Stony Brook University

Prepared by Daniel Dunaief

Brooke Ellison, 45, a pioneering disabilities advocate whose abilities with words and compassion far outdid her disability, died on Sunday, February 4.

Ellison was a tenured Associate Professor in the School of Health Professions in the Department of Health Sciences at Stony Brook University.

A resident of Stony Brook, Ellison was returning home from Murphy Junior High School as an 11-year old when she was struck by a car. The accident, which paralyzed her from the neck down, didn’t deter her budding academic interest or her ambitions.

As soon as she woke from the accident, she insisted she not fall behind in school.

With her mother Jean at her side throughout her education, Ellison became the first quadriplegic to graduate in 2000 from Harvard College, where she received magna cum laude honors in cognitive neuroscience and gave the class commencement speech.

Ellison earned a Master’s in Public Policy in 2004 from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and received her PhD in sociology from Stony Brook University in 2012.

A passionate advocate for accessibility and opportunity for the disabled, Ellison conducted research on the ethics and policy of science and health care.

Her mission “was to turn what happened to her into a [way to] help people who are handicapped achieve independence,” said Miriam Rafailovich, Distinguished Professor in Material Science and Engineering.
Ellison wrote two books about her life. The first, called “Miracles Happen” became a movie directed by Christopher Reeve titled “The Brooke Ellison Story.” More recently, Ellison published “Look Both Ways.”

Jean Ellison said her daughter felt her recent book was one of her most important contributions. Knowing she was in failing health after surviving three bouts with sepsis over the last year and a half, Brooke Ellison felt a sense of urgency to share her experiences.

“She poured out [her life] to the universe through this book,” said Jean Ellison.

While Ellison died young, she lived for over 33 years after the accident, which is well above the seven years the medical community expected at the time for someone on a ventilator.

‘Deep sadness’

Ellison served on several committees and boards, including the Board of the Directors of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the search committee for a president of Stony Brook.

In a letter to the campus community, President Maurie McInnis, who expressed her “deep sadness” for Ellison’s passing, recounted how Ellison was one of the first people she met on campus.

“Her legacy at Stony Brook and beyond is defined by passionate advocacy for inclusive education, healthcare and disability rights,” McInnis wrote in a letter to the campus community. “She helped alert me and others to our blind spots and offered many ideas for making this campus more inclusive and welcoming.”

Ellison was recently teaming up with students using drones and artificial intelligence images to map the topography of Stony Brook.

“To go from one building to the next looks like a straight pathway, but at the end, a one-inch drop, which is not encoded anywhere” could be a huge problem for someone in a wheelchair, said Rafailovich.

Ellison’s students asked her what she would want a robot near her that she could control to do. She suggested a hand she could control that could turn the pages of a book.

Ellison was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that people with disabilities who need power for ventilators or other equipment receive immediate attention after power disruption.

“She noticed during Hurricane Sandy that emergency workers had no idea where people who were on life support were during two weeks,” said Rafailovich.

Ellison was working with the state to get a new system where people on life support could receive help quickly.

Ellison had planned to do a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Caring for everyone

In addition to her focus on helping people with disabilities achieve independence, Ellison served in many capacities at Stony Brook, including as the Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Leadership Development.

Among her many efforts, Ellison also ran for election in 2006 for the New York State Senate, where she lost to republican incumbent John Flanagan.

Ellison was a committed educator who asked students before they met her in an ethics class to describe what they thought would make a life not worth living. Students suggested this would include not being able to do things they needed, needing care from someone else, or living on life support.

At the end of the semester, she asked the same question.

“They thought if they were on life support or if they had to have someone take care of them, maybe it could be done,” Jean Ellison said. “Their whole outlook changed.”

Senior Sabah Bari, who is a Health Science student, appreciated how Ellison spent the first 15 minutes of class asking how students were doing. Describing Ellison as “one of the most influential people I’ve gotten to know,” Bari plans to dedicate her pursuit of a master’s in public health to Ellison.

Stacy Gropack, Dean of the School of Health Professions explained that the school is eager to make sure students are doing well and feeling well at all levels.

“Many of our instructors do that,” Gropack said, but “Ellison in her position took it to a different level. She was always very concerned that students were in the right place and were healthy. She made sure students had the capacity to succeed at all levels.”

A dedicated family

Ellison received considerable ongoing support from her family.

Jean Ellison served numerous roles, from getting up at 3:45 am each day to get her dressed to driving her to ensuring her slides were ready and in order for her presentation. It took six hours from the time Ellison awoke until she was ready to leave.

Jean Ellison is “probably one of the most dedicated, strongest women I know,” said Gropack. Ellison “could not have accomplished what she did without [her mother] on all fronts.”

Mathias Risse, Berthold Beitz Professor in Human rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy at the Harvard Kennedy School, recalled how he taught an ethics class that included Ellison in the fall of 2002.

Ellison was “one of the most talented students in the class,” Risse wrote in a memorial to his former student. “Jean was there with her, every time, and she was as much a member of the [class] of 2004 as [Ellison] was herself.”

When the two of them were on campus, “everyone knew who they were, mother and daughter,” Risse wrote.

Ellison’s father Ed and her siblings Kysten and Reed provided important, meaningful and ongoing care for her.

“One of us had to be with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Ed Ellison. “Jean and I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to help her do what she wanted to do. It was a life well-lived.”

Ellison adored her family and, in particular, her five nephews, who not only returned her affection, but were also fiercely protective of her.

One of Ellison’s nephews had a cat that she almost ran over in her wheelchair. She asked her students to help her design a 360 degree camera so she could survey the perimeter when the cat was nearby.

“That’s the kind of independence she wanted,” said Rafailovich.

Ellison shared affection with her family and friends by blowing kisses frequently. Her father stroked her cheek and lifted her up out of her chair and put her arms around his neck.

“The love she had for everyone oozed out of her,” Jean Ellison said. Her daughter “constantly told people how much she loved them.”

Before the accident, Ellison had been a ballet dancer. She would sometimes dream of herself dancing.

“We both like to think that she’s dancing now,” said Jean Ellison.

Stem cell research

Ellison became a powerful voice in some of the earlier battles in 2000 over stem cell research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that could one day help in the treatment and care of people with neurological limitations.

Ellison, who founded the Brooke Ellison Project, helped establish the New York State stem cell research organization, which provided research funding outside of the federal level.

Ellison and the Christopher Reeve foundation “had the courage to put [state funding] in place,” said Rafailovich. “She saw stem cell research as the key if we’re ever going to regenerate nerves.”

Ellison recognized any new treatment wouldn’t happen immediately, but wanted to help people in the future who were dealing with similar challenges.

Ellison is featured in the upcoming documentary “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” which was recently shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ellison served as a board member on the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which designed New York State’s stem cell policy from 2007 to 2014.

In 2017, Ellison also served on the board of directors of the New York State Civil Liberties Union and, in 2018, was chosen as a political partner for the Truman National Security Project.

“We count ourselves incredibly lucky to have known her and are extraordinarily humbled by who she was and what she accomplished in her short life,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman wrote in an email. “I have benefited immeasurably from [Ellison’s] wisdom and friendship, and I am especially grateful or her patience and determination in helping the NYCLU to better understand and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.”

Leaders from the Truman National Security Project, which is a diverse nationwide community of leaders united with the goal of developing smart, national security solutions that reinforce strong, equitable, effective and non-partisan American global leadership, expressed their appreciation and admiration for Ellison’s contributions.

Ellison was a “visionary, leader, teacher, and, most importantly, a true friend to us and the disability community. [Ellison’s] eloquence captured the heights and depths of the disabled experience – beauty, pain, nuances, and silver linings – while pushing society’s boundaries of a more inclusive and dynamic world. Amongst [Ellison’s] vast list of accomplishments and accolades, her kindness and strength touched everyone she met,” wrote Jessica Gottsleben and Kristin Duquette, TruDisability Experts, in a statement.

Ellison thought well outside of her wheelchair and outside of the proverbial box.

In the first day of class, Bari recalled how Ellison asked students to think about the character Thanos from the Marvel series.

Bari recalled wondering, “are we in the right class? Where is she taking us?”

Throughout the class, Bari suggested that she and her fellow students rethought numerous aspects of their lives.

In her own words

In the introduction to her book “Look Both Ways,” which people can hear Ellison read on YouTube or on her web site BrookeEllison.com, she shares her life and perspective.

Look Both Ways

 

“People living with disability are celebrated yet rejected, are the objects of both praise and of ridicule, and are heralded for their understanding of challenge, while often left to battle those challenges on their own,” she wrote.

Ellison continued, “the lens from which I view the world is not one of disability, but rather one of humanity touched by disability, which serves to heighten the lessons fundamental to our lives: those of adaptation and problem solving, leadership and growth, compassion and hope. These are the lessons of disability. These are the lessons of life.”

Funeral

Ellison is survived by her parents Ed and Jean Ellison, her sister Kysten Ellison and her husband David Martin, their sons Carter and Harrison, her brother Reed Ellison and his wife Ellen Ellison and their three sons Jamie, Oliver and Theodore.

Visitation will be held next Monday, February 12 at Bryant Funeral Home, 411 Old Town Road in Setauket  from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The family will hold a private burial service.
How you can help
Those interested in helping to sustain the legacy of Brooke Ellison can donate to the Brooke Ellison Legacy Scholarship through the following website: https://alumniandfriends.stonybrook.edu/site/Donation2?df_id=2660&2660.donation=form1&mfc_pref=T&designation=5701

Pixabay photo

By Aramis Khorso

The ongoing struggle between adolescents and suicide problems has become increasingly prominent in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has been among the top three leading causes of death for children and young adults ages 10 through 34. 

The battle against anxiety and depression, which are the main causes of adolescent suicide, has been surging among young adults. According to the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, such mental health disorders, which are treatable, have increased since 2003 among children aged 6–17. The mental health and suicide epidemic rose to such unignorable heights that the U.S. Surgeon General declared the pediatric mental health crisis a national emergency in 2021.

To many, these statistics are rightly shocking and frightening. For Stony Brook University undergraduate senior Vignesh Subramanian, they were a call for action. He had observed the consequences of untreated anxiety and depression in children throughout his own adolescence. This, as well as the declared national crisis combined, made him decide it was time to take a stance and help out other young adults suffering from mental health problems. 

“We were already aware that this was a new phenomenon,” Subramanian said. “People had not been this stressed before — I was seeing this among my peers. Something had to be done. It was amounting to something of a crisis, and then these official declarations came out.” 

Subramanian recognized that many communities, especially schools and other educational facilities, were unequipped to respond to this mental health crisis adequately. He pointed out that mental health disorders are still “overtly stigmatized,” adding, “Parents and schools alike don’t know how to support students and get the help they need or can’t accommodate them properly.” 

In early 2022, Subramanian established a youth-led organization called One More Option that is dedicated to helping provide as many resources and services as they can to young adults suffering from anxiety, depression or any suicidal-related mental issues. Subramanian emphasized during this interview that “a youth-led, youth-driven response to the crisis was what was needed.”

He decided to take his mission to the state Legislature in Connecticut in 2022. “Our M.O. is to draft legislation on our own, then present it to the state Legislature, then we advance it from there,” he said. 

Working with former Connecticut Sen. Will Haskell (D-Westport), Subramanian was able to successfully draft policies that he wrote himself into the Connecticut General Assembly. He was able to draft two main reforms: The establishment of mental health days in K–12 schools and more accessible outpatient counseling sessions that minors would be able to seek. 

As can be expected, there was some opposition that Subramanian had to face while fighting to get his reforms drafted. However, Haskell was able to provide what Subramanian called a “powerful rebuttal” of the counterarguments made against the reforms. “It was inspiring to see how we were able to surmount that opposition,” Subramanian recalled.

One More Option deservedly enjoyed its victory in Connecticut, but didn’t stop there. Subramanian and his organization hope to have the same success they’ve had in Connecticut in New York. Currently, New York has no policy on student suicide prevention. Since 2019, New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) have been repeatedly presenting the Student Suicide Prevention Act to the state Legislature. Unfortunately, the SSPA has been stalled over the past few years due to “disputes over its contents.” 

Using the framework provided by the SSPA and with the support of over 20 collegiate student governments from schools in New York, Subramanian and One More Option hope to see a statewide suicide prevention law enacted. Recently, Subramanian and Hoylman-Sigal’s office have incorporated some reforms Subramanian wrote into the SSPA, which have been approved. 

One of the main reforms that Subramanian made to the SSPA was the inclusion of college students. With these revisions, the SSPA would require K–12 schools, as well as higher educational facilities, to create guidelines and policies on how staff would react to students in suicidal crises. Subramanian spoke about the “optimistic feeling” he has due to the widespread support the act is gathering for this reformed version of the SSPA.

Stony Brook University admissions office where about 10,000 students applied through the school’s first early action program. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

For Stony Brook University, 2024 will be the year of more, as in more college counselors, more classes, more study abroad opportunities, more artificial intelligence and more faculty.

The downstate flagship university, which is a member of the Association of American Universities and has been climbing the rankings of colleges from US News and World Reports, plans to address several growing needs.

“We have invested heavily in new advisors,” said Carl Lejuez, executive vice president and provost at Stony Brook, in a wide ranging interview. These advisors will be coming on board throughout the semester.

With additional support from the state and a clear focus on providing constructive guidance, the university is working to reduce the number of students each advisor has, enabling counselors to “focus on the students they are serving,” Lejuez said.

Advisors will help students work towards graduation and will hand off those students to an engaged career center.

At the same time, Stony Brook is expanding its global footprint. Lejuez said study abroad options were already “strong” in Europe, while the university is developing additional opportunities in Asia and Africa.

The university prioritizes making study abroad as affordable as possible, offering several scholarships from the office of global affairs and through individual departments.

Students aren’t always aware that “they can study abroad in any SBU-sponsored program for a semester and keep all of their existing federal aid and scholarships and in many cases the full cost of that semester abroad is comparable and sometimes even less expensive” than what the student would spend on Long Island, Lejuez explained in an email.

Stony Brook University Executive Vice President and Provost Carl Lejuez. Photo courtesy Conor Harrigan

As for artificial intelligence, Stony Brook plans to expand on existing work in the realm of teaching, mentoring, research and community outreach.

In efforts sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Learning and the Library, the university is holding multiple training sessions for faculty to discuss how they approach AI in their classrooms.

The library opened an AI Lab that will enable students to experiment, innovate and work on AI projects, Lejuez said. The library plans to hire several new librarians with expertise in AI, machine learning and innovation.

The library is training students on the ethical use of AI and will focus on non-STEM disciplines to help students in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Artificial intelligence “has its strengths and weaknesses,” said Lejuez. “We are not shying away from it.”

As for the community, the hope is that Stony Brook will use the semester to develop plans for kindergarten through 12th grade and then launch the expansion later this spring.

Additional classes

Lejuez acknowledged that class capacity created challenges in the past.

Stony Brook is using predictive analysis to make decisions about where to add classes and sections. At this point, the university has invested in the most in-demand classes in fields such as computer science, biology, chemistry, psychology and business.

The school has also added capacity in writing, math and languages.

Stony Brook is focused on experiential opportunities across four domains: study abroad, internships, research and entrepreneurship.

The school is developing plans for additional makerspaces, which are places where people with shared interests can come together to use equipment and exchange ideas and information.

New hires

Stony Brook is in the middle of a hiring cycle and is likely to “bring the largest group of new faculty we’ve had in many years” on board, the provost said. “This is going to have a big impact on the student experience” including research, climate science, artificial intelligence and healthy aging.

The additional hires will create more research experiences for undergraduates, Lejuez said.

Stony Brook recently created a Center for Healthy Aging, CHA, which combines researchers and clinicians who are focused on enhancing the health and wellness of people as they age.

Amid a host of new opportunities, a rise in the US News and World Report rankings and a victory in the city’s Governors Island contest to create a climate solutions center, Stony Brook has seen an increase in applications from the state, the country and other countries.

This year, about 10,000 students applied to Stony Brook’s first early action admissions process, which Lejuez described as a “great success.”

Amid a world in which regional conflicts have had echoes of tension and disagreement in academic institutions around the country and with an election cycle many expect will be especially contentious, Stony Brook’s Humanities Institute has put together several programs.

This includes a talk on “Muslim and Jewish Relations in the Middle Ages” on February 15th, another on “The Electoral Imagination: Literature, Legitimacy, and Other Rigged Systems” on April 17th and, among others, a talk on April 18th titled “The Problem of Time for Democracies.

True to the core values

Amid all the growth, Stony Brook, led by President Maurie McInnis, plans to continue to focus on its core values.

Lejuez said some people have asked, “are we still going to be the university that really provides social mobility opportunities in ways that are just not available in other places? We will always be that. Everything else happens in the context” of that goal. 

Marilyn Simons, left, and Jim Simons, third from left, toast the announcement of a $500 million contribution to Stony Brook University’s endowment with SBU President Maurie McInnis and Simons Foundation President David Spergel. File photo from John Griffin/ Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Jim and Marilyn Simons put their money where their mind is.

The power Stony Brook University couple, who were already legends around campus for their intellectual and financial gifts to the university, outdid themselves and everyone else this year with their academic generosity — not to mention their busy travel schedule.

Through the Simons Foundation, the power couple contributed $500 million over seven years to Stony Brook University’s endowment, the largest unrestricted endowment gift to a higher education institution in American history.

The gift, announced in June, followed just a month after the Simons Foundation announced a $100 million contribution to Stony Brook University’s successful bid to develop Governors Island into a climate solutions center.

When the Simons Foundation announced the endowment gift, Lawrence Martin, professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Turkana Basin Institute, used a word echoed by many around campus to describe its impact: “transformative.”

For philanthropy that not only makes it possible for academic dreams — particularly among those who are first-generation college students — to become reality, but also that inspires meaningful contributions from other donors, TBR News Media is pleased to recognize the Simonses as 2023 People of the Year.

A significant victory

While the $500 million gift set records and offered financial fuel for an encouraging academic future, the victory in the competition to run a climate center on Governors Island positions Stony Brook to make meaningful contributions to the future of the planet.

Competing against other established universities with a depth of talent and breadth of ideas, including Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a group co-led by CUNY and the New School, Stony Brook emerged as the winner for a climate exchange designed to advance research, innovation, sustainability, climate justice and outreach.

The $100 million in support from the Simons Foundation, coupled with $50 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “demonstrated the seriousness of Stony Brook’s proposal,” said Kevin Reed, associate provost for climate and sustainability programming and professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. The partnership “helped us get over the finish line” and was a “game changer for us.”

The initial support from the Simons Center is “opening doors as we continue to fundraise to build the center,” said Reed.

In its history, Stony Brook has helped address and solve challenges in New York as a public institution, Reed suggested. Becoming a flagship university for the state and with the support of the Simons Foundation, Stony Brook has opportunities to demonstrate leadership nationally and internationally, Reed added.

In addition to the climate exchange, Stony Brook will provide students with opportunities for internships that tap into public health, engineering and other interdisciplinary areas, which “came through in our proposal,” Reed added.

Multiplier effect

As for the $500 million donation, Jim and Marilyn Simons have not only stepped in to ensure the current and future academic strength and range of opportunities for faculty, students and the community, but they have also encouraged and inspired other donors.

With support from a program championed by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and the Simons gift, donors can triple the effect of their contributions.

Long-term contributors to the university have stepped up this year.

The Simons donation, which has eclipsed what others have done, “encourages the rest of us to keep giving,” said Cary Staller, member of the Board of Trustees of the Stony Brook Foundation and of the SUNY Board of Trustees. “We can see the difference that Jim and Marilyn’s philanthropy has brought about at Stony Brook. It changed the culture.”

Staller has contributed $500,000 this year to the Staller Center Endowment. Staller, whose father donated $1.8 million in 1988 and whose family has contributed over $16 million, said he is talking to other family members about adding to their contributions.

Among the earlier and more noteworthy contributors to the university, the Staller family helped establish a pattern of supporting the Long Island institution.

“When we first gave money to Stony Brook to endow the Staller Center, it really raised a lot of eyebrows among folks,” said Staller. When they made their donation, the Stallers felt “Stony Brook was a preeminent institution that was worthy of support.”

The effect of the Simonses’ support has “eclipsed not only what we’ve done, but really what all of Stony Brook supporters have done,” said Staller.

Staller suggested previous contributions from the Simonses also made it possible to put together the Governors Island proposal.

Jim and Marilyn Simons helped create a Presidential Innovation and Excellence Fund, for which they pledged $25 million. They planned to match another $25 million for that fund, with donor matches that brought the total to $75 million.

“It’s incredible what that money has done,” said Staller, which includes supporting the Governors Island bid. “Those sorts of things cost real money, which is hard to find in a state system,” Staller added. “This allows Stony Brook to really achieve excellence.”

The givers that keep on giving

Stony Brook’s Advancement team recognizes that the couple represents an unusual gift that has kept on giving — to the tune of over $1.2 billion and counting.

“When I talk to my colleagues around the country in similar roles, they are frankly blown away by a philanthropist that has given a gift for the future institution” without any requirements about how the university or future presidents use the funds, said Justin Fincher, vice president for advancement and executive director of the Stony Brook Foundation. The contribution is “something that builds over time” that supports future leadership and demonstrates trust in the institution.

The contribution has “instantaneously raised our profile across the country,” said Fincher. The gift has “made a huge splash” with an instant boost to the school’s reputation.

Jed Shivers, senior vice president for finance and administration, suggested that “a lot of cylinders are starting to fire in synchrony right now.”

Shivers described the $500 million donation as a “seminal” moment for the university, reflecting the confidence the couple has in SBU President Maurie McInnis and the current administration.

This excitement has built throughout the university, with potential high-level recruits showing enthusiasm for a college system on the rise.

In a conversation with Kathleen McGary, the Thomas Muench endowed chair for economics, Shivers said McGary, who joined the university in June, was “extremely excited to come here. At a faculty level, the university has been very successful at recruiting high-quality deans, chairs and faculty.”

Carl Lejuez, provost at SBU, said the university hired seven deans last year, with most of them coming from the Association of American University, or AAU, top public flagship universities.

“Leaders who have strong vision want to come here,” Lejuez said.

These new recruits have helped build the sense of the university providing strong value, with many students who are in the bottom 20% in income when they enter rising to the top 20 percent in the years after graduating.

Hungry minds

Jim and Marilyn Simons do so much more than cutting checks, boosting the profile of the university and supporting its application for marquee projects. The couple is a visible presence wherever the Stony Brook University flag flies.

This year, Jim and Marilyn Simons attended a memorial conference on campus for the late famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Arriving early and chatting with McInnis and National Geographic Society CEO Jill Tiefenthaler, Jim and Marilyn Simons listened to several lectures, including a well-attended presentation by Louise Leakey, Richard’s daughter and director of public education and outreach for the Turkana Basin Institute and a research professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University.

The Simonses “cannot get enough of learning about new things,” said Martin.

Martin highlighted their commitment to learning with an anecdote about a trip Jim and Marilyn made to Kenya earlier this year to honor Leakey.

While they were traveling in the Suguta Valley, which is one of the hottest places on Earth, one of the helicopters needed a spare part. Left in an area with no shade and that can reach over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, Jim and Marilyn Simons “decided to climb a hill to get a better view,” Martin recalled.

Later, while they were waiting for the rest of the group, they had a chance to rest. They had no interest in sitting and waiting, taking a walk with a geologist, where they learned about the geology of the Turkana Basin.

Lejuez suggested that the contributions from the Simons family will “likely have an impact for years to come,” helping to make Stony Brook a first choice university for prospective students.

Stony Brook hopes to reach the same echelon as successful and well-known public universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, and several of the public universities in California, such as UCLA.

Shivers added that the contributions from Jim and Marilyn Simons speak volumes to other donors and investors.

“What better endorsement than to have one of the world’s greatest investors invest in Stony Brook University,” said Shivers.

Heather Lynch, above, is the inaugural director of the Collaborative for the Earth at Stony Brook University. File photo courtesy Rolf Sjogren/National Geographic

Heather Lynch is hoping to take a few pages out of the Coke and Pepsi playbook, which is rarely, if ever, used in the fields where she works.

A penguin expert who has traveled more than 9,000 miles to Antarctica to monitor populations of these flightless water foul, Lynch, who is the IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution, plans to use her new role as the inaugural director of the Collaborative for the Earth at Stony Brook University to accomplish several tasks, including shaping the way people think about environmental issues like climate change.

“Coke and Pepsi understand the importance of psychological research and persuasion,” Lynch said. “The environmental community has not used any of the tools to get at the hearts and minds” of the public.

Scientists have been trying to reach people in their heads when they also need to “reach them in their hearts,” she added.

Lynch hopes to figure out ways to bring in people who are experts in psychology and persuasion instead of adding another model of climate change consistent with so many others that have made similar predictions.

Lynch, whom a steering committee chose from among several qualified tenured faculty at SBU to take on this new role, will also help organize forums in which researchers and participants worldwide discuss pressing environmental issues.

In the forums, Lynch plans to encourage debate about challenging topics on which researchers disagree, such as the role of nuclear power in achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. She also hopes to address the concept and moral hazard of geoengineering.

In recent years, scientists have debated whether geoengineering, in which scientists use chemical means to cool the atmosphere, could exacerbate the problem or give people false hope that taking steps to reduce emissions or mitigate climate change may not be necessary.

Lynch also suggested other “third-rail topics” as population control may be fodder for future Stony Brook forums.

Scientists “don’t discuss controversial things,” said Lynch. “There tends to be an echo chamber in the scientific community. The forum will help us air these issues.”

To be sure, Lynch believes the issue of climate change and the urgency of the climate crisis is well established. The differences she hopes to discuss relate to various potential solutions.

“I’m hoping to focus on things where we disagree,” she said. “We need to get at the root of that.”

SBU Provost Carl Lejuez, to whom Lynch is reporting in this role. File photo

The right candidate

As a candidate, Lynch met numerous criteria for the search committee and for Provost Carl Lejuez, to whom Lynch is reporting in this role.

“Her research is and has been squarely placed to understand climate change and the climate crisis and how we try to move forward toward a healthier planet,” said Lejuez.

Lynch is also a “creative, entrepreneurial thinker” who has an “exciting vision for what the Collaborative can be,” Lejuez said. “She has a real strength in leadership and is very good at bringing people together.”

Lejuez has several goals for the Collaborative in its first year. He would like Lynch to start creating forums that can “live up to the potential of being a leader in creating that academic conference that brings rigor to real-world problems” and is connected to policy, industry and politics and that has clear deliverables.

Additionally, Lejuez would like the Collaborative to move toward an understanding of Stony Brook’s role in the future of climate science, climate justice and sustainability.

New podcasts

Lynch plans to dedicate considerable energy to this effort, cutting back on some of her teaching time. She plans to conduct podcasts with people on campus, speaking with them about their work, what keeps them up at night, what technologies excite them and a host of other topics.

She also hopes to bring in the “brightest lights” to big-stage events at Governors Island and on Long Island.

She is pondering the possibility of creating a competition akin to the entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank.” At Stony Brook University, faculty judges could evaluate ideas and advance some of them.

The Shark Tank could give students an opportunity to propose ways to create a greener Stony Brook campus.

As for the psychology and social science of environmental efforts, Lynch plans to work with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to explore ways to understand how people think about these issues.

The evidence and impact of climate change increases the urgency of this work and the potential contribution of the university to debating, addressing and proposing solutions.

Earlier this year, Hurricane Otis intensified within 12 hours from a tropical storm to a deadly Category 5 hurricane, slamming into Mexico.

The potential for future storms with intensification that occurs so rapidly that forecasts might not provide warnings with sufficient time to take emergency measures should ring alarm bells for area residents.

Hurricane Otis, whose intensification was the second-fastest recorded in modern times, “should scare everybody on Long Island,” said Lynch. “People think toddling along with business as usual is an option. That is not an option.”

Joseph Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature and the inaugural director of Stony Brook University’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University named Joseph Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, the inaugural director of a Native American and Indigenous Studies effort as the university plans to hire three new faculty in this nascent undertaking.

Next year, the southern flagship school of the State University of New York plans to add staff in the English Department, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Anthropology.

“I have been eager for this to start,” said Pierce, a member of the Cherokee Nation who has been at the university for a decade. “We have so much to contribute to broader discussions that are happening around the world. The university is better by including Native American studies.”

Andrew Newman, professor and chair of the Department of English at SBU. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Andrew Newman, professor and current chair of the Department of English, who is also chair of a committee advising Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described Pierce as having a “real national profile,” adding that he was the “right person to be the founding director.”

Starting next fall, students at the university can minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies, where they can study the history, art, social and political interests, languages and cultures of Indigenous peoples.

The focus on Native American Studies will emphasize transdisciplinary topics such as environmental justice and sustainability.

Earlier this year, Stony Brook won a competition to develop Governors Island as a climate solutions center [See story, “SBU will develop $700M climate center on Governors Island,” April 26, TBR News Media].

Indigenous scholars should have a “seat at the table,” said Newman, “as they are globally one of the demographics most impacted by climate change.”

Islands in the Pacific are disappearing, Guam is undergoing “significant environmental degradation,” and fires in the Pacific Northwest and leaking pipelines in the United States and Canada are “disproportionately affecting Indigenous peoples,” Pierce added.

Indigenous groups relate to the land in a way that’s different from others, approaching it as stewards and caretakers, Pierce said.

“We see land as a relative,” he noted. “We’re asking very different questions about what it means to care for a place and to care for the environment and to care for the life that sustains it.”

The New York City government proposed plans for flood relief on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the event of future storms like Hurricane Sandy. The proposals included building massive walls and raising elevated platforms, including clearing thousands of trees.

Numerous indigenous groups objected and protested against such plans, Pierce said.

In an email, Carl Lejuez, Stony Brook University’s provost, suggested that a significant piece of Governors Island is climate justice, so the link between the Governors Island effort and indigenous peoples “fits naturally with the goals of the New York Climate Exchange.”

Axel Drees, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SBU. Photo courtesy Stony Brook University

Lejuez credited Drees as a “driver of this in collaboration with Professor Pierce.” Lejuez added that his office is “definitely providing support to see it come to fruition.”

The most crucial component in the start of this effort is hiring faculty.

“If we build the core faculty across the university, we can definitely consider expanding research and curriculum opportunities,” Lejuez wrote.

Student interest

Students from the Anthropology Department recently invited Pierce to give a talk about some of his current research.

“It was evident that a lot of them have an interest in working toward understanding humanity, what it means to be human,” he said. They also have an understanding of how anthropology as a discipline has sometimes historically “adopted rather unscientific and proto-eugenic methods” in describing and analyzing Indigenous Peoples.

Students are eager for an alternative perspective on the acquisition and acceptance of knowledge.

Pierce believes students have considerable interest in Native American Studies. His courses about Latin American indigenous populations are full.

“There are numerous students who are interested in Native American and Indigenous studies but don’t quite have a cohesive plan of study that’s available to them,” Pierce said. “This is remedying that disconnection.”

Long Island students grow up in numerous towns and communities with Native American names, such as Sachem, Wyandanch, Montauk and Setauket.

Newman added that the staff hopes the new effort can do some “outreach to local schools and provide professional development with kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers. It would be an important mission for the university to educate Long Island as a whole about Native culture.”

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis, right, enjoys a string performance during the CommUniversity Day event held Saturday, Oct. 14. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University
By Samantha Rutt

Stony Brook University showcased the many facets of its campus community during the CommUniversity Day event Saturday, Oct. 14.

Starting at noon, the event highlighted the campus through hands-on interactive activities, entertainment and thought-provoking mini-talks, as stated in the campus newsletter. The free event welcomed all members of the community, faculty and staff, friends and families.

Although rescheduled from its original date, the community response to the event was extolled by CommUniversity Day executive director Joan Dickinson.

“Despite weather delays and changing plans, CommUniversity Day 2023 was a wonderful event for visitors of all ages,” Dickinson said. “The response was amazing.”

Held in the uniquely designed university staple, the Charles B. Wang Center, CommUniversity Day featured “neighborhoods,” or stations, for community visitors to explore. Some attractions included Tech & Discovery Zone, The Arts and Kazoo-university, Find Out in 15, Rubber Duck Race, Health, Safety and Traditions.

“We had a couple of past favorites, such as the Teddy Bear Clinic and the Instrument Petting Zoo, as well as some new activities, such as the Tooth Fairy Story Time and the Appliance Autopsy,” Dickinson added. “CommUniversity Day is a great way to give the community an inside look into Stony Brook through hands-on learning.”

Several students displayed research projects on topics ranging from the arts to health care and medicine. Karen Kernan, director of programs for research and creative activity at SBU, expressed her excitement for the event.

“I have always enjoyed CommUniversity — it’s great to see families connecting with all the wonderful activities showcased, from the arts to the environment to health care and medicine,” she said. “The picture would not be complete without our wonderful student researchers. We’re so proud of the work they are doing.”

Also present at the event was Stony Brook’s Island Harvest Food Drive, encouraging all eventgoers to bring nonperishable food items to contribute to the cause and for a free cooler bag.

CommUniversity Day was introduced to the Stony Brook community in 2017, created to connect the campus cultures and the surrounding area, cultivating stronger ties. SBU plans to continue holding this event for years to come.

“It was an incredible day,” Dickinson said.

Dr. Susan Hedayati, right, and Dr. Peter Igarashi attend the ASCI/AAP meeting in Chicago Spring 2023. Photo courtesy Hedayati

She is bringing two important parts of an effective team back together.

Dr. Susan Hedayati — pronounced heh-DYE-it-tee — recently joined the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University as vice dean for research. Hedayati was most recently a professor of medicine and associate vice chair for research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Hedayati plans to help improve Stony Brook Medical School’s national and international reputation by coupling frontline research with translational and patient-oriented care and studies.

The combination of a research and clinical care focus will provide for the “betterment of the health of Long Island population of patients,” Hedayati said.

In addition to enhancing clinical care, such an approach would “facilitate funding of investigator-initiated [National Institute of Health] grants and aid in the recruitment and retention of excellent M.D.-investigators,” she explained in an email.

She said she is eager to build an institutional clinical trials infrastructure that would involve a dedicated research support team.

Adding Hedayati to the medical school faculty at Stony Brook University, where she will also serve as the Lina Obeid chair in biomedical sciences, also brings two prominent kidney specialists who have different approaches to their work back together again.

Dr. Peter Igarashi, dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine and a nationally recognized nephrologist, had recruited and collaborated with Hedayati when she joined the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center after winning first place in a clinical research award at the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation Young Investigator Forum.

When Igarashi first met Hedayati as a judge of the fellowship competition, he suggested that her expertise stood out clearly.

“She has enormous content expertise in the field of nephrology and internal medicine more broadly,” he said.

He was also impressed with her “passion” for research and her “devotion to patients and research,” which has also made her a “perfect fit” for her current position at Stony Brook University.

Combining research and clinical care will enable SBU to provide one-stop shopping at facilities like the specialty practices in Commack and the one recently opened in Lake Grove in the former Sears building at the Smith Haven Mall, he said.

Patients can receive clinical care at the same time that they can enroll in clinical trials for potential treatments of some conditions.

Hedayati “set that up at the University of Texas at Southwestern, and I’m hoping she’ll be able to grow that capability here,” Igarashi said.

Igarashi also described Hedayati, who was offered the job after a committee conducted the search, as “personable and likable.”

Complementary strengths

Igarashi described the different research approaches he and Hedayati take as “complementary” strengths.

Igarashi’s research is basic, wet lab science, while Hedayati has focused on translational and clinical research.

Their backgrounds will “be very helpful for elevating the entire research enterprise, not only in basic science but also in clinical and translational research,” Igarashi noted.

For her part, Hedayati suggested that her short-term goal is to build the physical infrastructure for clinical research and clinical trials.

Such efforts will require a clinical research staff infrastructure composed of research coordinators, research managers, regulatory personnel and biostatisticians.

“I’m hoping that, within a year, we’re going to be making some big strides in those directions,” Hedayati said.

She also hopes to build upon the existing medical scientist training program for M.D./Ph.D. students to establish a physician training program for residents to retain M.D. investigators in academic and biomedical research careers. That, she suggested, is a pool that is dwindling nationally.

Ongoing research

Hedayati, who is transferring most of her grants to Stony Brook, plans to continue conducting her own research.

She has been studying the link between chronic kidney disease, which affects about one in seven people, and other conditions, such as premature cardiovascular disease, susceptibility to depression and the role of inflammation.

“This is an area that’s prevalent, but understudied,” said Igarashi. 

She is searching for nontraditional biomarkers associated with kidney function decline, especially in patients with heart failure.

Patients with heart failure are at increased risk of acute and chronic kidney failure.

Igarashi is confident that Stony Brook’s new vice dean for research will serve patients on Long Island and beyond.

“She would not have taken this job unless we assured her that she would be able to continue to see patients in the clinic as well as in the hospital,” said Igarashi. “That is a core value for her.”

Echoing those sentiments, Hedayati suggested she has a “patient-centered approach in everything I do.”

Stony Brook University climbs 19 spots in the latest US News and World Report ranking. File photo from SBU

The public university that could, Stony Brook University, which is considerably younger than many of the schools with greater prestige, climbed 19 spots in the latest US News and World Report ranking of schools to 58.

At the highest ever rank for a State University of New York institution, SBU also placed 12th among national universities for social mobility rank.

“Stony Brook takes tremendous pride in its role as a New York flagship institution, and these latest rankings offer yet another proof point that this university is a destination of choice for students from all backgrounds looking to reach and exceed their boldest ambitions,” said Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. “While these rankings represent an opportunity to celebrate Stony Brook’s promising trajectory as the top public university in New York state, the focused commitment to our mission continues to guide our path forward.”

Stony Brook’s climb up the rankings is neither a one-year wonder nor a sudden recognition of the breadth and depth of its programs and the commitment of its staff to students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Stony Brook ranked in the 93 in 2022.

“While this jump is much bigger, you feel more confident when it’s part of a trend,” said Carl Lejuez, executive vice president and provost, in an interview. “This is a trajectory that has been led by the president’s vision for what it means for the state of New York to have a premier public institution.”

Lejuez added that SBU benefited from a change in the way US News and World Report compiles its rankings. At the same time that alumni giving, where Stony Brook doesn’t do as well, was taken out of the rankings, the periodical increased its emphasis on the graduation of Pell-eligible students.

Considered among the most economically challenged students at Stony Brook, Pell-eligible undergraduates achieved an 80% graduation rate.

“Other schools have a huge disparity” for the graduation rates of Pell-eligible students, Lejuez said. “We’ve really leaned into who we are” particularly for students who can improve their social mobility through a quality and well-respected education.

“We do believe those changed metrics make the rankings better,” Bill Warren, vice president for marketing and communications, said in an interview. “It’s not happenstance that we rose — we are being recognized for many of the things we do so very well.”

Specifically, Warren said the university admits and supports a diverse student population that has excellent graduation rates, reflecting the level of academic and other types of support the school offers to ensure the college experience meets and “hopefully exceeds” their expectations and needs.

More applicants

The climb in the rankings has helped drive up applications and made 2023 the largest incoming first year class in the school’s history.

In 2023, applications surged 24.2% for all Stony Brook application submissions to 55,633. The freshman rate, which comprised the vast majority of those applications, increased 23.9% to 50,435.

The faculty, meanwhile, applauded the recognition and the higher ranking.

“Without question, this is great news for Stony Brook University and long overdue,” Clinton Rubin, SUNY distinguished professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, wrote in an email. The senior administration is “committed to building on strengths, and research and technology development across all disciplines is thriving. The impact the university has had on upward mobility is inspiring, and the faculty, staff and students are proud to be part of such a key resource for the global community.”

Stony Brook has “come a long way and has much more to contribute,” Rubin added.

Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has noticed a “happiness” at the university: “I believe we are in fact better even than these rankings say,” he said in an interview.

Van Nieuwenhuizen said that 14 of his 17 former Ph.D. students have become professors elsewhere, which shows how other institutions value the students who earn degrees at Stony Brook University.

In addition to the higher ranking from US News and World Report, Stony Brook has also had some high-profile academic and financial victories recently.

Stony Brook was named the anchor institution to build a Climate Exchange Center on Governors Island that is dedicated to research and education and sharing information about the impacts of global warming on the world. [See story, “SBU will develop $700M climate center on Governors Island,” April 26, TBR News Media].

In addition, the Simons Foundation, founded by former math chair and founder and CEO of Renaissance Technologies and his wife Marilyn, announced a $500 million gift to the university, which was the largest ever unrestricted endowment gift to an institution of higher learning. [See story, “Simons Foundation gives record $500M gift to Stony Brook University,” June 2, TBR News Media].

Further opportunities

Lejuez sees continued opportunities for the university. He said international enrollment has not returned to the pre-pandemic levels.

Comparing Stony Brook to where the school’s peers are in terms of out-of-state and international students, the university is “not where we want to be in both of those areas.”

SBU is developing strategies that Lejuez anticipates will pay off within two years.

“You never want to bring in international and domestic out-of-state students at the expense of students in the state,” but having the right mix of students from different backgrounds and experiences “creates a vibrant university,” he said.

Lejuez has been to South Korea twice and China once in the past six months and has emphasized the quality of the programs and the safety of the campus.

Stony Brook is also enhancing the level of its advisory services for students.

“We invested a lot this summer in advising,” Lejuez said, which is an area where “we were lagging behind other universities. Students and parents are going to see a lot of focus in advising and tutoring” which help ensure student success.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab. Public domain photo

From the shore, they can look like odd-shaped shadows with tails, moving in and out of the surf or approaching the shoreline.

Up close, they can have a collection of barnacles attached to their shells, particularly as they age.

Horseshoe crabs, who have been roaming the oceans for over 450 million years, have attracted the admiration of researchers and the dedication of volunteers around Long Island, who not only want to ensure they continue to survive, but also would like to know more about creatures that are more related to spiders and scorpions than to the crabs their names suggest.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is look at spawning in a more comprehensive way,” said Robert Cerrato, a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “We’re trying to figure out if there are specific things that [horseshoe crabs] are responding to” when they come up on the beach to lay their eggs.

A closeup of two horseshoe crabs. Photo courtesy Matthew Sclafani

Horseshoe crabs have had a steady decline in their population over the last 20 years overall. In the last three to five years, however, not much has changed in the Long Island area, scientists explained.

The population is “still very similar to where it was,” said Matthew Sclafani, senior resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and assistant adjunct faculty member at SBU.

Scalafani and Cerrato have worked together for well over a decade and are hoping to address a wide range of questions related to these unusual creatures that have nine eyes and blue blood.

Apart from the fascination of scientists and volunteers, the horseshoe crab provides a critical food source for shore birds like the Red Knot, which depends on these eggs during their migration.

At the same time, horseshoe crabs and their blue blood provide a key ingredient in tests of pharmaceuticals. When exposed to endotoxins, horseshoe crab blood forms clots.

The use of horseshoe crab blood to test drugs does not occur in New York, however, as companies don’t catch these creatures in the Empire State for this specific test.

Cerrato and Scalafani explained that numerous towns have also limited or banned the harvesting of horseshoe crabs to maintain their local populations.

Areas around West Meadow Beach in Old Field, for example, are closed to hand harvesting, as is Jamaica Bay and Gateway National Recreation Area.

Such policies “theoretically will allow for more eggs on the beach to hatch and for shore birds dependent on them” to find food, Sclafani said. Such closures, including some during the last two weeks in May and the first two weeks in June during the peak spawn were “significant steps for conservation,” Sclafani added.

An aerial photograph taken by a drone during a horseshoe crab survey at Pike’s Beach, Westhampton. Photo by Rory MacNish/Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County

Ongoing questions

By labeling and tracking horseshoe crabs, these researchers and a team of volunteers hope to understand whether crabs, which are capable of reproducing when they are between 8 and 10 years old, return to the same sites each year to lay their eggs.

Cerrato and Scalafani are hoping to get satellite tags they can attach to adults, so that when they come out of the water to spawn, researchers know their location.

The researchers submitted a proposal to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to do a pilot study with these satellite tags.

Juvenile horseshoe crabs also present unknowns, as they have a different diet and migrate at a much lower rate.

“We started to look at” crabs that are 3 to 10 years old, said Cerrato. Moriches Bay is an “important habitat” for them.

Volunteer passion

Volunteers who help count the horseshoe crabs count these creatures often until well after midnight.

Frank Chin has been wandering beaches, counting crabs for 15 years. When he was young, Chin wanted to be a forest ranger.

“I realized that forest rangers don’t make that much money, so I went to school for engineering, got a degree and worked as an engineer,” he said.

Chin found himself at a Friends of Flax Pond meeting, where Scalafani asked for help from the community.

“I foolishly raised my hand and they made me a coordinator,” joked Chin, who counts horseshoe crabs with his wife Phyllis.

Every year presents something new to Chin.

This year, he has run into people who fish late at night. Chin said the fishermen, who have permits, are cordial, but that he’s concerned they might be scaring crabs away from their usual spawning spots.

In addition to counting the crabs, Chin, who is the director of the lab in the Physics Department at SBU, also tags them. He once caught a crab seven years after he initially tagged it.

Chin, who will count crabs in the rain but not in thunderstorms, appreciates the dedication of his fellow volunteers, who not only count the crabs but will pick up garbage and bottles along the beach.

Chin plans to continue to “do it as long as I can walk down the beach.” Some day, he “hopes someone else will take over.”

Volunteers can sign up to join the effort at nyhorseshoecrab.org.