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Funeral service personnel at one of the Moloney Funeral Home locations wait for family to arrive for a drive-thru viewing, one of the ways to give mourners a chance to say last goodbyes during COVID-19. Photo from Moloney Family Funeral Homes

They worked considerably longer hours, sometimes alongside people who came to help from other parts of the state during a time of need. They buried their own family members, sometimes urging out-of-state relatives to stay where they were. They counted the number of people who entered their funeral homes, making sure they complied with changing rules about the number of people allowed at the time.

Below, a family gathers under an outdoor committal tent at one of the Moloney Funeral Home locations awaiting the completion of the cremation for their relative. Photo from Moloney Family Funeral Homes

And, as with many other businesses, funeral directors maneuvered through the challenges of procuring personal protective equipment and supplies during the difficult and tragic early months of the pandemic.

Funeral homes, which have sometimes been described as the “last responders,” have had to react to changing state regulations, protecting the families of those who come to pay their final respects — and their own staffs.

During prepandemic times, “we might have had three or four wakes at one time,” said Fred Bryant, president of East Setauket-based Bryant Funeral Home. “That doesn’t happen now.”

Bryant converted three rooms into one large room, which made it possible to have 50 percent of their capacity.

Sergio Benites, managing partner at Bryant Funeral Home, said the business has allowed between 80 and 90 people at a time in the facility.

Like other public gathering places, funeral homes initially could have up to 10 people. Over time, as the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths declined, the state, through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office, relaxed regulations, first increasing the limit to 33 percent of capacity and then raising that to the current 50 percent.

Even with the higher capacities, funeral home directors have sometimes asked people to wait for someone to leave the facility before allowing new people to enter.

“It happened more than several times,” said Michael Connell, who runs the M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station which was started by his grandfather in 1923, five years after the Spanish flu pandemic. As with many other funeral homes during COVID-19, M.A. Connell has had mourners wait in line in the parking lot.

“When we reach our number, we make an announcement inside,” Connell said.

Indeed, funeral directors have received guidance from several organizations during the pandemic.

“It is encouraged that folks paying respects keep the time in the chapel to a minimum,” wrote Michael Gorton Jr., president of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association, in an email. “Pay your respects, offer condolences, have a comfortable conversation and be considerate of those who may be waiting to come in and pay respects. Because of capacity limits, there could be people waiting outside the building.”

During the worst of the pandemic, Gorton, who is a licensed funeral director at McManus-Lorey Funeral Home in Medford, said funeral directors from outside Long Island came to the area to help.

“The governor’s office allowed us to ‘deputize agents’ and allow nonlicensed people to help us with transfers as long as they were under the direct supervision of a licensed funeral director,” Gorton added.

“People are tending to come and go at a faster rate. People are aware of the fact that other people may want to come in.”

Peter Moloney

Funeral directors appreciate how mourners have understood the circumstances of the pandemic and have shortened the time they spend on site.

“People are tending to come and go at a faster rate,” said Peter Moloney, co-owner of Moloney Family Funeral Homes, which has eight locations, including in Port Jefferson Station and Hauppauge. “People are aware of the fact that other people may want to come in.”

Some families have chosen to reduce the number of people who attend funerals, asking relatives who might be coming in from out of state to join the service through live streaming.

When Connell’s mother Betty Ann died in May, he said his family went through the same difficult decision that hundreds of other families have had to make.

“We decided we weren’t even going to have a public wake,” Connell said. “We had 10 people attend [who were all] immediate family.”

The Connells spent an hour visiting at the funeral home, had a short prayer service and then went to the graveside. Some people met the family in the parking lot and followed in the procession, without getting out of their cars at the cemetery.

Connell’s father, John, who had been married to his wife for close to 60 years, visited with his grandchildren, in a socially distanced setting, at his house.

Like many others, Connell has not set a date for a celebration and memorial for his mother’s life.

“Until we know we’re home free [with the virus], we’re not going to start the planning process,” he said.

Benites said Bryant Funeral Home still has about a dozen families that have postponed a larger event for their loved ones.

“They still aren’t ready” for any larger or more elaborate gathering as a part of a memorializing event,” Benites said. “When they’re ready, we’ll go back and try to give them a celebration of life.”

At times, grieving families have also had to wait to hold a service until close members of the family either have recovered from quarantine or have tested negative for COVID-19.

Benites said around three to five families are waiting for their next of kin to finish quarantine before they hold a service.

While these funeral homes are accustomed to thorough cleaning efforts, directors and owners said they have also complied with rules regarding disinfecting their sites between visits.

Funeral homes, some of which have held services for more than one member of the same family over the past year during the pandemic, have provided their customers and visitors with help managing their grief.

“We have more grief literature available to families during this time,” Moloney said. “The COVID pandemic has been very disruptive to the grief process. We’re all aware of the fact that people are grieving differently today.”

After all the challenges of the pandemic, funeral directors anticipate that more residents on Long Island and throughout the country will likely consider preplanning funerals.

“After we go through COVID, there will be a more obvious increase in the numbers of preplanned funerals,” Benites said.

Photo from Deposit Photos

Looking back on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed his frustration with the reaction to recommended safety measures.

“Public health issues got entangled in the profound divisiveness in our society,” Fauci said in a public discussion with the College of William & Mary president, Katherine Rowe, last week. “When you’re dealing with a common enemy, which is the virus, it is very counterproductive to be divisive over virtually everything you do.”

Fauci was frustrated that wearing a mask became a political statement, calling that “ridiculous” and suggesting that it “accounted for a less-than-optimal response that this country had.”

“I believe we’re going to get there within this calendar year.”

— Dr. Anthony Fauci

The disagreements were based “not on facts and science, but on political differences,” he said. In the next year, however, Fauci expressed hope that the country would have the virus under control and that it would eventually no longer threaten public health.

“I believe we’re going to get there within this calendar year,” Fauci said on the William & Mary call. “The problem is that a global pandemic requires a global response and if we don’t participate as [have] the other developed nations in the EU and in the U.K. and Canada and Australia, if we don’t participate in a program, in COVAX, that helps provide vaccines for the developing world … our problem will never go away.”

Indeed, last week, President Joe Biden (D) pledged $4 billion to the COVAX program at the G7 meeting.

Fauci pushed an initial estimate back for the time when vaccines for the virus would be available broadly to the United States population.

“One of the disappointments, which made me change [the] estimate, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which we anticipated would be coming in significant quantities in March and April, we learned that they will not have significant quantities until likely May and June,” Fauci said.

Reacting to a question from William & Mary Student Assembly president, Anthony Joseph, Fauci said, “Somebody like yourself, a young person, will likely have to wait until May.”

In response to a question about whether a vaccinated individual could be a carrier for COVID-19, Fauci said it is a “theoretical possibility — how likely that is, we do not know.”

The vaccination might prevent someone from showing clinical signs of the disease, but it might not keep someone from being a carrier.

He recommends people who have received the vaccine continue to wear a mask when they’re in the presence of people who have not been vaccinated, to prevent the possibility of infecting someone else.

New York State vaccinations

Snowstorms throughout the country this winter have disrupted the process of distributing vaccines.

New York State Department of Health said facilities where people scheduled appointments will connect with them before and during storms.

“As has been the case for past postponements, if any vaccine appointments at state-run sites are impacted by winter weather, they will be rescheduled over the following seven days,” a DOH spokesman said in a statement. “New Yorkers with appointments scheduled will receive an email or text message to reschedule their vaccination.”

Each resident who received a first dose at a state-run site will get a reminder email 24 hours before their second dose appointment.

When residents of the Empire State receive their first shot, they are required to schedule a second dose during that appointment.

Anyone who missed their appointment for a second shot should contact the call center to reschedule, if possible.

The state is required to keep a second dose on hand up to 42 days after a first shot, even though people who receive the Pfizer vaccine should get their second dose three weeks after the first shot and those who get the Moderna vaccine should return four weeks later. After 42 days, the state site can give the vaccine to someone else.

New York State requires all providers to keep a daily list of standby eligible people, in the event that an appointment opens up.

“As soon as providers are aware that there are more doses than people to be vaccinated, standby eligible individuals should be called, or other steps must be taken to bring additional eligible recipients to the facility or clinic before the acceptable use period expires,” the Health Department said in a statement.

Recognizing that the vaccination process can go awry during storms, providers can administer the vaccine to other public facing employees if extra doses remain at the end of a clinic and no one from a priority population can arrive before the doses expire.

As an example, the DOH suggested that commercial pharmacists who had already vaccinated eligible residents can offer the vaccine to members of the pharmacy department, store clerks, cashiers, stock workers and delivery staff.

“This exception is only for the purpose of ensuring vaccine is not wasted,” the spokesman said.

In remarks on Feb. 9, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) indicated that the supply of vaccines continues to lag well behind the demand.

“We now have about 10 million New Yorkers waiting on 300,000 doses,” Cuomo said. “The supply will only increase when and if Johnson & Johnson is approved. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are ramping up but the ramp-up is relatively slow, so we won’t see a major supply increase from Pfizer and Moderna, nowhere near what we would need to make rapid progress against the 10 million.”

Stony Brook vaccinations

Stony Brook University, meanwhile, announced that it reached a milestone last week when it distributed its 25,000th vaccine, exactly a month after the site started administering the vaccine. That means the university has vaccinated more than one person per minute for each of the 11 hours it’s been providing shots.

In a statement, President Maurie McInnis said she was “proud of the milestone” and called the effort by the university and Stony Brook Medicine “excellent work.”

SBU Hospital is also assisting in developing point-of-distribution sites in underserved communities on Long Island.

Photo from Pixabay

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I have a surprising amount of “found time” these days.

I still have numerous responsibilities and deadlines, but the time between activities, when I’m walking and talking with my wife, when I’m driving to the supermarket or when I’m preparing dinner, my mind is free of the pattern it had developed over the course of the last four years.

No, I wasn’t training for the Olympics and no, I wasn’t preparing a machine to land on the Red Planet. I was, like so many other people, living my life and reading the headlines.

More often than not, the 45th president of the United States consumed the news cycle. Periodically, I wrote about him, but, for the most part, despite reading and reacting to the things other people wrote, I recognized that few ideas or thoughts I had were original or even worth printing.

Yet, I found myself reading and reacting with friends and family, pondering whether he was setting new presidential precedents.

While my body hasn’t gone on any distant vacations, except for a relaxing ski weekend, my mind suddenly has more time. Indeed, even when there are headlines about Supreme Court decisions related to the former president, I glance at a few sentences and move on to other things.

So what am I doing with all this found time? In no particular order, here are a few ways I have reengaged my mind:

■ I’m reading more books. I have had Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin next to my bed for a while. I’m now parsing through it more closely, enjoying the reality of an iconic American, learning about his love for travel and his well-known sense of self worth.

■ I’m thinking about Mars. At first, of course, I couldn’t help wondering how Marvin the Martian from the Bugs Bunny era might react to the Perseverance rover landing next to his home. On a more serious note, I enjoyed the absolutely giddy scene at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where scientists and engineers have been working tirelessly for years for this moment and where they saw and heard sights and sounds from Mars that bring us all closer to the planet’s surface.

■ I’m noticing the lighting around our neighborhood. As we approach spring, the colors of the light have changed, turning ordinary homes into glowing domiciles. If I were selling some of the houses around me, I would take pictures of them during the sunrise and sunset, showing prospective buyers these residences when they are glowing.

■ I’m becoming preoccupied with sports again. I am following the Brooklyn Nets more closely and, more directly, am excited for the days and weeks ahead when my son might play baseball. In his last year of high school, he has an opportunity to play for his school and himself, if the school and the league are able to get through an entire season during the pandemic.

■ I’m marveling, in a distant and impersonal way, at the turnabout in press coverage. CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post have toned down their Washington criticism, while the New York Post and Fox News seem intent to point out all the flaws and dangers of the new administration. The teeter-totter has tilted in the other direction now, with the New York Post attacking White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki with some of the same concerns that the more liberal papers attacked the previous press secretary.

■ Lastly, I’m listening to everything around me better. The children playing down the street and the returning birds calling to each other in the trees have captured my attention.

Feinstein Institutes’ Drs. Kevin Tracey and Christina Brennan break down the current COVID-19 clinical trials and treatments. Photo courtesy of The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research

By Daniel Dunaief

In a collaboration between Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, doctors and researchers are seeking patients with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 for an at-home, over-the-counter treatment.

The two-week trial, which will include 84 people who are 18 years old and older, will use a high, but safe dose of Famotidine, or PEPCID, in a double-blind study. That means that some of the participants will receive a placebo while others will get the Famotidine.

Volunteers will receive the dosage of the medicine or the placebo at home and will also get equipment such as pulse oximeters, which measure the oxygen in their blood, and spirometers, which measure the amount of air in their lungs. They will also receive a scale, a thermometer, a fitness tracker and an iPad.

Dr. Christina Brennan. Photo courtesy of The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research

Northwell Health will send a certified phlebotomist — someone licensed to draw blood — to the participants’ homes to collect blood samples on the first, 7th, 14th, and 28th day of the study.

The study is the first time CSHL and Northwell Health have designed a virtual clinical trial that connects these two institutions.

“What is very powerful with our work with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is the ability to do a virtual trial and utilize patient-recorded outcome measures,” said Christina Brennan, a co-investigator on the study and Vice President for Clinical Research for Northwell Health. “I’m thrilled that we’re doing this type of virtual trial. It’s very patient-centric.”

While reports about the potential benefits of Famotidine have circulated around the country over the last year, this study will provide a data-driven analysis.

“If we study this in the outpatient population, then we might have an opportunity to see if [Famotidine] really does play a role in the reduction of the immune overreaction,” Brennan said.

At this point, researchers believe the drug may help reduce the so-called cytokine storm, in which the immune system becomes so active that it starts attacking healthy cells, potentially causing damage to organs and systems.

In an email, Principal Investigator Tobias Janowitz, Assistant Professor and Cancer Center Member at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, wrote that “there are some retrospective cohort studies” that suggest this treatment might work, although “not all studies agree on this point.”

In the event that a trial participant developed more severe symptoms, Janowitz said the collaborators would escalate the care plan appropriately, which could include interrupting the use of the medication.

In addition to Janowitz, the medical team includes Sandeep Nadella, gastroenterologist at Northwell, and Joseph Conigliaro, Professor of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.

Janowitz said he does not know how any changes in the virus could affect the response to famotidine.

In the trial, volunteers will receive 80 milligrams of famotidine three times a day.

The dosage of famotidine that people typically take for gastric difficulties is about 20 milligrams. The larger amount per day meant that the researchers had to get Food and Drug Administration approval for an Investigational New Drug.

“This has gone through the eyes of the highest regulatory review,” Brennan said. “We were given the green light to begin recruitment, which we did on January 13th.”

Volunteers are eligible to join the study if they have symptoms for one to seven days prior to entering the trial and have tested positive for the virus within 72 hours.

Potential volunteers will not be allowed in the trial if they have had other medications targeting COVID-19, if they have already used Famotidine in the past 30 days for any reason, if they have severe COVID that requires hospitalization, have a history of Stage 3 severe chronic disease, or if they are immunocompromised by the treatment of other conditions.

Brennan said Northwell has been actively engaged in treatment trials since the surge of thousands of patients throughout 2020.

Northwell participated in trials for remdesivir and also provided the steroid dexamethasone to some of its patients. The hospital system transfused over 650 patients with convalescent plasma. Northwell is also infusing up to 80 patients a day with monoclonal antibodies. The hospital system has an outpatient remdesivir trial.

“Based on all our experience we’ve had for almost a year, we are continuously meeting and deciding what’s the best treatment we have available today for patients,” Brennan said.

Janowitz hopes this trial serves as a model for other virtual clinical trials and is already exploring several potential follow up studies.

Brennan said the best way to recruit patients is to have the support of local physicians and providers. 

People interested in participating in the trial can send an email to [email protected] or call 516-881-7067.

When the study concludes, the researchers will analyze the data and are “aware that information on potential treatments for COVID-19, no matter if the data show that a drug works or does not work, should be made available to the community swiftly,” Janowitz wrote in an email.

The decision to test this medicine as a potential treatment for COVID-19 arose out of a conversation between Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center Dave Tuveson and CEO of the Feinstein Institute Kevin Tracey.

“I got involved because I proposed and developed the quantitative symptom tracking,” Janowitz explained.

Photo from Pixabay

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

If you can do it, I highly recommend getting away from your life, even if it’s just for a day or a weekend.

Despite the ongoing threat from COVID-19, we took a weekend ski trip. We called the small inn where we hoped to stay and asked if they required masks of their guests.

“When you get here, you’ll see that there’s almost no common space,” the innkeeper said. “You’ll be in a small hallway.”

That was music to our ears and, as it turned out, exactly as he described. We only saw two other guests that weekend and that was in the parking lot.

Upon check in, we called the family that ran the inn, who directed us, unseen and contactless, to our room, where an old fashioned key, not a key card, awaited us on the kitchen table.

After we emptied the luggage from our car, we raced up a foggy mountain filled with hairpin turns to the ski slope after 9 p.m. to pick up our equipment. I had read that the ski slope recommended getting the gear the night before to save time the next morning. With only two other customers at the rental center that night, we maneuvered through the process quickly.

Something about getting away from the sameness of the last year was incredibly liberating. We woke up later than usual, had a light breakfast and headed to the slopes. Assured that the three parking lots were full, my wife suggested driving to the closest lot, where a friendly parking attendant suggested we could take our chances and circle the lot. Sure enough, my wife spotted someone pulling out of a spot just as we arrived.

The only remaining obstacle between us and blazing a trail down the mountain was a lift ticket.

Clearly, we weren’t the only ones pining for an outdoor sport, as an enormous line awaited. My wife discovered that the line was for rentals and that the ticket line had only two other people.

Grateful for the time we saved procuring equipment the night before, we put on our skis and shuffled towards one of the closest lift lines.

Sitting on a lift for the first time, dangling above skiers and snow boarders who did everything from carving their way down the mountain to sliding on their backside as their skis popped off, we shed the sameness of home life, home responsibilities and home entertainment.

The first time down the mountain, we reminded ourselves to keep our weight forward. My feet and legs, which have spent far too much time tucked underneath me in a chair at home, appreciated the chance to set the pace and direction.

My ears delighted at the shushing sound and my eyes drank in the magnificence of mountains gently piercing through a blanket of clouds that changed from white and grey to orange and pink during the approaching sunset.

We had a few challenging moments. Numerous skiers went maskless until reminded by a lift attended, while some people seemed genuinely disappointed when I didn’t agree to share a lift with them. When I explained to one of them that I was being, “COVID-safe,” she said she was already vaccinated. I told her I hadn’t and was being careful.

A few errant snowboards passed perilously close to my legs before colliding into a tree, while lift lines were sometimes too crowded for comfort.

Still, the ability to get away from a life that, as my daughter describes, “remains on pause even as it moves forward,” provided a refreshing and memorable change to our routines.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Panic, which started in my stomach and had seeped so deep into the sinews of my fingers that I could barely write my own name, was overcoming me.

I was staring at the problem, knowing that I could do it if I calmed down, but also fearing that the answer wouldn’t come in time.

I had studied this type of organic chemistry problem for weeks, had attended every extra help session Randy, my teaching assistant and the head teaching fellow for the class, gave, including several late in the evening on Sunday nights.

If I froze up for too long, I ran the risk of not finishing that problem or the test. I couldn’t come up with a solution, and I couldn’t move on.

Then, it hit me. No, it wasn’t the solution. It was Randy’s overwhelming cologne. My teaching fellow was walking up and down the rows of the testing site, making sure no one was cheating, while responding to requests to go to the bathroom.

Something about his cologne brought me back to one of the many study sessions, helping me break the mental logjam in my head and sending me toward the solution that was right under my nose.

As we enter the 11th month of this pandemic, we can see and hear many of the cues we would get if we were continuing to live the lives we took for granted, but we are much more limited in what we can smell, especially if we are sticking with federal guidelines and staying put.

So, what smells do I miss the most?

While I enjoy visiting Long Island beaches in the summer, when the trio of hazy, hot and humid hovers in the air, I particularly appreciate the cold, salt spray of a winter beach, when the scent of crispy and frozen seaweed blends with air that seems to have brought hints of its cold journey across the ocean.

Then, of course, there is the missing smell of the kinds of foods that aren’t in our own kitchens or right next door. One of my favorite restaurants, the Good Steer sends out the scent of their onion rings in every direction around the building, calling to me and recalling my youth when my late father would watch happily as all three of his sons consumed our double order of onion rings, alongside our burger supremes.

While all ice might seem to smell the same, the scent of Alaska’s glaciers brings a frozen crispness to an inhospitable climate. Marveling at the ice around a cruise my wife and I took over two decades ago, I inhaled the cool fresh scent of frozen water.

Then there’s the food from all over the world. The enticing smells of freshly baked baguettes and fruity macarons in Parisian patisseries, the welcoming scent of fish caught earlier that day on Hawaiian beaches or the symphony of smells from places like Faneuil Hall, where Boston accents form the acoustic backdrop for the smell of flowers, steaks, and baked beans.

With spring just a month away, I turn to thoughts of baseball and Yankee Stadium. Yes, of course, numerous odors throughout the stadium — from other fans who could use some of Randy’s cologne to restrooms that don’t smell like a rose garden — aren’t the first things that come to mind. I’m talking about the smell of the grass and the dirt after the grounds crew waters it. That baseball field scent conjures infinite possibilities, from triple plays to triples off the wall, from immaculate innings to grass-stained catches. The smell of hot dogs and soft buns entice us as vendors march up and down the stairs nearby.

These days, we can see and hear people through FaceTime calls, but we can’t smell them. That person might love orange Tic Tacs, tuna fish sandwiches, fresh roasted coffee or any of a host of other scents — cinnamon rolls, perhaps —that define her the same way the light highlights a crooked-toothed smile. We might find Tic Tacs that remind us of them, but, without the combination of scents, including their laundry detergent, their soap or their conditioner, or their physical presence, we are missing that olfactory connection.

Weisen Shen. Photo by John Griffen/SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Like so many others during the pandemic, Weisen Shen has had to pivot in his job.

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, Shen has historically focused his efforts on understanding the geothermal heat flux, or the movement of heat from the core of the Earth, in Antarctica.

Constrained by travel restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Shen has decided to put his 180 seismometers to good use on Long Island.

“We have seismometers that stay in the basement of our building,” Shen said. “We can’t use them in Antarctica because of the travel ban and other complexities, and we want to make use of them in our community to understand the geology of Long Island.”

Shen is looking for students who might be interested in geology and who might like to plant a seismometer in their backyard, gathering information about how the flow of seismic waves deep beneath their homes and backyards reveals details about the structure, temperature and composition of the land miles below the surface.

Shen, who lives in Syosset, installed a seismometer in his own backyard, which has allowed him to see the signal from the local train station in Sayville. “We seek help from [the local community] to allow us to deploy a seismometer in their back or front yard for a month or so,” Shen said.

Planting a seismometer would involve digging a 15 centimeter by 15 centimeter hole that is 5 inches deep. Shen and his team would cover it. The seismometer wouldn’t need local electricity because it has a lithium battery. 

After about a month, the scientists would dig it out, put dirt back in, and return the backyard to the way it looked prior to taking these measurements.

The machine doesn’t make any noise and does not pick up any sounds from inside people’s homes.

The signal will contribute “to our understanding of the Earth,” Shen explained, including details about the crustal and mantle structure, seismic activities, and the Earth’s vibrations due to civil activities such as the rumbling of trains.

Shen is “more than happy to share data” with the people who host his seismometers. He also expects to produce a research paper based on his studies from Long Island.

He is charging the batteries and testing the instruments and plans to plant them in the field as early as the end of February.

People who would like to participate can reach out to Shen by sending him an email at [email protected] Please include “Volunteer Long Island Imager” in the subject line.

Recent Antarctica Studies

While Shen is focusing his geothermal expertise on Long Island, he hasn’t abandoned or ignored Antarctica, a region he has focused research efforts on because of the vulnerability of the ice sheet amid climate change. He is also interested in the geothermal structure in the area, which reveals information about its geology and tectonics, which remain mysteries residing below the ice. 

Grounded during the pandemic, Shen spent several months gathering and analyzing considerable available data, hoping to understand what happens deep below the frozen surface.

“We are trying to analyze so-called ‘legacy data’ that has been collected over the past two decades,” he said.

On a fundamental level, Shen is trying to quantify how much heat is coming out through the crust, which includes heat coming from the deeper earth in the mantle and the core as well as within the crust.

Traveling beneath the oceans towards the center of the Earth, which would be considerably hotter and more difficult than 19th century author Jules Verne’s fantastic fictional voyages, would expose people to temperatures that increase, on average, about 10 to 30 degrees celsius per kilometer.

Some of the heat comes from the way the planet formed. In addition, unstable isotopes of potassium, uranium and thorium release heat as they decay, which mostly happens within the Earth’s crust. 

In areas with large ice sheets sitting on top of the land, the geothermal heat can melt some of that ice, creating a layer of water that accelerates the ice sheet movement. Indeed, pulling an ice cube across dry ground takes more energy than dragging that same cube across a wet surface.

Moving ice more rapidly towards the periphery will increase melting which, coupled with climate change, could increase the amount of water in Antarctica, particularly in the western region.

Comparing the two ice melting effects, Shen believes global warming, which is more rapid and has shorter term outcomes, plays a more important role in changing the liquid characteristics of Antarctica than geothermal heating, which is longer term.

In collecting available legacy data, Shen analyzed information from the entire western part of Antarctica, as well as parts of the central and eastern regions.

Using a measure of the geothermal heat flux, Shen found some unexpected results, particularly on Thwaites Glacier, beneath which he found a large area with elevated geothermal heat flux. 

Studying geomagnetic data, he compared their results with the results from geomagnetically derived results. In the future, he will combine the two different methods to improve the assessment. 

In a publication last summer in Geophysical Research Letters, Shen presented a new map of the geothermal heat flux for Antarctica with a new resolution of 100 kilometers by 100 kilometers, which is a much higher resolution than earlier studies, which are typically done at 600 kilometer by 600 kilometer ranges.

In West Antarctica, he found a more modest heat flux, despite the area being more tectonically active.

Finally, a major take of the paper, Shen said, is that the Thwaites glacier has a high geothermal heat flux, which could explain why the ice moves more rapidly and readily.

As for his future work, in addition to exploring the seismology of Long Island, Shen said he would pursue his National Science Foundation grant to look for additional water in the boundary between the ice sheet and the mantle.

He is working on “using high frequency seismic records to look for data,” he said.

Valentina Bisogni. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Nature plays a wonderful game of hide-and-seek with its secrets.

One day, Joan might be searching for, say, an apple tree in the forest. Joan might consider all the elements that appeal to an apple tree. She might expect the journey to take two hours but, to her surprise, discovers a tree on the way.

That’s what happened to Valentina Bisogni, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Bisogni, who works at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, wanted to figure out how the thickness in a magnetic film affected traveling modes involving the spin property of electrons, known as spin waves. Specifically, she wanted to control the energy of the spin wave.

This might be important in future devices that involve passing along information through an electron’s spin rather than through charge, which is the current method. Controlling the spin wave could be another way to optimize the performance or improve the efficiency of future devices.

Transmitting charge creates unwanted heat, which can damage the components of an electronic device and limit its usefulness. Heat also creates energy inefficiencies.

Valentina Bisogni with a collection of tomatoes in a garden in Bellport Village. Photo by Claudio Mazoli.

Bisogni, who arrived at BNL in 2014, has been working on a beamline called Soft Inelastic X-ray Scattering, or SIX. Each of the new beamlines at the nearly billion-dollar facility has its own acronym and number that corresponds to their location in the accelerator ring.

Before she planned to apply an electric field that might control the spin wave, however, Bisogni figured she’d explore the way thinner iron materials affected the spin.

That’s when the metaphorical apple tree appeared, as the thickness of iron films, that were as thin as one to 10 nanometers, helped control the spin wave before applying any electric field.

“This result was not expected,” Bisogni said. This was preparatory work to a more detailed, dedicated study. 

“Not having had any benchmark of iron crystals in general with the technique I am using, it was logical to study this system from a bulk/ thin form to a very thin film,” she explained in an email.

Bisogni and a team from Yale University recently published the results of this work in the journal Nature Materials.

While this unexpected result is encouraging and could eventually contribute to the manufacture of electronic devices, Bisogni said this type of discovery helps build a fundamental understanding of the materials and their properties at this size.

“For people assembling or designing devices or wave guides, I think this is an ingredient that has to be considered in the future,” Bisogni said.

This kind of result could enable the optimization of device performance. When manufacturers propagate a signal based on spin dynamics, they would likely want to keep the same frequency, matching the signal along a medium from point A to point B.

The effect of the thickness on the spin was like a power log, which is not quite exponential as the experimenters tested thinner material, she said.

Bisogni plans to continue with this collaboration, as the group is “excellent in preparing and characterizing this kind of system.”

In the bigger picture, Bisogni is focused on quantum materials and altering their spin.

She is also overseeing the development of a system called Opera, which copies the working conditions of electronic devices. Opera is the new sample environment available at SIX and is developed within the research project to copy device-working conditions in the beamline’s measurement chamber.

Bisogni ultimately hopes her work may improve the energy efficiency of electronics.

A resident of Bellport Village, Bisogni lives with her partner Claudio Mazoli, who is the lead scientist for another beamline at the NSLS II, called the Coherent Soft X-ray Scattering, or CSX.

Bisogni said the couple frequently enjoy exchanging ideas and have an ongoing active collaboration, as they share several scientific passions.

The couple met at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France when they were working in the same lab.

Bisogni was born and raised in Spoleto, which is in the province of Perugia in the center of Italy. Bisogni speaks Italian and English as well as French and German after her work experience in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Bisogni said she and Mazoli are “very food-centric” and can find numerous epicurean opportunities in the area of Long Island and New York City. The weather is also similar to home, although they miss their family and friends from Italy.

The couple purchased a house together during the pandemic and have been doing some work to shape the house to their needs. They remodeled the bathrooms in an Italian/ European style, purchased a German washing machine and dryer and painted some walls.

In the summer, Bisogni, who likes to eat, cook and grow vegetables, enjoys spinach, tomatoes and light-green zucchini.

As for her work, Bisogni is currently pleased with the state of her beamline, although she said its development took considerable team effort and time during the development, construction and commissioning.

At this point, her research team includes two and a half permanent scientists and two post-doctoral scientists. Within the team, they have two post-doc researcher positions looking to fill, one for her research project and another dedicated to her colleague’s research project.

Ultimately, Bisogni is excited with the opportunities to make fundamental discoveries at work.

“It is, in general, very exciting, as most likely you are doing something for the first time,” Bisogni explained in an email. “It is true that you may fail, since nobody is going to tell you if what you are doing is going to work or not, but if you get it right, then it is extremely rewarding.”

Photo from Pixabay

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

For the past week, I’ve had birds on my brain.

For starters, Central Park birders headed to the famous urban greenway recently to catch sight of a snowy owl, the first time people documented the presence of the bird in the park in about 130 years. 

I wrote to a bird expert, Noah Strycker, who is both a celebrated avian author, having written “Birding without Borders,” and a master’s candidate at Stony Brook University in the laboratory of Heather Lynch, a penguin scientist and the IACS Endowed Chair for Ecology & Evolution.

Strycker responded to numerous questions about the owl and the snowstorm that blanketed the region earlier this week.

In response to a question about exactly what might bring a snowy owl to the city, Strycker suggested that these birds often “irrupt,” a word for traveling greater distances than normal, south from their normal Arctic range in winters following good breeding summers. 

“Their appearance in New York may be related to an abundance of lemmings in the Arctic last summer,” Strycker wrote. In other words, these well-fed birds may have been able to journey further from the Arctic after a bountiful summer.

While Strycker didn’t catch sight of the owl this time, he did see one on Long Island last winter. They appear on the south shore almost every year, although it’s unusual to see one in Central Park because they prefer beaches and open areas, which are closer to a normal tundra habitat.

As for the rare birds Strycker has seen in the area, he said he got to see a Western Tanager and an Ash Throated Flycatcher in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn this fall. These are birds from the western part of the country, which don’t visit the Empire State too often.

Vagrant birds, which occur in areas outside their typical range, can appear in the area, a byproduct of a wrong turn during a long migration. So, what happens to birds during a snowstorm, I wondered.

For the snowy owl, if he were still here, the precipitation probably wouldn’t have been much of a problem, as his name suggests.

“Flying through falling snowflakes isn’t as much of an issue as flying in high winds, which do, occasionally, literally blow birds off course,” Strycker wrote.

During the storm, many bird species will tuck themselves in a protected spot, like in a dense tree to ride out the flakes.

Noah Strycker with a northern saw-whet owl

“This is a good time to watch your hedges and evergreen trees, which provide nice cover in the winter,” Strycker suggested.

Strycker said people could do seed eating birds — like sparrows, finches, cardinals, doves, chickadees, and jays — a favor by restocking a feeder before a snowstorm.

“They will all come to bird feeders for sunflower seeds and suet,” he said.

Snowy owls, on the other hand, don’t need handouts or feeders. They find their food, typically small mammals, by using their keen senses of sight and hearing. Shaped like a disc, an owl’s face concentrates faint sounds of rustling under the snow, allowing it to find prey it can’t see.

Strycker has always wanted to find an owl footprint in the snow, which looks like a snow angel. The owl lands on the snowy landscape to find its prey and lifts off, leaving footprint evidence of its meal.

As for the effect of the snow on a bird’s survival, Strycker said most of the birds in the area manage through the colder months.

“Snowstorms have been occurring in New York for a very long time, so birds that spend the winter here have mostly adapted to surviving them,” Strycker wrote.

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Steven Matz hurls a pitch from the mound. Photo by Clayton Collier

The Toronto Blue Jays are getting much more than a 29-year-old lefty pitcher from the New York Mets.

In a trade in which the American League East team sent pitchers Josh Winckowski, Sean Reid-Foley and Yennsy Diaz to the Mets, the Blue Jays are adding Steven Matz, a hometown hero, who has stayed in touch with his roots, as well as a three-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

A graduate of Ward Melville High School, Matz continued to inspire his former coaches and students, remaining humble and approachable despite the glitz and glare of a baseball career that included a memorable start in the 2015 World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

“Every year, [Matz] will come back” to Ward Melville High School, said baseball coach Lou Petrucci. “He’s very accessible. If you ask him to do something, he does it.”

One day, Petrucci said of his former pitcher, Matz did bus duty at W. S. Mount Elementary School.

“He signs autographs and takes pictures with all the kids,” Petrucci said. “If he goes to Murphy [Junior High School], he signs autographs for hours.”

In 2015, in addition to making his pitching debut on the field for the Mets, Matz started Tru32, a charitable foundation designed to help first responders and those who serve in the NYPD, FDNY and US military. Matz wore the number 32 as a member of the Mets.

In April of last year, Matz donated $32,000 to first responders and hospitals in New York City in the midst of the spring surge in cases. Matz donated $12,000 to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and $10,000 to the New York Fire Department and Police Departments.

Through Tru32, Matz has provided 32 tickets during the season to first responders.

Matz also helped families caring for children who need medical attention through Angela’s House.

Tru32 hosts a bowling fundraiser called “Strikes for Steven,” that raises money for scholarships for the children of first responders who died in the line of duty.

Picked by his hometown team in the 2009 draft, Matz made his Major League Baseball debut June 28, 2015, against the Cincinnati Reds. He won the game 7-2, contributing three hits, including a two-run double.
Petrucci appreciated the storybook nature of Matz’s debut.

“He was playing in New York, in front of all his friends,” Petrucci said. “It was an unbelievable thing for Three Village.”

Petrucci expected that Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who contributed to the Tru32 scholarships, would be disappointed that he is no longer teammates with his close friend. When Matz married Taylor Cain in Alabama, deGrom celebrated at his two-day wedding. Mets left fielder Brandon Nimmo also attended the nuptials.

Petrucci said Cain, who is in a country band with her two brothers called the Cain Trio, can also hit a baseball.

When the Mets were scouting Matz, then general manager Omar Minaya noticed that Matz’s baseball skills weren’t confined to the pitcher’s mound.

“Lou, this kid can hit,” Petrucci recalls Minaya saying. “Of course, he can,” Petrucci thought. “He’s a baseball player.”

During six seasons with the Mets, Matz compiled a 31-41 record and had a 4.35 earned run average.

Matz battled through several injuries before and during his time with the Mets, each time returning to the sport he loved.

“He works hard every day,” Petrucci said. “He wants to compete.”

One of Petrucci’s favorite items from Matz’s career is the World Series ticket from 2015, when Matz pitched into the sixth inning, allowing seven hits and only two runs while exiting a game without a decision that the Mets wound up losing, 5-3.

The Ward Melville baseball coach knew that Matz had considerable talent when he saw him practicing at All Pro Sports Academy in Bellport.

“Steven, you’re going to get drafted,” Petrucci recalled telling his young pitcher. “He had unbelievable stuff.”

Petrucci called his friend Ed Blankmeyer, who coached St. John’s baseball for 23 years and is now the coach of the Brooklyn Cyclones, to talk about Matz.

Blankmeyer told Petrucci, “just don’t mess it up.” Petrucci said that was the “best advice he ever gave me.”

The high school coach said his former player taught him about the game of baseball and about “being humble. How many coaches” send players to the big leagues?

In addition to Matz, Ben Brown, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies and has played for three seasons in the minor leagues, and Anthony Kay, who is a pitcher on the Blue Jays, attended Ward Melville.

While they are both currently on the Blue Jays, Matz and Kay, who is four years younger than his new teammate, share a high school distinction.

After Matz pitched the last game of his senior year, freshman Kay toed the rubber in the first game of the next season for Ward Melville.

“They’re going to pitch back-to-back [for Toronto] one day,” Petrucci said. “I hope to go watch it.”

Petrucci appreciates that his former players have the opportunity to live out the childhood dream of so many on Long Island, carrying their hopes and aspirations north of the border.

Echoing Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris from the movie, “The Rookie,” Petrucci said, “He gets to play baseball every day. Whatever professional you know … who wouldn’t want to trade places with him?”