Voss, the editor-in-chief of the series at the American Museum of Natural History, praised the work for its breadth. “This was an unusually large and multidisciplinary author team, as appropriate for the broad scope of the report,” he explained .

“Seldom is such a large geographic area so poorly known paleontologically, so there was a unique opportunity here to break new ground and establish a broad framework for future work,” he added.

Voss described O’Leary as a “force of nature” who “responds constructively to peer reviews.” Roberts, too, appreciated the effort O’Leary put into this work.

O’Leary “drove the entire process and product,” which was only possible with someone of her “vision to wrangle so much science from so many different scientists into one place,” he offered in an email.

Roberts is very pleased with the finished product and added that it is “something that I will be proud of for the rest of my career. This took a lot of effort over the years and it great to see the end product.”

O’Leary said that much of the literature for the science in Mali was in French, which had kept it a bit below the radar for scientific discourse, which tends to be in English.

Indeed, O’Leary was able to facilitate conversations among the many people involved in this project because French was the common denominator language. She studied French at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. “When I was sitting in my high school French class, I didn’t think it would come in so handy to be fluent in French” in her career, O’Leary said. “It was helpful as a female leader in this situation to be able to speak for [myself], whether speaking to other Americans or collaborating or working with guards.”

O’Leary plans to look at different projects in the United States, including in Puerto Rico, and in Saudi Arabia next. “We now have this synthetic story for Mali [and will be] building out from this to other areas. I anticipate a large time to ramp up to study areas like deposits in Nevada.”

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