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Daniel Dunaief

Michael Jensen on a container ship in the Pacific Ocean, where he was measuring marine clouds. Photo from M. Jensen

By Daniel Dunaief

They often seem to arrive at the worst possible time, when someone has planned a picnic, a wedding or an important baseball game. In addition to turning the sky darker, convective clouds can bring heavy rains and lightning.

For scientists like Michael Jensen, a meteorologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, these convective clouds present numerous mysteries, including one he hopes to help solve.

Aerosols, which come from natural sources like trees or from man-made contributors, like cars or energy plants, play an important role in cloud formation. The feedbacks that occur in a cloud system make it difficult to understand how changes in aerosol concentrations, sizes or composition impact the properties of the cloud.

“One of the big controversies in our field is how aerosols impact convection,” Jensen explained in an email. “A lot of people believe that when a storm ingests aerosols, it makes it stronger, because there are changes to precipitation and particles in the clouds.”

This process is called convective invigoration, which could make it rain more.

Another group of scientists, however, believes that the aerosols have a relatively small effect that is masked by other storm processes, such as vertical winds. 

Strong vertical motions that carry air, water and heat through the atmosphere are a signature of convective storms.

Jensen will lead an effort called Tracking Aerosol Convection Interactions Experiment, or TRACER, starting in April of 2021 in Houston that will measure the effect of these aerosols through a region where he expects to see hundreds of convective storm clouds in a year. 

From left, Donna Holdridge, from Argonne National Laboratory; Michael Jensen, kneeling; and Petteri Survo, from Vaisal Oyj in Helsinki, Finland during a campaign in Oklahoma to study convective storms. The team is testing new radiosondes, which are instruments sent on weather balloons. Photo from M. Jensen

The TRACER team, which includes domestic and international collaborators, will measure the clouds, precipitation, aerosol, lighting and atmospheric thermodynamics in considerable detail. The goal of the campaign is to develop a better understanding of the processes that drive convective cloud life cycle and convective-aerosol interactions.

Andrew Vogelmann, a technical co-manager of the Cloud Properties and Processes Group at BNL with Jensen, indicated in an email that the TRACER experiment is “generating a buzz within the community.” 

While other studies have looked at the impact of cities and other aerosol sources on rainfall, the TRACER experiment is different in the details it collects. In addition to collecting data on the total rainfall, researchers will track the storms in real time and will focus on strong updrafts in convection, which should provide specific information about the physics.

Jensen is exploring potential sites to collect data on the amount of water in a cloud, the size of the drops, the phase of the water and the shapes of the particles. He will use radar to provide information on the air velocities within the storm.

He hopes to monitor the differences in cloud characteristics under a variety of aerosol conditions, including those created by industrial, manufacturing and transportation activities.

Even a perfect storm, which starts in an area with few aerosols and travels directly through a region with many, couldn’t and wouldn’t create perfect data.

“In the real atmosphere, there are always complicating factors that make it difficult to isolate specific processes,” Jensen said. To determine the effect of aerosols, he is combining the observations with modeling studies.

Existing models struggle with the timing and strength of convective clouds.

Jensen performed a study in 2011 in Oklahoma that was focused on understanding convective processes, but that didn’t hone in on the aerosol-cloud interactions.

Vogelmann explained that Jensen is “well-respected within the community and is best known for his leadership” of this project, which was a “tremendous success.”

Since that study, measurement capabilities have improved, as has modeling, due to enhanced computing power. During the summer, Long Island has convective clouds that are similar to those Jensen expects to observe in Houston. Weather patterns from the Atlantic Ocean for Long Island and from the Gulf of Mexico for Houston enhance convective development.

“We experience sea breeze circulation,” Jensen said. Aerosols are also coming in from New York City, so many of the same physical processes in Houston occur on Long Island and in the New York area.

As the principal investigator, Jensen will travel to Houston for site selection. The instruments will collect data every day. During the summer, they will have an intensive operational period, where Jensen and other members of the TRACER team will forecast the convective conditions and choose the best days to add cloud tracking and extra observations.

Jensen expects the aerosol impact to be the greatest during the intermediate strength storms. 

The BNL meteorologist described his career as jumping back and forth between deep convective clouds and marine boundary layer clouds.

Jensen is a resident of Centerport and lives with his wife Jacqui a few blocks from where he grew up. Jacqui is a banker for American Community Bank in Commack. The couple has a 22-year-old son Mack, who is a substitute teacher at the Harborfields school district.

Jensen describes his family as “big music people,” adding that he plays euphonium in a few community band groups, including the North Shore Community Band of Longwood and the Riverhead Community Band.

As an undergraduate at SUNY Stony Brook, Jensen was broadly interested in science, including engineering. In flipping through a course catalog, he found a class on atmospheric science and thought he’d try it.

Taught by Robert Cess, who is now a professor emeritus at SBU, the class “hooked” him.

Jensen has been at BNL for almost 15 years. Over that time, he said the team has “more influence in the field,” as the cloud processing group has gone from six to 18 members. The researchers have “expanded our impact in the study of different cloud regimes and developed a wide network of collaborations and connections throughout the globe.”

As for his work in the TRACER study, Jensen hopes to “solve this ongoing debate, or at least provide new insights into the relative role of aerosols and dynamics.”

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We’ve all had moments when we wonder: Is this good enough?

The answer depends, in part, on the importance of the outcome. If we’re a cardiac surgeon and we have our hands inside the chest of someone who needs a new valve or stent, good enough doesn’t cut it. We need to make absolutely sure we’ve done everything we can because no one wants to open up someone’s chest a second time to correct a small error or to retrieve something we should have removed.

If we’re driving a car on a slippery road, a turn that’s good enough on a sunny day may not be sufficient in the rain or on ice. We may need to slow down enough that we don’t need to hit the brakes as we head into the turn.

Those are, of course, more extreme examples. Fortunately, most of us live in a world where what we do doesn’t seem so critical. We might be writing a paper about Shakespeare, filing legal briefs, collecting receipts for tax purposes or shoveling snow from our driveway. Each of those tasks, in and of themselves, may not seem to require our best because we have better things to do, we want to get through the class, or we’re tired and we need to give ourselves a rest.

Nonetheless, the smaller efforts can, and do, add up. When we’re shoveling snow, good enough might miss a slick patch of ice that our wife or best friend might slip on while they’re walking to the car. Going beyond good enough could prevent the discomfort or injury from falling.

Even an essay about Shakespeare may require us to think more deeply about what it means to be in love. Down the road, that might help when we’re considering ways to express our admiration or appreciation of a partner, giving us wisdom and words beyond our years. Great words boost the power of our sentiments, just as the sight of a whale breaching transforms a trip to the beach into a memorable outing.

Of course, operating at full strength or beyond good enough for everything may be so physically and mentally draining that we might spend too much time on activities we consider trivial, leaving us with fewer resources to tackle bigger challenges.

So, how do we determine the difference between an activity that requires us to be good enough and another responsibility that mandates something more?

For starters, we may not be capable of more than a few extraordinary efforts in a day. That may be a product of how much sleep we get, how much we can control in our day or how we feel, especially if we’re battling a head cold or some chronic condition.

Keeping ourselves healthy and making sure we have enough energy can and will give us the ability to vault us over the good-enough threshold.

Good enough can become a habit, just like so many other efforts. We can run a mile every other day or we can go a bit farther each time. We may find that good enough for others, or even for former versions of ourselves, is just a start. We may raise the bar for the expectations we set for ourselves to the point where good enough today is so much better than earlier efforts.

Routine or even mundane activities likely don’t require perfect performance. Doing them well, or even beyond “good enough,” keeps us sharp and focused for our more important tasks and also sets a good example for our children, who are watching and listening.

We can and will improve our lives when we decide to raise our own expectations for good enough.

From left, Anne Churchland and Tatiana Engel. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Movies have often used an image of a devil on one shoulder, offering advice, and an angel on another, suggesting a completely different course of action. People, however, weigh numerous factors when making even the simplest of decisions.

The process the brain uses to make decisions involves excitatory and inhibitory neurons, which are spread throughout the brain. Technology has made it possible to study thousands of these important cells on an active mouse, showing areas that are active at the same time.

Anne Churchland, an associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Tatiana Engel, an assistant professor at the same facility, are collaborating on a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that will study the way neurons interact to understand the patterns that lead to decisions. 

Engel said she, Churchland and another collaborator on the project, Stanford University Professor Krishna Shenoy, applied for the funding in response to a call from the NIH to develop computational methods and models for analyzing large-scale neural activity recordings from the brain.

Churchland and Shenoy will provide experimental data for the computational models Engel’s lab will develop. The data is “huge and complex,” Engel said, and researchers need new methods to understand it. “The simple techniques don’t translate to large-scale recordings,” Engel said.

Churchland and Engel jointly hired James Roach, a postdoctoral researcher who recently earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan and works in both of their labs. 

Churchland’s lab will provide data from the mouse model, while Engel’s lab brings computational expertise.

“Little is known about how these neurons are connected to behavior,” Engel said. Their research will hope to explain the role of inhibitory cells, which may have a more finely tuned function beyond keeping cells from remaining in an excited state.

The prevailing view in the field is that inhibitory neurons provide a balancing input to the network to prevent it from generating too much excitation or creating a seizure. Inhibitors are like the regulators that tap the brakes on a network that’s becoming too active.

Excitatory neurons, by contrast, are the ones that have an important job, representing the decisions individuals make.

Churchland is going to measure neural activity using a 2-photon microscope that allows her to measure the activity of about 600 neurons simultaneously. 

“This provides an incredible opportunity to analyze the data, using tools borrowed from machine learning and dynamical systems,” she explained in an email.

What Churchland’s data has helped show, however, is that the inhibitory neurons are doing more than providing a global braking signal. “They have some dedicated role in the circuit and we don’t know what that role is yet,” Engel said.

The team will build neural circuit models to help understand how the system is wired and what role each type of cell plays in various behaviors.

“We are developing computational frameworks where we can go and analyze activities of large groups of cells and, from the data, determine how individual cells contribute to the activity of the population,” Engel said.

Brains have considerable plasticity, which means that when one area of the brain isn’t functioning for whatever reason — through an injury or a temporary blockage ‒ other areas can compensate. “The whole problem is immensely complicated to figure out what a brain area is doing normally,” she explained. The picture can “completely change when there’s brain damage.”

Research is moving in the direction of understanding and manipulating large neural circuits at once, rather than a single area at a time. 

“Models can extract general principles, which still hold true even in more complex” systems Engel said. The principles include understanding how excitatory and inhibitory cells are balanced. “Models can help you figure out what works and doesn’t work.”

Roach, the current postdoctoral researcher working with Engel and Churchland, will start with modeling and then will develop experiments to test the role of inhibitory cells. He has already worked on computer programs that interpret neurological circuits and laboratory results. He is also receiving laboratory training.

At this point, Engel and Churchland are working on basic science. Engel explained that this type of research is the foundation for translation work that will lead to an improved diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. Basic science can, and often does, provide insights and information that help those working to understand or treat disease, she suggested.

Churchland was pleased with her collaboration with Engel.

Engel is “best known for modeling work she did studying neural mechanisms of attention,” Churchland explained in an email. “She is a great addition to Cold Spring Harbor! We work together in the same building and are trying to unravel the mysteries of how large groups of neurons in the brain work together to make decisions.”

A resident of the facilities at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Engel grew up in Vologda, which is over 300 miles north of Moscow. Starting in seventh grade, she attended physics and math schools, first in her home town and then at a boarding school at the Moscow State University.

She learned to appreciate the value of science from the journals her parents subscribed to, including one for children called Kvant magazine. She solved physics problems in that magazine. “I enjoyed the articles and problems in Kvant,” she explained in an email.

As for her work, Engel suggested that there were many discoveries ahead. “It is an exciting and transformative time in neuroscience,” she said.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Ah, Cinderella. The glass slipper. The handsome prince. A story that even frustrated, annoyed, irritable teenagers can love, right?

That’s what we thought when we bought the tickets. My wife and I enjoy good music, lyrical singing and creative costumes. So we figured we’d share some of that with our teenage children before we pack them up and ship them off to the next chapter of their lives.

The outing started out with such promise. I drove my teenagers to meet my wife. We connected with her outside a garage, where she used her parking pass to get us into a building several blocks from the show.

As soon as she got in the car, she could tell the mood was dark and foreboding.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Angry 1 and Angry 2 muttered in unison.

“Do you not want to see the show?”

No answer.

“Well? Would you rather go home? Dad can take you back.”

No answer.

“Can I please have my ticket?” my wife asked, sticking out her hand. “I will go alone.”

“No,” I replied. “I want to go, too.”

Walking through a city we didn’t know well, we raced to get to the theater before 7 p.m. It wasn’t easy, but we got in by 6:58 and race-walked to the door.

“You can’t come in,” the usher said.

We slumped our shoulders.

“But it’s not 7 p.m.,” my wife observed.

“Yes, but the show doesn’t start until 7:30. We’ll open the doors in a few minutes.”

Funny, right? Well, no, not in the moment.

“Wait, this starts at 7:30 p.m.?” my son asked. “How long is it?”

The usher informed us it was three 45-minute acts, with two 15-minute intermissions. That meant we’d get home around 11 p.m.

“I have so much homework,” he lamented.

We decided I would retrace our steps back to our car so he could get his backpack, order an Uber and send him on his way. I took a ticket and ran with him to the car. Fortunately, the Uber transfer went well. As I trotted back to the theater, I realized I was missing something. I called my wife.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, sensing the continuing unraveling of the evening.

“I can’t find the ticket. It must have fallen out of my pocket.”

“Oh no, how are you going to get in?”

We talked for a moment and then I realized we could show my wife’s two tickets to the usher with whom I spoke to on the way out. Our daughter could hover near the seats. Fortunately, the usher let me return.

Once the show began with frenzied music and considerable dancing, we waited. And waited. And waited. No one spoke. No one sang. It was, to the surprise of all three of us, a ballet.

Now, I know many fine people who love the ballet. Just as I know many wonderful, albeit misguided, people who love the Patriots. For the three of us, however, a ballet was not only unexpected, it was also unwelcome.

By the time intermission began, we were laughing.

“Should we stay for the second act?” my wife asked.

We stayed for another 45 minutes and left the theater.

“You know, it could have been worse,” our daughter said, as we were driving back home.

“Oh yeah, how?” my wife and I wondered, incredulous.

“All four of us could have seen it,” she said.

We chuckled as we hit every red light on the way home from the shattered glass slipper of an evening.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

Markus Seliger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Dunaief

The film “Bohemian Rhapsody” is far better than the critics suggest, while “Green Book” isn’t as deep or powerful as it could be. After watching four movies recently, including “Aquaman” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” I want to share my reactions to each of these films.

Featuring my favorite superhero, “Aquaman” had the opportunity to inspire and demoralize me at the same time. The movie was going to be a CGI (computer-generated imagery) extravaganza, with numerous impossible-to-imagine scenes filmed underwater. I don’t generally crave spectacular and splashy visuals, especially if they are designed to compensate for a weak script or disappointing acting.

Unfortunately for the water hero, the CGI was considerably more polished than the script, with attempts at humorous dialogue that were so underwhelming that it was tempting to urge the actors to stop talking and continue to swim through the scenery. Nonetheless, the movie did have its escapist and captivating elements. Perhaps the best way to enjoy a movie like this is not to think too much and to appreciate the ride. The spectacular visual spectacle almost merited the effort of seeing the movie on a large screen, instead of waiting for it to appear on a movie channel in a few months time.

Making a “Mary Poppins” sequel immediately asks the film to build on its successes, while introducing something new and engaging in its own right. The film succeeded on the first front, but fell a bit short, at least for me, on the second. Emily Blunt captured Mary’s supreme self-confidence, and magic magnificently. She took an iconic character owned by Julie Andrews and made it her own. The animated sequences, which were more lavish and extended than in the original, helped the movie create its own indelible images. The lyrics to the songs, however, weren’t quite as memorable as the original, at least for me.

“Green Book” maneuvers through the societal challenges that arise from a white driver who is transporting an African-American pianist, Don Shirley, through the South for performances in 1962. The movie feels important because it addresses bias and stereotypes during a period when the struggle for Civil Rights took root. Set against racial tensions, the film addresses the developing relationship between its two stars and has moments of tenderness and transformation for the duo at the heart of the story. It also addresses the remarkable contradiction between white society eager to enjoy the talents of an African-American entertainer and the inability of that same audience to respect the person as an equal.

Still, the movie felt like it could have been so much more. The film shows details of the life story of the driver Tony Lip, played with his usual energy and passion by Viggo Mortensen. Shirley, portrayed by Mahershala Ali, tells the background of his life. The movie would have benefited from a deeper and better understanding of Shirley’s life, which, some members of his family have suggested was different from the portrayal in the film.

That leads me to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I didn’t know a great deal about the musicians or their backstory. For me, the film was an enormous hit for two reasons: Rami Malek, who played lead singer Freddie Mercury, and the music itself. Malek embodied the energy, spirit, and unique character that was Mercury, parading around the stage, commanding every scene and blending bravado with an underlying vulnerability. The story doesn’t turn Mercury into a saint but, rather, shares his complicated life.

For fans of Queen’s music, the movie is a satisfying compilation of familiar hits that allow the legend of a wildly successful group to resonate.

Malagasy women break up granite stones to be used as gravel in the construction of the IUCN research center. Photo from Ali Yapicioglu

By Daniel Dunaief

After considerable planning, fundraising and coordinating, Patricia Wright welcomed a star-studded group of scientists, government officials and conservationists recently for the roof raising of the new IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center in Madagascar.

The building, which cost about $1 million, is a part of Centre ValBio, which is a conservation and research center Wright, a Distinguished Service Professor and award-winning researcher  at Stony Brook University, founded in 2003. CVB is near Ranomafana National Park in the southeastern part of the African island nation.

Above, a sketch of the IUCN Saving Our Species Biodiversity Research Center/Image courtesy of InSite Architecture

When it is completed this summer, the new building, which includes a green roof balcony and a central staircase and breezeway, is expected to provide research facilities for about ten scientists. They will study insects and plants, frogs and lemurs, the primates Wright has observed, researched, and shared with the public for over 30 years. Visiting scientists can apply to work at the center starting in September.

Russell Mittermeier, the Chief Conservation Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation and a research professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook, suggested that these types of efforts pay dividends.

It’s “hard to predict what will be found but history has shown us that there are endless benefits to conserving biodiversity and maintaining healthy ecosystems,” Mittermeier, the Chair of the IUCN/ SSC Primate Specialist Group, explained in an email from Madagascar.

Conservationists credit Wright with adding the new Biodiversity Centre to the larger research and conservation presence in Madagascar.“Wright was instrumental” in developing the facility, said Christoph Schwitzer, the Director of Conservation at Bristol Zoological Society and the Deputy Chair and Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group. “Without her, it wouldn’t be there. She started this whole project.”

The IUCN expressed its appreciation for the work Wright put in to continue to build on her track record of conservation.

At IUCN, “we highly value our collaboration with [Wright] and we understand she has established a good relationship with the Park Manager of Ranomafana National Park,” Remco Van Merm, the Coordinator of IUCN’s Saving Our Species initiative, explained in an email.

Save Our Species funds projects that “enhance the conservation of threatened species,” Van Merm added. “In the case of the new SOS Biodiversity Research Centre at Centre ValBio in Madagascar, the research that will be carried out will contribute greatly to the conservation of lemurs and other threatened biodiversity” in the national park.

Wright insisted that the new biodiversity center use local materials and workers, as she did with the construction of Namanabe Hall, its much larger sister building on the CVB campus.

Wright “wants to have the local villagers be involved in the process,” said Ali Yapicioglu, a partner at InSite, an architectural firm in Perry, New York who worked on both buildings. The sand is from the river, while the gravel comes from granite pieces that local women break down into smaller pieces.

In addition to local labor and materials, Wright ensured that InSite provided education to Malagasy residents, which included classes at the construction site. Through the building process, InSite also trained electricians.

While CVB, which is the largest biodiversity research center in the country, is well-established, it took considerable work on the Stony Brook scientist’s part to create it.

Schwitzer said Wright “fought against various forces trying to set this center up and she succeeded. She’s an excellent fundraiser.”

Madagascar has presented numerous challenges for conservation, in large part because of the changes in governments.Mittermeier recently had a “good discussion” with Andry Rajoelina about biodiversity just before Rajoelina was inaugurated as president of Madagascar last week. “Let’s see what he does” on biodiversity, Mittermeier explained. The Stony Brook professor plans to recommend that Rajoelina visit Ranomafana. 

For visitors, the CVB site offers ecotourists a firsthand opportunity to observe the charismatic lemur species, which are a part of the “Madagascar” animated films and were also the subject of an Imax movie about Wright’s work called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.”

“People who go there can see quite a few interesting lemur species in the wild,” Schwitzer said, adding that the station also gives Schwitzer “hope for lemur conservation,” he said.

The SOS lemur program originated with a 2013 published report, which included permanently managed field stations as a critical element. Research and field stations deter logging and lemur hunting, while also contributing scientific information that the government can use to set policies and make informed decisions, he added.

The lemur action plan includes the construction of this building. Schwitzer indicated that these types of initiatives, spread throughout the country, are critical to protecting species under various pressures, including habitat destruction.

“If we don’t keep up the effort, we could very well lose one,” Schwitzer said. He hastened to add that no lemurs have gone extinct in modern times, but “we can’t become complacent.” Indeed, the rarest of lemurs, the Northern Sportive Lemur, is down to 60 individuals in the world.

In the future, Schwtizer hopes Malagasy leaders and institutions will apply for international funding for themselves, as they drive the conservation goal forward.

This September, Wright will also finish an Education Center on the lower campus. On the upper campus, which is just across the road, she is building a wildlife center that will include a vet clinic, a frog breeding center, a mouse lemur facility, and a climate and drone center. The facility will also include bungalows for long-term researchers.

In addition to providing a field station for researchers, the site will also provide information accessible to the public.

“We are producing online identification systems like iNaturalist and also putting vocalizations and videos of the wildlife online,” Wright explained in an email.

Schwitzer said he has attended meetings where Wright has shared her vision for CVB with scientists and conservationists.

“Everybody looks at this and says, ‘This is cool. I want to do something like that,’” Schwitzer said.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We have abbreviations for laughter, LOL; for humble opinions, IMHO; and for love, ILU. We need shorthand for something that’s “not about you” (NAY).

We live complicated lives and can often travel along a superhighway of speeding emotions. When someone we know sees us, we may be reacting to something we are feeling that has nothing to do with them. We may have received an email that we got the job, that we won a contest or that our bid for a house was accepted. At the same time, we may not want to share whatever someone else sees in us. It’s why the following conversation is repeated throughout the world:

“What’s up?”

“Nothing. I’m good.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yup, thanks.”

So, maybe the conversation doesn’t track with exactly those mundane words, but the idea is the same: it’s NAY. Whatever someone is feeling in the moment, someone else appears who may have nothing to do with the arriving person. The facial expression, body language or vibe someone may have been transmitting has nothing to do with the other person.

The NAY phenomenon is a concept middle schools should teach their students. After all, most adults recognize the middle school years as among the toughest and least enjoyable periods in life, as each day is a battle to overcome fatigue, acne, self-conscious moments, and that impossible transition from adorable youth to uncomfortable adolescence. Middle school teachers work in a building that is a simmering cauldron of strongly held emotions that can and do change as rapidly as shifting winds during a storm.

After reminding students not to bully each other, to treat others the way they would like to be treated, to take responsibility for their actions and to stay ahead in their classes, schools should also encourage students to understand that snickering, laughing, eye rolling and head shaking are often NAY. If someone disapproves of something or someone, it’s quite likely that something in that person’s life is bothering him or her and that it has nothing to do with you.

When we become parents, we relive so many of the stages of our own lives vicariously, watching our children as they search for new friends, speak to their teachers, pick up a bat to hit a ball or put together the pieces of an instrument. Each step they take is their step, not ours. We can and do help and encourage them, transporting them to rehearsals, suggesting they practice singing arpeggios and providing structure for their lives. Ultimately, however, they reach their goals because of their efforts, their talents and their commitment. Our lives have become so linked to those of our children that we can feel the gut-dropping moment when the ball skids behind them into the goal, when they learn their test scores, or when their boyfriend or girlfriend ends a long-term relationship with them.

Our role, however, is not to pile our emotions on top of the teetering pile or to insert ourselves into our children’s lives. We have to step back, realize that their incredible successes or momentary setbacks are not about us, and try to figure out what they might need.

Children offer us an incredible opportunity for connection, commitment and love. They are not, however, a way to correct the slights we felt when we were young or a chance to become the winners instead of the losers. When anything or everything our children do becomes about us and not about them, then what they do is no longer for themselves, which deprives them of owning their mistakes and accomplishments. So, next time you’re drawn into their lives, make sure you remember it’s NAY.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

Steven Skiena. Photo from SBU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

From birth, hair has been a signal. I had hair when I was born, which probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to people who have known me for years.

When I was young, my haircutter used to imagine becoming wealthy by figuring out what made my hair grow so rapidly.

For those without hair, this isn’t a boast; it’s a part of a genetic heritage that cuts both ways. My hair, as it turns out, is also thick and fast growing on my eyebrows or, as people have preferred to say, eyebrow. The space between my eyebrows is just as eager to grow hair as the area just above my eyes.

In college, I tried to grow my hair longer to see how I’d look with shoulder-length hair. That was a failed experiment as my hair grew out instead of down, turning it into a heavy tangle of thick hair.

When I met my wife, I convinced her that I couldn’t disconnect the hair between my eyebrows, or I would be like Sampson and loose my strength. Amused as she was by the story, she let it slide. The afternoon of our wedding, she was stunned to see me with two eyebrows. She wanted to know what had happened and, more importantly, how I was still standing?

I told her that I went for a professional shave so that my usual facial shadow wouldn’t appear during the wedding. While I had my eyes closed, the barber removed the hair above my nose with a quick wrist flick.

Fortunately, my wife didn’t ask for ongoing removal of that hair when it returned.

As I’ve gotten older, hair has emerged from unwelcome places, making appearances from my ears and nose. Who needs hair there — and how could Charles Darwin possibly explain the presence of such unwelcome hair? Does the ear hair announce my advancing age and lower social value?

That brings us to today. As I was maneuvering through the usual deep thoughts, resolutions and promises for the start of the new year, an errant and unwanted fellow emerged from my nose. He was clearly long enough to attract attention, but what was especially surprising about “Jedediah” wasn’t just that he was long or that he seemed to rappel out of my nose. It was his color that offered such an unwelcome but realistic signal — Jedediah was gray.

Ugh! Who wants or needs a gray nose hair, not only offering the world a clue that my hair growth was out of control, but that I’m also so much older that even my nose hairs have started to show signs of aging? Do people dye their nose hairs?

Should I pluck him, trim him or wear him with pride, hoping that he distracts people from the progressively bushier pile of hair pouring out of my ears?

Wouldn’t a rugged individualist defy convention and wear the years and the hair growth with pride, despite the lack of magazine covers with contemporary studs like Hugh Jackman with hair coming out of their noses? If Hugh made gray nose hair fashionable, would I feel less self-conscious about Jedediah?

Poor Jedediah, who worked so hard to emerge from the nose cave, suffered the same fate as the errant hairs that grew out of my ears. He reluctantly left the warm comfort of my nose and was discarded into the trash.

While hair may tell a story about each person, Jedidiah will no longer be sharing mine, except for readers of this column.

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