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Stony Brook University

A drone carrying medicine and lab samples lands in a village in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University is taking to the skies to help people on the ground in Madagascar. Through its Global Health Institute, SBU plans to bring drones to the island nation off the southwest coast of Africa that will carry medical samples from hard-to-reach villages to its state-of-the-art research facility, Centre ValBio.

Late last month, Peter Small, the founding director at GHI, brought a drone to Madagascar, where it flew from the research station to a nearby village. The drones can fly like an airplane over 40 miles of terrain, while they take off and land like a helicopter, enabling a smooth ride to protect the samples inside the cargo area.

“Our challenge is to align the most pressing challenges that are amenable to supply chain and specimen transport and intervention,” Small said. Madagascar is dealing with “high rates of tuberculosis” among other health challenges, he said, adding that a university like Stony Brook can take complicated problems and find solutions in the real world.

The drones can provide two important functions for Madagascar: monitoring the outbreak of any unknown and potentially dangerous disease and offering health care for people who live in areas that are inaccessible by road, Small said.

A view of Madagascar from the SBU drone. Photo courtesy of SBU
A view of Madagascar from the SBU drone. Photo courtesy of SBU

“Diseases like Ebola and Zika frequently pop up in remote areas,” said Small, a medical doctor who worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation prior to joining Stony Brook University in 2015. Having sites where drones can land and collect specimens will allow village health workers to send off specimens for analysis, providing greater clarity on the incidence of specific diseases throughout the country.

Additionally, people in remote areas can send samples back to a lab to test for medical conditions, such as tuberculosis. After medical technicians run tests, the drones can return not only with drugs that can treat the condition but also with instructions on how to treat patients.

The drones can carry a special box to record whether a pill bottle is opened. The box also can carry a sound recorder that can recognize and count coughs, Small said. When the drone returns with another supply of medication, the previous medicine can make the return trip to the lab, where doctors can determine whether the cough is getting better and can see how much medicine the patient took.

Medicine is delivered to villages in Madagascar by way of drones. Photo courtesy of SBU
Medicine is delivered to villages in Madagascar by way of drones. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ideally, the drones will not require any specialized knowledge to fly. Once people in rural villages have a signal, they can request a drone, which can transport samples to a lab or bring medicine back to the village.

“We want to put these drones in the hands of the village health workers and the local health system,” said Small. He said those working with this project hoped people in the village would welcome this medical service but were unsure how it would be received. “We had no idea how people would respond to these” drones, Small said. The initial run, however, was successful. GHI plans to bring two more drones to Madagascar in the next few months.

A company in Michigan called Vayu manufactures the drones, which weigh 35 pounds, are about the size of a picnic table and can carry up to a 5-pound payload, said Daniel Pepper, the company’s chief executive officer. Using an electric, rechargeable battery, the drones can travel up to 40 miles. In the near future, Pepper hopes to increase that distance to as many as 65 miles.

Vayu has manufactured dozens of these drones. The recent Madagascar test was the first time they had used the unit in an international setting. Pepper is “speaking to partners and potential customers in over a dozen countries,” including the United States, where drones might offer a connection between medical centers in urban areas and harder-to-reach rural communities.

Pepper said the drone was the only one on the market that’s electric powered and can carry this payload over this range. “It takes off automatically and lands vertically,” he said and described the landing as “soft.”

According to Small, Madagascar could benefit from these drones, particularly in diagnosing the myriad health challenges of the area. “Madagascar is a remarkable area to start addressing some of these problems and bringing innovation,” he said.

In some villages, as many as 90 percent of people have intestinal parasites, which contributes to malnutrition and stunts growth, Small said. Small and Patricia Wright, the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio who has been working in the area for 30 years, are hoping to broaden and deepen the connection between Stony Brook and Madagascar.

The dental school has coordinated dental missions to treat hundreds of patients a day. Small said the dean of the dental school, Mary Truhlar, recently visited Madagascar to go beyond medical missions to “engage in improving the quality and training, care and health system issues.”

Small is excited with the way computational science and high-end mathematics are coming in to describe the complexities of health problems to the government of Madagascar. This will assist the government in generating medical priorities. Small has set some large goals for his role: “If life is not palpably better in five, 10 or 15 years” in Madagascar, “I will have failed at my job.”

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president for Health Sciences at Stony Brook University; said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr.; and Dennis S. Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City shake hands during the signing of the agreement for the two hospitals to partner. Photo from Stony Brook University School of Medicine

By Talia Amorosano

Two major medical institutions have agreed to team up, and the partnership could lead to big scientific breakthroughs.

In order to create more academic research opportunities and streamline and expand clinical care initiatives, Stony Brook Medicine and Mount Sinai Health System, in New York City, have entered into a comprehensive affiliation agreement. The change will promote inter-institution collaboration encompassing all five of Stony Brook’s Health Science schools, Stony Brook University Hospital, all 25 academic departments of the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Health System facilities and Medical School, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai inclusive of seven hospitals and an expanding ambulatory network.

Facilitators of the partnership believe that the expansion of clinical trials and research opportunities for both institutions will prompt research and studies that could lead to major discoveries, especially in the treatment and understanding of disease.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president for Health Sciences at Stony Brook University, noted that the alliance will make use of the strengths of each individual institution.

“What we both get out of the affiliation is enhanced possibilities for science and education,” he said. “Multiple groups of investigators [with members from each institution] work together and look at things in slightly different ways.”

In a press release, he noted Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine for its strong biomedical, clinical research and health policy expertise and Stony Brook University for its advanced mathematics, high-performance computing, and physical and chemical science departments to illustrate the point that these institutions can accomplish collaboratively more than each can do alone.

“In the long term were gonna roll out more and more in the way of clinical interactions,” said Kaushansky, who mentioned Stony Brook’s recent recruitment of two new cardiac surgeons from Mount Sinai. “We don’t do heart transplants, but Mount Sinai does.”

He emphasized the new potential for patients to easily seek services from either hospital. In fact, joint research programs ranging from fields of biomedical engineering and computer science to medicinal chemistry science, neurology, psychiatry, therapeutics and more are currently in the works.

“Stony Brook Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are two powerhouses of research that when partnered will definitely yield more than just the sum of their parts.”

—Lina Obeid

In terms of education, University students will now be afforded the unique opportunity to take classes offered on either or both campuses, and participate in a variety of summer programs geared toward students of all ages. The two schools plan to facilitate joint graduate and medical educational programs in a wider range of subjects than ever before, and have agreed to invest a collaborative $500,000 for the development of academically challenging pilot programs to be supervised by a joint committee.

“The joint pilots in research have immense promise to advance health at the most exciting time in the biomedical sciences, including advanced computational, bioinformatic and engineering approaches,” said Lina Obeid, MD, dean for research and vice dean for scientific affairs at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. “Stony Brook Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are two powerhouses of research that when partnered will definitely yield more than just the sum of their parts.”

Other leaders of each institution have already expressed similar enthusiasm about the affiliation, which was effective immediately upon signing, and many have verbalized hopes that groundbreaking research will take place as a result of this strategic partnership.

Dr. Kenneth L. Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Mount Sinai Health System, said, “Together [Mount Sinai and Stony Brook] will use our outstanding resources to create changes in medicine.”

“Each institution has so much to offer,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., “this is an opportunity that will prove to be beneficial to all — now and in the future — as we explore and grow this incredible collaboration.”

Looking toward the future, Kaushansky said that Stony Brook has more affiliation agreements in the works, contingent upon state approval.

“We are working very hard with our friends in the state of New York to get approval for affiliation with Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport,” he said.

Also pending is a potential partnership with John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. “In April, Mather Hospital asked a number of healthcare systems — us included — whether they were interested in affiliating with Mather Hospital, and we said yes,” Kaushansky said. “We made a proposal to the Mather hospital board … and they were supposed to decide [with whom they wish to affiliate] back in June.”

About a year ago, Kaushansky said he wondered aloud how it is that the insistution could make a bigger impact on clinical medicine, education and research. He now expresses confidence that Stony Brook’s affiliation with large city medical center, Mount Sinai, and future mutually-beneficial partnerships with Long Island hospitals and medical centers, is the most surefire way to achieve such an impact.

Dima Kozakov. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

A high five becomes a natural celebration after a home run because the hitter and the celebratory teammate are standing on their feet and are looking directly at each other. What if gravity didn’t keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the air? We might slap a hand into a foot or a foot into an elbow, sharing a nonverbal exchange with a different meaning.

Proteins inside our bodies don’t have the same gravitational and physical limits. They can and do come together in a soup of cytoplasm, blood, plasma and other mediums. Some of the time, those exchanges, like the high fives, communicate a message in the ordinary course of life. In other circumstances, however, those protein-protein interactions can lead to diseases like cancer.

Researchers around the world have studied these interactions using a variety of tools, trying to combat signals that contribute to damaging and life-threatening conditions.

Dima Kozakov, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics and faculty member of the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University, has spent several years creating a general way to model the mechanical details of how two proteins interact. This tool could become useful for researchers who are studying problematic interactions.

Leading an international team of scientists, Kozakov, who is also a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at SBU, created a new algorithm to model protein interactions. This algorithm accelerated how to model particular protein-protein interactions to identify harmful couplings. Kozakov and his colleagues recently published their findings in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Applications of this technology include helping to design therapeutic proteins and speeding up vaccine design. If, for example, the interaction of a pair of proteins contributes to disease, scientists may want to design some other protein that is safe for the patient that will interact with one of the proteins. This additional coupling can avoid the more harmful protein connection.

Scientists also sometimes know that two proteins interact, but they don’t know how. Proteins often have large surfaces with many potential connections. Researchers might need to know “how two bodies come together,” Kozakov said. Proteins are flexible three-dimensional objects that consist of molecules. In modeling the interactions, Kozakov can find the three-dimensional way these proteins come together.

Computational modeling is less expensive than running experiments. At this point, the computer system needs as its starting point the three-dimensional structure of the proteins. That, Kozakov said, is much easier than determining the structure of a protein complex.

The next step is to work on methods where scientists don’t need the structure but only the chemical formula, which they can find through the amino acid sequence. Kozakov and his collaborators will use the information on the structure of similar proteins to build the models. “We’re developing a methodology that will work with the models,” Kozakov said. He described his approach as “physics based,” in which he solves a statistical mechanistic problem by using an energy function that can account for different environments.

“In principal, we can modify our energy function to account for different environments,” like changes in pH, temperature or other variables that might affect how two proteins come together. Given the way Kozakov and his colleagues designed the model, it can account for all possible configurations of two almost rigid proteins coming together.

Kozakov is also in discussions with Brookhaven National Laboratory to explore the results of small-angle X-ray scattering. The benefit of this approach is that he doesn’t need proteins in a crystalline structure, which is a requirement of crystallography. While small-angle X-ray scattering provides less information than crystallography, Kozakov said he and his colleagues can develop it in combination with other techniques where it would be equivalent.

Kozakov has been developing models since 2007 or 2008 to understand these interactions. The project in his recent paper took three years to finish. The program takes 10 to 15 minutes to run on a personal computer. Before, this kind of effort required a supercomputer.

Kozakov believes there could be other applications of this technology, where scientists could model candidate protein drugs in real time to see how the drug interacts with the protein of interest. The first version of the program came out about a year and a half ago and it took the intervening time to perfect it, he said.

Born in Eastern Europe in a region that used to be part of the Soviet Union but is now on the western border of the Ukraine, Kozakov lives in Stony Brook with his wife Olga Kozakova. The couple has a six-year old son, Platon. Kozakov’s grandparents were scientists: his grandfather, Mikhail, was a university professor and his grandmother, Nina, worked at the university. He grew up surrounded by books on physics. He “had fun, digging into antiquities books” and thought the science presented an “inspiring environment.”

As for his work, Kozakov has a big picture view of his efforts. “I want to make something useful to the community and to the world,” he said. “I want to do what I can to help.”

Jameel Warney signs partially guaranteed deal with Mavericks

Jameel Warney dunks the ball for Stony Brook University. Photo from SBU

By Desirée Keegan

Jameel Warney’s coaches used to say the player held a basketball like a bowling ball, cupping it with his hand and wrist when driving to the basket. He holds the ball a little differently now. He’s gripping it like an NBA pro.

After competing for the Dallas Mavericks’ 2016 Summer League team from July 2 through July 8, Warney, a 6-foot, 8-inch, 260-pound forward, agreed to a partially guaranteed deal with the team, which amounts to a training camp invite.

“I always have the utmost confidence in myself and know that if I play hard, I can do whatever I think I’m capable of doing,” Warney said. “When I play well and with a chip on my shoulder, I won’t be denied. It was great to know that I can play with this level of competition.”

During five Summer League appearances, he averaged 6.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block per game. Dallas never ran offensive plays designed to get him open, yet Warney still shot 60 percent from the field.

Jameel Warney block a shot for the Seawolves. Photo from SBU
Jameel Warney block a shot for the Seawolves. Photo from SBU

“A lot of hard work went into this and it’s great to get some recognition, but I still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I was happy that [Dallas] offered to bring me along to training camp, because it’s just another step toward ultimately making my dream come true.”

Although his form may not have been there from the start, the now former Stony Brook University star’s previous head coach, Steve Pikiell, said he’s proud of the player Warney has become. He noted the vast improvement he saw in Warney’s game over the 22-year-old’s four-year tenure with the Seawolves.

“Everyone says great hands, great this, great that, but he’s just a great kid,” Pikiell said. “How he handled himself on and off the court was just awesome. He’s one of the best I’ve worked with in all of my 23 years of coaching.”

Warney began his basketball career as many young players across the country now do; in the Amateur Athletic Union.

“They didn’t think he was going to make it,” his mother Denise Warney said of her son’s coaches. “They said he was very lazy, and he was struggling with the drills and it seemed like something he wasn’t interested in. That all changed in two or three months.”

Warney learned from the experience and established a newfound passion for the sport. Within months, multiple AAU teams were interested in the abnormally tall middle school standout.

From there, Warney joined the varsity basketball team at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey. He graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,968 points, and averaged 17 points, 13.5 rebounds, four assists and 3.5 blocks per game as a senior.

“He’s humble and he’s hardworking. I think that’s an unbelievable combination for a kid nowadays.”

— Steve Pikiell

“For Jameel, whether he’s well, sick or tired, he plays really well,” his mother said. “He just loves the sport.”

At Stony Brook, he enjoyed much of the same success.

Warney graduated with more victories than any player in school history, and is the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and games played. The Associated Press All-American Honorable Mention also broke Stony Brook records for points in a season and in a single game when he scored 43 against the University of Vermont March 12.

Among all the records, Warney was also named American East Player and Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Seawolves to the American East Championship title and the first NCAA postseason berth in school history. He recorded 23 points and 15 rebounds in the first round of the tournament against the University of Kentucky on March 17, though the team fell 85-57.

“I saw something in him early on and I was able to help him bring that talent and ability out of him,” Pikiell said. “Mix that in with his hard work, and that’s how he’s gotten to the point he’s at. I know he can play at the NBA level. He has a skill set that everyone could use. He has a great motor, he’s a terrific rebounder, he has great hands, he’s a great passer, he has a tremendous physical ability and he’s an unselfish player. He has a great mind for the game of basketball, and those are attributes that bode well for him to be able to continue to play at the next level.”

Jameel Warney carries a net around his neck after the Stony Brook University men's basketball team won the America East championship. Photo from SBU
Jameel Warney carries a net around his neck after the Stony Brook University men’s basketball team won the America East championship. Photo from SBU

For Denise Warney though, it’s more than just her son’s accolades and titles. It’s about how proud she is of how far her son has come not just in the sport, but as a person. When she watches him, she can’t help but smile.

“The game for the NCAA berth, I just watch that game over and over again because it amazes me that he’s turned out to be such a great basketball player,” she said.

She is especially amazing watching him dunk the ball, because for her, it brings back a decade-old memory.

“When he was little, I remember him saying, ‘Mommy, I want a trampoline.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘I want to put it next to the basketball hoop so I can dunk,’” she said. “We laughed about it because now when I see him dunk a ball, I go all the way back to when he was 10 years old. I get this rush watching him, I’m overcome with this emotion, and I just keep becoming prouder and prouder of him.”

Warney and his mother both appreciate those who have helped him reach such heights thus far in his career.

“The years of improving mentally and physically, being mature and proving my stuff on the court with Stony Brook after high school — I’ve learned so much,” he said. “I feel like a lot of the people I’ve come across over my years of playing basketball have influenced my life. My coaches in high school, my mom, college coaches, the rest of my family and my close friends, I’m doing this all for them because they’ve been with me through the struggles and through the highs. I’m happy to have such a nice support system with me.”

He’s influenced the lives of others as well, as young children run around Stony Brook donning his name and number on their jerseys, looking up to the professional athlete who is continuing to put in the work as he climbs his ladder toward his ultimate goal of making a roster.

“He’s humble for a player as talented as he is,” Pikiell said. “He’s humble and he’s hardworking. I think that’s an unbelievable combination for a kid nowadays. That enabled him to get better and help us do things that no Stony Brook team has ever done, I think he can make a team and stay for a long time. I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”

Erik Muller. Photo by Yizhi Meng

By Daniel Dunaief

Diamonds may not only be a girl’s best friend, they may also be important for doctors, particularly those using radiation to treat cancer patients.

Erik Muller, a principal investigator and adjunct professor in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, recently demonstrated that a particular type of synthetic diamond can measure the flux, position and timing of radiation beams used in cancer therapies. His research seeks to adapt diamond detectors for use with an emerging type of therapy using high-energy protons and carbon ions. “There currently does not exist a technology which can precisely measure the flux, position and timing of these proton and carbon ion beams used in radiotherapy,” Muller explained.

The diamonds Muller and his team use are more pure than any natural diamond. They contain fewer than five parts per billion of nitrogen and less boron or other impurities. They are clear with no color. Nitrogen gives diamonds a yellow or brown color and acts as a charge trap, making natural diamond unsuitable for radiation detectors.

As an SBU postdoctoral researcher, Muller joined an effort at Brookhaven National Laboratory to investigate the use of diamond as an electron source. During that study, researchers found that diamond was a valuable X-ray detector. The success of that work led to the Department of Energy funding work to develop sensors for radiotherapy.

Diamonds can provide information that enable scientists to measure in real time the development of the beam.

Once diamond growers send the product to his lab, Muller and his team screen for a defect that can lead to unwanted hot spots in the detector response to X-rays. When Muller’s lab receives the diamonds, they look like small square pieces of glass. These diamonds are bread sliced into two to three pieces that are about half the thickness of a human hair.

Partners at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at BNL prepare, characterize, etch and pattern the diamonds in the cleanroom. The Instrumentation Division at BNL provided custom electronics, circuit design, wire bonding and assembly. “The development of the detectors, particularly the pixellated diamond X-ray detector, would not be possible without the talent and expertise” in the Instrumentation Division, Muller explained.

Muller also lauded the contribution of the Stony Brook University students who worked on the diamond effort, including Mengjia Gaowei, Tianyi Zhou, Mengnan Zou and Wenxiang Ding. In preparing a proposal for the Department of Energy to improve beam diagnostics for particle therapy, Muller met Samuel Ryu, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and deputy director for clinical affairs at Stony Brook University’s Cancer Center. Ryu “expressed a strong interest in using these detectors for X-ray beam therapy and we have been pursuing that as well,” Muller said.

Ryu said the existing conventional detector, which measures radiation dosage, is “limited in some sense.” He likened the radiation detector to a thermometer. If a thermometer indicates that it’s 90 degrees, it may be 91 degrees, but the thermometer may not read the temperature with enough precision to indicate the exact temperature. Similarly, the diamond detector “will improve” the precision of the radiation dose measurement. The gap in the detection of the radiation dose has been like that for more than 100 years, Ryu said.

Ryu said the addition of the diamond to the detector should be commercialized and that he and Muller are “really trying to find out how we can use these detectors in the clinic.” Ryu said he doesn’t know the time frame for when this might become available in a radiation delivery system, but he would “like to see it as soon as possible.” Ryu and his staff meet regularly with Muller and his team to analyze the data and discuss how to proceed. He described Muller as “very open-minded” and indicated that it is a “very good collaboration.”

One of the challenges in taking this diamond discovery to the next step is to ensure that the software is robust and that it has enough redundancies to turn the beam off amid any contradictory readings. Before diamonds can become a part of these carbon or ion beam treatments, researchers need to demonstrate that the radiation itself won’t damage the diamond. While Muller doesn’t expect this to happen, he said he has to prove its viability.

In the bigger picture, Muller said he and the members of his lab spend considerable time understanding the physics of radiation sensing devices in high-radiation environments. “Diamond is a very promising material in this field for continued development and is our current focus,” he suggested. “In general, I am interested in any technique and material where we can understand how the structure affects the device function.”

Residents of South Setauket, Muller lives with his wife Yizhi Meng, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook, and their daughter, who is in primary school. Meng, who is a graduate of Ward Melville High School, develops drug delivery materials for breast cancer and osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. The couple met when they were graduate students at Cornell University. They shared an interest in photography. Meng uses Nikon cameras, while Muller prefers Canon. “There’s a funny rivalry between us,” Meng said.

As for his work, Muller is optimistic that it will have an application in radiation delivery. He believes he can address the engineering challenges and is “planning to continue the commercialization of these devices.” Meng is excited by the progress Muller has been making. Muller is “working with some really great people,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”

Joanna Kiryluk during her trip to the South Pole in 2009. Photo from Joanna Kiryluk

By Daniel Dunaief

She traveled to a place she felt might have been as unfamiliar as visiting the moon or Mars. The project that is such a large part of her life is looking for signals sent from well beyond those relative celestial neighbors.

Joanna Kiryluk, an assistant professor of physics at Stony Brook University, didn’t travel off the planet, although she visited a remote location that was considerably different, less populated and at a higher altitude than the sandy beaches of Long Island. In 2009, Kiryluk traveled to the South Pole as a part of the aptly named IceCube project, which was completed in 2010. Kiryluk and hundreds of other physicists around the world are studying the information gathered from detectors drilled deep into the ice below the surface.

Kiryluk is studying tau and electron neutrinos, which are created as products of cosmic ray interactions and carry very high energies. Scientists do not know which sources in the universe are capable of creating such high energies. Unraveling this is one of her research goals. The neutrinos produced by collapsing stars, or supernova, typically have energies that are about a million times smaller than the high-energy neutrinos discovered by IceCube.

Neutrinos have very small masses and travel at speeds close to the speed of light, Kiryluk explained. Since they interact with matter weakly, they pass through most objects without any interactions. On rare occasions, however, these neutrinos collide with a neutron or a proton, causing a characteristic reaction that provides a clue about where they are, what energy they had when they collided, and, perhaps where they originated.

For her research, Kiryluk recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award, which provides almost $900,000 to support her work over the next five years. “It’s a great honor,” said Kiryluk. “The chances of success for such proposals are small and, in this sense, it was also a pleasant surprise.” Kiryluk said the funding will enable her to employ two graduate students per year. Part of the money will also be used for educational purposes and outreach. Kiryluk has reached out to high schools including Brentwood and Riverhead High School to involve students and teachers in research. Kiryluk is also a proponent of a Women in Science and Engineering program, or WISE, that encourages the “involvement of under-represented groups” in science, including women.

Kiryluk credits her Ph.D. advisor, Barbara Badelek, a professor at the University of Warsaw in the Department of Physics and a professor at Uppsala University, for believing in her and in her ability. She suggested that such support was critical to her success and her focus. Badelek met Kiryluk in 1994 and supervised her undergraduate and Ph.D. work. Kiryluk was “immediately recognized as a remarkably good student: hard working, trying to achieve a deep understanding of problems and very enthusiastic,” Badelek explained in an email. Badelek added that she is “very pleased to see her maturity and growing scientific prestige.”

In the IceCube project, Kiryluk is a part of an experiment that involves over 300 scientists from 48 institutions from around the world. IceCube, which took seven years to build, was manufactured as a discovery experiment to find high-energy neutrinos, which originate from astrophysical sources. People who have known Kiryluk for decades suggest that she has the right temperament for such an ambitious joint effort.

Kiryluk is “quiet and calm, but works hard and never leaves things because she finds some difficulties,” explained Ewa Rondio, the deputy director for scientific matters at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland, who met Kiryluk when she was an undergraduate. Kiryluk’s goal is to measure the energy spectrum of these neutrinos. “We are interested in fluxes,” she said. These fluxes and energy spectra of high-energy neutrinos will provide insights in the sources and mechanisms of the most powerful accelerators in the universe.

A cubic kilometer of ice, IceCube, which has enough water to fill one million swimming pools, is large enough to capture more of these rare neutrino events. The key to unraveling what these signals indicate is to understand their energy and direction. The detectors don’t collect information from the neutrinos directly, but, rather from the interaction with particles in the ice. The neutrino interactions in ice produce a flash of light in the South Pole ice that the scientists measure with sensors. They study the pattern, the arrival times and the amplitude of this light at the sensors. This information can help determine the neutrino energy and direction.

Kiryluk is looking for high-energy events that are “most likely coming from outside of our galaxy,” she said. These particles are distributed all over the sky. While IceCube is capable of collecting data from the highest energy particles, it hasn’t yet gathered enough of these events to provide conclusive information at this range.

Kiryluk visited the South Pole for two weeks in 2009 before IceCube was finished. She was involved in the commissioning of the newly deployed detectors for the data acquisition system. The detectors are between 1,500 and 2,600 meters deep, which helps them “suppress any background events,” such as cosmic rays that are produced in the atmosphere. The facility is 3,000 meters high and has low humidity, which means it’s “easy to get dehydrated,” Kiryluk said. She described the working and living conditions at the South Pole as “modern.”

A native of eastern Poland, Kiryluk arrived on Long Island in 2001, when she worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory. She lives in Rocky Point. Kiryluk said the physics department is “growing.” Since her hire, nine assistant professors have joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University. As for her work, Kiryluk is inspired to understand how IceCube can be used as a “probe to study astronomy,” which enables her to be a part of the process of discovering “what is out there.”

Stony Brook international students at a party hosted by the Colatosti family of Setauket. Photo from Stony Brook University

Soon hundreds of international students will be arriving at Stony Brook University to begin their academic careers in search of advanced degrees. For most, it will be their first time in the United States. They have no family or friends here, and are in a completely foreign and unfamiliar environment.

The Host Family Program, a community-based organization now in its fourth decade, provides a newly arrived international student with the friendship of a local American family. Run by volunteers with the cooperation of the university, it has been directed by Rhona Goldman since 1974. It is not a home-stay program; students live on or near campus. Host families invite students to share a meal, some sightseeing, or a favorite activity.

Both students and host families have the enriching experience of a cultural exchange and gain perspective about the world. A host family may be a retired couple, a family group, or a single individual. The only prerequisite is the desire to make an international student feel comfortable.

Students will arrive on campus in late August for the start of the fall semester and are looking forward to meeting an American family. The university will host a reception for the students and the host families to meet each other before the semester begins.

There is always a shortage of local volunteers to host all the students who apply. To learn more about hosting, email Rhona Goldman at: hostfamilies@stonybrook.edu.

Ute Moll in her lab at Stony Brook University. Photo by John Griffin

Some day, people may be able to breathe easier because of a cancer researcher.

No, Ute Moll doesn’t work on respiration; and, no, she doesn’t study the lungs. What Moll, research scientist Alice Nemajerova and several other collaborators did recently, however, was explain the role of an important gene, called p73, in the formation of multiciliated cells that remove pollutants like dust from the lungs.

Initially, scientists had studied a knockout mouse, which lacked the p73 gene, to see if the loss of this gene would cause mice to develop cancers, the way they did for p73’s well-studied cousin p53. Researchers were surprised that those mice without p73 didn’t get cancer, but found other problems in the development of their brains, which included abnormalities in the hippocampus.

While each of these mice had a respiratory problem, researchers originally suspected the breathing difficulties came from an immune response, said Moll, the vice chair for experimental pathology and professor of pathology at Stony Brook University.

A board-certified anatomical and clinical pathologist who does autopsies and trains residents at Stony Brook, Moll took a closer look and saw an important difference between these mice and the so-called wild type, which has an intact p73 gene.

Moll on a recent trip to Africa says hello to Sylvester the cheetah who is the animal ambassador in Zimbabwe. Photo from Moll
Moll on a recent trip to Africa says hello to Sylvester the cheetah who is the animal ambassador in Zimbabwe. Photo from Moll

“Microscopic examinations of many types clearly showed that the multiciliated cells in the airways were severely defective,” she explained. “Instead of a lawn of dense long broom-like motile cilia on their cell surface which created a strong directional fluid flow across the windpipe surface, the [knockout] cells had far fewer cilia, and the few cilia present were mostly short stumps that lost 100 percent of their clearance function.”

This finding, which was published in the journal Genes & Development, could have implications for lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which affects more than 330 million people around the world and is the third leading cause of death.

The discovery provides “the long-awaited explanation for the diverse phenotypes of the p73 knockout mice,” wrote Elsa Flores, a professor of molecular oncology at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, in a commentary of the work.

In an email, Flores said Moll is a “wonderful collaborator and colleague” whose “meticulous” work is “held in high regard.”

Carol Prives, Da Costa professor in biological sciences at Columbia University, suggested this was a “very significant finding.”

Moll and her scientific team went beyond showing that the loss of the p73 gene caused the defective or missing cilia. They took stem cells from the trachea, which can grow on a culture dish into a range of other cells. With the proper nutrients and signals, these stem cells can grow back into a fully differentiated respiratory epithelium.

The organotypic culture had the same defects as the knockout mice. The scientists then used a lentivirus to insert a copy of the functioning p73 gene. The cells in the culture developed a complete set of long, motile cilia.

“It’s a complete rescue experiment,” Moll said. “This closes the circle of proof that” p73 is responsible for the development of these structures that clean the lungs.

In addition to the lungs, mammals also develop these cilia in two other areas, in the brain and in the fallopian tubes.

There could be a range of p73 deficiencies and some of these could be indicative of vulnerability or susceptibility to lung-related problems that are connected to incomplete cilia. This could be particularly valuable to know in more polluted environments, where the concentration of dust or pollutants is high.

Moll plans to “find tissue banks from COPD patients” in which she might identify candidate alleles, or genes, that have a partial loss of function that would contribute to the reduction in the cilia cells.

While Moll will continue to work on respiration and p73 in mice, she described her broader research goals as “gene-centric,” in which she studies the entire p53 family, which includes p53, p63 and p73.

Colleagues suggested that she has made important and unexpected discoveries with p53.

“She was among the first to show that in some pathological states, p53 is sequestered in the cytoplasm rather than in the nucleus,” Prives, who has known Moll for 25 years, explained in an email. “This led to her original and very unexpected discovery that p53 associates with mitochondria and plays a direct role in mitochondrial cell death. She was very courageous in that regard since the common view was that p53 works only in the nucleus.”

Moll was raised in Germany and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees in Ulm, the same town where Albert Einstein grew up. She lives in Setauket with her husband, Martin Rocek, a professor of theoretical physics at SBU. The couple has two sons, 26-year-old Thomas, who is involved in reforestation in Peru, and 29-year-old Julian, a documentary filmmaker focusing on environmental themes.

Moll is also focused on the environment.“If humankind doesn’t wake up soon, we are going to saw off the branch we’re sitting on,” she warns. One of Moll’s pet peeves is car idling. She walks up to the windows of people sitting in idling cars and asks if they could turn off the engine.

As for her work with p73, she feels as if she is “just at the beginning. This is a rich field.”

A Stony Brook University study says climate change plays a bigger role in droughts than some think. File photo

By Colm Ashe

The general consensus among those who study the evaporating future of the global water supply is to blame population growth. However, a recent study out of Stony Brook University suggests climate change may be the dominant catalyst for future exposure to drought.

The number of people exposed to extreme drought would see a 426.6 percent increase by 2100 at the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions and population growth 

A team of scholars used 16 climate models and United Nation population growth projections to ensure a more accurate prediction. The study reported that the number of people exposed to extreme drought would see a 426.6 percent increase by 2100 at the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions and population growth. While many might agree that water scarcity will become increasingly more problematic in the future — especially if preventative actions don’t amp up fast — there is a difference between what each party suggests is the best approach: to focus on slowing population increases with socioeconomic development or to cut the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. This study states the latter may be the most efficient way to avoid widespread drought.

Their predictions attribute 59.5 percent of future drought to climate change and only 9.2 percent of the increase to population growth. The remaining 31.4 percent accounts for the combined effect of these two factors. According to Stony Brook University’s professor Oleg Smirnov, who was involved in conducting the study, the “results imply that top greenhouse gas-emitters have the greatest capacity to decrease future exposure to extreme drought.”

Though climate change mitigation policies may have the power to most effectively reduce the future effects of widespread drought, population growth is still an important factor to consider. “Population growth alone is responsible for over 35 million more people exposed to extreme drought globally per month by the end of the century,” Smirnov said. “However, we also found that, for the same period, climate change is responsible for about 230 million more people exposed to extreme drought.”

The conclusion that Smirnov and his team have come to portrays climate change as playing a more important role than population increase. However, each country is affected differently by each factor, so the solution is not as simple as just cutting emissions. The worst-case scenario would be to continue at the present rate of both greenhouse gas emissions and population growth. Regardless of which factor ranks in terms of importance, this study and many others like it suggest the same message: if we are to counter the effects of future global drought exposure, we need to act as soon as possible.

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Business owners mingle at the incubator showcase last Thursday morning inside one of the research centers at Stony Brook University. Photo by Phil Corso

Stony Brook University graduate Frank Zinghini originally started his software vulnerability management company Code Dx out of Northport, but he has since setup shop in a more “incubated” environment, thanks to the university’s office of economic development.

Now, he and his team don’t even need to pick up a phone to chat with like-minded entrepreneurs — all they need to do is poke their heads next door.

“We need engineering help, and we’re looking to the university for that,” said Brianne O’Brien, director of sales and training at Code Dx. “It’s amazing the amount of attention we have here.”

Code Dx was one of nearly 40 booths cascaded throughout the second floor of the campus’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology building on Thursday, as its office of economic development flexed its muscles at an incubator showcase. Businesses did a lot of sharing throughout the day — of their stories, but also of mentorship, advice, expertise and more.

Yacov Shamash, vice president for economic development at the university, said the goal was to link the academic and research resources of the campus with the greater economic needs of Long Island and New York State. Much like a mother bird sitting over her egg before it hatches, the university has been “incubating” businesses in various centers across the island with an eye on tomorrow.

Many of those businesses that blossom underneath the incubator umbrella explore various facets of science and technology and end up employing Stony Brook University grads and other North Shore natives before branching out, the vice president said.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for learning and hiring,” he said. “It’s a positive thing for Long Island — no question.”

Ann-Marie Scheidt, director of economic development at the university, said last Thursday was the university’s first incubator showcase, showing off just what kinds of innovation occurred on a daily basis there and just how diverse it could be. It is that diversity that she said was essential when confronting the region’s problems of tomorrow.

“As they grow up, we provide them with the help they need. But they also become connected with other local groups doing business around them,” Shamash said in an interview. “Our goal is to embed them in the Long Island community and to create great jobs.”

One of the incubated companies took the spotlight that afternoon as a “graduate” of the university’s business incubator program. Codagenix Inc. spent the past three years “incubating” at the campus and has grown to a point where they were able to move to a larger space in Melville, and North Shore lawmakers made sure they were there to send them off.

Yi-Xian Qin of QB Sonic Inc. smiled from ear-to-ear as he shared the medical advancements of his incubated business, which was working to develop a noninvasive ultrasound simulator to address common injuries like hip fractures. He said it was the incubation that actually helped his company thrive at such an early stage in its first year.

“The incubator is flexible,” he said. “You can be a huge company or occupy a small office. Either way, it lets you meet with other companies. It’s very good for the other start-ups.”