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Daniel Dunaief

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Scott Powers with his wife Diane at a recent Cancer Research Gala. Photo by Julie Skarratt

By Daniel Dunaief

He spent 20 years looking at the problem in one way. Now, he’s ready for a change and Stony Brook officials stand behind him. After working in genomics at several locations, including for a decade as director of human cancer genomics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to find therapeutic targets for human tumors, Scott Powers recently embraced the opportunity to find better ways to diagnose different types of cancer.

“A major driver for me coming to Stony Brook was to work on earlier detection,” Powers said.

Working with pathology department Chairman Ken Shroyer and Stony Brook obstetrician/gynecologist Michael Pearl, Powers is hoping to develop a prototype test for early detection of ovarian cancer so it can be removed by “simple surgery,” he said.

Powers has worked in numerous ways to isolate or identify mutations that might lead to cancer. That work focused on finding drug targets or developing therapies. One of the many challenges in studying genomics is that some mutations are bystanders, which means they likely don’t have a role in causing cancer or even, necessarily, in enabling cancer to spread. They make it harder to know whether they have a role or are merely different from the range of normal in a genetic sequence.

Some of the ways Powers has understood the potential part mutations play is by taking a computational approach, which can take many forms, including finding gene networks that are frequently altered. This approach has helped find various targets for therapies and improve the classification of tumors.

Powers said the “poster child” for success of this method was the development of the Oncotype DX test for breast cancer, which allows patients with node-negative, ER-positive breast cancer to determine whether they need to take chemotherapy.

He has also compared the gene sequences for similar cancer types across different species. He and Scott Lowe, who is now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, found this approach could “help identify drivers and, in a sense, help filter out passengers,” he said. This has been successful on a basic science level but hasn’t yet led to the identification of a viable new therapeutic strategy, he said.

Powers’ focus now is to direct his expertise toward developing a test that might address early detection and, in some cases, improved diagnosis.

“It’s a brand new set of things for me to think about,” Powers said. The effort, he believes, should prove reinvigorating. The intellectual challenge of coming up with a solution that improves or enhances someone’s life motivates him.

Powers supports Stony Brook’s effort to add staff and develop a pool of researchers who can develop techniques and tools to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. “I am very hopeful for Stony Brook to build up an intellectually interesting environment that will attract a new generation of cancer scientists to come on board,” he said.

Powers believes cancer is a complex disease that has many different variations. “Many random events occur that sometimes give the cancer cell a competitive survival advantage,” he explained. “Everyone’s tumor has its own unique combination of 10 to 25 genetic alterations that are driving it.”

In addition to working with Shroyer on developing diagnostic tools for the genomics of cancer, Powers has turned his attention toward other researchers on the campus with different backgrounds. He is planning a collaboration with Sasha Levy, who works at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology and is an assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology, to study cancer evolution. He said they’ll be using experimental methods Levy has developed on yeast.

Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Cancer Center, has recruited Powers to participate on the tumor board, which is where physicians from different areas come to discuss specific patients in a multidisciplinary fashion.

“There are numerous discussions and plans to expand upon this growing trend to use genetic testing in developing a personalized strategy for each patient,” Powers said.

Powers and his wife Diane, who works in fundraising with Patricia Wright at Stony Brook in the anthropology department, live in Greenlawn with their daughter Camille, who is a sophomore at Harborfields High School. Their other children are Alexander, 25, who works for a nonprofit in Brooklyn called the Social Science Research Council, and Douglas, 21, who is a junior studying applied math at Harvard.

Powers was looking for two things that he found when he came to Stony Brook: “the chance to develop diagnostic tests” and to “enter new fields by finding new collaborators with scientists doing interesting things.”

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By Daniel Dunaief

I have a modest proposal: How about a new holiday, either in each school or in each town, every year? I’m not talking about taking any more time off from school or interrupting the flow of work, especially in a year when snow, ice and record-breaking blizzards that never happened upset our busy schedules. I’d like to suggest, rather, that we celebrate, recognize or mark the occasion for a different moment every year. We could create such a holiday some day in June, when classes are winding down and we’re just about to kick off the start of the summer.

Every year, Americans stop to recognize 9/11 in September. It’s a somber occasion and a chance to reflect on who we lost and what might have been. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the unimaginable bravery of those who did whatever they could to save strangers, friends and fellow New Yorkers and Americans.

Perhaps, one year, we might also recognize all the medical miracles that have made lives possible. I’ll never forget the day a colleague of mine at Bloomberg picked up the phone and his face went white. Seemingly unable to verbalize the terror in his mind, he grabbed his jacket and sprinted out of the room. His sudden and panicked motion created considerable concern from his colleagues.

As he told our editor the next morning in a barely audible voicemail, his wife went into premature labor and, less than an hour later, delivered a baby girl who weighed close to 1 pound.

For weeks, whenever he came to work, he seemed to look past us, searching for any kind of help, spiritual or otherwise, for his daughter’s fragile life. After several months, she grew enough to improve her prospects for survival. We knew things were getting better because we heard the welcome return of laughter from our friend. We also saw him exhale for the first time in months, loosening and relaxing the taut muscles in his chest.

Perhaps, one school might find the names of the doctors and scientists who improved the treatment and care for premature babies who had considerably poorer prognoses 50 or 100 years earlier.

We might also pause to recognize those working in fertility clinics or in reproductive research, who have made it possible for couples having trouble conceiving to celebrate the marvel of their child.

Maybe we could celebrate the considerable achievements of scientists who have helped prevent an HIV diagnosis from becoming a death sentence. When Magic Johnson revealed that he was HIV positive, many of us probably never imagined we’d see him cheering for his Michigan State basketball team to make it to the Final Four in 2015.

It is through remarkable medical breakthroughs, incredible dedication and a desire to defeat diseases like cancer and AIDS that we can extend the quantity and quality of our lives and the lives of our friends and family.

Some of these achievements and lifesaving discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the insights and inspiration of scientists, researchers and doctors on Long Island.

Perhaps we can take a moment to appreciate and acknowledge the guiding hand and valuable contributions religious leaders make to us. Bringing us together and encouraging us through our battles elevates us when we’re down.

We see headlines about people who take lives and make poor decisions. Perhaps, we could use a day to recognize those who, to borrow a phrase from just about every political ad, truly “fight for us.” And maybe, by acknowledging these achievements, we inspire the next generation.

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28-year-old skeleton racer will go to Sochi, Russia

John Daly competes in the World Cup in Lake Placid in December. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

Four years ago, he was just happy to be there. Weeks before the world turned its attention to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Smithtown’s John Daly had no idea whether he’d be watching the games from home or representing the country in the high-speed sport of skeleton racing.

Now, Daly, 28, is preparing for his second winter games in Sochi, Russia. He finished 17th in Vancouver and is approaching the competition, which is scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15, with a different attitude.

“I’m confident, I think I could do really well,” Daly said via Skype while in St. Moritz, Switzerland for one of the pre-Olympic qualifying races. “In the last game, I was a long shot. In this one, I’m truly prepared. If ever there was a race to win, it’s this one coming up.”

Daly competes in skeleton racing, where he digs his spiked shoes into an ice track, extends his arm and dives headfirst onto the sled. He races at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour, his chin inches above the frozen track. He steers by shifting his weight slightly, as spectators hear something akin to a freight train seconds before he becomes a bullet blazing down the bluff.

Daly said the four years of training and living have helped him maintain his focus in a race where the difference between a medal and fourth place is measured in hundredths of a second.

Thoughts about the action, the crowd and “how crazy would it be if I medal” may have hurt him in Vancouver.

“That’s when you start to put yourself days and hours ahead. I’m staying in the moment. I will take it one day at a time, one curve at a time.”

Tuffy Latour, the coach of the men’s and women’s skeleton team for the United States, suggested that the focus shouldn’t be on winning medals. Instead, his team needs to have “good starts and good drives” while “believing in themselves.”

As the number of days dwindle until he takes those last deep breaths before diving down the mountain, Daly and his family are preparing for a trip that’s more than 5,200 miles from their home.

His mother, Bennarda, a nurse at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, is thinking about “all the silly little things,” including making sure her husband, James, son, James, daughter, Kristen and sister, Sabina Rezza of Kew Gardens, make their flights.

The designers of the Sochi track originally wanted to make the course among the fastest in the world. A fatal accident in Vancouver, however, caused them to redesign their course, which now includes uphill sections that cut down on a slider’s speed.

“They wanted [the racers] to go to 100 miles per hour,” Daly said. “But they slowed it down to 83 miles per hour.” It makes the track especially unforgiving of any mistakes.

“With those uphill sections, you can’t mess up, or it’ll mess up the race,” Daly said. ‘You don’t want to teach perfection, but you need to be pretty close.”

Still, Daly has a short, but encouraging, history with this track. He placed fourth last February in a test run, a mere seven hundredths of a second behind third place. He also finished ahead of Latvian Tomass Dukurs, one of the two brothers who have been the dominant force in skeleton racing.

This year, Daly said, everyone on Team USA, including his friends Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, has beaten at least one of the powerful tandem.

“It shows they are human,” Daly said. “It’s anyone’s game.”

Latour is encouraged by the way his competitors have performed.

“The Dukurs are beatable,” he said through an emailed statement. “Our team has had some fantastic races despite some small mistakes. If we’re going to beat those guys, we have to be at our best. I think we can get there.”

Daly said the only one of his entourage who might want a medal more than he does is his father James, a retired EMS worker for the FDNY.

The elder Daly said he’s so eager to see his son succeed because “when his dreams come true, so do mine.”
In addition to safety, Bennarda Daly has another goal for her son.

“If he knows he did his best, that’s all that matters,” she said.

James Daly said the agony of standing near the track, watching his son prepare for a race, is almost unbearable.

“You almost don’t know how to act,” he said. “There’s so much I want to do. Clapping my hands is all I can do.”

Daly’s mom plans to bring a cowbell to the other side of the world. Lining the track like pieces of metal drawn to a magnet, spectators shout encouragement and clang their cowbells, amplifying their sound and warming up their arms on mountains where icy winds seem intent on defeating wool sweaters, socks and hats.

Daly’s family and friends have been instrumental in getting him to Sochi, he said. When he needed money or he had to change a plane ticket, no matter what the hour, his father would get it done. Daly said he hopes he’s as helpful to his children some day.

James Daly said he learned how to support his family from his father, the late Joe Daly, a police officer in New York City.

As for what Daly will do after the Olympics, he’s considering a career in advertising.

“That’ll be my first actual job,” he said.

The trail from frozen tracks all over the world to the white-hot lights of the Winter Olympics has included its share of financial, physical and emotional sacrifices. He said he still has unaffordable college loans from Plattsburgh State University, where he was an All-American in the decathlon in 2007.

He has also bumped into walls during competitions and finished the races with bruises or blood dripping down his ankle.

Each year, he missed important personal events, including his mother’s birthday early in January, Thanksgiving and weddings. He couldn’t attend seven weddings in recent years.

Still, the opportunity to race down a mountain and represent the country is worth the trade-off.

“I get to be a kid and ride a sleigh,” he said. “How many other 28-year-olds can say that?”

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Comsewogue High School graduate takes silver in skeleton, sets sights on Olympics

Annie O’Shea trains for the skeleton. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

During the Vancouver Olympics last year, Annie O’Shea was on the outside looking in. Now, she’s much closer to the top looking down.

The change in perspective is a welcome one for the Port Jefferson Station resident, who has been pushing her award-winning athletic gifts to their limits since she started skeleton racing in 2004.

The 24-year-old finished a personal-best seventh place in the first race of the new World Cup season in skeleton in Igls, Austria on Dec. 2. She was a mere 0.02 seconds behind the sixth-place finisher.

The very next week she was in La Plagne, France, a picturesque mountain nestled in the Alps. On a track where she’d never before competed, one that rewarded fast starts, O’Shea said she felt she had an edge over some of the other competitors because of her exceptional sprinting ability.

Skeleton racers use the same long, slick track as luge and bobsled. They sprint for 5 to 6 seconds, then dive headfirst on their sleds. With their chins a mere inch off the ice, skeleton racers fly down the mountain, shifting their body weight to steer their sleds at speeds faster than 80 miles per hour. A powerful sprint near the top can make the difference between a racer and a winner.

O’Shea, a 2004 outdoor track and field state champion in the pentathlon, not only started strong on the unfamiliar track on Dec. 10, but, on her second and final run, set a track record for the sprint part of the course. At the end of the first race, O’Shea was behind only Canada’s Mellisa Hollingsworth. When she’d finished her second heat, O’Shea said, she knew she’d locked up at least second place.

“Standing at the bottom of the track,” O’Shea said from her hotel in Germany after a 10-hour drive to her next competition, “I thought I was going to have a heart attack. One of the German girls said, ‘You might win.’ It’s the best I’ve ever done.”

Hollingsworth also had a strong second run, and held off the Comsewogue High School graduate for the gold. O’Shea’s silver was the first time an American woman had made it to the medal stand of a World Cup event since February 2009.

O’Shea had claimed her first World Cup medal and moved her world ranking up to 4th from 13th in the course of a single week.

“I wanted to call my mom,” she said, beaming. “I wanted someone to give me a phone.” But she couldn’t call home yet. She had another detail to take care of: the medal ceremony.

“As I was standing there, seeing the flag go up for me, I was really happy,” O’Shea said.

By the time she could call her parents, it was still only 7:23 am on Long Island.

“When the phone rang, John and I both went, ‘Uh oh, this is either really good news or something bad happened,” said mom Linda O’Shea, a librarian at Comsewogue High School, about receiving the call from their daughter. “As soon as I heard her voice, I knew.”

After numerous calls and chats over the past few years, when the skeleton racer had cried on the phone with her parents when races didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, she didn’t shed any tears this time.

John O’Shea, who runs a Target warehouse in Hauppauge, said he could tell from a conversation he had with his daughter the day before the race in France that she had the right mindset. “It was a great feeling to get off the phone,” he recalled. “I felt like she’s got this one.”

The racer said she has had to rely on the strength of the O’Shea network, including her parents and three sisters, Kaitlin, Sarah and Erin, through some of the tougher times, when the sledding hasn’t been quite so smooth or fast. She’s often called them at home or emailed them for moral support.

As Annie O’Shea was blazing her way down a French mountain, Erin O’Shea took a break from studying for finals at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn., to cheer her sister on through a live web feed of the race. She knew well before her parents that her sister was the second-fastest woman in the skeleton world that day.

Annie O’Shea’s coach, Tuffy Latour, joined the family in congratulating the racer on her strong finish.

“Annie performed like a champion today,” Latour said in an email. “On the line, she was calm, cool and collected. She pushed a track record start and slid two very consistent heats.”

Latour also recognized that the finish in France came on the heels of an impressive run in Austria.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way she has conducted herself these past two weeks,” he said. “She is really putting all the pieces together this season.”

O’Shea was joined on the medal stand by her teammate, Breckenridge, Colo., resident Katie Uhlaender, giving the North American women a rare sweep of the skeleton medals. Uhlaender was the last American woman to win a skeleton World Cup medal in 2009.

O’Shea offered some advice to those with lofty aspirations: “Never doubt yourself. Never think you can’t do anything. If you can’t do it at that moment, you can learn to do it. You can get better at something every day.”

The O’Sheas, who are fond of holiday tradition and movies, watched the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” the night before the races in France. The racer said her mother will likely watch the movie again the night before her next set of races in Germany — just in case it might have helped.

As for Annie, she’s not only taking her own advice, but she also plans to use this second-place finish in France as a lesson for the bigger goal: an Olympic medal at Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

“After doing so well [on an unfamiliar track], I know [a medal] is possible in Sochi,” O’Shea said. “I can do this.”

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Steve Matz with proud parents Ron and Lori, all flashing million dollar smiles, shortly after signing with the New York Mets last year. File photo

by Daniel Dunaief

Like other Ward Melville High School students who graduated last year, Steve Matz left his home in Stony Brook and took the next step in his life. Living in a hotel in Florida, Matz has changed locales, but hasn’t altered his intense focus on a skill that helped the 6 foot, 2 inch stand out on Long Island.

One of the newest members of the New York Mets, Matz, a lifelong Mets fan, is living within easy walking distance of minor league fields where promising players come to soak up guidance from wizened coaches, hone their already-prolific skills, and prepare for the intense competition to join their major league team.

So far so good for Matz, who knows he has a long climb to the mound at Citi Field, but who is already thrilled to be taking the first few steps toward that goal.

“Compared to Ward Melville, this blows it away,” Matz said of his first few weeks at the Mets minor league complex. “The grass and the mound are perfect.”

A left-handed pitcher whose fastball has been clocked at 95 miles per hour, Matz is working to improve his other pitches, including a curveball and changeup.

“The curveball [is a pitch that I] still have to work on,” Matz offered. “It’s a learning curve. I used to throw in the bullpen to keep my arm loose: now, I throw to work on things.”

For Steve’s parents Lori and Ron Matz, this is an especially big year. Not only is Steve living away from home with the Mets, but their older son Jon is also attending school away from Long Island.

Lori Matz said it was tough to “lose a little bit of that control with both of them gone. That’s what we raised them for, to be independent, well-rounded adults.”

At the beginning of spring training, Steve offered to make the 19-hour drive down to Port St. Lucie by himself in his new Ford truck he purchased with his signing bonus, but his parents would have no part of that. After they drove to Florida together, Steve’s parents felt encouraged by the discipline and structure in the minor league system. Some of the rules include fines for being out after curfew.

“It’s almost a little more regimented than on a college campus,” Lori Matz said.

Steve’s passion for baseball started when he was young.

“When Steve was 2 years old, I started having a catch with him,” Ron Matz said. The elder Matz could tell even then that his middle child — Steve has a 14-year-old sister Jill — had talent. “He had a natural form. You can’t teach that.”

Ron Matz coached his son Steve until he was about 13 years old. When Steve was around 10, he pitched a no-hitter. When he got in the car after the game, he was annoyed.

“I said, ‘Steve, you just finished a no-hitter, what’s the matter?” Ron recalled.

His son’s response? “I struck out once.”

Steve’s skills and interest grew in tandem. Ron Matz said that he’d have to drag his son out of bed on a Saturday morning if he had to take an SAT prep course, but if he had a practice or a game, “he’d be sitting in the den, waiting for me before I got up.”

Steve’s parents said his average grade at Ward Melville was around 90. He was motivated to maintain good grades so that he could keep the door open for school or professional baseball.

When their son was drafted first by the Mets last year, it was especially exciting to Ron and Lori, lifelong Mets fans who were high school sweethearts. Indeed, Lori Matz spoke by phone to The Village Times Herald minutes before a rain-delayed Mets game began. Lori said for the last year she has worn her late mother’s wedding ring on her pinky. Her mother, who passed away six years ago, was “a huge Mets fan and a huge Steve fan. I almost feel like, for him to be picked out of the thirty teams, she had a hand in it.”

For Steve’s parents, the journey to the minor leagues has already provided a wealth of new baseball experiences. On the day Steve signed his contract, the Mets brought him to Citi Field. He and his parents were escorted to owner Fred Wilpon’s office.

“We took this beautiful elevator to Wilpon’s suite,” Ron Matz said. “Fred comes up to us and says, ‘I want you to meet a friend of mine. Meet Sandy Koufax. Our legs were shaking. I was like, ‘hey, this isn’t happening.’”

Last year’s winner of the Carl Yastrzemski award — an annual honor given to the best high school baseball player in Suffolk County — Steve Matz is dedicating himself to the pursuit of his baseball dream. Steve is in good company as a Yastrzemski award winner: Boomer Esiason, the former quarterback for the Bengals and Jets and current sports broadcaster, received the same honor.

“Waking up every day and playing ball, going to the field with your buddies, that’s just awesome,” Steve declared. “There are so many good players around you, it definitely makes you want to work harder and really get better.”

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