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.

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Mom first met her great-great-grandson Aiman on July 13, 2016. Photo by Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Growing up in Setauket, I learned a great deal from my father by his example, but encouragement and support came from Mom. My sister Ann, my brother Guy and I were taught that we were not only a family but a part of a community that extended from our relatives and neighbors across the street to our relatives and friends everywhere.

We lived with my Grandma Edith Tyler until I was 12 and then we moved into the house down the street where my father’s half sister Carrie had lived with her two aunts, Annie and Corinne, until their deaths. Soon after we moved, my Grandma Tyler moved in and lived with us until her death in 1963. A few years later my grandmother Margaret Carlton (Nana) moved from her home in Port Jefferson to our home and lived with us until her death in 1980.

During all this time, these transitions seemed very normal to me. Mom never said a cross word that I was ever aware of, nor any indication that it was the least bit difficult for her sharing a kitchen and dealing with a strong-willed mother-in-law and an equally strong-willed mother. I always loved and appreciated my grandmothers. They were, like Mom, independent women who had run households of their own.

Grandma and my grandfather Tyler owned and ran a boarding house (now Setauket Neighborhood House) until they sold it in 1918 to Eversley Childs. After my grandfather died in 1926, Grandma took the job of Setauket’s postmaster, and then as librarian at Emma Clark Memorial Library.

Grandma Carlton, Nana to us kids, had married Guy Carlton in 1909 in Alna, Maine, and the couple immediately moved to Port Jefferson where my grandfather Carlton, Pup-Pup to us kids, worked building the original Belle Terre Club. A master carpenter and cabinet maker, Pup-Pup built his house in Port Jefferson, overlooking the harbor, and my grandmother insisted that they have indoor plumbing. This was in 1909, when outhouses were the norm.

One summer (1948) I went to work with my grandfather in Crystal Brook. He was building a full bar in the basement of one of the houses. It was a beautiful piece of furniture with cabinets behind the bar in the game room of the summer cottages, and he told me, “Don’t tell your grandmother, she wouldn’t approve.” My grandfather was a tough man, but my grandmother was the strength of the family.

Mom took all of this in stride. She also believed in letting go and letting her kids explore and discover the world. When I was about 8, I was allowed to cross Main Street in Setauket on my own and take my 4-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother with me to Mrs. Celia Hawkins’ farm. We loved going across to the farm with cows, pigs, geese and a few chickens running through the house. We grew up on the buttermilk and candy corn Celia provided for us every day.

On a number of occasions, I unsuccessfully tried to milk the cows. I could never get the hang of it, but Celia let us churn the butter until our arms gave out and we collapsed on the porch. We also enjoyed mornings when we could help collect the eggs, learning quickly how to avoid having our hands pecked by the chickens.

Mom and Dad also took us on vacations to historic and natural sites from Williamsburg, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Niagara Falls and the Reversing Falls Rapids in St. John, New Brunswick.

Dad drove and Mom made up games for us to play in the car, usually looking for things outside as we drove. I didn’t realize it at the time, but although Dad was the tour guide and historian, it was Mom who put the fun into the trips with details about interesting signs, structures and people along the route.

“One in; one out. Life goes on and we have a plethora of memories and stories to keep in our hearts.”

— Beverly Tyler

As adults, we took Mom on a few trips, including one to Maine for the burial service of my Aunt Etta, who died when she was 105. Going through one town, Mom suddenly burst out laughing. She pointed out a Chinese restaurant named Mi Sen Gui, and exclaimed, “That’s my son, guy.”

Mom sang a number of years with the Greg Smith singers, even traveling with them to Europe. She played bridge with a group of friends and enjoyed the Setauket Library book study group, even traveling with members of the club to London.

Mom and Dad were members of the Old Field Point Power Squadron and Mom completed every advanced grade course, including celestial navigation. I remember that after completing that last tough course, her warm, aromatic chocolate chip cookies reappeared after a few years absence. Mom was also an excellent cook whose pie crusts have no equal and my wife will attest to that.

Mom enjoyed golf, bowling, boating, car trips and other outdoor activities with my father until his death in a terrible auto accident in 1975. Mom married her second husband Lewis Davis in 1978 and together they enjoyed golf, bowling, trips to Florida and trips all over the world, making a few lasting friends in Australia and other countries as well as closer to home. I especially got to know and appreciate Mom as a friend as well as a mom after Lew died in 2008, in his 94th year.

By the time Lew died, Mom had developed paralysis due to an inherited condition that strikes different people in our family at all different ages and with varied intensities. By the last few years of her life, Mom struggled with special shoes and braces on both legs. I hardly ever heard her complain or let her paralysis slow her down. By this year she was almost completely wheelchair-bound but was still able, with assistance, to move short distances, including in and out of vehicles.

Mom has always been able to take a problem, evaluate it, and after a day, make a decision that is best for everyone around her as well as for herself. Mom always wanted her colonial era home and property to be preserved. Working through state legislator Steven Englebright, this has been accomplished and the property will now go to the Three Village Community Trust.

Mom never lost her sense of humor. Recently, her companion Elizabeth was rubbing some lotion, with a pleasing but distinctive aroma, on her feet. Mom turned and looked very seriously at Elizabeth and said, “Will this clash with my perfume?”

Mom was always able to set herself a goal and stick to it. Elizabeth said that Mom is the only person she knows who could eat one dark chocolate candy kiss and put the bag of candy back in the refrigerator.

Mom’s concern even extended to our parish priest. A week ago we all feared the end of her life was near, but we didn’t know she knew. I told her that our rector, Canon Visconti, was on the way to see her and she whispered to me, “Does he know the situation?” That’s Mom, always one step ahead of the rest of us.

Mom died Thursday, Aug. 25, in her 102nd year, just a few hours after her fourth great-great-grandchild was born in Tennessee. Mom is survived by sons Beverly (Barbara) and Guy, daughter Ann Taylor (Frank), two stepdaughters Sukie Crandall (Steve) and Nancy Rosenberg, seven grandchildren, one step-granddaughter, 21 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

One in; one out. Life goes on and we have a plethora of memories and stories to keep in our hearts.

The funeral will be Friday, Sept. 9 at 11 a.m. at the Caroline Church, 1 Dyke Rd., Setauket. There will be a wake at Bryant Funeral Home, 411 Old Town Rd. in Setauket Sept. 8 from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m.

Beverly Tyler is a lifelong resident of Setauket, Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from Three Village Historical Society.

Stony Brook University Hospital. File photo

By Kenneth Kaushansky, M.D.

In a unique type of collaboration, Stony Brook Medicine and Mount Sinai Health System have entered into a formal affiliation agreement that combines the strengths of both organizations to create positive change in biomedicine, the delivery of care to our communities and the education of the next generation of health care professionals.

The affiliation of Stony Brook Medicine and Mount Sinai Health System is based on our common values, as well as a reverence for translating basic biomedical science into new cures for human disease and a commitment to providing health care professionals of the future the most advanced approaches to both didactic and experiential learning.

We also share the commitment to using robust clinical evidence to determine the very best medical practices that improve the quality of care delivered to our patients. Both institutions seek to apply our understanding of human health and disease to the entire population we serve, through our leadership positions in the New York State Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP) Program and other avenues, so that all will benefit from our efforts.

Often, when people hear the word “affiliation,” it is thought that there is a merger or acquisition; however, this is not the case — Mount Sinai is not buying Stony Brook or vice versa. It is an agreement that allows collaborative efforts to flourish and heighten academic, research and clinical care synergies.

This means boundless opportunities on a number of fronts. For example, the Stony Brook University School of Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai will develop joint graduate and medical educational programs, maximizing the strengths of existing master’s and doctoral programs at each institution. Students will have the opportunity to take classes on both campuses, allowing them to learn new techniques and expand their exposure.

In addition, the combining of two research powerhouses has immense promise to influence both institution’s abilities to make major breakthroughs by moving discoveries made at the very basic level and bringing them to the bedside faster — all to improve diagnostics and treatments. We believe that the joint efforts will yield greater discoveries than would arise from either institution alone. Mount Sinai and Stony Brook have already taken steps in this direction by investing a combined total of $500,000 to introduce new research programs, with the intent of receiving collaborative external funding.

The areas of focus include biomedical engineering and computer science; drug discovery and medicinal chemistry sciences; neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry; basic biology and novel therapeutics; and public health and health systems. The alliance will capitalize on Mount Sinai’s strengths in biomedical and clinical research and health policy and outcomes and Stony Brook’s expertise not only in the School of Medicine but also in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences and in departments such as mathematics, high-performance computing, imaging and the physical and chemical sciences.

It is a momentous time for academic medicine, health care, our respective students, faculty and staff and for the communities we serve across the Island and into Manhattan. The partnership allows both institutions to look at new ways to be innovative and bring the benefits of our shared transformation to our patients.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky is senior vice president of Health Sciences and dean of Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

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Brie is a very versatile cheese and pairs nicely with a multitude of wines. Stock photo

By Bob Lipinski

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”  — Charles de Gaulle, 1890–1970, President of France, 1962 speech

According to popular legend, Emperor Charlemagne supposedly first tasted Brie in around 774 at a monastery and fell in love with its creamy flavors and inviting texture. There are stories that put Brie’s beginnings several hundred years earlier, but those cannot be proven.

At the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) a jury of ambassadors each brought a cheese from their respective countries for a judging. France’s statesman, Talleyrand, brought Brie and after a vote, the conference delegates proclaimed it the King of Cheeses.

Brie, which is a double-crème, cow’s milk cheese is made in the French province of Brie, in the department of Seine-et-Marne, northeast of Paris, although it is also made in the United States and other countries. Brie is similar to Camembert (France), Coulommiers (France), Crèma Danica (Denmark) and Paglia (Italy).

The term Brie covers a small family of cheeses, which carry the name of the town or village where they are made. The finest Brie is generally considered to be Brie de Meaux while another variety is Brie de Melun.

Prior to aging, the small or large wheels of cheese are washed with a salt brine, then rubbed or sprayed with a culture of pure-white mold spores. After that, the cheeses are taken to the curing room for many months of aging. Brie has a thin, edible, white rind, with a creamy yellow interior.

When Brie begins to get old, the white rind turns brown and an odor of ammonia can be detected. Its texture is soft and smooth, almost honey-like, but definitely not runny. It is mild to pungent tasting with hints of mushrooms, cognac, heavy cream, nuts and even truffles. After one hour or so opened at room temperature, Brie becomes runny with a buttery and earthy flavor and is quite spreadable. It is sometimes flavored with herbs, peppers and mushrooms.

I generally serve Brie at room temperature, and for guests, with the aid of a sharp knife, I remove the top rind and immediately brush the cheese with lemon juice. Next I spread a thin layer of apricot or peach preserves, followed by raisins previously soaked in white wine, in the center. Spread slivered almonds or pecans in a circular fashion around the raisins. Place in a 425 F oven for approximately 7 to 10 minutes. Remove and let rest for 10 minutes, then serve with crackers.

Brie is a very versatile cheese and pairs nicely with a multitude of wines including some reds — Beaujolais, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, merlot, pinot noir and zinfandel. White wines include chardonnay, chenin blanc, Gewürztraminer, riesling and sauvignon blanc. Let’s not forget Champagne and sparkling wines.

Two New York State Finger Lakes wines I recently paired with Brie were:

Standing Stone 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: Bright ruby colored with aromas of wild cherry, red candy and spicy blueberries. Should develop into a stunning wine.

Standing Stone 2014 Dry Vidal: Vidal is a white French hybrid of Ugni Blanc and Rayon d’Or, developed in 1929 by Jean-Louis Vidal. The wine has an aroma of grapefruit, kiwi and peaches. It has plenty of acidity, which keeps it clean and crisp tasting. Definitely one of the best dry Vidal wines I have encountered!

Bob Lipinski, a local author, has written 10 books, including “101: Everything You Need to Know About Vodka, Gin, Rum & Tequila” and “Italian Wine & Cheese Made Simple” (available on He conducts training seminars on wine, spirits and food and is available for speaking engagements. He can be reached at or [email protected]

Above, variegated azalea grown from a sport, but the azalea is ‘reverting to type’ growing some solid green leaves. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Recently, I received a U.S. stamp with a couple of bright red pears pictured on it. The paperwork that came with the stamp noted that pear trees, along with apple trees, are noted for putting out sports.

Botanically, sports are genetic mutations that arise naturally in plants. And yes, pear and apple trees do put out sports, which can lead to new varieties of plants being developed. On a pear tree, which normally produces green pears, you may see a branch that has reddish pears. Or on an apple tree, you may find a branch that has larger or different colored apples.

Now, I’m not talking about trees that are grafted to produce more than one variety of fruit — you can see these advertised in magazines and gardening catalogs — but a tree that naturally produces one or more unusual branches and fruit. This is referred to as “throwing a sport.”

Certain plants are more prone to produce these genetic mutations than others. For example, hostas easily produce sports, leading to the literally hundreds of varieties of hostas on the market today, from tiny to enormous, variegated, bluish, etc.

When these sports are propagated, the new plants will resemble the sport, not the parent plant. Propagate the unusual hosta and you now have a new cultivar. Propagate the red pear sport and you now have an entire tree filled with those red pears.

But sometimes, these sports are not stable. They “revert to type,” that is, they revert to the genetic makeup of the original plant. It’s usually not the whole plant that reverts, but a small part of it. A branch will grow, for example, that looks just like the original plant.

This dwarf Alberta spruce is reverting to type. Note the unusual branches growing out of the top of the tree.
This dwarf Alberta spruce is reverting to type. Note the unusual branches growing out of the top of the tree. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana f. conica) is a lovely, slow-growing, compact coniferous evergreen, which as its name implies stays very small. It makes an ideal decorative plant and easily grows in tubs. Many people like them decorated at Christmas. The dwarf Alberta spruce is a naturally occurring mutation of white spruce. Yes, it can revert to type. A couple of years ago, I saw a walkway lined with them; and yes, there growing from the top of one was a branch that had reverted to type.

So, what do you do if you find a sport on one of your plants, or, a plant grown from a sport reverts to type? That depends on whether you like the appearance or not.

Ignore it. If you find that the sport, or the reversion, is pleasing, you can just ignore it. That’s what I did when my variegated azaleas began to revert to solid green leaves. The flowers are the same gorgeous ones on all the branches, and the reversion actually has larger green leaves than the variegated ones.

Remove it. If you don’t like the sport or the reversion, find it ruins the plant etc., you can simply prune it out. I could have done this with my azaleas, but as I said above, it didn’t affect the flowers and made the overall plant larger.

Propagate it. If you absolutely love the sport, you can attempt to cultivate it. Usually vegetative propagation is the best since a sport is a mutation, a change in the genes. For hostas, this usually means digging up the plant and dividing it, detaching the different variety. Make sure you have the roots with the division. Replant the original plant and plant the sport in a different location, giving it a new home. Commercial growers sometimes use tissue culture, but this is really a specialized group of techniques that is beyond the home gardener. If the plant with the sport is a woody one, you can try to take woody cuttings. Use rooting hormone and sterile soil for best results.

You can, of course, collect the seeds from any flowers that form on a sport and try to grow the sport from seed. Chances are that if the seeds are not sterile, you will get a wide range of results from the original plant to the sport. Growing from seed, however, is time consuming as many plants can take years of growth before they mature. Plants like the dwarf Alberta spruce generally don’t produce cones and, therefore, no seeds. So, growing from seed is very iffy.

Note that if you find a really different branch with totally different flowers, on say, a rose bush, trace it back to its origin. Chances are you will find that the branch goes all the way back to the ground. Chances are that this is a grafted plant and that those roots are sprouting, rather than the graft. Usually grafted plants are made up of a common root stock with a beautiful plant on top. Unless you absolutely love what’s growing on the root sprouts, remove them at the soil level, below the graft (the large bump on the stem just above soil level). This will send the energy of the plant into the beautiful graft rather than the common root stock.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Wei Zhu with a photo of her mother, Shenzhen Du. Photo by Joyce Ruan

By Daniel Dunaief

Wei Zhu’s long personal and professional journey began in China. Devoted to her mother, Shenzhen Du, Zhu watched her hero fight through a long illness with chronic kidney disease. Shortly before she died, her mother woke from a coma and suggested that her daughter become a doctor, like the people who were helping her in the hospital.

Driven to fulfill her mother’s request, Zhu attended college where, despite aspirations to become a writer like Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte, she studied math. She found the subject challenging but stuck with it. “Math was absolutely hard work,” she recalled. “We had to devote longer time to our study than many other majors. It all paid off in my case.”

Indeed, after she completed a one-year graduate program in math, she and her husband, Yeming Ma, came to the United States, where she used her experience in math to explore ways to understand how statistics can provide a perspective on everything from drug dosage to global warming to the causes of cancer.

“You can use math to improve people’s health,” said Zhu, who is now the deputy chair and professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics & Statistics at Stony Brook University.

Wei Zhu with her daughter, Merry Ma. Photo  by Merry Ma
Wei Zhu with her daughter, Merry Ma. Photo by Merry Ma

At the beginning of the year, Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, emailed Zhu to ask her to pitch in to help understand a major question about cancer. In the prestigious journal Science, several researchers had concluded that the “bad luck” hypothesis suggested cancer was something that was written in a person’s genes. This scientific conclusion was akin to suggesting that a character’s fate in a play may have been written in the stars.

Hannun, Song Wu, an assistant professor in her department, Scott Powers, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Zhu came to a different conclusion, which they published in the equally prestigious magazine Nature.

Putting the data and the theory together, the group suggested that lifestyle choices and environmental exposure were also instrumental in this disease. The argument is the equivalent of nature versus nurture for a deadly disease.

“We were able to quantify what we observed,” Zhu said. For most cancers, the group concluded, the majority of the risk was due to lifestyle and environmental factors other than pure intrinsic genetic mutations. The disease debate, scientists recognize, doesn’t end there.

“The entire cancer research community still has a long way to go in order to perfectly understand the causes, prevention and treatments for each cancer, for each individual,” Zhu explained.

Hannun suggested that the direction cancer research is going requires advanced expertise in several areas of applied mathematics, physics and related disciplines. These are now needed for working with large data sets, for modeling pathways and events and for generating new hypotheses and organizing principles, Hannun wrote in a recent email. Hannun described Zhu as “terrific, highly dedicated and very collaborative” and suggested that the work has been “rewarding.”

Zhu is hoping that the recent Nature publication will trigger additional funding to support more research with this team of Stony Brook University scientists.

Wu, who was the first author on the Nature article, described Zhu as “well respected in the scientific community. She has done a lot of work on the analyses of brain image and proteomics data,” he wrote in an email.

Throughout her career, Zhu has sought to use statistics, bioinfomatics and other modern tools to enhance a scientific understanding of complex questions. She recently worked with Ellen Li, a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, who wanted to understand the development of digestive diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. Putting the numbers together could provide the kind of information that offers an understanding of how lifestyle and food choices contribute to some diseases over time, Zhu said.

“We have published several papers together over the years,” Zhu said. “We are still in the data collecting stage for the diet analysis.” In her career, which spans 24 years, Zhu has worked on a wide range of topics. She has helped analyze data on the regions of the brain that are active in addiction and helped refine and enhance global climate models. In her early work, she also help pharmaceutical companies come up with optimal drug dosage. Numbers have been a part of Zhu’s life wherever she goes. “You do see numbers in the air,” she said. “When it’s getting hot,” she asks, “what does it have to do with my climate model? Does it fit the data?”

In more recent years, Zhu has struggled with the tension between contributing to larger projects and budgetary constraints. She worries that the “funding situation has changed the dynamics of the job market for the young generation of statisticians,” she said. “Now the majority of my doctoral students hope to focus their research on financial models, instead of biological models.”

Zhu and her husband Ma, who is a financial manager for GE, live in Setauket. Their son Victor, 24, recently earned his graduate degree in finance, while their daughter Merry, 11, attends Mount Elementary School. Zhu appreciates living on Long Island, where she can be close to the ocean.

As she looks back on the developments in her life that brought her to this point in her career, Zhu recognizes that the decision to learn more about math and statistics provided her with the kind of background that allowed her to fulfill her mother’s wish. “I can always honestly tell young students that it is a good idea to choose mathematics or statistics as their undergraduate majors,” she said. It will pave the way for them to have “a solid foundation for a variety of future graduate studies.”

Pan Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken. Stock photo

As summer comes to an end and the reality of back-to-school season sets in, it can be challenging to get organized and jump back into your day-to-day routine. But even as things get hectic, it’s still possible to create delicious dishes — such as Pan-Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken and Chicken Thighs and Tomatoes — that leave you plenty of time to savor meals together as a family.

Chicken Thighs and Tomatoes

Chicken Thighs and Tomatoes. Stock photo
Chicken Thighs and Tomatoes

YIELD: Serves 4


1 pint cherry tomatoes


kosher salt

olive oil

4 chicken thighs (skin-on, bone-in)

1 cup white wine

1 clove garlic

1 lemon, juice only

DIRECTIONS: Heat oven to 400 F. In cast iron skillet, toss tomatoes with pinch of pepper, kosher salt and light drizzle of olive oil and place in oven. Roast tomatoes for 20 minutes. Set aside. Heat skillet on stove top. Once hot, sear chicken thighs. Flip chicken and sear bottom side for about 1 minute. Remove chicken from pan and set aside. With pan still hot, pour in white wine. Once wine has settled, add minced garlic. Add juice of one lemon. Return chicken thighs and tomatoes to skillet. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes and serve.

Source: Edna Valley Vineyard

Pan-Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken with Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts

Pan Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken. Stock photo
Pan Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken

YIELD: Serves 4


1 tablespoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs

4 chicken drumsticks

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

16 Brussels sprouts (about 8 ounces), bottom trimmed, outer leaves removed and halved

2 cups diced (1/2 inch) butternut squash

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

DIRECTIONS: In saute pan large enough to hold chicken in single layer, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Add chicken to pan, skin side down, and saute about 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until chicken is browned. Remove chicken from pan and reserve. In same pan, add butter. Allow butter to melt over medium heat. Add sprouts and squash to pan and saute, tossing occasionally, until outsides are golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from pan and hold separately from chicken.

Turn heat to high and add stock, syrup and mustard. Stir and bring to boil, stirring to scrape up brown bits on bottom of pan. Add chicken back to pan, cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook over medium-low heat 20 to 25 minutes, or until chicken registers 170 F with instant read thermometer. Add vegetables back to pan, cover again and cook another 8 to 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Move chicken and vegetables to serving platter, placing vegetables around chicken. Turn heat to high and boil sauce until it is reduced and slightly thickened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

In my practice as an elder law attorney, clients often inquire about the benefits of gifting to reduce taxes or to qualify for Medicaid. As a senior with the unexpected need for long-term care in the future, the consequences of gifting may have unexpected results.

It is a common myth that everyone should be gifting monies during their life to avoid taxation later. Currently, a person can give away during life or die with $5.45 million before any federal estate tax is due. For married couples, this means that so long as your estate is less than $10.9 million, federal estate taxes are not a problem. For New York State estate tax, the current exemption is $4.1875 million and is currently slated to reach the federal estate tax exemption by 2019.

While it is true that there are gifting estate plans that can reduce estate taxes, any gift that exceeds the annual gift exclusion must be reported on a gift tax return during the decedent’s life and is deducted from their lifetime exemption. In 2016, that exclusion is $14,000. However, while gifting may be good if the goal is to reduce estate tax, it can be detrimental if the donor needs Medicaid to cover the cost of long-term care within five years of any gifts.

It is important to remember that the $14,000 only refers to the annual gift tax exclusion under the Internal Revenue Code. The Medicaid rules and regulations are different. In New York, Medicaid requires that all applicants and their spouses account for transfers made in the five years prior to applying for Institutional Medicaid. These gifts are totaled, and for each $12,633 that was gifted, one month of Medicaid ineligibility is imposed for Long Island applicants. It is also important to note that the ineligibility begins to run on the day that the applicant enters the nursing home and is “otherwise eligible for Medicaid” rather than on the day that the gift was made.

For example, if a grandfather gifted $100,000 over the course of five years to his grandchildren and then needed nursing home care, those gifts would be considered transfers and, if they cannot be returned, would create a period of ineligibility for Medicaid benefits for approximately eight months. What makes this even more difficult for some families is that an inability to give the money back or help the grandfather pay for his care is not taken into consideration, causing many families great hardship.

It would have been far better for the grandfather to have put assets into a Medicaid-qualified trust five years ago to start the period of ineligibility and allow the trustee to make the annual gifts. Another concern when gifting is considering to whom you are gifting? Once a gift is made to a person, it becomes subject to their creditors, legal status and can adversely affect their government benefits.

Accordingly, if you make a gift to a person who has creditors or who later gets a divorce, that gift could be lost to those debts. Consider creating a trust for the benefit of the debtor-beneficiary to ensure that their monies are protected. Another problem arises when making gifts to minors. Because a minor cannot hold property, if gifted substantial sums, someone would have to be appointed as the guardian of the property for that child before the funds could be used.

To avoid this problem, consider creating a trust for the minor beneficiary and designate a trustworthy trustee who will manage the money for the minor until they are old enough to manage it themselves.

Finally, if gifting to a disabled beneficiary, make sure to review what government benefits they may be receiving. If any of the benefits are “needs based,” even small gifts may disqualify them for their benefits. In order to maintain eligibility, a Supplemental Needs Trust could be created to preserve benefits for the disabled beneficiary.

A common phrase comes to mind “do not try this at home.” Before doing any kind of substantial gifting, or even if you have begun gifting, see an elder law attorney who concentrates their practice in Medicaid and estate planning to help optimize your chances of qualifying for Medicaid and/or reduce estate taxes, while still preserving the greatest amount of assets.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

By losing just 10 pounds, you can prevent deadly illness, alleviate daily pain and improve your quality of life. Stock photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Some research shows that obesity may be reaching a plateau. Is this true? It depends on how the data is analyzed. According to one study, yes; it has plateaued when looking at short, two-year periods from 2003 to 2011 (1).

However, another published study shows a picture that is not as positive (2). The study’s authors believe obesity has not plateaued; when looking over a longer period of time, statistics suggest that obesity has reached a new milestone. There are now more obese patients in the United States than there are overweight patients. And no, it is not because we have fewer overweight patients. This is based on a study that reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). These results were in adults over the age of 20. This should be an eye-opener.

Unfortunately, according to one study, the probability is not very good for someone to go from obese to “normal” weight in terms of body mass index (3). In this observational trial, results show that an obese man has a 0.5 percent chance of achieving normal weight, while a woman has a slightly better chance, 1 percent. This study used data from the UK Clinical Practice Datalink. The data were still not great for men and women trying to achieve at least a 5 percent weight loss, but better than the prior data. Patients who were more obese actually had an easier time losing 5 percent of their body weight.

What are two major problems with being obese? One, obesity is a disease in and of itself, as noted by the American Medical Association in 2013 (4). Two, obesity is associated with — and is even potentially a significant contributor to — many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, cancer, cognitive decline and dementia. When I attended the 28th Blackburn Course in Obesity Medicine in June 2015 at Harvard Medical School, a panel of experts noted that there are over 180 chronic diseases associated with obesity.

In this article, we will focus on one significant multifaceted disease, cancer. Watch out for cancer One of the more unpredictable diseases to treat is cancer.

What are the risk factors?

Beyond family history and personal history, obesity seems to be important. In fact, obesity may be a direct contributor to 4 percent of cancer in men and 7 percent of cancer in women (5). This translates into 84,000 cases per year (6). On top of these stunning statistics, there is about a 50 percent increased risk of death associated with cancer patients who are obese compared to those with normal BMIs (7).

What about with breast cancer?

The story may be surprising and disappointing. According to an analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative, those who were obese had increased risks of invasive breast cancer and of death once the diagnosis was made (8). The severity of the breast cancer and its complications were directly related to the severity of the obesity. There was a 58 percent increased risk of advanced breast cancer in those with a BMI of >35 kg/m2 versus those with normal BMI of <25 kg/m2. And this obese group also had a strong association with estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.

However, those who lost weight did not reduce their risk of breast cancer during the study. There were 67,000 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79 involved in this prospective (forward-looking) study. The researchers do not know why patients who lost weight did not reduce their risk profile for cancer and suggest the need for further studies. This does not imply that lifestyle changes do not have a beneficial impact on breast cancer.

What can we do?

We find that fat is not an inert or static substance, far from it. Fat contains adipokines, cell-signaling (communicating) proteins that ultimately may release inflammatory factors in those who have excessive fat. Inflammation increases the risk of tumor development and growth (9).

There is a potentially simple step that obese cancer patients may be able to take — the addition of vitamin D. In a study in older overweight women, those who lost weight and received vitamin D supplementation were more likely to reduce inflammatory factor IL-6 than those who had weight loss without supplementation (10). This was only the case if the women were vitamin D insufficient. This means blood levels were between 10 and 32 ng/mL to receive vitamin D.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that overweight patients are more likely to have low levels of vitamin D, since it gets sequestered in the fat cells and, thus, may reduce its bioavailability. Weight loss helps reduce inflammation, but the authors also surmise that it may also help release sequestered vitamin D. The duration of this randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of studies, was one year, involving 218 postmenopausal women with a mean age of 59.

All of the women were placed on lifestyle modifications involving diet and exercise. The treatment group received 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily. Those women who received vitamin D3 and lost 5 to 10 percent of body weight reduced their inflammation more than those in the vitamin D group who did not lose weight.

What does medicine have to offer?

There are a host of options ranging from lifestyle modifications to medications to medical devices to bariatric surgery. In 2015, the FDA approved two medical devices that are intragastric (stomach) balloons (11). The balloons are filled with 500 mL of saline after inserting them in the stomach via upper endoscopy. They need to be removed after six months, but they give the sense of being satiated more easily and help with weight loss.

One, the ReShape Dual Balloon, is intended to go hand-in-hand with diet and exercise. It is meant for obese patients with a BMI of 30-40 kg/m2 and a comorbidity, such as diabetes, who have failed to lose weight through diet and exercise. In a randomized controlled trial involving 326 obese patients, those who received the balloon insertion lost an average of 14.3 lb in six months, compared 7.2 lb for those who underwent a sham operation.

Lifestyle modifications

In an ode to lifestyle modifications, a study of type 2 diabetes patients showed that diet helped reduce weight, while exercise helped maintain weight loss for five years. In this trial, 53 percent of patients who had initially lost 23 lb (9 percent of body weight) over 12 weeks and maintained it over one year were able to continue to maintain this weight loss and preserve muscle mass through diet and exercise over five years (12). They also benefited from a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors. In the initial 12-week period, the patients’ HbA1C was reduced from 7.5 to 6.5 percent, along with a 50 percent reduction in medications.

We know that obesity is overwhelming. It’s difficult to lose weight and even harder to reach a normal weight; however, the benefits far outweigh the risks of remaining obese. Lifestyle modifications are a must that should be discussed with your doctor. In addition, there are a range of procedures available to either help jump start the process, to accelerate progress or to help maintain your desired weight.

References: (1) JAMA 2014;311:806-814. (2) JAMA Intern Med 2015;175(8):1412-1413. (3) Am J Public Health 2015;105(9):e54-59. (4) (6) (7) N Engl J Med 2003;348:1625-1638. (8) JAMA Oncol online June 11, 2015. (9) Clin Endocrinol 2015;83(2):147-156. (10) Cancer Prev Res 2015;8(7):1-8. (11) (12) ADA 2015 Abstract 58-OR.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit or consult your personal physician.

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

By Daniel Dunaief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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