Tags Posts tagged with "Daniel Dunaief"

Daniel Dunaief

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”

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By Daniel Dunaief

In the course of a month, two events have occurred that, perhaps some time in the next several decades, may help people make that incredibly long journey to Mars.

First, Scott Kelly went up in space. OK, so, that’s not such a shocker. Kelly is an astronaut and that’s what astronauts do. What makes Kelly’s trip different, however, is that he plans to spend an entire year at the International Space Station, setting an American record for the longest time away from Earth.

Kelly’s identical twin Mark, a retired astronaut and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, will of course spend that same year on Earth. Having identical twins in two places for the same period of time presents an incredible opportunity. Mark is in reality the “control” in the experiment, giving NASA, doctors and anyone else interested in the effects of prolonged periods of time in space an opportunity to see how the two brothers react differently to different environments. Identical twins present that rare opportunity to rule out the nature part of the nature-nurture dynamic.

Some day, the information NASA records from the Kelly twins will help us understand the kinds of preparations necessary to safeguard any would-be space traveler from the harmful effects of higher radiation and no gravity for a journey to Mars that by current technology would take some 250 days. After all, our genes have evolved over thousands of years to life on Earth. Just because we’ve figured out to send ourselves deep into space doesn’t mean we can suddenly fine-tune the gift of our biological systems the way we might raise a heat shield on a space module.

A month after Scott Kelly returned to the ISS, where he’d spent considerable time on previous missions, a team of scientists, led by Javier Martin-Torres, a Spanish researcher who is a professor in Sweden and used to work in the United States at NASA, published a study based on a year’s worth of meteorological data from the Red Planet.

As it turns out, Martin-Torres and his team have determined it is highly likely Mars has liquid water — today. It’s not enough water to open a super-exclusive pool club or to plant a couple of dozen grape trees to cultivate a deep-space vineyard for the elite and refined palates of the world’s wealthiest wine lovers.

The scientists recorded readings through the Mars rover Curiosity of water that likely evaporates during the Martian day and forms again during the cold night as perchlorate salts melt any frozen water vapor.

This study, Martin-Torres suggested, may have implications for planetary protection policies. The Committee on Space Research may look carefully at places where spacecraft couldn’t land on Mars out of concern that any vehicle might contaminate the planet by introducing new organisms.

The presence of water speaks to us because it makes up more than 60 percent of our own bodies. Water also is a key element to life on our blue planet, raising the question about whether life, even in the form of small microbes, could use it to survive.

This Martian water, however, isn’t exactly a refreshing stream. It’s probably up to three-and-a-half times as salty as the water in the Dead Sea, Martin-Torres said.

The saltiness, radiation and numerous other factors make that water inhospitable to life, even on a microbial scale.

“The conditions are terrible,” admitted Martin-Torres. Still, “it’s better to have water than not to have it.” Besides, while it’s likely that any life on Mars would struggle to survive in that water, “nature always surprises us.”

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By Daniel Dunaief

What Hillary Clinton needs is a slogan. Now that she’s declared that she is, indeed, running for president, she needs to let the world know what she’s all about.

The problem is she’s spent the last quarter of a century in the public eye. How can someone who lost the presidential primary in 2008, whose husband’s peccadilloes provided endless fodder for the late-night TV hosts and whose every move, comment or speech let us know who she is and what she’s all about?

I have a few suggestions:

• “Campaign Clinton IV”: The first two were about Bill, the third one was a dress rehearsal and the fourth time is the real thing.
• “She’s nicer than you think”: That’s not hard to imagine. She doesn’t exactly come across as warm, fuzzy and relatable. She has the opposite public persona of her husband, whose charm and hospitality play so well on TV.
• “25 years in the making”: A woman who has written two autobiographies and who was the first lady for eight years may finally make it out of the primaries.
• “Long day’s journey into the White House”: Borrowing from Eugene O’Neill, Clinton has gone through many dramas, subplots and struggles on her way to running for the most important job in the land.
• “About Time”: Did you see that charming movie with this title with Rachel McAdams? This slogan could suggest it’s about time a woman became president. Then again, maybe if, like the movie, she could travel back in time, she’d change a few things.
• “Let the first family back in”: The Democrats seem to love her these days. Why not suggest that she and her biggest fan, largest supporter and No. 1 asset and liability, return to the White House together?
• “We’ll be back”: I know Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican, but wouldn’t it be cool if he introduced her campaign in his Austrian Terminator accent? (Or, perhaps, borrowing from “Jaws II”: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the White House again.”)
• “Interns need not apply”: OK, that’s a cheap shot.
• “The ultimate battle of the sexes”: Let’s see who runs the country better, a wife or her husband? We’ve had fathers and sons — the Adamses and the Bushes — and the Roosevelt cousins. How about we try a married couple?
• “Time for new revelations”: Every so often, it seems as if there’s a new revelation about the Clintons. Think about how many more revelations from staff members, former cooks and the U.S. Secret Service we might have if the Clintons once again occupy the White House?
• “The publishing business needs this”: Book publishing and publishing in general don’t seem to be as profitable as in the past. Bookstores are closing and small publishers are struggling to keep up with the endless space in the Internet. Surely a Clinton campaign and, possibly, a presidency would give new life to an industry that desperately needs a few more blockbuster political books before it finds the next Charles Dickens?
• “It’s time to watch late-night TV again”: “Saturday Night Live” and late-night talk show hosts must be cheering the possibility. They don’t even need to create new characters or find people who can look and act like the Clintons.
• “Grandma knows best”: Forget about her role as first lady, senator or secretary of state, who would dare argue with a grandma?

Let battle commence but it’s going to be a long, drawn-out affair. There are still 572 days to go, whatever the slogan.

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Patricia Thompson photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Patricia Thompson gets a call from her sister Kathy Hobson when people in San Angelo, Texas — where Thompson grew up and where her sister and brother live — when someone has cancer. They want to know what Thompson thinks of their treatment.

While Thompson is not a medical doctor, she has been working as a scientist to develop ways to discriminate high-risk patient populations from low-risk patients to limit “toxic treatments in low-risk individuals” and improve the efficacy of aggressive treatment in high risk-patients. The goal, she said, is to better treat patients based on the specific pathobiology of their disease.

Thompson, who came to Stony Brook University last October as a professor of pathology and associate director of Basic Research at the Cancer Center, is pleased with the support from the university.

“There’s a real convergence of factors, including a strong commitment from the leadership, the Simons Center and the university medical school faculty and staff at Stony Brook,” she said. “We all want to see the Stony Brook Cancer Center bring prestige to our community, attract the finest talent in cancer research and clinical care and attract innovators and job builders.”

Thompson said Cancer Center Director Yusuf Hannun, Medical School Research Dean Lina Obeid, Pathology Department Chairman Ken Shroyer, and Dean of the Medical School Ken Kaushansky have all led the charge.
Shroyer is pleased Thompson joined the effort. “Bringing her here was an incredible coup,” he said. She brings “real national prominence” and led one of the “most important clinical and translational research programs in breast and colorectal cancer.”

Thompson is committed to furthering her own research studies, while balancing between critical basic science discoveries and their clinical impact.

For some scientists, she wants to assist researchers as they move from the bench to the first human study. She helps them understand who needs to be involved to advance a potential diagnostic tool or novel treatment.

Still, she endorses the benefits of basic research. “Application is always an important long-term goal, but scientific exploration for new discovery is critical to advancements,” she said. Applied and basic research are “neither mutually exclusive approaches.”

Thompson studies colorectal and breast cancer because both have an inflammatory component and an immune element. She’s exploring what is shared between these two cancers as common targets for prevention and treatment.

Colon cancer provides a window that helps scientists and doctors understand the way cancer progresses.
“Our ability to study the premalignant to malignant progression in colorectal cancer has provided important basic knowledge of how cancers develop and taught us about how cells defend against tumorigenesis and how these systems fail,” she said.

Thompson went through some formative professional and personal experiences during graduate school that shaped her career. In the mid-1990s, she was studying an autoimmune disease in which she worked on an animal model with a neuroimmunologist.

“I wanted to know that all this work I was doing with animals was contributing to the disease in humans,” she said.

Around the same time, her father, Jim Thompson, who owned and operated Angelo Tool Company, learned he had stage IV colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in 1995, before major advances in colorectal cancer treatment. Her father received compassionate care use of a new therapy, enabling him to live for three more years, considerably longer than his initial two-month prognosis. If he had been diagnosed five years later and received a platinum-based regimen, he would have “gained even more time,” she said.

Thompson said she and her family struggle with the fact that her father showed symptoms he kept to himself, largely out of fear. If his cancer had been detected earlier, she believes it is likely he could have been cured.

She suggests people not be “afraid of a cancer diagnosis” and recommends “routine screening” and consultation with a doctor if they show symptoms.

Thompson lives in Rocky Point with her husband, Michael Hogan, who is the vice president of life sciences at Applied DNA Sciences.

As for her work, Thompson believes her research might help physicians and their patients.
Her research aims to develop “diagnostic tests that help in prognosis” while identifying “patients that may achieve more benefit from aggressive chemotherapy,” she said.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Every defeat, rejection, or failure can be like a drop of ice water on the back of our necks. We often can’t brush those droplets away and they seep into us, weighing us down, causing our feet to shuffle and shoulders to slump.

The self-esteem bashing moments in a week, month, or year can build up, turning us into a balled-up, wet rag in the corner of a dark room.

Certainly, the sunlight and warmth of spring can dry some of that out, as the chirping of newly hatched birds, the sight of children chasing after a ball on a playground and the scent of fresh flowers can evaporate the dreaded droplets.

And yet, that’s often not enough. We sometimes need more to turn ourselves into ice-water-resistant creatures who can tackle any assignment, avoid obstacles, or remain undeterred in the face of significant opposition.

Where do we find this relief? Some get it from exercise, where they perspire out those metaphorical drops of ice water. As they push themselves along the pavement or across glistening fields, they generate momentum, release endorphins, and become like the Little Engine That Could, remembering that a healthy dose of believing in themselves works.

Others get it from talking on the phone, writing in a diary or a blog, escaping to the movies, diving into books, or sharing a laugh with friends they’ve known for years.

What we sometimes need in our lives is a catharsis. You remember that Greek word for that moment when someone releases strong emotions, obtaining relief at the same time? We learned about this some time when we were in middle or high school.

Recently, my middle school daughter received an assignment that seemed like a confusing and challenging juggling act. She finished George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Her language arts teacher asked his students to find a song in which they saw an overlap with a theme from the book. They also had to relate that theme to their lives.

When my daughter came home from her first day of these presentations, she described in detail, how two of the four presenters broke down in tears as they shared their stories. In other classes, several students, including one of the untouchable “popular kids,” cried in front of his class as well. One of the students described his frustration with his frequent movement from one school to another as his parents’ jobs required starting over again every year or so. He looked out at the classroom, his teary eyes revealing his deep discomfort, and said he was sure no one in the room would be his friend for longer than the short time he’d be in town. He was resigned to the fact that he’d be a sad ghost someone might remember at graduation.

Another student shared the challenge of dealing with an impossible relative. This person pushed away any connection to a family she used to have, slamming the door, literally and physically, on anyone from her past who dared approach her. The disillusionment her father felt was magnified in her.

As my daughter thought of her assignment, her eyes welled up as well when she thought of the moment when something promising turned tragic. She had a spectacularly close connection with a young, vibrant first grade teacher whose life ended all too soon after a cancer diagnosis.

Even as my daughter described her feelings, I could see the small ice droplets that landed so hard on the back of her neck in elementary school, as they found an exit through her eyes. She will always remember that loss, but the catharsis more than five years later provided some relief.

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John Haley photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Once they reach their destination, they wreak havoc, destroying areas critical to life. All too often, when cancer spreads, or metastasizes, through the body, it becomes fatal.

John Haley, a Research Associate Professor in the Pathology Department at Stony Brook, is trying to figure out how cancer become metastatic and, even further, what they do to avoid recognition by the immune system.

Haley is “working on the mechanisms by which metastasis occurs,” he said. He is also studying the “immune recognition of tumor cells and, in the near future, wants to link the two.”

Understanding the way metastasis works can greatly reduce mortality in cancer, Haley said. Researchers are currently attempting to develop therapies that target metastatic cells, but these are often more difficult to kill than their primary counterparts, Haley explained.

The stakes are high, as 90 percent of cancer deaths are due to complications from the spread of cancer rather than the primary tumor itself, he said.

About 80 percent of human cancers are carcinomas, which are derived from epithelial cells. Those are the cells that make up the skin, and line the stomach and intestines.

“As cancers become metastatic, those cells have the ability to shape shift,” he said.

They become much more like fibroblasts, which are underneath the skin and glue the skin to bone and make up connective tissue layers. Haley said he has made some progress in understanding the molecular mechanism that allows cells to shift from epithelial to fibroblastic cells. They have “defined factors which promote” this transition, with differences in survival and growth pathways.

Haley works with a machine called a mass spectrometer, in which he identifies proteins in complex biological samples and measures how changes in composition alters function. He spends about half his time working on his own research and the other half assisting other researchers who are seeking to get a clearer view of key changes in proteins in their work.

In his own research, he wants to understand how cancers modify a cell’s proteins. He has helped define how cancers can change their protein signaling pathways to become drug resistant, which suggests targets for drug therapies.

Haley is tapping into an area of science that many other researchers are exploring, called bioinformatics. Using statistics and mathematical models, these scientists are cutting down on the number of genes and proteins they study, honing in on the ones that have the greatest chance to cause, or prevent, changes in a cell.

“We’re taking the data sets we’ve generated and trying to predict what we should look for in human patient samples,” Haley said. “We can find a tumor cell that have mutations or this expression profile and find drugs they are sensitive to.” Once scientists find those drugs, researchers can test them in cell cultures, then in mouse models and eventually in people, he said.

“We try to isolate someone’s cancer to understand what the molecular drivers are that occur in that cancer,” Haley said. The approach, as it is much of modern medicine, is to understand the patient’s genetics and biochemistry to select for a drug that would be effective against the particular mutations present in their tumor.

A resident of Sea Cliff, Haley is married to Lesley, whom he met while he was pursuing his PhD at Melbourne University. A native Australian, Lesley was completing her Masters in Opera when the couple met at a tennis match. They still play today. Lesley has sung at New York premieres for several living composers at concert venues including Avery Fischer Hall. She teaches music at her studio in Sea Cliff. Their children share their interests. John is a freshman studying biochemistry at Stony Brook University and Emma, who is a senior at North Shore High School, plans to study science and singing.

As for his work, Haley would like to see his efforts culminate in cancer therapies and diagnostics. Any novel therapy might also become a product for a start up company which could create jobs on Long Island. “There are some fabulous scientists” at the university, he said. “A major goal of the Center for Biotechnology and Diane Fabel, its director, is to create small businesses here in New York. I’m trying to help them in that goal.”

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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.”