Stony Brook University

JoAnne Hewett leads her first staff meeting as the new lab director at Brookhaven National Laboratory Tuesday, Aug. 8. Photo from BNL

In her first week on the job, JoAnne Hewett has been taking walks around campus — and she likes what she sees.

The first woman to lead the 76-year old Brookhaven National Laboratory, Hewett has explored a facility primarily funded by the Department of Energy that conducts groundbreaking research in Energy & Photon Sciences, Environment, Biology, Nuclear Science & Nonproliferation, Computational Sciences, Nuclear & Particle Physics and Advanced Technology Research.

The walks Hewett has taken have been “my way of learning where all the buildings are,” said Hewett in an exclusive interview with TBR News Media. “I truly love stumbling across things I didn’t know BNL had.”

One night, Hewett walked to an enormous greenhouse, which, as a gardener who enjoys growing tomatoes, chili peppers and citrus, intrigued her.

In meeting people at these facilities, Hewett has been “impressed” at “how dedicated they are to the mission and to the science that can be done here.”

Most recently the associate lab director for fundamental physics and chief research officer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Hewett brings extensive experience in theoretical physics to BNL and Stony Brook University, where she serves as Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Professor at the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Throughout her career, Hewett has been the first woman to serve in a host of roles. That includes as the first woman faculty member at SLAC in 1994, the first woman associate lab director and the first woman chief research officer.

“The best way to serve as a role model is to just do a good job at whatever it is you’re doing,” Hewett said.

In her many roles, Hewett has received numerous emails from students eager to meet her.

“Don’t get discouraged,” she tells them. “You’re going to get more roadblocks than others, potentially [but] hopefully not. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep working. If you love science and want to do science, if it’s the passion in your belly, just do it.”

Hewett has been successful in her career in part because she describes herself as “stubborn by nature.”

Cultural priorities

In her tenure as lab director for a facility with over 2,760 staff members, Hewett plans to emphasize the importance of creating a respectful work environment.

“It should be number one for everybody, everywhere to foster a respectful workplace environment, so that each person that comes into work in the morning or whenever they start their shift can do the very best that they can,” she said.

Additionally, she will stress the importance of safety at the Upton-based lab, where seven projects have led to Nobel Prizes.

“A good safety culture also promotes a good workplace environment,” said Hewett. “If you don’t do your work safely, you can’t do your work.”

Science vs. management

While research and management require the use of different parts of the brain, Hewett suggested her professional and administrative goals have overlapping approaches.

“In both cases, you need to be very strategic about your thinking,” she said. “When you’re doing research, you need to think about the best way to spend your time.”

She had a “ton” of ideas in theoretical physics and needed to be strategic about how she spent her time. As a manager, she also needs to be strategic about the programs she supports to ensure they are advancing.

In addition to creating a respectful and safe workplace, Hewett would like to delve into the beautification of the campus.

“I want to involve the staff” in that effort, she said.

Hewett served as a mentor from 2008 to 2011 for Rouven Essig when he was a postdoctoral researcher at SLAC.

In an email, Essig, who is now Professor of Physics at the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, described her as “an exceptional leader” who is “friendly and approachable” with a “clear vision.”

Essig lauded Hewett’s vision for recognizing the value of funding small-scale experiments in particle physics, which are low-cost but can enable “major discoveries,” he added. “I think this approach is having a big impact in particle physics research in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Essig is “excited to see how she will further strengthen BNL and the connections to Stony Brook.”

Hewett has had “numerous important contributions to our understanding of physics beyond the Standard Model and how it can be discovered with experiments,” Essig added.

In her career, Hewett found it “terrifically exciting to discover something” in which she was the “only person in the world for that instant of time that knows something,” she said.

For her, that moment occurred when she was developing work on a particular theory of extra spacetime dimensions.

Collider appeal

Hewett came to BNL in part because of the ongoing construction of the Electron Ion Collider, which will study quarks and gluons in the nucleus and the strongest forces in nature.

“I did a lot of studies of potential future colliders,” said Hewett. “I’m excited to be at a lab where a collider will be built.”

Charles F. Wurster. Photo by Malcolm J. Bowman
Prepared by Malcolm J. Bowman

Charles F. Wurster, professor emeritus of environmental science, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University, last surviving founding trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund, died on July 6 at the age of 92.

Wurster came to prominence on the issue of the toxic effects of the persistent pesticide DDT on nontarget organisms. During the 1950s and 60s, DDT was used in the mosquito-infested swamps of Vietnam during the war, sprayed on farmer’s crops and impregnated in household fly traps.

A world-class birder, Wurster was concerned with the effects of DDT on birds, ranging from the colorful species of the tropics to the penguins of Antarctica. While a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s, he gathered robins that had fallen from Dutch elm trees on the campus. In his biochemistry lab, he found their bodies riddled with DDT. The trees had been sprayed to kill the Dutch elm disease.

Of particular concern to Wurster was the concentration of DDT found in birds of prey, including pelicans and raptors, such as the osprey and bald eagle. DDT caused a thinning of eggshells, which led to a catastrophic decline in the osprey reproductive success rate to 2%. The bald eagle was heading toward extinction in the lower 48 states.

In the fall of 1965, Wurster began his academic career as an assistant professor of biological sciences at the newly opened Stony Brook University Marine Sciences Research Center. He gathered 11 colleagues from the university and Brookhaven National Laboratory. In October 1967, for the sum of $37, the group incorporated as a nongovernmental organization in New York State and called it EDF — the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Departing from other environmental organization’s approaches, the EDF used the law to ensure environmental justice. The EDF sought the court’s help in halting the application of toxic and lethal chemicals, with a focus on DDT.

After the EDF filed a petition in New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead to halt the spraying of DDT on South Shore wetlands by the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission, a judge in Suffolk County issued a temporary restraining order. Although EDF was later thrown out of court for lack of legal standing, the injunction held.

Under Wurster’s leadership, EDF set up its first headquarters in the attic of the Stony Brook Post Office. This was followed by moving to a 100-year-old farmhouse and barn on Old Town Road in Setauket.

Lacking funding, EDF nonetheless made a bold public step, taking out a half-page ad in The New York Times on March 29, 1970, picturing a lactating Stony Brook mother nursing her baby. Highlighting the concentration of DDT in humans, the text read “that if the mother’s milk was in any other container, it would be banned from crossing state lines!” Funds poured in.

In 1972, following six months of hearings, founding administrator William Ruckelshaus of the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT nationwide.  

EDF rapidly grew into a national organization. Its purview spread into new areas, including litigating against the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers dream of completing a cross-Florida sea level shipping canal (1969), removing lead from gasoline and paint (1970-1987) and eliminating polystyrene from fast-food packaging. 

Today EDF boasts 12 offices throughout the U.S. and in China, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Indonesia and Mexico and has three million members and an annual budget of about $300 million. It focuses on environmental justice, protecting oceans and fisheries, sustainable energy and climate change.

In 1995, at Charles Wurster’s retirement from Stony Brook University, Ruckelshaus traveled from Seattle at his own expense to address the campus celebration.

In 2009, Wurster was awarded an honorary degree from Stony Brook University for his seminal contributions to environmental science and advocacy.

Wurster’s enduring leadership and tenacity helped put SBU firmly on the world stage for environmental science, education and advocacy.

Wurster is survived by his two sons Steve and Erik, daughter Nina and his longtime partner Marie Gladwish.

 

Malcolm J. Bowman is a distinguished service professor emeritus of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. He joined the faculty in 1971 and closely followed the development of EDF for over 50 years, becoming a close associate and personal friend of Charles Wurster.

Pictured above, from left to right: Simons Foundation President David Spergel, Jim and Marilyn Simon, Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis and Governor Kathy Hochul. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University’s former Math Department chair is making history.

Jim Simons, with his wife Marilyn and through the Simons Foundation, is giving the largest ever unrestricted gift of $500 million to the university’s endowment.

The donation, which the Simons Foundation will provide in installments over the next seven years, will more than double the endowment for the SUNY flagship school.

As a part of a program Governor Kathy Hochul (D) created last year, New York State will provide a one-to-two endowment match while the school, with support from the Simons Foundation, reaches out to other donors for additional support.

SBU expects the gift to total about $1 billion.

“Today is indeed a historic day for Stony Brook University,” President Maurie McInnis said during a press conference at the Simons Foundation headquarters in Manhattan on June 1. “I cannot overestimate the tremendous impact” the gift will have.

The university anticipates using the gift, named the Simons Infinity Investment, for student scholarships for a diverse student body, endowed professorships, research initiatives, development of new academic fields and clinical care.

McInnis, who is the sixth president of SBU, suggested this kind of support helped create and shape some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale.

Looking at how they started, “you’ll find that they were bolstered by generous supporters who were ambitious and wise enough to see the potential of the institutions and invest in the future,” McInnis said at the press conference. “Because of those supporters, look where they are now. That is the trajectory we are on,” thanks to the support from Jim and Marilyn Simons and the foundation president, David Spergel.

McInnis believes the funds will help make the university a place where every student meets their potential, thanks to the support and the “deep sense of belonging in every corner of campus.”

The funds would also help ensure that researchers have access to the “best labs and equipment” so they can “chase the next discovery” and where learners will come to the university because they “know they have the resources they need to make a difference.”

History of giving

The Simons family has a long history of giving back to the university, which was so important in their lives.

Starting with a much more humble gift of $750 in 1983, the Simons family, with this gift and other recent commitments, have pledged $1.2 billion to a university that Gov. Hochul declared a flagship of the state university system in 2022.

“I’m so happy to be here today, to be able to give back to Stony Brook, which has given so much to me,” Marilyn Simons said at the press conference.

When she started as a student at Stony Brook, Marilyn said her father was a subcontractor who, along with her brother and cousin, did some of the brickwork at university buildings.

In addition to earning her bachelor’s at Stony Brook, Marilyn Simons also earned her Ph.D.

“I’m grateful to Stony Brook for all it’s given me,” she said. “I hope many others will invest along with us.”

Jim Simons became chairman of the Math Department when he was 30. He hired 10 faculty in his first year and the same number in his second.

When Hochul stood up to speak, Simons interrupted her.

“I’ve known” all six presidents of Stony Brook, the former Math Department chair said. McInnis “is the best.”

Hochul appreciated the direction and vision of SBU’s leadership, recognizing the sizeable financial commitment the state would now have to meet.

When she came up with the endowment idea, “I didn’t realize it was going to be so expensive for me,” Hochul laughed. If that inspired the Simons Foundation to come forward, “it was worth it.”

A public institution like Stony Brook “has no limits right now,” Hochul added. “I guarantee across the world, they’ve all heard of Stony Brook right now.”

A winning streak

The $500 million gift from the Simons Foundation continues a winning streak, making 2023 a memorable and landmark year for the university.

A few weeks ago, Stony Brook, with a $100 million commitment from the Simons Foundation, won the state’s contest to turn Governors Island into a center for climate science called the New York Climate Exchange. [See story, “SBU will develop $700M climate center on Governors Island,” April 26, TBR News Media website.]

The center, which will cost $700 million to construct and is expected to open in 2028, will house research laboratories, host community discussions and train 6,000 people per year to work in green energy jobs.

SBU has “shown that it has the knowledge, the authority and the boldness to bring together the most eminent institutions to address the world’s leading challenges,” McInnis said.

Photo by Lucas Blair Simpson © SOM

When the City of New York and the Trust for Governors Island chose Stony Brook University to lead a collection of institutions to build a new climate solutions center on Governors Island, the moment marked both an ending and a beginning.

For Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which provided a concept-level design for the institution, the announcement brings SOM and the work it will do with the Manhattan-based landscape architecture firm MNLA to a new stage.

“The work we have done is essentially through a concept level of design,” said Keith O’Connor, principal at SOM. “Now that Stony Brook has been selected, we’ll be doing much more detailed work in schematic design and design development.”

While the plans call for the biggest mass timber building in New York City, the developers of the project, which will start in 2025 and is expected to open in 2028, have not gotten into the details about all the materials they will use and where they will purchase them.

As with so many other decisions related to a center dedicated to understanding and combating the effects of climate change, the choices for the materials will reflect the center’s goals.

“It’s not only about how we come up with the best system and most appropriate design,” O’Connor said. “It has to be a holistic picture. It’s all about the full life of the materials — everything from where they originate, how they are processed and how they are transported and shipped.”

The decisions will consider the future and the way the center, which Stony Brook has named the New York Climate Exchange, might reuse or adapt the materials.

In addition, SOM and Stony Brook are committed to executing changes in the construction of the 400,000-square-foot facility, which will include 230,000 square feet of new buildings and 170,000 square feet of refurbished space.

SOM will share information related to the process.

“We need to help other people understand how they, too, can make intelligent choices,” O’Connor said.

SOM plans to implement tried and true technologies and push the envelope in doing things that haven’t been done.

“What we do with the Exchange can help move the market,” said O’Connor.

SOM has been working with mass timber in several projects, including for the Billie Jean King Library in Long Beach, California. SOM will also use mass timber as a part of the High Line-Moynihan Train Hall Connector, a pedestrian path between Moynihan Train Hall, Manhattan West and the High Line.

O’Connor explained that mass timber doesn’t need an additional finish on top of it, which allows builders and designers to use less material.

The design of the buildings will be 18 feet in elevation, which is 10 feet higher than the existing structures. Stony Brook and SOM wanted the buildings to have resilience amid future storm surges.

The goal of the Exchange is to use effective design techniques to enhance resilience.

Part of the proposal involves altering the stone sea wall, a hard-engineered armored edge of the island, and replacing it with a living shoreline that is ecologically and landscape based.

The island will have a variety of plantings to create a terrestrial and diverse habitat, O’Connor added.

Working with MNLA, SOM is coming up with plantings that are appropriate for conditions ranging from elevations of five and eight feet with exposure to salt spray up to 18 feet.

O’Connor explained that the teams involved in the project are eager to start working. The next steps will include design engineering, procurement and construction, which will “take some time.”

O’Connor was pleased to be involved in a project that is “profoundly meaningful to our city and society.” He suggested such work might occur once or twice in a generation or a career.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis, left, shakes hands with New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

With a vision to turn parts of Governors Island into a world-class center that blends into the surrounding greenery, Stony Brook University won the highly competitive process to create a climate solutions center.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) and the Trust for Governors Island earlier this week named Stony Brook the lead in teaming up with other universities, nonprofits and businesses to create a $700 million facility that will start construction in 2025 and open in 2028.

Backed by a $100 million donation from the Simons Foundation, a $50 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies and $150 million from the City of New York, Stony Brook will create a unique 400,000 square-foot facility.

The center will house research laboratories and host community discussions, train 6,000 people to work in green energy jobs per year, provide educational opportunities and search for climate solutions, including those that affect low-income communities of color.

“Climate change is here and the danger is real,” Adams said at a press conference on Governors Island unveiling the winner of the competition. “I am proud to announce that we have selected a team led by Stony Brook University to deliver the New York Climate Exchange.”

Adams suggested the Stony Brook team, which includes local partners like Pace University, New York University and the City University of New York, will protect the city’s air and water.

The Trust for Governors Island also anticipates the site, which will include a “semester abroad” on-site, fellowships and internship programs, will host scientific symposiums that can bring together leaders in a range of fields.

In an email, Simons Foundation President David Spergel hopes the center will “nucleate new business that generates jobs in the region, invest in new technologies and advance solutions.”

The foundation is helping to recruit other benefactors to meet the financial needs for the site both by the example of its commitment and through personal interactions, Spergel said.

Stony Brook, meanwhile, which has a deep pool of researchers at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences investigating climate-related issues, doesn’t plan to wait until the buildings are refurbished and constructed to start the conceptual and educational work.

During phase zero, the university will “work with our partners immediately” on developing programs for kindergarten through grade 12 outreach, on scaling up green workforce development and on developing collaborative research projects across institutions, SBU President Maurie McInnis said in a town hall discussion with the campus community.

Left to right: Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer, Simons Foundation president David Spergel, SBU President Maurie McInnis, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Harbor School student Leanna Martin Peterson and Trust for Governors Island President Clare Newman. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

Practice what it preaches

In addition to providing space that will generate and test out ideas for solutions to climate change, the New York Climate Exchange buildings will minimize the carbon footprint.

There will be 230,000 square feet of new space and 170,000 square feet of refurbished existing structures. The plans, which were created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, involve creating the biggest mass-timber building in New York City. As an alternative to concrete and steel, mass timber has a lower carbon footprint and is lighter.

Mass timber uses “less material and in a more efficient way,” said Keith O’Connor, principal at SOM, who runs the city design practice in New York and Washington, D.C., in an interview.

SOM designed the tops of the buildings with 142,000 square feet of solar cells, which will generate more than enough power for the site, enabling the center to provide all of its electricity needs and to send some energy to the city.

“We wanted to work really hard to avoid having a field of solar panels sitting off to the side” or sticking solar panels on each roof, O’Connor said. Instead, the solar panels, which will be at slightly different angles from each other, track the topography of the structures without creating a glaring field of reflected light.

Guests who arrive at Governors Island will notice a solar canopy that is “front and center,” O’Connor said. “It’s about a message for everyone who is visiting — it says that energy generation is critical.”

SOM wanted to find a way to create a warm and welcoming aesthetic that provides energy, O’Connor added.

All of the nondrinking water will come from rainwater and treated wastewater.

The site anticipates diverting 95% of waste from landfills, making it one of the first in the country to achieve true zero-waste certification.

“The concept of the physical structure is astonishing,” David Manning, director of Stakeholder Relations at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which will serve as an adviser on the center, said in an interview. “You want to attract the best and the brightest. You do that with programming. It doesn’t hurt that [the design and the facilities] are also cool.”

An aerial rendering of the island after construction, which will also include 4.5 acres of new open space, looks more like a park than a typical research station.

Governors Island, which hosts about a million visitors each year who arrive on ferries that run every half hour, plans to double the ferry service, with trips traveling every 15 minutes during the day starting next year. Also in 2024, the city will start using a hybrid electric ferry to reduce emissions.

Considerable collaborative support

McInnis expressed her gratitude to the team at Stony Brook and to her partners for putting together the winning proposal.

McInnis suggested that the university’s commitment to studying, understanding and mitigating climate change, coupled with national and international collaborations, would unite numerous strengths in one place.

“We knew we had the right team to lead this effort,” said McInnis at the announcement on Governors Island. “We also knew we needed a diverse set of partners” in areas including environmental justice, in the business sector and in philanthropic communities.

Other partners include Georgia Tech, University of Washington, Duke University, Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Oxford, England.

BNL’s Manning appreciated the opportunity to attend the kickoff of the project on Governors Island. 

Near the tip of Manhattan amid a “stunning blue sky,” the gathering was the “perfect setting” to announce and create solutions that were “this future focused,” Manning said.

Above, conceptual rendering of the proposed Center for Climate Solutions on Governors Island. Photo from New York City

The New York City Mayor’s Office and the Trust for Governors Island may soon announce the winner for the global competition to create the Center for Climate Solutions.

In October, Stony Brook University was announced as a finalist for the ambitious project. Northeastern University and the City University of New York and the New School were the leaders of the other bids.

A multidimensional environmental effort designed to educate the public, offer climate solutions and ensure equitable climate solutions, the competition, which was launched in 2020 by former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), is expected to create over $1 billion in economic impact and create 7,000 permanent jobs.

The winner or winners will create a space on the island that features views of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge with several key features. The center will provide a way to study the impacts of climate change, host a living lab that provides entrepreneurs and nonprofits that can test and showcase their climate solutions, serve as an urban center for environmental justice organizations, feature dormitories and housing and provide space for New Yorkers and visitors to discuss climate change.

Partners on the Stony Brook proposal include Brookhaven National Laboratory, International Business Machines, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pace University, Pratt Institute, University of Washington, Duke University, Moody’s Corporation, Rochester Institute of Technology, SUNY Maritime College, Oxford University, URBS Systems, General Electric and other business, nonprofit and on-Island partners.

The proposals offered ways to support interdisciplinary research focused on urban adaptation, urban environments, public policy, environmental justice and public health.

At the same time, the finalists offered educational programs for students all the way from K-12 through graduate and adult education.

The center will provide workforce training opportunities, incubators and accelerator spaces for nonprofits and entrepreneurs working on climate and public programming.

The selection committee that is choosing the winners includes representatives from the Trust for Governors Island, Mayor Eric Adams’s (D) Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, the Mayor’s Office of Equity and the New York City Department of City Planning.

“New York City is facing some of the most complex climate adaptation challenges in the world,” Kizzy Charles-Guzman, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, said in a statement when the finalists were announced last October. “The Center for Climate Solutions will bring together actionable science, community-based partnerships and innovative and equitable solutions to communities on the frontline of the climate crisis.”

Dr. Peter Igarashi is the incoming dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine. Photo from University of Minnesota

Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine has named Dr. Peter Igarashi, a nephrologist and physician scientist, as its new dean, effective Sept. 12.

Igarashi comes to Stony Brook from the University of Minnesota Medical School, where he is the Nesbitt Chair, professor and head of the Department of Medicine.

At the University of Minnesota, the new dean oversaw 600 full-time and affiliate faculty, 100 adjunct faculty, and over 240 residents and fellows, all while increasing National Institutes of Health funding by 60%.

At UMN, he also helped to cut gender pay disparities, appointed women to leadership positions, developed new multidisciplinary programs, and created an Office of Faculty Affairs and Diversity.

“Dr. Igarashi is a superb, academically accomplished physician leader with a highly successful track record of clinical program growth and research advancement,” Dr. Hal Paz, executive vice president of Health Sciences at SBU and chief executive officer of Stony Brook University Medicine, said in a statement. 

Igarashi has received over $25 million in funding from the NIH during a career in which he has studied polycystic kidney disease, transcriptional regulation, epigenetics and kidney development.

Polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, is an inherited disorder that involves the development of clusters of cysts, primarily in the kidney. Symptoms of the disease can include high blood pressure, loss of kidney function, chronic pain and the growth of cysts in the liver, among others.

His lab developed unique lines of transgenic mice that he has used to study kidney-specific transgene expression and gene targeting.

In addition to writing nine chapters in textbooks, Dr. Igarashi has also authored more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.

Before his seven-year stint at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Igarashi had been Chief of the Division of Nephrology and founding director of the O’Brien Kidney Research Core Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

At the University of Texas, Dr. Igarashi created services to provide regular kidney dialysis to undocumented and other often marginalized patients. He also led an effort to use artificial intelligence to identify and optimize co-management of patients with hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease in primary care practices.

A recipient of the NIH Merit Award, Dr. Igarashi also won the 2015 Lillian Jean Kaplan International Prize in polycystic kidney disease. The award honored his contribution to the goal of developing treatments and a cure for polycystic kidney disease.

Dr. Igarashi earned his medical degree from the UCLA School of Medicine and completed an internal medicine residency at the University of California Davis Medical Center. He did a nephrology fellowship at Yale University and also taught at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Dr. Igarashi is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. He is a member of the American Heart Association Kidney Council, the American Physiological Society, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the American Society of Nephrology and the Association of American Physicians.

Dr. William Wertheim had been the interim dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine since February 2021, following Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky’s retirement after serving as dean and senior vice president of health sciences for 11 years.

Dr. Wertheim will return to his role as vice dean for graduate medical education. He will also have a leadership role at the Stony Brook Medicine Community Medical Group, which is an arm of Stony Brook Medicine and includes over 35 community practices with over 50 locations across Long Island.

How changing political boundaries can have real consequences for voters and their representatives

An early political cartoon criticizing former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s practice of drawing bizarrely shaped state senate districts for partisan gain. Stock photo by Pixy

Redistricting is shaking up this election season.

Redistricting is the process by which new political boundaries are drawn to reflect the changes in populations across regions and states. New congressional districts, as well as state Senate and Assembly districts, are redrawn by state Legislatures every 10 years to accord with the most recent U.S. Census results.

‘Government at its worst.’

— Mario Mattera

This year, a cloud of uncertainty was placed over the electoral process when the state Court of Appeals blocked the New York State Legislature’s plans for redrawn district maps. The majority 4-3 decision sent the responsibility for redrawing the lines to an out-of-state independent commission.

State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James), whose District 2 was altered significantly under the new lines, accused the majority in the state Legislature of attempting to gerrymander his district.

“What happened was — and I’m going to say this — the Democrats went in and gerrymandered the lines in the Senate and the congressional lines,” he said.

Unlike the district lines for the state Assembly, which Mattera suggested were worked out through a series of compromises between party leaders, the state Senate could not find a working agreement for new lines. The state senator also said that the lines could have been revised before they went to court, but the majority objected, hoping to win a favorable opinion for its unfair district maps.

“The judges ruled it gerrymandering, so it went to an outside commission called Special Masters, out of Pennsylvania, and it cost the taxpayers money to do this,” he said. 

Mattera expressed frustration at the process, which he said wasted time and taxpayer dollars unnecessarily. He called the recent redistricting process “government at its worst.”

‘I’m never disappointed when the process is done fairly and when it’s done by a bipartisan group that is drawing the lines.’ — Jodi Giglio

New boundaries, altered communities

Under the new district maps, people in communities throughout Long Island will see major changes this year in their political representation. Mattera, whose district currently includes Setauket, Stony Brook and Old Field, will no longer represent those areas after this year. 

“Even though, as a Republican, I wasn’t getting the best results out of Setauket and Stony Brook, I still loved my district,” he said. “I did very well in knowing the people and getting to know everybody, and now I’ve lost all of the Township of Brookhaven.”

Mattera is not alone in losing a significant portion of his current constituency. State leaders all across the Island have had their district lines redrawn as well.

“Southold in its entirety has been taken away from Assembly District 2 and has been placed in Assembly District 1,” said state Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead), who represents the 2nd District. 

Despite losing Southold, Giglio is not disappointed by the changes in her district. She considered the redrawing of the Assembly lines a product of bipartisan negotiations and was glad to pick up new constituencies elsewhere. 

“I’m never disappointed when the process is done fairly and when it’s done by a bipartisan group that is drawing the lines,” she said, adding, “I was pleased to pick up many people in the 2nd Assembly District and will continue to work for the people of Southold as I have grown very close to them.” 

‘It’s a fact of life.’

— Helmut Norpoth

Redistricting, past and future

Helmut Norpoth, professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University, detailed the long history of partisan squabbles over district lines. He said gerrymandering has existed since at least the early 19th century. 

The word “gerrymander” was created after the infamous Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and later vice president who first employed the tactic to create bizarrely shaped state senate districts. Norpoth said gerrymandering has been around “forever” and that “it’s a fact of life” whenever district maps are redrawn.

Norpoth and two of his students recently submitted a proposal to the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission. Their work is centered around making district maps fairer and elections more competitive. 

“One of the requirements that we followed in our proposal is to keep communities intact and minimize any splitting of a natural community into different districts,” Norpoth said. Districts “have to be contiguous, they have to be compact. They have to be as competitive as possible, so that the balance can give both parties a chance.” He added, “There are so many different angles that you have to abide by. It’s sort of a magic act to put it all together.”

‘It’s becoming clear that it’s easier to draw unfair districts.’ — Robert Kelly

While there are so many variables considered while drawing district lines, supercomputing may help to speed up and simplify the process. Robert Kelly, professor in the Department of Computer Science at SBU, focuses on automated redistricting, which uses a mathematical formulation to generate district lines based on a wide range of constraints.

“That allows us to look at, for a given state, what the constraints are in redistricting, whether they be constraints by the state constitution, state laws or constraints given by federal court rulings,” he said. “With that, we can formulate a way to evaluate the quality of the given redistricting plan and then we can try to optimize that result.” 

While advancements in computer programming and supercomputing are helping researchers improve redistricting models, Kelly acknowledged that they can also be used for nefarious purposes.

“It’s becoming clear that it’s easier to draw unfair districts,” he said. “The conclusion would be that with the availability of so much digital data that allows you to predict the voting patterns of individual voters and allows you to manipulate these district boundaries, it is creating a situation where more and more states are creating district boundaries that favor the political party that happens to be in power in the given state.”

With so much controversy today surrounding redistricting, it is questionable whether the problems of partisan gerrymandering will ever go away. Despite considerable effort by researchers like Norpoth and Kelly, conflict over district boundaries may be a feature inherent to any system that requires those lines to be redrawn.

When asked whether the redistricting process could ever become fairer, Kelly said, “Yes, I believe it could be more fair. … But would I predict that would ever happen? I would not bet on it.”

Director of the Heart Rhythm Center at Stony Brook Heart Institute Dr. Eric Rashba is holding the new Watchman FLX device, which provides protection from strokes for people with atrial fibrillation. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

The butterflies that color backyards are welcome companions for spring and summer. The ones that flutter towards the upper part of people’s chests can be discomforting and disconcerting.

In an effort to spread the word about the most common form of heart arrhythmia amid American Heart Month, the Stony Brook Heart Institute recently held a public discussion of Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib.

Caused by a host of factors, including diabetes, chronic high blood pressure, and advanced age, among others, A-fib can increase the risk of significant long-term health problems, including strokes.

In atrial fibrillation, the heart struggles with mechanical squeezing in the top chamber, or the atrium. Blood doesn’t leave the top part of the heart completely and it can pool and cause clots that break off and cause strokes.

Dr. Eric Rashba, who led the call and is the director of the Heart Rhythm Center at Stony Brook Heart Institute, said in an interview that A-fib is becoming increasingly prevalent.

A-fib “continues to go up rapidly as the population ages,” Rashba said. It occurs in about 10% of the population over 65. “As the population ages, we’ll see more of it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 12.1 million people in the United States will have A-fib over the next decade.

As with many health-related issues, doctors advised residents to try to catch any signs of A-fib early, which improves the likely success of remedies like drugs and surgery.

“We prefer to intervene as early as possible in the course of A-fib,” Dr. Ibraham Almasry, cardiac electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute, said during a call with three other doctors. “The triggers tend to be more discreet and localized and we can target them more effectively.”

Different patients have different levels of awareness of A-fib as it’s occurring.

“Every single patient is different,” said Dr. Roger Ran, cardiac electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute. Some people feel an extra beat and could be “incredibly symptomatic,” while others have fatigue, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and dizziness.

Still other patients “don’t know they are in it and could be in A-fib all the time.”

Doctors on the call described several monitoring options to test for A-fib.

Dr. Abhijeet Singh, who is also a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute, described how the technology to evaluate arrhythmias has improved over the last 20 years.

“People used to wear big devices around their necks,” Singh said on the call, which included about 150 people. “Now, the technology has advanced” and patients can wear comfortable patches for up to 14 days, which record every single heartbeat and allow people to signal when they have symptoms.

Patients can also use an extended holter monitor, which allows doctors to track their heartbeat for up to 30 days, while some patients receive implantable recorders, which doctors insert under the skin during a five-minute procedure. The battery life for those is 4.5 years.

Additionally, some phones have apps that record heartbeats that patients can send by email, Singh said. “We have come a long way in a few years.”

Dr. Roger Fan, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Stony Brook Heart Institute, added that all these technologies mean that “we are virtually guaranteed to get to the bottom” of any symptoms.

Drugs vs. surgery

Doctors offer patients with confirmed cases of A-fib two primary treatment options: drugs or surgery.

The surgical procedure is called an ablation and involves entering the body through veins in the groin and freezing or burning small areas that are interfering with the heart’s normal rhythm. The procedure breaks up the electrical signals in irregular heartbeats.

Performed under general anesthetic, the procedure generally takes two to three hours. Patients can return home the same day as the operation, Rashba said.

As with any surgery, an ablation has some risks, such as stroke or heart attack, which Rashba said are “very rare” and occur in fewer than one percent of the cases. Additionally, patients may have groin complications, although that, too, has declined as doctors have used ultrasound to visualize the blood vessels.

In extremely rare occasions, some patients also have damage to the esophagus behind the heart, said Rashba, who is also a professor of medicine.

For patients experiencing symptoms like A-fib, doctors recommended a trip to the emergency room, at least the first time.

“If it’s not going away, one, you can reassure yourself, two, you can get treatment, and three, you can get a diagnosis quickly,” said Almasry.

The Stony Brook doctors said choosing the best treatment option depends on the patient.

“Everybody has different manifestations of their A-fib,” said Fan.

Among other questions, doctors consider how dangerous the A-fib is for the patients, how severe the symptoms are, and how much they affect the quality of life.

Doctors urged residents to make the kind of healthy lifestyle choices that keep other systems functioning effectively. Almasry cited a direct correlation between obesity and A-fib.

Reducing body weight by 10%, while keeping the weight off, can reduce the likelihood of A-fib recurrence, he said.

Photo from Stony Brook University

A Commencement, double White Coat Ceremony and extended orientation to start the school year on the right foot 

The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken many recognitions and rights of passage away from those who have worked hard to reach their goals. Case in point: Commencement for an entire graduating class was celebrated virtually, if at all. An entire class of first-year students were unable to begin their college experience on campus. And, other professional students were unable to mark their hard-earned accomplishments with the proper pomp and circumstance.

Stony Brook University is now ensuring that all of these students will be able to finally have the opportunity to throw their caps, get to know their campus and ceremoniously put on their white coats, marking a return to some normalcy on campus.

Photo from Stony Brook University

On August 15, The Renaissance School of Medicine At Stony Brook University will host two white coat ceremonies. One of these is for the students in the Class of 2021, who will start their medical school journey this fall. The other is for the students who make up the incoming Class of 2020, who were unable to experience this milestone occasion because of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Now these students can proudly participate in this right of passage by donning their white coats in front of friends, family, colleagues, faculty and staff. These ceremonies will take place in the Staller Center.

Stony Brook University will also be celebrating the graduating class of 2020, with an in-person Commencement ceremony. Taking place on Friday, September 10 at 4 p.m., this special commencement event will allow those students who were part of the 2020 graduating class a chance to create special memories with friends and family. Invitations were sent to more than 7,500 graduates and to date, more than 900 have indicated they will attend. More information will continue to be posted here.

As the Fall 2021 class of first-year students makes its way to campus, so will the 2020 class who did not have the opportunity to start their college experience off the way so many have done before them. To ensure everyone feels welcome and gets acclimated to the college campus, Stony Brook is kicking off New Seawolf Welcome Week. The week will kick off with move-in day on Monday, August 16 and the multi-day experience will be filled with workshops, meet-and-greets and more.

For more information on the White Coat Ceremony, or to attend, please contact Gregory.Filiano@stonybrookmed.edu.

For more information on the upcoming Commencement or orientation plans, please contact [email protected]

Photos courtesy of Stony Brook University.