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Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium during a football game. File photo

In response to the decision of state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy, almost 800 people have signed a petition calling for Stony Brook University officials to change the name of the football stadium that bears his name.

The petition was posted to Change.org Feb. 12 by Stony Brook College Democrats, alongside support by other organizations such as SBU’s LGBTA club, House of SHADE and Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

“While some will use my votes to paint me as anti-LGBTQ nothing could be further from
the truth.”

— Kenneth LaValle

The petition states if the university wishes to be an inclusive community, it means no longer idealizing an individual who voted for “the torture of LGBTQ* youth.”

“Stony Brook University has a responsibility to protect all of its students, especially those who come from marginalized communities,” the petition page reads. “No student should have the name of their oppressor looming over them at graduation. No student should have to see their oppressor glorified in their home.”

The bill banning gay conversion therapy for minors was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 25, in conjunction with the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

LaValle has put out two statements on the matter. The first reads he is opposed to gay conversion therapy; however, he chose not to vote for the ban because it would undermine the current legal process for determining medical misconduct, which leaves it up to professionals on state review boards to decide whether or not to ban the medical practice, according to a Feb. 13 article in The Statesman.

In a letter that was sent to university President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., which was shared to TBR News Media by LaValle’s director of communications, the senator defended his stance again.

“I voted ‘no’ on this bill because I strongly believe that trained medical professionals, who across the board have stated that the practice of conversion therapy is archaic and inhumane, should be determining misconduct, not elected officials,” LaValle said. “I try to thoughtfully study an issue and base my votes on facts to avoid unintended consequences. While some will use my votes to paint me as anti-LGBTQ nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout my tenure, I have been a supporter of civil rights for all groups. That being said our laws have to be workable and satisfy constitutional requirements.”

The senator has been responsible for several projects and expansions at the university over the years, including the creation of the roughly $27 million football stadium in 2002, which is credited with helping bring Division 1 athletics to the school. He also helped raise $21.1 million for a renovation of Island Federal Credit Union Arena in 2012, which was a collaborative effort between state legislators and university officials.

This is not the first time the university has fielded calls to rename Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. In 2009 there was a short-lived campaign led by students to rename the football stadium after the senator voted against a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in New York state.

“We think it’s important that the university take into account that this is not the first time LaValle has failed to represent the students at Stony Brook,” said Cecelia Masselli, president of Stony Brook College Democrats.

Lauren Sheprow, Stony Brook University’s media relations officer, said students should try to understand LaValle’s reasonings.

“At this point, Lavalle’s voting history does not reflect the values of diversity and inclusion which Stony Brook University claims to hold.”

— Charlie Scott

“The New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo got it right — not only on conversion therapy but also on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act,” she said. “That said, you may have seen the letter that The Statesman published outlining Senator LaValle’s concerns about the conversion therapy bill as drafted, along with his history of legislative support for equality for the LGBTQ* community. It’s an important letter for members of the campus community to read.”

Charlie Scott, the president of the Stony Brook LGBTA club, said Lavalle’s legacy does not mandate his name be on the stadium.

“At this point, Lavalle’s voting history does not reflect the values of diversity and inclusion which Stony Brook University claims to hold,” Scott said. “Lavalle didn’t give anything to Stony Brook. He was a well-known name on a committee that moved funds toward Stony Brook University. The money wouldn’t be withdrawn without his support at this point. We owe him nothing.”

Masselli said students on campus have been receptive to the petition. Members and peers in the LGBTQ community have expressed enthusiasm about the petition as well.

The political science major added that her club and other campus groups hope to speak with university officials, but in the meantime, they want to continue to collect more signatures and make more people aware of the petition. They have also discussed the possibility of a protest or rally in front of the stadium, but first, they have to see whether or not university officials are responsive to the petition.

Masselli said if LaValle’s actions as a legislator got his name on the stadium, his actions as a legislator could get his name removed as well.

“To us, one vote in favor of gay conversion therapy is enough to make this request,” she said.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the fall, OLLI classes were contained in the Social & Behavioral Sciences building, the Charles B. Wang Center, above, and Student Activities Center this fall. Photo from Stony Brook University

Despite a rocky start to the past fall semester, members of an adult continuing education program persist in improving their lot with Stony Brook University.

“We are confident that as we move into next year, we will see an increase in new members and with returning members.”

— Diane Perillo

In January, SBU administrators invited members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program that offers workshops, lectures and activities to retired and semiretired individuals, to participate in focus groups to provide feedback on changes SBU implemented to the program during the fall semester of 2018. The changes included OLLI classes on campus being held only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays instead of every day; class duration changing from 75 minutes to 60; and OLLI students using metered parking lots on campus instead of parking in a designated area.

While members received hang tags so they wouldn’t have to put coins in the meters, they were charged an additional $75 in OLLI fees per semester for the new parking agreement. The changes led to approximately 400 past members declining to enroll in the fall of 2018.

Diane Perillo, director of finance and administration for the School of Professional Development, which oversees OLLI, said during the January focus groups, SBU administrators received positive feedback from OLLI members about the previous semester that she described as a pilot plan, and she is confident the program will grow. The School of Professional Development also surveyed members to gather their thoughts about the changes, and the director said the current program members helped provide insight on how to move forward.

“Overall members were happy with the parking that was made available to them,” Perillo said. “Membership meetings have been extremely positive, the new leadership within the School of Professional Development has been sharing information with members and, when possible, acting on requests and communicating changes to the membership.”

Perillo said there was a decline in enrollment in the fall, which was expected, and the 400 members who did not return were also surveyed. She said some did not return for workshops due to illness or having a loved one who was sick. Others reported they only attended Tuesday and Thursday in the past.

“I have already run into some people who said they are coming back.”

— John Gobler

Peter Stubberfield, in an email to The Village Times Herald, said he was one of the 400 who didn’t return to the OLLI workshops this fall due to the parking fee and reduction of class time, and he said he didn’t receive a survey from the university asking him why he didn’t continue with the program.

Perillo said new and past members have the option to sign up for OLLI workshops in the spring for $162.50 with a parking fee of $75, which is half of the yearly rate. As a rule, OLLI does not offer prorated memberships. She said spring workshops would once again be 75 minutes, and the break between classes will be reduced. While workshops are only held on campus Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the director said there are off-campus classes held Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We have seen a slight increase in membership this spring,” she said. “We are confident that as we move into next year, we will see an increase in new members and with returning members.”

John Gobler, one of the workshop leaders, said he attended one of the focus groups, and he was pleased that SBU’s administration acknowledged the drop in membership. He added that while the fall semester was rocky, he is positive about the future of OLLI.

“I know there are people coming back,” he said. “I have already run into some people who said they are coming back,” adding they told him they heard from others the program was getting better.

Sue Parlatore, a member of OLLI’s advisory board, said at first members who signed up for the fall were worried about the changes, especially parking; however, she said the university accommodated them. She said she and others found the hour between classes was too much time and were happy to hear the time has been reduced to 30 minutes.

“The university, in my opinion, they really do seem to be trying their best to make it work for us,” Parlatore said, adding that she feels the rumor that SBU does not welcome them is unfounded.

She said those who didn’t enroll again in the fall should consider coming back.

“I would encourage anybody to try it,” she said. “I think they would be very pleasantly surprised.”

Perillo is also optimistic.

“I am confident that as a community we will be able to work out a plan for fall 2019 and spring 2020 that we will re-inspire members to return and bring back their workshops,” she said. “If members choose not to return, I am confident that our current and new members will offer engaging, community-based noncredit workshops that will enable Stony Brook University’s OLLI program to continue to flourish.”

Renee Fleming

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

As befits a woman born on St. Valentine’s Day, Renée Fleming grew up to become the sweetheart of the opera world. Possessing a powerful yet silky voice, great beauty and impressive acting skills, Fleming has moved from a single dimension to any number of new musical venues, with a major role in Broadway’s “Carousel,” singing the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl, and innumerable appearances on television, in movies and in concerts.

The opera diva will be the star attraction at Stony Brook University’s Gala, the major fundraiser at the Staller Center March 2. I’ve long known about her spectacular professional career but thought I would like to know more about the person that she is, so I had a brief, 10-minute chat with her on the phone at a hotel in Barcelona, Spain. We were time-limited to protect her voice, which is as immediately recognizable when she speaks as when she fills the Metropolitan Opera House with glorious music.

Q: You are coming to Stony Brook to perform. Do you have some special connection with SUNY?

A: Yes, I went to SUNY Potsdam, and so did my sister and brother. My two nephews are at SUNY, so we are a fan club.

Q: You undoubtedly travel a lot. What do you do to keep yourself healthy and protect your voice during plane trips?

A: I try to stay hydrated, get enough rest. I live moderately and believe in mind over matter. And I do the same as others, trying to avoid those who are coughing on the plane.

Q: I believe you grew up in a musical family, your parents both being high school music teachers. Did you always want to sing?

A: It was the furthest thing from my mind! I loved horses, thought I might be a vet, or maybe the first lady president — which has yet to happen. I had ambition, was a very good student. I always wrote music growing up. But I never heard of a woman composer so that wasn’t an option. I majored in music ed, my parents thought that was a good idea, went on to the Eastman School and Julliard. Then I fell in love with jazz.

Q: Do you get nervous when you are to
perform?

A: I was not a gregarious person, that wasn’t my personality. I was shy. So that was one of the skills I had to learn.

Q: Do you have a favorite role or composer?

A: I’m not so much into favorites. Verdi, Strauss …

Q: Do you speak other languages?

A: Yes, I speak French, German, some Italian.

Q: Do you need to know those languages to sing in them?

A: No, there have been great singers who have not known the language they were singing in. You do not need to know the language but it is helpful.

Q: You have two daughters. How did you manage the work/life balance?

A: It’s hard for a working mother. You never feel you are doing anything well. You have to manage everything. It’s challenging. Fortunately I have a tremendous amount of energy and a great work ethic.

Q: Did you get that from your parents?

A: (Pauses.) Yes, probably.

Q: Do you ever have nightmares that you had forgotten your lines?

A: Yes, those kinds of nightmares like
everyone else.

Q: Did that ever happen?

A: No.

Q: Are your dreams set to music?

A: Hmm, I don’t really know. 

Q: What else about music?

A: I’m working with the National Institutes of Health. When children are exposed to music early, their oral comprehension is increased. Studies have shown that.

A major passion of the opera superstar is the intersection of music, health and neuroscience. She is artistic adviser at the Kennedy Center and has launched a collaboration with NIH — the first of its kind between a performing arts center and the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. She gives presentations on her concert tours with scientists, music therapists and medical professionals. She recently co-authored an article with Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Be sure to come out for the fundraising Stony Brook University Gala Saturday night, March 2, at the Staller Center. You will not only hear fabulous music. You will see one of the 21st century’s most remarkable
women.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

Markus Seliger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

Steven Skiena. Photo from SBU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

By Daniel Dunaief

Heather Lynch is thrilled that she’s in the first class of scientists chosen as a recipient of the National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

An associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, Lynch uses computers to study satellite images to reveal details about populations of penguins.

In addition to determining how many penguins are in an area, Lynch also can use images of the stains penguin poop leaves on rocks to determine what the penguins eat. Krill, which feeds on the underside of ice, is reddish or pinkish, while fish leave a white stain.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

A total of 11 researchers won the grants, which are a combined award from Microsoft and the National Geographic Society and were announced in December. The winners were chosen from more than 200 qualified scientists.

“This is the first grant that National Geographic and Microsoft are doing,” Lynch said. “It’s super exciting to be in the inaugural group.”

To hear from Lynch’s colleagues, she is an extraordinary candidate for a host of awards, including recognition as one of the TBR News Media People of the Year for 2018.

In addition to landing a coveted grant for her innovative research using sophisticated computers and satellite images, Lynch earlier this year made a remarkable discovery using Landsat imagery about a population of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands in the Antarctic that was largely unknown prior to her published paper.

This archipelago of nine islands, which were named because of the ice that is impenetrable in most years, was home to 1.5 million penguins, which she surveyed using a combination of photos, drone imagery and hand counting. That figure represents a substantial population of a charismatic animal whose numbers often are used as a way to determine the health of a delicate region managed by a collection of nations.

“She does such good work,” said Patricia Wright, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University and the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio, a research station in Madagascar. Her discovery of the additional Adélie penguins was “fantastic.”

Lynch received some pushback from people who thought the discovery of these penguins ran counter to the narrative about the need for conservation. Wright appreciates how Lynch shared the discovery with the public, reinforcing her scientific credibility.

“She’s an example of a scientist who doesn’t give in to political pressure,” Wright said. “It’s difficult sometimes to face up to people who have good intentions, but who don’t seem to want to accept the reality.”

While the discovery of the Adélie penguins was remarkable, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to the notion about the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, and it also doesn’t indicate that the population is soaring in a way the flightless water fowl never will. Indeed, the 1.5 million penguins may have been higher in the 1990s, although she is working to pin down exactly how much larger they might have once been.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

Lynch has also won admiration and appreciation from Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who recently won his 14th term and has focused attention on environmental issues.

“Her ability to use statistics and mathematics to further conservation biology is pioneering work and worthy of recognition,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman believes scientists and policymakers are still in the early part of the process of understanding the complexity of the ecosystems in the Antarctic.

Finding the penguins on the Danger Islands doesn’t mean the “Antarctic is any less at risk. We still have to place that discovery into its proper context and [Lynch] is helping us do that,” Englebright said.

People who have ventured to the Antarctic with her admire Lynch’s focus, energy
and stamina.

Michelle LaRue, who is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that Lynch was “the most hardworking scientist that I know.”

LaRue recalled a time when Lynch was ill, and she still got up and did her job every day.

“The work we were doing wasn’t easy,” LaRue said. “I know she didn’t feel well and she kept going. She has a lot of perseverance.”

LaRue appreciates how her fellow scientist sees the “forest for the trees,” using a combination of high technology and considerable on-site counting to understand what changes in the penguin population reveal about the region.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, has also worked with Lynch for years. He appreciates how she’s “not afraid of uncertainty. In science, it’s knowing how well you know something. She’s amazing at taking data and information, which from the natural world is messy, and analyzing it and helping people pull useful and meaningful knowledge from complex situations.”

Ron Naveen, who founded the nonprofit group Oceanites in 1987, has worked with Lynch for 11 years.

“I’m very much proud of her work ethic and the standard of excellence she brings to the job,” Naveen said.

Oceanites collaborates with Lynch and others, Naveen said, to understand how penguins have reacted to climate change in an area where temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than they have for much of the rest of the world.

Naveen recalls how Lynch, whom he describes as “petite and energetic” lugged around “amazingly heavy equipment,” including a camera for a Google Earth project.

“Whether [Lynch] is hiking, using a satellite or a drone, or lugging equipment that’s heavier than she is, she gets the data,” Naveen said.

He recalled a lab meeting with Lynch, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in the lab of William Fagan. Lynch circled the room as she wrote on the board, sharing statistical language to explain a point.

“I had no bloody idea what she was talking about,” Naveen said. “When she was done, she sat down with a smile, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, ‘Would you mind translating that into plain English?’ Without missing a beat, she did.”

By all accounts, she’s continuing to do that.

Left, Lauren Hale; above, teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night.

By Daniel Dunaief

Around this time of year, people shop for gifts for others, decorate for the holidays, and generally raise their stress level as they search for the perfect holiday plan. Somewhere in between the to-do lists and the to-buy lists, some ambitious holiday revelers also consider making a for-me list, or the equivalent of a collection of pre-New Year’s resolutions.

Often appearing in that collection is a desire to live better, to stick to a diet, to embark on a healthy lifestyle and to enjoy the moments, big and small, on the horizon in 2019.

Often overlooked in the end-of-the-year cycle is if people hope for the chance to get more sleep. That, however, may make many of those other goals — weight loss, better work performance or a calm reaction to events — more manageable.

Times Beacon Record News Media recently spoke with Stony Brook University sleep expert Lauren Hale, who is a professor of family, population and preventive medicine and teaches in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook. Hale is also the editor-in-chief of Sleep Health.

TBR: You recently published a journal article in Sleep Health in which you linked late night social media use by National Basketball Association players with their performance. Can you talk about that?

LH: This is a coarse estimate at showing that being up late is associated with worse outcomes. It’s not necessarily saying it’s only because they’re staying up late.

TBR: How much data did you examine?

LH: We looked at seven seasons of data. We were interested in how players did on games following late night tweets compared to games following no tweeting activity. … If your shooting percentage drops by 1.7 percentage points, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.

TBR: Have you extended this work to any teams?

LH: I’m talking with the Stony Brook Athletics Department to incorporate sleep hygiene into the players’ routines. We’re hoping to start with men’s basketball in the spring of 2019.

TBR: What are some sleep strategies?

LH: There is a list of sleep hygiene strategies. Many will seem like common sense. They include having a regular bedtime, which you calculate based on when you need to wake up and how many hours of sleep you need to get, limiting caffeine, tobacco and alcohol… [They also include] not eating too many heavy foods right before bed, exercising, preferably earlier in the day and reducing screen time at night.

TBR: Does the optimum number of hours of sleep change with age?

LH: Yes. Little kids sleep a lot and need a nap. As they get older, they lose the nap, but still need to sleep 9 to 11 hours. Teenagers need 8 to 10. Adults typically need 7 to 9 hours.

TBR: How do you manage sleep in your house?

LH: We have young children, so we know how challenging it can be. The younger one goes to day care and naps two hours. It’s hard to get him to go to sleep. I’m not good about putting my phone down in the hour before bed. We do have a charging location downstairs in our house, so the devices are limited in the bedroom. The children don’t watch screens in the half hour or hour before bed.

TBR: What’s the link between sleep and weight loss?

LH: Sleep duration is inversely associated with weight gain. Individuals not getting enough sleep are more likely to gain weight. The choices of food you make when you’re sleep deprived are worse. Your hormones make you hungrier and less full. The choices you make also show less self-discipline. When you’re sleep deprived, you’re unlikely to make yourself a salad.

TBR: Did you see the recent study that links sleep and anger?

LH: It is consistent with some work I’m doing on teenagers. We know sleep is important for emotional regulation. I’m not surprised that it’s linked.

TBR: Should people who want to lose weight focus on sleep?

LH: There are obesity experts who have taken on sleep as one of the three pillars of optimal health: sleep, exercise and diet. Among those three, sleep is usually the one that’s the most overlooked.

TBR: How else does sleeping affect weight?

LH: If you want to stick to your diet, stay on a regular sleep schedule that’s going to give you the sleep you need. Eating during normal activity phases — daytime for humans — prevents obesity. 

TBR: Is there evidence that too much sleep can be bad for health as well?

LH: There’s not good evidence of a casual link between long sleep and poor health. There is strong evidence that there’s an association, due to reverse causality, that shows that sicker people need more sleep. If you’re sleeping more than 11 hours, that might be a sign that you have an underlying condition that is contributing to you needing 11 hours.

TBR: What is your next sleep-related study?

LH: My primary current research is about studying teenagers and the causes and consequences of their insufficient sleep. Some of the factors that affect adolescent sleep are screen-based media use and early school start times.

TBR: Could sleep patterns be an important indicator of health?

LH: We would love to see sleep treated as a vital sign, in which every patient gets asked. It’s not asked about and it’s not, in and of itself, sufficient [for a specific diagnosis]. It’s a good marker of well-being.

TBR: Did people believe a certain amount of sleep was optimal 50 years ago and has that number risen or fallen since then?

LH: The number of recommended hours has been relatively consistent over time. There’s just more science to support the recommendations now.

Stony Brook’s iGem team pose with Randy Rettberg, president of the iGem Foundation, at the event. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook’s University’s 2018 team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition took home the university’s first gold medal during the four-day iGEM Giant Jamboree held at Hynes Convention Center in Boston in October. 

Since 2014, Stony Brook’s iGEM teams have competed at this annual event, previously receiving bronze and silver medals for their student-designed synthetic biology projects. This year’s competition involved 343 teams from around the world, including 60 from different colleges and universities in the U.S. Stony Brook was one of only seven collegiate teams from the U.S. to earn a gold medal.

Stony Brook’s iGem team pose with Randy Rettberg, president of the iGem Foundation, at the event. Photo from SBU

Led by sophomores Priya Aggarwal and Matthew Mullin, the 14-member team’s project, The Sucrose Factory, focused on the use of cyanobacteria to economically sink carbon dioxide by simultaneously producing sucrose that can be used to produce biofuels and bioplastics. Their project proposal was the only one to win all three open competitions offered by the iGEM sponsors Genscript, Opentrons and Promega. 

The iGEM competition promotes the advancement of synthetic biology through education and a competition aimed at developing an open and collaborative community of young scientists. Synthetic biology projects developed by previous SBU iGEM teams have ranged from a search for innovative treatments for diabetes and pancreatic cancer to lowering the cost of vaccine preservation. At Stony Brook, new teams are recruited each year, and members are mentored by students from previous teams and advised by Peter Gergen, director of undergraduate biology and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. 

“The Jamboree was a great experience for the 14 students on the team, and I think there may actually be some long-term potential in the ideas behind their project,” said Gergen, who said he is very proud of this interdisciplinary and talented group of students. 

In addition to Aggarwal, a human evolutionary biology major, and Mullin, a mechanical engineering major, members of Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team are Stephanie Budhan ’21, chemistry; Woody Chiang ’19, biochemistry and psychology double major; Dominika Kwasniak ’20, biochemistry; Karthik Ledalla ’21, biomedical engineering; Matthew Lee ’21, biology; Natalie Lo ’21, biology; Lin Yu Pan ’20, health science; Jennifer Rakhimov ’21, biology; Robert Ruzic ’19, biomedical engineering; Manvi Shah ’21, psychology; Lukas Velikov ’21, computer science; and Sarah Vincent ’19, biology.

More details on the team’s project are available at http://2018.igem.org/Team:Stony_Brook/Team.

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