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Stony Brook University

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has plastic affected individual organisms and ecosystems? 

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

Where do plastics that wash ashore on Long Island originate?

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

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

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

Are there any popular misconceptions about plastics?

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

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

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

Belle (Emma Watson) comes to realize that underneath the hideous exterior of the Beast (Dan Stevens) there is the kind heart of a Prince in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic directed by Bill Condon. © 2016 Disney Enterprises inc. All Rights Reserved.

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook will host a concert by the Stony Brook Wind Ensemble on the Main Stage on Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Conducted by Bruce Engel, the program will include Samuel Barber’s “Overture to the School for Scandal,” Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony (1st movement),” “Bolero by Maurice Ravel, “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin, “Beauty and the Beast” by Allan Menken and “Pines of the Appian Way” by Ottorino Respighi/

Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students and seniors. For more information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

Sean Clouston

By Daniel Dunaief

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

Benjamin Luft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

Alexander Orlov File photo

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

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

TBR: How do you monitor the release of nanomaterials?

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

TBR: How do you determine toxicity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: Do you have any nanoparticle nightmares?

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

TBR: How is the funding environment?

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

TBR: What do you advise them to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR: What else did he do?

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

TBR: How would people learn about these examples?

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

Stony Brook University’s Larry Swanson, center, with fellow Ocean Acidification Task Force members Carl Safina, left, and Malcolm Bowman, right. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Larry Swanson has led research teams over far-flung water bodies, worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a commissioned officer for 27 years and has been a fixture at Stony Brook University for over three decades. 

A former dean at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at SBU and current professor, Swanson, who is a member of New York’s Ocean Acidification Task force, was recently interviewed by Times Beacon Record News Media about his life in science.

TBR: How has science changed over the years?

Swanson: Some of the most significant things are the electronic tools that we have today. If you go back to when I was starting, if you wanted a water sample, and to collect temperature at five miles deep in the ocean, it was a very, very long tedious process. 

When you got that water sample on deck, if you wanted to simply measure salinity, you had to do a chemical titration. If you were doing that over five miles deep, below the first 1,000 meters, you might take a sample every half a mile or something like that. You couldn’t take a lot of samples. 

Now, you lower an instrument and you get a continuous trace of temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and other parameters, every few tenths of a meter. We are sort of overwhelmed with data now.

TBR: That must change the way people conduct experiments.

Swanson: When I first started, every data point you collected was extremely valuable and if you lost it, you really lost a lot of time, a lot of energy. It was something you could never recover. With modern instrumentation, you can do so much more and do much of it remotely; you don’t have to go to sea for seven or nine months to do that.

TBR: What are some of the biggest discoveries in your field?

Swanson: This is not necessarily things I have done. The theory of plate tectonics was established. We drilled through the crust of the earth to the mantle and we have discovered hydrothermal vents. We’ve got enough data now that we’re collecting through satellites, direct measurement in oceans in more detail, that we can really talk about changes in the global environment, whether it’s temperature increase, carbon dioxide increase and so forth. 

Those are all things that have taken place over my lifetime in oceanography. We can see what we’re doing to ourselves much more clearly today because of new technology.

TBR: What is one of the great debates in science today?

Swanson: I think trying to understand the impacts of climate change is at the forefront for everyone that’s dealing with ocean and atmospheric sciences. We don’t know all the answers and we haven’t convinced everyone it’s an issue. 

Whether or not it’s driven by people, that [debate] will continue for years to come. We’re going to bear some of the consequences of climate change before we’ve adequately convinced people that we’ve got to change our lifestyle.

TBR: What about local challenges?

Swanson: The notion of ocean acidification and how rapidly it’s changing is a local challenge. What will the consequences of it be if we don’t try to ameliorate it and what do we need to do in order to make it less of a problem? How are we going to build resiliency and reverse it?

TBR: Is there a scientific message you wish people knew?

Swanson: Scientists in general do not communicate well with the public and part of the problem is because we speak in jargon. We don’t talk to [the public] in proper ways that meet their level of understanding or knowledge. We’ve done that poorly. 

For another thing, scientists can be faulted with regard to developing policy. The scientists’ work is never done. If you go to Congress and they ask, “What are we going to do to fix the problem?,” scientists will say, “Give me more money for research and I’ll get back to you.” 

So, there’s a disconnect in terms of time frames over which we operate. [Members of Congress] operate 2 to 4 years out, while scientists operate sometimes over lifetimes. We haven’t been able to bridge that gap.

TBR: Is that improving at all?

Swanson: One of the great things that Stony Brook now has is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is helping all the scientists here that are willing to participate in trying to do a better job of communicating. It’s making a difference and having an impact that is meaningful. It’s always good to try to put your science in the most simplistic terms possible, even if it’s a drawing or cartoon that’s helpful.

TBR: What are your future goals?

Swanson: I am hopeful  the new task force can come up with a meaningful ocean acidification action plan. I’m very pleased to be part of that group.

TBR: If you were to start your oceanography career today, what would you do differently?

Swanson: If I were to start over, I would get a master’s degree in oceanography, not a doctorate, and then I would try to get an environmental law degree. The reason I would probably do that is that I think environmental law is the best way to make an immediate impact on society. I firmly believe that one should not be an environmental lawyer until one is a fairly good scientist.

TBR: How many more years before you retire?

Swanson: I’d say a maximum of three and a minimum of one. I’m often asked, “Why are you still working?” First of all, I enjoy it and I think one of the exciting things about being an oceanographer is that there’s never been a dull day. 

The Port Jefferson, Stony Brook University Shuttle. Photo from Kevin Wood

The Port Jeff Jitney will soon bear the Stony Brook University logo and bring SBU Seawolves directly into the heart of the village.

A new program, which offers a free mobility loop for riders between the university and the Village of Port Jefferson, will start its first pilot season March 7. The village will be repurposing the 20-seat jitney bus for this program.

“We consider Stony Brook University a true partner with the village and an economic engine,” said Port Jeff Mayor Margot Garant. “This program will bring students and faculty to the village in an efficient way with no cost to the rider, offsetting the average Uber fee of well over $13 one way. This program also greatly helps with our goals to free up our parking lots — something we constantly look at in our managed parking program.”

“We consider Stony Brook University a true partner with the village and an economic engine.”

— Margot Garant

The loop was first presented to village trustees at their Feb. 4 meeting by Kevin Wood, the village parking administrator, who said the program will be administered by the Port Jefferson Parking & Mobility Resource Center. The program will cost the village approximately $13,000, though the village is looking toward the university to pick up the
promotional costs.

The loop will start at the Port Jefferson Rail Road Station along Main Street in what’s known as Upper Port, before heading into Arden Plaza in the village, continuing up West Broadway down Route 25A, stopping at Stop & Shop in East Setauket. Once on the Stony Brook campus, it will make stops at the main circle loop, West Campus and the Chapin Apartments before coming back down Route 25A and ending at the train station. 

The pilot program will run until May 23 and have times starting on Thursdays from 3 to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wood said one does not need to show ID to enter the bus; otherwise, the program is free for students and university faculty.

The village and university are hosting a kickoff event March 7 to celebrate the first run of the bus. The event will also showcase tracking of the bus with a phone app, which Wood said should help cut down on frustration in knowing when it will arrive. The free app, Passio Go!, is currently available on both the Android Play store and the iTunes marketplace.

“It will certainly help students and faculty — there is no cost to ride. It will help free up our parking lots too.”

— Kevin Wood

The existing Port Jefferson Jitney has seen its share of riders in the past, such as the Friday and Saturday of the Sept. 15 weekend during the Dragon Boat Day Festival and the weekend of the annual Charles Dickens Festival, when the jitney had a ridership of 164 and 125, respectively, last year. On off weeks, the jitney has seen a low of 27 riders such as in the weekend of Sept. 8 and an average of approximately 70 riders in 2018.

Wood said while the idea has been around for about four years, he has been working diligently on it for the past four months. He said he expects the program might help rejuvenate the jitney’s ridership and mitigate some of the village’s parking issues.

“It’s a pilot, so we will see,” Wood said in an email. “It will certainly help students and faculty — there is no cost to ride. It will help free up our parking lots too.”

More information and a link to the bus locater app can be found on http://www.pjshuttle.com/.

Photo courtesy of PJDS

Port Jefferson Documentary Series presents:

UNDER THE WIRE

Monday, March 11

7:00 PM Charles B Wang Center
Stony Brook University, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook

Guest Speakers: Catherine Colvin, Marie Colvin’s sister; Paul Conroy, Photojournalist (via Skype)

UNDER THE WIRE is a chilling and inspiring documentary about Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent, and photojournalist Paul Conroy as they enter war-ravaged Syria in February of 2012 to cover the plight of trapped and slaughtered civilians in Homs, a city under siege by the Syrian Army. For Colvin, who constantly tested her limits in conflict zones across the globe, this was to be her last mission. Deliberately targeted by Syria’s top leaders, she was killed in a rocket attack that also gravely wounded Conroy, who eventually managed to escape. As he recounts in his memoir, Under The Wire, he reluctantly left behind many others in desperate need, but was urged to “go out and tell the world.” Using contemporaneous footage, much shot under siege and on the run, Colvin, Conroy and others recall in the film the terrors they endured, the events leading up to Colvin’s death and Conroy’s hair-raising and courageous escape. It is a powerful reminder that journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to expose the truth about war and genocide are not the enemies of the people but are their voices and champions.

Time: 95 minutes

Co-sponsored by the Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting

Tickets are $8 per person at the door (no credit cards please). For more information, call 631-473-5200 or visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com. 

Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang. Photo from Matthew Lerner’s lab

By Daniel Dunaief

This is the second half of a two-part series on autism research conducted by Hyunsik Kim and Erin Kang.

 Last week we focused on the work of Stony Brook University graduate student Hyunsik Kim, who used three criteria to diagnose autism. This week we will feature the work of another SBU graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Erin Kang, who specifically explored the types and severity of communication difficulties autistic children have. 

Words and the way people use them can offer clues about autism. Looking closely at pronoun reversals, speech delays, perseveration and 10 other characteristics, Kang determined that the number of features was a “powerful predictor of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.” 

In a paper published online in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Kang grouped children from 6 to 18 years old into different subgroups based on their communication patterns and used a statistical method that allows the data to “speak for itself,” in terms of finding groups based on the patterns of how the communication difficulties are associated and to classify them.

According to Kang, heterogeneity is an important feature of autism spectrum disorder. “There has been a greater effort into understanding whether subgroups exist in ASD populations,” she explained in an email. By examining the atypical communication characteristics, she found four subgroups. These groups differed from each other, not only with autism, but on multiple measures, including the occurrence of anxiety or depression and with intellectual disabilities.

The communication difficulties occur at different rates within the autism children throughout Long Island that Kang studied.

Kang said her work has been “building on the previous literature,” although many of the previous studies focused on characterizing autism for children who were younger than 6.

“There are few studies on specific symptoms (e.g., stereotyped speech) across the body of literature,” she explained, adding that she’s passionate about exploring the trajectory of development over time with or without intervention. 

She and her co-authors, Ken Gadow and Matthew Lerner, who are also at Stony Brook University, are working on a follow-up paper that attempts to explore how changes in the pattern of communication challenges examined in the paper relate to other clinical aspects and outcomes.

Kang believes her results have clinical implications that will help in understanding autism. Atypical communication features are a good predictor of diagnostic status. “This can provide an advantage in assessing social communication profiles in autism,” she said. “It’s hopefully valuable in a low-resource setting.”

Parents might be asked 13 questions on a checklist, which could serve as an initial screening for more comprehensive autism evaluations, rather than a multiple checklist that could take a while for parents to complete. The different categories had specific features that distinguished them. 

“There’s been quite a bit of work in the speech and language field,” said Lerner, an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University and Kang’s mentor. “This approach allowed us to ask about some of the specific types of language differences we often see.”

Lerner said what Kang found is that specific characteristics do tend to cluster together in “interesting and unique ways that can tell us more about the communicative phenotype of autism.”

One of the groups, which she called “little professors,” had speech patterns with considerable perseveration. In perseveration, a person repeats a word or phrase, even when a question or stimulus that might elicit that phrase no longer continues. As an example, Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man” frequently repeated the number of minutes until Judge Wapner was on TV.

“These kids would benefit more from a group-based social skills intervention that specifically integrated interacting with peers,” Kang said. People in this group had the highest percentage of wanting a friend, but difficulty with relating to peers.

“They will benefit especially from interventions that help them build skills in interacting with peers,” she explained.

She also suggested that the best way to make a reliable diagnosis is to collect as much information as possible, which could include observations and electrophysiological data.

Kang acknowledged that some of the responses from the parents or teachers of people with autism contain bias. “There can be a lot of potential especially in terms of these subjective measures,” she said.

Indeed, through Lerner’s lab, Kang has been trying to include more uses of neurological measures and other methodology that is less subject to biases.

“Hopefully, by looking at these more objective measures, we can help integrate information from these different levels,” she said.

A resident of East Northport, Kang lives with her husband, musician Sungwon Kim, who works as a freelancer on Broadway musicals. The couple, who have a young son, met in Boston when she was working at Boston Children’s Hospital and he was a student at Berklee College of Music. 

Kang’s first experience with autism was in high school, when she acted as a mentor to a second grader. When she entered college at the University of California at Berkeley, she studied molecular and cellular biology and psychology.

Lerner said that Kang is a “truly remarkable young scholar” and is “among the best I’ve seen at her stage to be able to look at her clinical experiences, which drive the questions that strike at the core of how we understand and treat autism.”

Lerner appreciates how she is driven to understand autism from neurons in the brain all the way up to the classification and treatment.

“She is somebody who is completely undaunted by taking on new questions or methodologies because she has an idea of what they’re going to mean,” Lerner said. “She has worked with [autistic children] and has tried to understand where they are coming from.”

Kang questions assumptions about what autism is, while also exploring its development.

“She is able to see and discover clinical strengths that manifest in the kinds of questions she asks,” explained Lerner. “She is a part of the next generation of where my field is going, and I hope we can catch up to her.”

Kang appreciates the work-life balance she has struck on Long Island, where she feels like the pace of life is “quiet and calm during the week,” while it’s close enough to New York City to enjoy the cultural opportunities.

From left: ERASE Racism President Elaine Gross, Duke University professor Kim Manturuk, John Hopkins University professor Nathan Connolly, SBU professor Christopher Sellers. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

While de facto segregation among Long Island’s school districts and housing has been entrenched for decades, there is a growing academic movement to bring people closer together.

As part of the forum, “Housing and Racio-economic Equality” Elaine Gross, president of the Syosset-based advocacy group ERASE Racism, which co-sponsored the event, along with professors from Duke and Johns Hopkins Universitys discussed the history of racism and segregation in the U.S. and how it has affected public housing and education. Gross argued that there is racial segregation and inequality crisis in housing and public education on Long Island. 

“There are folks that think that things are fine how they are,” she said. 

At the forum hosted at the Hilton Garden Inn at Stony Brook Univesrity, Gross argued that there is severe government fragmentation on Long Island, which in turn makes it easier for racial discrimination in housing and public education. 

“Segregation is profitable, and it didn’t end — it is still ongoing.”

— Nathan Connolly

Nathan Connolly, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, said we have to rethink what we know about segregation. 

“We are under the impression that segregation ended due to a combination of moral arguments, like [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s] I Have a Dream Speech, and that segregation was too expensive to maintain,” he said. “Segregation is profitable, and it didn’t end — it is still ongoing.”

Connolly added due to many Jim Crow era policies, white supremacy has been baked into our political and governing structure.  

“In the 1920s people began to institutionalize groups like the Ku Klux Klan,” Connolly said. “They had chapters in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C.— it was a dominant force of political organization.” 

In many ways, the experts argued Long Island, in terms of its development of housing, is the perfect picture of what structural racism looks like. 

Gross stated some towns and school districts on Long Island are more segregated than others, showing areas like Levittown, whose black population has only risen 1.2 percent since 1947. At an ERASE Racism forum in December, Gross provided data from New York State Department of Education that shows a school district like Port Jefferson is made up of 80 percent white students, while in a district like Brentwood close to 80 percent of students are Latino while 12 percent are black. 

The panelists argued this racial steering of populations dates back to the time of the Great Depression.

“[There was] a notion that anything that allowed unregulated movement of people would lead to economic instability,” Connolly said. “You had to generate a way to keep everyone in place, while at the same time ensuring broad economic growth.” 

One way this was done was through redlining, or the denial of services to different races through raising the prices on services, or in this case, homes.

Connolly said by removing these people’s options in moving around or getting a loan with a low interest rate it meant they couldn’t own homes and couldn’t accumulate equity, which in turn generated a racial wealth gap.  

Gross mentioned examples of this racial steering on Long Island. Three years ago in Commack, African American renters asked about vacancies at an apartment complex. They were told there were none. When white individuals asked, they were shown the vacancy, given applications and were encouraged to apply.  

ERASE Racism, along with the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center, took property owners Empire Management America Corp. to court, arguing it had violated the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Suffolk County Human Rights Law. The duo reached a successful settlement of $230,000 and required changes to the rental operations at the apartment complex. 

Kim Manturuk, associate director of research, evaluation, and development at Duke University provided possible solutions to segregation on Long Island. 

“Adapt a metropolitan approach, that has these cross district governing bodies that try to simplify, organize together things like education, infrastructure development among other things,” she said. 

Though she cautioned that even when you have these procedures in place, it’s no guarantee that you get the desired results, and they need to find ways to make desegregation profitable. 

“We need educators that buy into this change.”

— Elaine Gross

She mentioned in her own community of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, they have something called the Penny for Housing Fund. 

“One penny of every property tax dollar collected in the entire county goes into a housing fund. We use that money to incentivize developers to build housing that has an affordable housing component that cuts races and ethnic lines,” she said. 

If developers want to build a housing complex in the North Carolina county, they would have to set aside 10 percent of the apartment to families that are making 80 percent below the median income in the area. 

Gross said the change needs to begin on the local level. She stressed the importance of building diverse communities. 

“We need educators that buy into this change,” she said. “Also students — educating them about our history, one that is not heard about in schools.”

Gross said it will take a collaborative effort to show that something like this can work.  

“People don’t believe — it is hard to dispel myths to them in the face of facts,” she said. “Unless they can see it and see the students and the community thriving, they won’t buy into it.”

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

By Melissa Arnold

Classical music has a long-held reputation for being upscale — there’s something about it that feels refined, polished and graceful. The Department of Music at Stony Brook University is passionate about demystifying the genre, making the works of Mozart, Brahms and others enjoyable for everyone.

Each year, the Stony Brook University Orchestra invites the community to join them for their Family Orchestra Concert, an hour-long performance meant for all ages, including young children. This year’s concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5 at the Staller Center for the Arts’ Main Stage.

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

“[This event] used to be called the children’s concert, but we didn’t want to give the impression that it’s just for children — the whole family comes along, and there’s something for everyone to enjoy,” said conductor Susan Deaver, who’s led the orchestra since 2000.

The ensemble is comprised of over 70 Stony Brook students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as a handful of area high schoolers. Many of the students aren’t music majors and come from a variety of disciplines. In fact, the majority are studying biomedical engineering.

“So many of these students have been in music all their lives and don’t want to let it go,” Deaver said. “We have a lot of great players, and it’s a real blend of disciplines, the common denominator being a love of playing orchestral music.”

 This year’s concert theme will highlight dance in orchestral music, with each piece either having “dance” in its title or creating a sense of dance and movement. The repertoire features recognizable pieces including selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Bach’s Minuet in G, along with some that might be unfamiliar, like Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka. 

The program will also feature works by Brahms, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Borodin. Dancers under the direction of SBU’s faculty member Amy Yoop Sullivan will collaboarte with the orchestra.

A highlight of each year’s concert is a solo performance from a grade school musician in Stony Brook’s Young Artist program. Open to grades 6 through 12, the program allows young musicians to enhance their musicianship and ensemble performance skills. Students are encouraged to enter an annual concerto contest, where a panel of impartial judges chooses a student to play at the concert.

This year’s contest winner, 12-year-old pianist Viviane Kim, will play Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major.

“I wasn’t really nervous because I’d practiced a lot. I played the song for my family, my friends, and anyone else who came to our house,” said Viviane, a seventh-grader at Port Jefferson Middle School. “It also helped that only three people were listening,” she joked.

Viviane, who also plays the flute, comes from a musical family — her father, Alan Kim, plays piano as well, and her grandmother is a violinist. “I played piano all the time when Viviane was a baby, and she took a natural interest in it. She started playing around the same time she started reading,” her father said. 

Michael Hershkowitz, executive director of Community Music Programs for the university, sees the annual concert as a chance to expose the audience to something new and wonderful.

“It’s important for classical musicians to be as accessible as possible and to break down barriers for people wanting to try it. A lot of people have an impression that classical music is just old and stuffy,” Hershkowitz said. “I think that dance is one of my favorite themes we’ve done — so much of music is tied to motion and bringing people together. And once you see a classical concert, you want to do it more.”

All seats for the Family Orchestra Concert are $5. For tickets and information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

For more information about the University Orchestra, contact the Stony Brook Department of Music at 631-632-7330 or visit www.stonybrook.edu/music.

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