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Stony Brook University

Front row, from left, Liliana Dávalos, Heather Lynch and Christine O’Connell; back row, from left, Robert Harrison, IACS director and STRIDE PI, Arie Kaufman, and Janet Nye. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

If Stony Brook University has its way, the university will stand out not only for the quality of the research its graduate students produce but also for the way those budding scientists present, explain and interpret their results to the public and to policy makers.

Pulling together faculty from numerous departments across the campus, Robert Harrison, the director of the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, created a program that will teach graduate students how to use big data sets to inform difficult decisions.

The institute recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship for this effort, called Science Training & Research to Inform DEcisions, or STRIDE. The grant will be used for students in the departments of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, Biomedical Informatics, Computer Science, Ecology and Evolution and the schools of Journalism and Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

“This is unique,” said Arie Kaufman, a distinguished professor and chair of the Department Computer Science at Stony Brook. “It’s a new kind of approach to training and adding value to Ph.D. students.” Indeed, the students who complete the STRIDE training will earn their doctorates and will also receive a certificate for their participation in this program. Students in the participating departments will need to apply for one of the 10 positions available in the program next year. The partners involved in this program expect it to expand to 30 students within five years.

Kaufman said what enabled this collaboration was the range of skill sets across Stony Brook, including the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is a growing program that already offers the type of training more typical for an actor studying improvisation techniques than for a scientist studying neurotransmitters or DNA.

The Alda Center is “creating a new course,” said Christine O’Connell, an associate director at the center and assistant professor in the School of Journalism. She is currently working on developing the course description, which will include communicating to decision makers. O’Connell, who has a doctorate in marine and atmospheric sciences, sees her work with the Alda Center and with STRIDE as the “perfect combination in bringing the decision making piece to work with scientists to help them talk about their research.”

Scientists who take courses at the Alda Center with STRIDE learn how to understand their audience through various role-playing scenarios. They will also develop their abilities to present their goals or messages in a visual way and not just talk about their work.

Heather Lynch, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution who is also a co-principal investigator on the STRIDE grant, will help design the program, mentor students and develop courses. She’s been involved with this proposal since its inception, over three years ago. “In many ways,” she explained in an email, “my interest stems from my own difficulties communicating effectively with policy makers, and finding tools and visualizations that are compelling to a non-scientist.” Lynch recounted her frustration with presenting science to help a policy making body, such as a committee, with the kind of analysis she believed they were seeking. After she did her best to answer the question, the committee sometimes dismissed her work as not being what they wanted. “That’s frustrating because that means I failed at the outset to define the science question and that’s what I hope we can teach students to do better,” Lynch explained.

Lynch said she wishes she had the training these students will be getting. For scientists, computers are an invaluable tool that can help delve into greater breadth and depth in analyzing, interpreting and collecting information. The STRIDE effort includes a greater awareness of the way computers can inform political or social science. Researchers generate “tremendous amounts of data that can be used to analyze trends or detect diseases,” Kaufman said. “The data science is tremendous in every discipline.”

The faculty who are a part of this program said they have already benefited from the interactions they’ve had with each other as they’ve developed the curriculum. “I know a few people in Ecology and Evolution and I know more people in Marine Sciences, but these particular individuals were new to me,” said Kaufman. “We have already been communicating about ideas for how to use the Reality Deck for other projects.”

Completed in late 2012, the Reality Deck is a $2 million rectangular room in the Center of Excellence in Information Technology building. The room has hundreds of monitors that cover the wall from floor to ceiling and provides a way for researchers to study images in exquisite detail.

Other scientists in the program include Liliano Dávalos, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, Janet Nye, an assistant professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Joel Saltz, the founding chair of the Depatment of Biomedical Informatics, Erez Zadok, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Mighua Zhang, a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Lynch said the program will bring in people who are working on real-world problems, including those in government, industry and nongovernmental organizations who are “in a position to take science and use it for practical purposes.” As a part of the program, the scientists will monitor the progress of the STRIDE candidates, O’Connell said.

The evaluations will check to see if “they become better communicators and better at interpreting their data for different audiences,” O’Connell said. “The evaluation piece built in will help us assess the program.”

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley

By Dr. Samuel L. Stanley

Implementation of Stony Brook University’s new Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity is off to a great start, with several initiatives underway to take us to the next level in enhancing student, faculty and staff diversity and building an inclusive community.

Gender equality is one of the focal points of our plan. As one of 10 University IMPACT Champions worldwide for UN Women’s HeForShe movement, Stony Brook is committed to being a national leader in gender equality and serving as a model for other colleges and universities.

HeForShe encourages men and boys to become agents of change in achieving global gender equality by building on the work of the women’s movement as equal partners, crafting and implementing a shared vision of gender equality that will benefit all of humanity. For Stony Brook, HeForShe provides a visionary and sound foundation from which we can work to improve diversity and the human condition on our campus and beyond.

To highlight our commitment to achieving gender equality, Stony Brook University co-hosted the HeForShe second anniversary event, welcoming world leaders, activists, change-makers and celebrities to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on Sept. 20. At the event, we celebrated the launch of the first HeForShe IMPACT 10×10×10 University Parity report, which charts Stony Brook’s progress toward gender equality along with nine other leading universities from around the world.

Some of our progress includes building gender sensitization programming and gender equality themes into our mandatory freshman seminar class; forming a HeForShe Steering Committee of students, faculty and staff to oversee the implementation of our commitments; and hosting the first SUNY-wide HeForShe conference last March to work with all 64 SUNY campuses in developing programs to increase gender equality, giving us the potential to impact the experiences of more than 459,000 students and almost 90,000 faculty and staff.

Stony Brook is also now a leader in the field, offering the first-ever master’s degree program in masculinities studies within the university’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities led by Distinguished Professor of Sociology Michael Kimmel.

On Sept. 12, Stony Brook welcomed Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, who delivered a timely and provocative lecture to our students, faculty and staff. To quote Mlambo-Ngcuka: “There aren’t enough universities in the world that have put this issue at the center of our work. It is in universities where we produce thought leaders and people who can truly change the world.”

Stony Brook is proud to be a pioneering university in our progress toward gender equality. Visit stonybrook.edu/diversityplan and stonybrook.edu/heforshe for more information.

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is the president of Stony Brook University.

The Suffolk County Police Department has saved more than 600 lives since 2012 using Narcan to reverse opioid or heroin overdoses. Data from SCPD.Graphic by TBR News Media

Medical professionals, law enforcement and government officials gathered at Stony Brook University this past weekend to have an open and honest dialogue about the growing opioid problem facing the North Shore and the rest of Suffolk County.

The complexity of the problem and how it relates to communities across the county was the topic of the discussion Oct. 1. A common theme among the speakers was opioid addiction should be treated like a legitimate medical crisis and not a moral failing.

Dr. Constantine Ioannou, director of Stony Brook Medical Center’s Adult Inpatient Unit addressed the current opioid crisis in the United States and specifically in Suffolk County during the event.

“This is not the first opioid epidemic in the United States — this is one of many,” Ioannou said. He likened the current state of opioid prescribing and subsequent widespread addiction to a period in the late 1800s when morphine was first developed. He said doctors overprescribed the powerful painkiller and, in turn, opioid dependence skyrocketed.

SCPD Deputy Sheriff Mike Kern speaks about the opioid crisis in Suffolk County. Photo by Alex Petroski
SCPD Deputy Sheriff Mike Kern speaks about the opioid crisis in Suffolk County. Photo by Alex Petroski

The director traced the origin of the current crisis back to two events in 1995. Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company, began marketing OxyContin, its version of the powerful opioid oxycodone, to doctors. In addition the American Pain Society, an organization dedicated to advocating for public policies to reduce pain-related issues, named pain as the fifth vital sign. Like the other four — pulse rate, temperature, respiration rate and blood pressure —  pain would be monitored in patients from then on. Pain was the only one of those five vital signs that is completely subjective and based on what a patient tells a nurse or doctor, Ioannou said.

Those two events, in accordance with nurse ratings and even payment being tied to patient satisfaction and reduction, created an environment of overprescribing, Ioannou said. He also said training of doctors in pain management needs to be addressed — he graduated from medical school in 1985 with “zero” training in pain management.

“There are states in the United States where there are more prescriptions for opiate pain medications than there are people — this is a staggering number,” Ioannou said.

Jermaine Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, also spoke and reiterated some of what Ioannou said regarding the United States’ views on pain management.

“I’ve had friends from other countries say that unless you come into the E.R. with an arm missing, you’re not going to get a prescription that you could get here for having a root canal,” Jones said. “We make up about 5 percent of the world’s population yet we consume about 80 percent of the prescription opioid [painkillers].”

Jones is involved in a study called Risks and Benefits of Overdose Education and Naloxone Prescribing to Heroin Users and spoke about some of his findings. Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

“We’re trying to better understand how to tease apart ways to attenuate what people like about opioids,” Jones said of the five-year study, which is currently in its second year.

Jermaine Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, was on the opioid discussion panel. Photo by Alex Petroski
Jermaine Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, was on the opioid discussion panel. Photo by Alex Petroski

He said the study was created to monitor people who are administered naloxone and see if it is being used for the correct purposes. One concern in the creation of an overdose reversal drug is that users will be more confident in their ability to combat an overdose and may decide not to call 911 if that day ever comes. Other potential unintended consequences of naloxone, including how to deal with a user who may be irate after being saved from an overdose and is now “dope sick” and without the expensive drug they just bought, are the focus of the study. They are also researching some potential new medications or existing ones that could work in accordance with opioids to reduce pain, while reducing the effects that lead to addiction.

“We know that detox by itself is actually one of the highest risk factors for opioid overdose because you’re tolerance decreases,” Jones said. “So once someone comes out of a detox program they swear they’re never going to touch this stuff again, but relapse is very, very common. So they use again thinking that if they were using two bags before, they can continue using two bags now that they’ve gotten out, but their physiological tolerance has decreased and people overdose as a result.”

Ioannou indicated he’d like to see changes in treatment options for addicts.

“We treat all addiction by the same model,” he said. “You have a five-day detox, 28-day rehab and you have an after care that is all based on 12 steps. That is the model of care in the United States. We need to realize with a complex disease, you need a complex set of interventions.”

Suffolk County Police Department Deputy Sheriff Mike Kern is an expert in recognizing drug users. He called overdoses the most powerful “advertisement” for drug dealers because it is a clear indication of how strong their product is. He echoed sentiments from both doctors about the dangers of overprescribing and to what it can lead.

“Why can a doctor prescribe an OxyContin to a 16-year-old or a 15-year-old who just had a root canal?” Kern asked. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

From left, Lorne Golub, Joseph Scaduto, Francis Johnson, Ying Gu, Hsi-Ming Lee and Maria Ryan. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook Medicine

By Daniel Dunaief

You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks for a variety of reasons, including that your old dog might be suffering from periodontal disease. An inflammatory condition of the mouth that affects about 80 percent of dogs by the age of three, periodontal disease often starts out as gingivitis, a swelling or reddening of the gums, and then proceeds to affect the soft and hard tissues that support teeth.

Scientists and dentists at Stony Brook have developed a new treatment for periodontal disease for dogs, and, they hope, eventually for humans. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a unit of the National Institutes of Health, recently awarded Stony Brook University’s School of Dental Medicine and Traverse Biosciences Inc., a Long Island research company, a $1.3 million award to continue to evaluate the preclinical safety and effectiveness of TRB-NO224 to treat periodontal disease.

“The grant was approved for funding because a panel of nationally prominent dental and medical scientists agreed that our grant proposal, and our qualifications and academic records were exemplary,” Lorne Golub, a distinguished professor in the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology explained in an email. Golub, who holds 55 patents and developed Periostat and Oracea, will lead the research, along with Ying Gu, an associate professor in the Department of General Dentistry at SBU.

While periodontal disease affects dogs, it is also widely prevalent among humans, with Golub calling it the “most common chronic inflammatory disease known to mankind.” Indeed, developing effective treatments is important not only for oral health, but it has implications for other conditions that are complicated or exacerbated by the collagenase enzyme prevalent in periodontal disease.

“Some studies indicate that chronic periodontitis can increase the risk for pancreatic cancer, head and neck cancer, cardiovascular disease and others,” Golub wrote in an email. “All of these diseases result in an increase in collagenase.”

A challenge in treating periodontitis is that the enzyme that is a part of the inflammatory response, collagenase, is present, and necessary, in normal metabolism. Ridding the body of the enzyme would cause harm. Golub worked with Francis Johnson, a professor of chemistry and pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook, to develop a new treatment using a modified form of curcumin, which is a bright yellow chemical that is a member of the ginger family. Naturally occurring curcumin does provide some benefit for periodontal diseases, Golub said, although the modified version Johnson helped create is more effective. “Very little” curcumin is absorbed from the gut into the blood stream after oral administration, Golub said.

The modification Johnson and Golub made was to make their variant triketonic. With the extra ketone, which has a negative charge, the attraction for zinc and calcium, which are a part of collagenase and have positive charges, is stronger, Golub said.

In dividing the work, Gu explained that Golub will supervise personnel, coordinate and oversee all experiments and provide technical oversight for the animal experiments and biochemical analysis. Gu will work with Hsi-Ming Lee, a research assistant professor in oral biology and pathology, to perform in vivo animal experiments and the biochemical analyses of pro-inflammatory mediator levels on blood, gingival fluid and gingival tissue samples. He and Golub will perform data analysis and prepare publications together. The scientific team involved in the study of TRB-NO224, which includes Maria Ryan, the chair of the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology, intends to develop this treatment for pets first. This, Golub suggested, was in part because the approval process for pet treatments is quicker to market.

The group hopes additional research, including safety and efficacy studies, will lead them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for human uses. Ryan, who worked as a graduate student in Golub’s lab before she became the head of the department, is pleased with the process and the track record of a department Golub helped start in 1973.

“I am proud to say that this is Department of Oral Biology and Pathology’s fourth NIDCR grant for the development of new therapeutics for the management of periodontal diseases within the past four years,” Ryan wrote in an email. “The aim of this funding mechanism is to move these novel compounds further along in the FDA drug development process.” Ryan added that the benefits of TRB-NO224 extended to other medical arenas and has led to collaborations with additional scientists. TRB-NO224 not only impacts enzymes such as collagenase, but also affects pro-inflammatory mediators, she said.

“This new compound may be useful at preventing and/or treating numerous chronic conditions,” Ryan said. Studies are currently funded to investigate indications for osteoarthritis with the director of Orthopaedic Research, Daniel Grande, at the Feinstein Institute and for acute respiratory distress syndrome with Gary Nieman at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Golub has worked with international collaborators for decades. Some of them praised his legacy and the work he’s continuing to do.

Golub’s patents reflect his “everlasting translational mission from molecular and biotechnological medical/dental research to doctors’ daily and every-day practice,” wrote Timo Sorsa, the Chief Dental Officer in Periodontology at the University of Helsinki Central Hospital in Finland in an email. Golub received an honorary M.D. from the University of Helsinki in 2000.

A resident of Smithtown, Golub lives with his wife Bonny, who is a travel agent. They have two children, Marlo and Michael, and four grandchildren. Golub and his wife were among the first to see a showing at the New Community Cinema in Huntington, now the Cinema Arts Centre, in their own folding chairs. They watched one of Golub’s favorite films, “Henry V,” with Sir Laurence Olivier.

Golub is optimistic about the prospects and progress on TRB-NO224. “We are beginning to see evidence of efficacy in a variety of diseases,” he offered. He also believes the treatment may have rapid acceptance because natural curcumin has been used for decades in a number of populations and is “believed to be safe and effective.”

The content in this version has been updated from the original.

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Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education officers from left, Treasurer Ashleigh Lussenden, Secretary Kayla Gogarty, President Lyl Tomlinson and Vice President Adrian Di Antonio. Photo from SPADE

Opioid addiction is the focus of a community forum to be held Saturday, Oct. 1 at Stony Brook University, thanks to an organization created by three of the school’s own.

The event, entitled “The Opioid Epidemic,” will run from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the theatre at the Charles B. Wang Center. The forum is a product of Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education, an entity created last winter by three doctoral candidates in the Department of Neurobiology.

The story behind the organization’s inception can be traced back to conversations about the future between Adrian Di Antonio, Ashleigh Lussenden and Lyl Tomlinson as they worked toward their doctoral degrees, Di Antonio said in a telephone interview. In their individual labs, they were solving specific problems, but together they wondered about what they could do to learn more and broaden their impact, he said. The three found and presented articles to each other, and eventually invited other graduate students from other disciplines to join in discussions.

The four SPADE leaders are looking to boost membership via their first major campuswide event. There will be speeches by elected officials, who will also participate in a panel discussion with a representative from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s office and medical professionals from Stony Brook and Columbia Universities.

So far, SPADE has one recruit: Kayla Gogarty, a doctoral candidate in Stony Brook’s chemistry department. She grew up in Suffolk County and earned her undergraduate degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“As I’ve been immersed in science, I have realized that even if scientists provide concrete data, it is very difficult for this knowledge [e.g., climate change] to be translated into our laws,” she wrote in an email. “This has led me to my interest in science policy, because the data is not useful unless people in the community understand it and lawmakers use it for policy change.”

The members chose journalism professor Steven Reiner to be the moderator at their event. He has been at Stony Brook University for seven years and previously worked as a producer for 60 Minutes and National Public Radio. He currently hosts a web-series called Science on Tap, in which he helps distill complex information down to comprehensible language in the casual environment of a bar, according to Di Antonio.

Tomlinson is a proponent of making science understandable. Two years ago, the Brooklyn native and CUNY Brooklyn graduate won a NASA-hosted National Science Communication competition called FameLab.

“Think American Idol meets TED talks,” he wrote in an email. “I competed against almost 100 scientists from across the U.S. to deliver interesting science in bite-sized, three-minute chunks that were accessible and informative.” He did not add that he placed second, representing the U.S. in the international competition at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom, which brought together FameLab winners from more than 25 countries.

Di Antonio hales from Philadelphia, where he earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After SPADE was founded, he said the group explored ways they might get involved on campus. “Some topic at the intersection of policy and people,” he said.

As opioid drug overdoses currently cause more deaths than auto accidents or firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tomlinson said they want people to know that this is an important issue.

Lussenden will speak on behalf of SPADE at the beginning of the program. A fourth year doctoral candidate, she received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. “I have always been interested in science and politics,” she wrote in an email, “and would like to work in science policy and diplomacy when I graduate.”

Suffolk County's drug problem will be discussed at a public forum Oct. 1. File photo by Erika Karp

Opioid addiction will be the topic of discussion at a community forum on Saturday, Oct. 1 at Stony Brook University. The free event, titled The Opioid Epidemic, will be hosted by the group Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education at the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.  Hear from policy experts, community leaders and scientists on how to combat this growing threat to our community. A series of short presentations will be followed by a round-table discussion with community participation. Refreshments will be served.

Speakers will include state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff William Weick,  Director of Adult Inpatient Services at Stony Brook Constantine Ioannou and Columbia University Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurobiology Jermaine Jones.

Attendees are encouraged to bring excess or expired medication for the “Shed the Meds” disposal program. Narcan (opioid OD antidote) training is available after the event for selected pre-registered participants.

Free parking is available at the Administration parking lot across from the Wang Center.

For more information or to register online, visit opioidepidemicforum.eventbrite.com or call 267-259-7347.

Participants at the SASI Family Fun Day held last month in Huntington. Photo by Rebecca Anzel

By Rebecca Anzel

A young scientist at Stony Brook University has received a $2.3 million grant to fund research he hopes will eventually lead to new therapies for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder.

Matthew Lerner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, and director of the Stony Brook Social Competence and Treatment Lab, the focus of which is learning to understand how children and teens with ASD form friendships.

“We use the word lab loosely, only because we collect data there,” he said. “It’s a fun space with games and activities for kids.”

“Matthew Lerner is sort of a pioneer in his thought process, and that’s what makes him special to me.”

— Priscilla Arena

His work thus far has ranged from lab-based studies — evaluating and developing tools to measure what is happening during social interactions and how the brain processes those interactions — to real-world applications. Lerner’s previous studies ask how, when and if kids make friends, and what helps them do so.

Efforts to link these two levels of analysis have never been done simultaneously — until now. Lerner won a highly competitive National Institute of Mental Health award to fund his innovative approach to studying social behaviors of children with ASD.

“It’s kind of remarkable that it really hasn’t been done in quite this way before,” he said. “We presume that these things — lab-based measures of how kids think about social interactions and real world interactions themselves — are linked, because otherwise, why would we look at them? But how they’re linked, and importantly, how we can understand how those links differ across individuals, hasn’t really been done thoroughly before.”

Priscilla Arena, the leader of a support group for parents of children with ASD, said Lerner is excited about the potential the grant gives his research.

“Matthew Lerner is sort of a pioneer in his thought process, and that’s what makes him special to me,” she said. “He sees potential in the future.”

It’s not far from her initial reaction after meeting with the Stony Brook researcher, who asked permission to speak to the parents in her group.

The Suffolk Aspergers/Autism Support and Information co-founder wanted to protect the parents, who have “already been beaten and kicked” by others looking for monetary donations and permission to study their children. But when she met Lerner, she said she knew almost immediately that he was different.

“He’s sincere, honorable, impassioned, smart and cerebral,” Arena said. “I don’t think my first impression of him has ever changed, and I think that’s why, from the get-go, I’ve had respect for him.”

The award, called Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists, was created in 2009 as a way to provide younger scientists with financial support for research. It is for early-stage investigators who are on a tenure track and have no prior research project grants.

“BRAINS” is earmarked for “the most promising early investigators” and is “one of the most competitive [awards]” NIH offers, according to Lisa Gilotty, Ph.D., program officer of Lerner’s grant. Gilotty is also the chief of NIMH’s research program on autism spectrum disorder.

Matthew Lerner is enthusiastic about finding treatments for those with autism spectrum disorder. Photo from Matthew Lerner
Matthew Lerner is enthusiastic about finding treatments for those with autism spectrum disorder. Photo from Matthew Lerner

Lerner is examining how well various biological and social factors, both independently and jointly, can predict how teenagers aged 11 to 17, with and without ASD, socially interact outside of a laboratory. In the five-year project, he and his team are also studying how those factors correlate, and which best explain the resulting social behaviors.

They are hoping to use information gleaned by observing the teenagers inside and outside the lab to make precise predictions about how they make friendships.

Depending on the results, the team might be able to develop generalized patterns that can be applied to a large number of people on the spectrum and be used to create more targeted therapies.

“This is an extremely important study that will shed light on the wide variability observed in social function in ASD,” said James McPartland, director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic. “Presently, little is understood about the biological reasons for these individual differences. Dr. Lerner’s study will help us understand these differences from both behavioral and brain-based perspectives.”

Dozens of the 260 teenagers — 160 with ASD and 100 without — participating in this study are Three Village students. Lerner and his team have also connected with special educators in the area to see how participants are doing outside the lab in a classroom.

He and his team spend a lot of time in the community, at family events and meetings with parents and educators to introduce themselves, share information about their work and to learn what challenges children are experiencing. Because Lerner wants the work he does to matter to parents and community members, he calls them “stakeholders” in his research.

“The most impressive thing about him is how community-minded he is,” President and Executive Director of Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association (AHA) Patricia Schissel said. “It is important that he’s not stuck in a lab. He’s excited to get out into the research community.”

Arena said quite a few study participants are from SASI as well — her son included. Besides hosting support groups, the program, which was co-founded by Arena with Stephanie Mendelson, provides resources and runs events and programs for special needs families.

Arena and her son were asked to complete a 500-question survey as part of the screening process, and have committed to 20 weeks of social groups.

What appealed to her about this study is Lerner’s concentration on trying to develop more effective treatments and therapies for ASD as opposed to looking for a cure.

“I always say, unless you’re going to do a lobotomy, [saying there is a cure] is baloney,” she said. “You can calm certain conditions of it down through behavior modification and therapy, but you cannot cure it. There’s no way to reverse how the brain has been formed. My son will have it forever.”

Schissel said Lerner’s study has the potential to change treatment options for those with autism as genome sequencing did for cancer.

Oncologists previously “threw the kitchen sink” at cancer and attacked tumors broadly. Once genome sequencing was developed, doctors could instead more easily treat tumors directly. Such an approach to ASD therapies would be more effective and “waste less time and enormous amounts of money,” she said.

Michael Greenberg, a social worker for outpatient child and adolescent psychiatry at Stony Brook Medicine, agreed that more specific treatments and therapies are more efficient and effective.

“It creates an opportunity to have the odds be the best the first time,” he said. “No one can predict what he’s going to find, but he’s trying to come up with something that can be replicated and benefit people more widely.”

The results from Lerner’s study might also be applicable to children without ASD. He said it is unclear whether the social patterns he and his team might uncover are unique to kids with autism. There is a potential for any treatments that stem from his findings to benefit any kid who struggles socially.

Maureen O’Leary on an expedition in Mali. Photo by Eric Roberts

By Daniel Dunaief

At their greatest depths, oceans hold onto their secrets. With layers of light-blocking water between the surface and the bottom, they hide the kind of clues that might reveal more about who, or what, lived or traveled through them.

What if a sea dried up millions of years ago? And, what if that sea left behind pieces of information — some of them small and subtle and others larger and easier to spot? That’s what happened in a part of Africa that long ago gave up any signs of flowing water. The Sahara desert was, millions of years ago, home to an inland sea called the trans-Saharan seaway.

Maureen O’Leary, a professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, has been to Mali, a country in the northwest of Africa, three times on expeditions, most recently in 2008. There, she collected fossils that are members of extinct groups that are part of larger evolutionary units with living members today.

O’Leary has explored and cataloged a number of remnants from the region, including a turtle and crocodile skull. She and her collaborators have also discovered sting ray fossils. Originally considered likely residents after an asteroid hit Earth that caused a massive extinction, these fossils now suggest that these sting rays lived in the area earlier than previously believed.

“This suggests that the sting rays did survive” the asteroid impact, said O’Leary. “Often extinction events are described in very broad terms but specific studies like this help us” hone in on the kind of species that survived.

She also found intriguing deposits in fossilized feces. Invertebrates burrowed through these fossilized remains, leaving a cast of the shapes of their bodies. The group that left traces of their activities in fossilized feces includes Pholadidae, which has living members. “A careful inspection of a whole fauna of fossils allows you to find invertebrates you had no record of,” said O’Leary.

Leif Tapanila, the director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and an associate professor of geosciences at Idaho State University, joined O’Leary on an expedition to Mali in 1999, where he was the invertebrate expert. Tapanila said the feces of sharks, crocodiles and turtles have bone fragments that tend to preserve well. Some of these fossilized feces can be four- to five-feet-thick deposits. A prehistoric diver from 30 million years ago would have found that the bottom of the seaway, which was probably 50 to 70 meters at its deepest points, was covered in these hard feces, Tapanila said.

Tapanila described O’Leary as an effective collaborator who ensured scientists formed effective partnerships. “She brings people together,” Tapanila said. “One of her biggest strengths is that she finds pieces of the puzzle that are needed for a particular scientific question. She sets up the infrastructure to make a research project work.”

In one of the blocks of limestone recovered in 1999, O’Leary found a crocodile skull with well-preserved ear bones. That level of detail is unusual in a fossil because of the relatively small and fine nature of those bones. Robert Hill, who was a doctoral student in O’Leary’s lab and is now a professor at Hofstra University, noticed that the ear bones had bite marks on them. A closer examination suggested that the marks were made by a shark, either during a prehistoric battle or after the crocodile had died.

O’Leary is currently working with Eric Roberts, the head of Geoscience at James Cook University in Australia, to write a review paper on Mali that would contain some reconstructions of the region and the species. The paper would emphasize a big picture story using the specialized details she and others collected. This will not only help people see the world as it was but also may help them see the Earth as a changing place, where rising sea levels could cause another transition in a dry and arid region.

While O’Leary would like to return to Mali, she and numerous other scientists have kept their distance amid the political instability in the area. In 2008, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was taken hostage for 60 days. “There were some diplomats there who seemed unflappable and serious” who suggested that O’Leary and her colleagues return home during their expedition. “The American Embassy was instrumental in leaning on me to leave.” O’Leary said the politics of these areas, despite the rich story they may have to tell about the past, “can play into whether science can even be done.”

In addition to her research in Mali, O’Leary raised the money and created an online system called MorphoBank, which enables scientists studying anatomy all over the world to collect their information in one place. MorphoBank encourages those interested in anatomy of any kind to find data in one place. Tapanila credits O’Leary for creating a valuable resource. For the time, MorphoBank was “totally new. It takes a lot of effort and vision to pull that off,” he said.

O’Leary is married to Michael Novacek, an author and senior vice president and curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. He is one of the team leaders of the joint American Museum of Natural History/Mongolian Academy of Sciences ongoing expeditions to the Gobi Desert. The duo, who collaborated on an expedition in Morocco, have co-authored papers on the philosophy of science, placental mammal evolution and a team-based study of mammal evolution that was published in the journal Science.

O’Leary watches the political scene in and around Mali from afar.“I do keep an eye on it and would love to return,” she said.

Stony Brook’s Center for Planetary Exploration opens

Renee Schofield explains the testbed for the PIXL she built. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Although some might not think of Suffolk County as an obvious hotbed of planetary exploration, it doesn’t take long to discover just how impactful the research and work conducted on Long Island has been on the growth of space science.

Going back to the Apollo program in the early 1960s, the Grumman corporation was vital in landing astronauts on the moon by designing, assembling and testing the lunar module at its facility in Bethpage.

Even closer to home, the founder of Stony Brook University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Dr. Oliver Schaeffer, became the first person to date celestial objects. He confirmed that the moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts were more than four billion years old.

Donald Hendrix leads a research team to help future astronauts prevent long-term illnesses. Photo by Kevin Redding
Donald Hendrix leads a research team to help future astronauts prevent long-term illnesses. Photo by Kevin Redding

Now half a century later, Stony Brook University has once again cemented Long Island’s place in innovative planetary research.

In 2014, Timothy Glotch, a professor in the department of geosciences, received a $5.5 million grant from NASA through their Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute program to support his research. The department eventually obtained a 6,500-square-foot, world-class facility consisting of three different labs.

On Aug. 26, the public was invited to the official opening of Stony Brook’s Center for Planetary Exploration, where faculty members and students in the department gave a tour of their labs and showcased the inspiring work that has taken place so far.

At the core of CPEX is the Stony Brook-led multi-institutional Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration Institute, one of the nine nodes of the NASA program.

“We’re trying to pave the way for future human exploration of the solar system,” Glotch said. “Right now we are doing basic science; we are doing exploration activities that are going to get humans to Mars, back to the moon, and to the moons of Mars. That work is going on right here. We’re kind of leading the way in space exploration and we’re very proud of that. ”

He stressed the importance of the overall goal: to train the next generation of solar system explorers and scientists. The students are going to be running missions in the next decade or two, he said.

“Just as Schaeffer put together a young and talented group of researchers, we now have an extraordinarily talented group of young researchers working in planetary science,” current Chair of the Department Dan Davis said.

“We’re trying to pave the way for future human exploration of the solar system.”

—Timothy Glotch

As for the three different labs, professor Joel Hurowitz runs the geochemistry lab, which includes a student-built test bed for the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, which will fly on the Mars 2020 rover.

The PIXL is an X-ray microscope that looks at rock samples and builds maps of the elemental distribution in those samples to make it easier to analyze.

“From there, we can start to dig in and try to understand whether the environment that those rocks were deposited in were habitable,” Hurowitz said. “PIXL can detect things that are chemical biosignatures. It can detect biosignature in a rock on the surface of Mars. So we’re trying to place some constraints on whether or not there was ever life on Mars.”

The lab is also conducting a series of experiments to determine the damaging effects of lunar dust inhalation by future astronauts.

“What I do is I try to find minerals here on Earth that are similar to what’s found on the moon,” Donald Hendrix, a graduate student leading the research, said. “I grind them up into powders and determine what chemicals are made when they are exposed to fluid, because whenever you breathe in a mineral powder, they can produce chemicals inside your lungs that can potentially cause a lot of damage and turn into lung cancer.

Since humans are going to go back to the moon in the next 20 or 30 years, for really long periods of time, I want to know what hazards astronauts might face while they’re up there.”

Through the research he’s conducting with his team, he’s trying to figure out where astronauts could go that won’t be quite as dangerous.

Professors Joel Hurowitz, Deanne Rogers and Timothy Glotch guide their students in planetary research. Photo by Kevin Redding
Professors Joel Hurowitz, Deanne Rogers and Timothy Glotch guide their students in planetary research. Photo by Kevin Redding

Deanne Rogers runs the remote sensing facility, where faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers analyze various images and infrared data that come from Mars and the moon. From there, they incorporate observation skills and geological training to learn about the planet or moon’s environmental and climatic history.

Glotch’s spectroscopy lab is where students acquire infrared spectra of minerals and rocks for comparison to data collected by Mars and Moon orbiters. Within this lab is the Planetary and Asteroid Regolith Spectroscopy Environmental Chamber, used to re-create the conditions on the lunar surface for accurate measurements.

“I can make the moon on Earth, basically, and that’s pretty exciting,” graduate student Katherine Shirley said. “This machine is special because we can make different environments in this. Eventually we’re going to get some attachments so we can simulate the Martian surface or asteroid surface.”

The lab includes a small piece from Mars, which visitors were encouraged to hold.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who was once a student and employee at SBU, spoke about how much the department means to him.

“I’m practically retired, but my heart is still here,” he said. “I served in this department and am proud to have been among such extraordinary researchers and wonderful human beings for 43 years. It’s a privilege now to help send resources in the direction of these extraordinary individuals who are literally writing the next chapter of our understanding of the universe and solar system. I look forward to continuing to work with you as you go forward. They say I’m technically retired, but don’t believe it. I’m just one phone call away.”

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) presented the faculty with a proclamation from the county legislature to celebrate what this research means for the community, the university and the overall future of science.

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International students meet their host families. Director Rhona Goldman is in center of back row. Photo by Dwayne Moore

By Wenhao Ma

One local organization is helping international students adjust to American life.

An evening reception was held at the Wang Center on the Stony Brook campus Aug. 25 to introduce new international students to their host families. For 40 years, the Stony Brook Host Family Program has been providing opportunities for international students to learn about America by having them develop relationships with local volunteer families.

“It’s very difficult when you are not really comfortable with the language,” said Rhona Goldman, director of the program. “This [program] gives students a chance — off campus — to relax and interact with a family.”

Students do not live with the families, but they are invited to join them for meals or to attend events together. Goldman said some families meet with their hosted students two or three times a year, while others see each other on a regular basis.

Goldman and her husband, Dick, are hosting two new international students this year, one from Ghana and the other from China.

“There are so many international students,” Dick said. “They come in not knowing anyone. So they will gravitate to people from their own countries. The dorms, classes, study groups — everything turns out that way.”

He said a lot of international students have a difficult time adjusting to the culture. For example, they don’t know how to get a driver’s license or open a bank account. A family can ease the transition and make finding their way a much more pleasant experience, he said.

“Rhona and her husband Dick are wonderful,” said Jianing Yan, a former hosted student of theirs who graduated in May. “They helped me adapt to the life in America. They took me to shopping malls and grocery stores on the very first day I arrived. Also they helped me learn about the American culture … They really make me feel comfortable here. To me, they are my family.”

Goldman said the students are not the only ones who have benefited from the program. The families benefit, too.

David Altman became a volunteer last year. He hosted three students last semester and will host another two this fall. He said that he has traveled with his daughter to many countries and is interested in different cultures.

“I’ve studied many languages myself,” Altman said. “I know a little Chinese. [The program] helps me also. So it works both ways.”

The host family program works with the university to send out a notification to all international students after they have been admitted. To become enrolled in the program, both students and host families need to submit applications. Goldman said she matches students with families that share similar interests.

On average, about 120 students a year are assigned to 65 local families. However, according to Goldman, this year many students could not be placed simply because there are not enough hosts. She encourages families to learn more about the program and consider becoming hosts.

“We want to serve as many students as possible,” she said. “It’s a most rewarding program.”