Science & Technology

A group of gelada monkeys in Ethiopia. Photo from Jacob Feder

By Daniel Dunaief

Timing can mean the difference between life and death for young geladas (an Old World monkey species). Geladas whose fathers remain leaders of a social group for as much as a year or more have a better chance of survival than those whose fathers are displaced by new males under a year after they’re born. 

New males who enter a social group can, and often do, kill the young of other males, giving the new male leaders a chance to impregnate the female members of their social group who might otherwise be unable to conceive.

Jacob Feder

 

The odds of a new male leader killing a young gelada are about 60 percent at birth, compared to closer to 15 percent at around a year of age, according to researchers at Stony Brook University (SBU).

Additionally, pregnant gelada monkeys often spontaneously abort their unborn fetuses once a new male enters the group, as the mother’s hormones cause a miscarriage that enables them to dedicate their resources to the future progeny of the next dominant male.

At the same time, the survival of females depends on becoming a part of a group that is just the right size.

Jacob Feder, a graduate student at SBU, and Amy Lu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook, recently published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that explores the ideal group size that optimizes the longevity of females and the number of their offspring.

The researchers discovered a Goldilocks effect. By studying the behavioral and group data for over 200 wild geladas over the course of 14 years, they determined that a mid-size group with five to seven females has the greatest benefit for their own fitness and for the survival of their offspring.

“There tends to be a trade off” in the dynamics that affect female geladas in different groups, Feder said. Females in the biggest groups face a higher risk of takeovers and takeover-related infanticide, since males are more likely to try to dominate a part of larger social groups where they have greater reproductive opportunities.

By contrast, individuals in the smaller groups may live on the periphery of a multi-group dynamic. These females are less protected against predators.

In their native Ethiopia, geladas are vulnerable to leopards, hyenas, and jackals, among others.

For the females, the survival of their offspring depends on the ability of males to remain in the group long enough.

“The male turnover is one of the major drivers of their reproductive success,” explained Feder.

Researchers have seen new males enter a group and kill infants born from another father. The infants, for their part, don’t often recognize the need to avoid new males, Lu said.

When males enter big groups, females often have to reset their reproduction.

Groups with about nine to 11 females often split into units of four to seven, Feder said. A new male might become the leader for half of the females, leaving the remaining male with the other half. Alternatively, new males may take over each group.

The pregnant females who are part of a group with a new male will spontaneously abort their offspring about 80 percent of the time, as females “cut their losses,” Feder said

About 38 percent of females live in a mid-sized group that is close to optimum size.

Gelada charm

According to Feder and Wu, geladas are a compelling species to research, Feder and Wu said.

Feder found his visits to the East African nation rewarding, especially when he had the opportunity to watch a small female named Crimson.

An important part of daily life for these primates involves grooming, where primates comb through each other’s hair, remove insects and, in many cases, eat them.

Crimson, who was a younger member of the group when Feder started observing geladas, didn’t have much grooming experience with this activity. Instead of running her hands over the body of her grooming partner, she focused on her mouth. Her partner’s wide eyes reflected surprise at the unusual grooming choice.

One of the favorites for Lu was a monkey who has since passed away named Vampire. A part of the V group, Vampire was taller and bigger than most adult females. She displaced male geladas, some of whom were larger than she, almost as often as they displaced her.

“If you go out in the field enough, you know the individuals pretty well,” Lu said. “They all have their own personalities. Some of them walk in a different way and react to situations differently.”

A resident of Centereach, Feder grew up in northern Connecticut, attending Wesleyan University as an undergraduate, where he majored in music and biology. A bass guitar player, Feder said he “dabbles in anything with strings.”

In fourth grade, Feder read a biography of Dian Fossey, which sparked his interest in biology.

While he has yet to combine his musical and science interests with geladas, Feder said these monkeys have a large vocabulary that is almost as big as chimpanzees.

Lu, meanwhile, started studying geladas as a postdoctoral researcher. They’re a great study species that allow scientists to ask compelling questions about reproductive strategies. “At any point, you can follow 20 social groups,” Lu said.

Lu, whose two children are four years old and 16 months old, said she has observed the similarities between human and non-human primate young.

“Babies throw tantrums, whether it is my child or a gelada infant protesting being put on the ground,” she described in an email. Gelada infants use a sad “cooing” sound. Sometimes, the sad cooing sound is real and sometimes “they just get what they want.”

Image from BNL

Every year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory opens its gates to thousands of community members for open house events called Summer Sundays. Visitors get to meet the Lab’s scientists and tour a different world-class science facility each week, including the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN)—all DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Following the success of Brookhaven’s virtual Summer Sundays program in 2020 and to continue limiting the spread of COVID-19, the Lab is bringing back its online Summer Sunday program for 2021. Over three Sundays this summer, Brookhaven will host a series of live, virtual events for people of all ages. Each event will feature a guided tour of a Brookhaven Lab facility and live Q&A sessions with a panel of scientists.

Brookhaven Lab plans to return to an in-person public tour format for Summer Sundays 2022, as conditions permit.

 

 

Schedule of events

NSLS-II: Sunday, July 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Tune in to get an up-close look at some of the “beamlines” where scientists use ultrabright x-ray light to see the atomic structure of batteries, proteins, and more. Viewers will have the opportunity to pose questions to NSLS-II scientists about each beamline on the tour and all of the research conducted at NSLS-II. Watch on TwitterFacebook, or YouTube.

RHIC: Sunday, August 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Join Brookhaven scientists as they explore the physics of particle colliders, including RHIC and the upcoming Electron-Ion Collider (EIC). Get a behind-the-scenes look at RHIC’s operations, then scientists for a Q&A session where they’ll take viewers’ questions about RHIC and the EIC. Watch on TwitterFacebook, or YouTube.

CFN: Sunday, August 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Investigate our world at the nanoscale with CFN, where scientists will show viewers the sophisticated microscopes and research tools they use to observe ultrasmall science. Viewers will have the opportunity to pose questions to CFN scientists about each scientific instrument on the tour and all of the research conducted at CFN. Watch on TwitterFacebook, or YouTube.

More details about these events will be announced soon. For the most up-to-date information, follow Brookhaven Lab on Facebook or visit the Summer Sundays website.

How to watch and ask questions

Each of the Lab’s live Summer Sundays events will be streamed to TwitterFacebook, and YouTube. At the time of the event, the live stream will be pinned to the top of Brookhaven’s profile on each platform. You do not need to have a Twitter, Facebook, or Google account to watch the stream.

Viewers are encouraged to submit their questions for the Q&A segment in advance through the Lab’s social media accounts or by sending an email to [email protected]. Live questions will also be accepted during the Q&A through the chat functions on all streaming platforms mentioned above.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.

Follow @BrookhavenLab on Twitter or find us on Facebook.

Rebecca Smith at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland, where the scientist did field work during the 2015 Astrobiology Summer School. Photo from Rebecca Smith

By Daniel Dunaief

Rocks may not speak, move or eat, but they can and do tell stories.

Recognizing the value and importance of the ancient narrative rocks on Earth and on other planets provide, NASA sent vehicles to Mars, including the rover Perseverance, which landed on February 18 of this year.

Perseverance brought seven instruments, most of them identified by the acronym-loving teams at NASA, that carry out various investigations, such as searching for clues about a water-rich environment that may have sustained life about 3.5 billion years ago.

Several instrument teams developed and monitor these pieces of equipment, including Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University and Deputy Principal Investigator on the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PiXL.

In addition to the instrument leads, NASA chose participating scientists who can contribute to several teams, providing scientific support for a host of questions that might arise as the rover explores the terrain of the Red Planet 128 million miles from Earth.

Rebecca Smith, a post-doctoral researcher at Stony Brook in Geosciences Professor Scott McLennan’s lab, is one such participating scientist.

“I get to move around between all these different groups, which is fun,” said Smith, whose appointment will last for three years. While the Mars2020 program takes up about 20 percent of Smith’s time, the remainder is focused on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Smith is likely to spend almost all of her time on Mars2020 starting this September.

Smith has helped make the science plans for the rover. The scientist and other researchers help select targets for the instruments that will help answer specific science questions. For this work, they collaborate with different science teams. Smith plans to get more involved with specific instrument teams soon, including SuperCam, PiXL and Sherloc.

For Smith’s own research, the scientist has a suite of rock samples that include lacustrine carbonates and hydrothermally altered volcanic rocks. The volcanic rocks formed under conditions that might be analogous to those once present in Jezero crater, where the rover landed and is currently maneuvering. The crater is just north of the Martian equator and has a delta that once long ago contained water and, potentially, life.

On Earth, Smith is using versions of the SuperCam, PiXL, and Sherloc to understand how these rocks would look to different instruments and determine what baseline measurements they need to tell the different types of rocks apart using the instruments aboard the rover.

Smith has studied rocks on Earth located in Hawaii, Iceland and the glaciers in the Three Sisters Volcanic Complex in Oregon.

Many planetary geologists use Earth as an analog to understand geologic processes on other planets. It is still uncertain if the climate of early Mars was warn and wet or cold and icy and wet, Smith explained in an email, adding, “It is possible the minerals we see with the rovers and from orbit can help us answer this question.” 

Most of the work the scientist been involved with is trying to understand how Mars-like volcanic rocks chemically weather under different climates.

Through previous research on Mars, scientists discovered that large regions had poorly crystalline materials. The poorly crystalline nature of the materials makes them difficult to identify using rover-based or orbiter-based instruments.

“The fact that they could have formed in the presence of water makes them important to understand,” Smith explained.

Part of the work Smith is doing is to understand if poorly crystalline material formed by water have specific properties that relate to the environment or climate in which they formed.

Smith said the bigger picture question of the work the teams are doing is, “was there life on Mars? If not, why not? We think that Mars, for the first billion years or so, was pretty similar to Earth around the same time and Earth developed life.”

Indeed, Earth had liquid water on its surface, which provided a habitat for microbial life about 3.5 billion years ago.

The ancient rock record on Mars provides a better-preserved history because the Red Planet doesn’t have plate tectonics.

“Based on what we know about Earth, if life ever developed on early Mars, it would likely have been microbial,” Smith wrote.

Other goals of Mars2020 include characterizing the climate and the geology. Both goals focus on looking for evidence of ancient habitable environments and characterizing those to understand a host of details, such as the pH of the water, the temperature and details about how long the water was on the surface.

Part of the reason NASA put out a call for participating scientists is to “bridge instrument data” from different pieces of equipment, Smith explained.

“I love the collaborative nature of working on a team like this,” Smith offered. “Everybody is interested in getting the most important information and doing the best job that we can.”

Smith enjoys the opportunity to study potentially conflicting signals in rocks to determine what they indicate about the past.“Geology is just so complex. It’s a big puzzle. Forces have been acting over a very long period of time and forces change over time. We are trying to tease apart what happened and when.”

While Smith works at Stony Brook, the post-doctoral scientist returned to California during the pandemic to live closer to her family. After finishing the current research program, Smith plans to remain open to various options, including teaching.

Smith appreciates the opportunity to work on the Mars 2020 mission, adding, “I’m really grateful for that during this past year in particular.”

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Famed scientist, inventor and entrepreneur Nikola Tesla would have been 165 this year, and the best way to celebrate his life and legacy was to party at his old lab in Shoreham. 

On Saturday, July 10, hundreds of people gathered at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe for the Tesla Birthday Expo and Birthday Night Show.

The events featured a number of educational exhibits including many of the local STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — exhibits, robotic clubs, Tesla coils, Tesla car showcase, amateur radio, battlebots, Maker Space trailer, local artisans and an interactive STEAM bus from New York Institute of Technology. The daytime event was coupled with a lively nighttime celebration featuring the band ArcAttack.

“What an amazing day to celebrate one of this world’s most acclaimed scientist and inventor,” said county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai). “Thanks to the many TSCW volunteers, local and international community support, and the many partnerships with government, Nikola Tesla’s legacy will continue to inspire and encourage our future scientists.”

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, located in Shoreham, is Nikola Tesla’s last remaining laboratory. Known as a man before his time, he was deemed a genius while researching alternating current systems. He believed that energy didn’t have to be a rich man’s luxury. Energy could be available to all and powered naturally. He thought he could power the whole Northeastern seaboard from Niagara Falls. 

An inventor with hundreds of patents, he was involved in the invention of the radio, remote control and more.

In 1901 Tesla acquired the Wardenclyffe property in Shoreham to test his theories of being able to wirelessly transmit electrical messages, funded by J.P. Morgan. A huge 187-foot tower was designed and constructed for the purpose.

In 1903 creditors confiscated his heavier equipment, and in 1917 the tower was demolished. The concrete feet used to hold the structure can still be seen on the property today. 

Tesla was eventually cut off, causing him to lose control of the site. The property became a film processing company in the early ’30s, where harsh chemicals were dumped into the ground. The contaminated property was sold again and became shuttered in 1987. 

A decades-long cleanup ensued, and the property was put back up for sale. 

The community — locally, nationally and even internationally — came together to fundraise to eventually buy the property in 2013, preserve it and make it a real historic site. 

According to Doug Borge, chief operating officer at TSCW, “At our annual Tesla Birthday events, we not only celebrate Nikola Tesla’s contributions, but also his living legacy that we each build upon through science and innovation.”

The mission of Tesla’s last remaining lab is to develop the site into a transformative global science center that embraces his bold spirit of invention, provides innovative learning experiences, fosters the advancement of new technologies and preserves his legacy in the Tesla Museum.

The group imagines a world where people appreciate Tesla’s contributions, are inspired by his scientific audacity and engage in the future betterment of humanity.

“Today is a perfect example of where we are as an organization,” Borge said. “We’re a community hub for people that love science technology, that are associated with Nikola Tesla and to be a resource for people to leverage, learn and become their own version of Tesla.”

In general, technology and interactivity at this year’s Tesla Birthday Expo were more engaging and popular than ever, he added. New and expanded STEAM exhibits allowed attendees to get hands-on with Tesla inventions and technology. 

ArcAttack made their first visit to Wardenclyffe and took things to a whole new level with a performance at the night shows featuring Tesla coils, rock music and lightning-producing electric instruments. Volunteers in the audience were “zapped” in a Faraday cage, including TSCW’s executive director Marc Alessi.

“We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of attendance at this year’s Tesla Birthday events, due to the pandemic,” Borge said. “Fortunately, we had a great turnout at both the daytime Tesla Birthday Expo and night show.”

Borge added that “the expo is interesting because you can see the crowds clustering around specific exhibits and interacting with enthusiasm.”  

Some fan favorites were the 3D scan that showed the interior of Tesla’s laboratory as it looks today, the robotics and maker space area, along with the go-carts and robots zipping around. 

“This is such an exciting event for the community to learn about important advances in technology,” said attorney and advocate Laura Ahearn, of Port Jefferson. “I’m really excited about getting to meet community members that come here, and some of the high school students that have built from scratch robotic devices better than anything … when I was in high school, I wish I would have had the opportunities that these young students have because it’s going to help them in their future.”

Borge said within the next few weeks, demolition of the dilapidated, noncontributing factory building suffocating Tesla’s laboratory will begin. Additionally, they plan to break ground on its visitor center that will allow them to pilot exhibits and engage and educate more visitors at Wardenclyffe. 

“These are important next steps in the development of TSCW and a moment that many of our global supporters have been looking forward to since TSCW’s record-breaking crowdfund in 2012, which raised $1.4 million in six weeks from 33,000 donors in 108 countries,” he said. “These funds, along with a matching grant from New York State and contributions from supporters like the Musk Foundation, enabled us to purchase Wardenclyffe in 2013. Fast forward to 2021, and TSCW is now positioned to start renovations after raising $10.2 million and acquiring the necessary plans and permits. It’s important to note that we still need to raise another $9.8 million to finish developing the site.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) also made an appearance.

“It’s just really exciting to encourage interest in science and to recognize the history here on Long Island,” she said. “It has such an important impact in so many ways.”

The center will be hosting more events this summer, including the Sound of Science concert on Aug. 28 in collaboration with another nonprofit, Rites of Spring Festival, that will offer a unique immersive musical experience by electronic musicians and contemporary composers.  

Sept. 23 is TSCW’s Third Annual Gala fundraiser for an evening of virtual entertainment, auctions and tech surprises. 

Later in the year, Wardenclyffe will host a Halloween event on Oct. 30, and their annual holiday lighting on Dec. 3. 

Vanderbilt visitors enjoy a trip into space. Photo by Jennifer Vacca

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport found a way in the late 1960s to honor William K. Vanderbilt II’s (1878-1944) love of science and exploration – and to create a new revenue source – when it decided to build a planetarium. Last month, the Vanderbilt Reichert Planetarium observed its 50th birthday.

Opened on June 29, 1971, the Planetarium began generating income to support Museum operations. The Planetarium was a testimony to Mr. Vanderbilt’s passionate interest in science and astronomy and his use of celestial navigation in the early 20th century while circumnavigating the globe in his yachts. Most importantly, the Planetarium was and is essential to the Museum’s mission to provide high-quality astronomy and science education.

The Planetarium, which was popular with visitors immediately, became an invaluable teaching tool. By the second decade of this century, however, the facility and its technology were worn and years out of date. In 2012, the Vanderbilt, with substantial help from Suffolk County, undertook a $4-million renovation and complete technological update of the facility, which reopened on March 15, 2013.

The renovation design allows the star projector to retract out of audience sightlines. This feature, along with removable rows of seating, provides flexibility for the William and Mollie Rogers Theater to be used also as a venue for lectures, performing arts, and large-group meetings. Flexible theatre space allows the Museum to expand its audiences, visibility, and regional appeal.

In February 2020, the Vanderbilt received approval from Suffolk County to use Museum endowment funds for significant technological upgrades. The Vanderbilt purchased two advanced systems – laser phosphorus full-dome video projectors that generate sharper imagery and laser-beam projectors to enhance laser-light entertainment shows. Dave Bush, director of the Planetarium, said this state-of-the-art equipment adds dimension and excitement and greatly improves the visual experience.

The Planetarium is an education center with astronomy programs for visiting school groups that align with New York State educational standards. The facility also offers science entertainment programs and laser-light shows. The Observatory recently added a solar telescope for safe viewing of the Sun.

The Planetarium, which has a 60-foot-diameter dome, is one of the largest and most advanced in the United States. More than 85,000 visitors see shows there each year.

In honor of its largest benefactors, the Vanderbilt renamed the facility the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium in 2019. Their unprecedented gift is helping to ensure the Planetarium’s future.

Visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org for upcoming shows and programs.

 

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Rain can put a damper on life, as the two children at the beginning of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat shared and as the itsy bitsy spider that went up the water spout only to get washed out again discovered.

As it turns out, rain, clouds, wind and foul weather can reduce the trading decisions of people who buy and sell large sums of money in stocks, as they grapple with their own reactions to clouds that they’d like to go away and come again some other day.

Danling Jiang

Danling Jiang, associate dean of research and faculty development in Stony Brook University’s College of Business; Lin Sun, Assistant Professor at George Mason University; and Dylan Norris, Assistant Professor at Troy University recently published a study in which they explored the effect of cloudy or inclement weather in the two weeks before an earnings surprise on investor reactions.

Every three months, public companies provide a detailed disclosure of their profits and losses, giving investors a chance to look over the equivalent of a quarterly report card.

Like helicopter parents who monitor every line, sentence and word in a report card, institutional investors tend to have a stronger reaction, either positively or negatively, if those numbers are considerably different than they expected. An “A” in advanced calculus might be like profits that exceed estimates by 10 percent, while a “C” might be the equivalent of an unexpected loss in a business that had been doing well.

As it turns out, institutional investors are less likely to react as strongly, at least initially, to an earnings surprise if the skies in the two weeks before they review the earnings announcements are cloudy or unpleasant.

“We find strong supporting evidence in our empirical tests which reveal increases in the pre-announcement unpleasant weather of institutional investors results in muted immediate market responses to earnings news and amplified port-earnings-announcement drifts,” Jiang explained in an email.

Over the course of two to three months, the stock price reflects a more typical pattern that aligns with the direction of the earnings surprise.

The researchers published their work in the Journal of Corporate Finance.

These results, which came from an analysis of reactions to earnings surprises from 1990 to 2016, validate and extend previous efforts to understand how weather affects investor decisions.

Earlier studies revealed the effects of weather on individuals’ psychological and physiological states, according to Jiang.

“These effects have also been shown to influence financial decisions and security prices, even through the actions of sophisticated market participants such as market makers and security analysts,” she said.

The three academics started working together when Lin and Jiang were faculty and Norris was a PhD student at Florida State University.

“We were fascinated by the idea present in prior research that weather seems a perfect exogenous shock to investor psychology and physiology,” said Jiang. “This exogenous feature allows us to draw some causality of psychology on market pricing in a new setting with institutional investors and earnings announcements.”

The researchers chose the years 1990 to 2016 because they had the data in their possession.

“We tried to ensure that our sample period was long enough to confirm the weather effect was a persistent force throughout time and not merely a phenomenon of a small segment in time,” said Jiang who added that solving the weather-related muted effect by adding brighter lights to a trading floor could backfire, as excessive bright lights can have negative effects.

“Overillumination can cause fatigue, stress and anxiety,” she explained. “It is also likely that most traders are subject to the weather at some point during the day” through arriving at work, leaving for lunch or glancing out the window. That means the weather still likely influences them even when they may be in a brightly-lit indoor setting.

The researchers used two measures of weather conditions. One integrated wind, cloud and rain, and the other used cloud cover only. Both measures produced similar findings.

Using earlier studies and their own research, it appears accounting for the combined effect of simultaneous weather parameters or focusing on cloud cover better captures any physiological or psychological effects as opposed to using wind or rain alone, said Jiang.

Public companies are unlikely to trigger a more muted response to earnings surprises by recruiting investors from areas with greater cloud cover, as prior research demonstrated that seasonal climate norms don’t appear to affect the behavior of investors once they acclimate, so to speak, to the weather.

In addition to the 14-day window to create the weather measures, the researchers generated a seven-day measure that showed similar results.

Announcement day weather may also affect market reactions to earnings news and “we do not discredit its importance,” Jiang said. Indeed, other research has shown that the weather in New York City at the time of an earnings announcement impacts market reactions.

The explanation for the muted reaction to earnings is based on psychological and physiological reactions of institutional investors to weather, including anxiety and sadness as well as fatigue and decreased activity.

“In addition to causing delayed information processing, weather could cause a reduction in energy amongst some traders,” said Jiang

That means institutional investors may struggle with the same factors that made the boy and Sally from The Cat in the Hat struggle while it was “too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house, we did nothing at all,” Dr. Seuss wrote.

While institutional investors don’t do nothing at all, they are less active, at least according to the recent research, than they are when the sun shines brightly, reliably and more consistently.

Photo courtesy of CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center and the Red Cloud Indian School recently launched a program called Students Talk Science in which high school students could ask questions from several senior scientists about the vaccine for COVID-19 and healthcare disparities in minority communities.

Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable

 

The talks are a component of a program called STARS, for Science, Technology & Research Scholars, an effort the group started in 2019 to build interest and experience in STEM for minority students. The Students Talk Science program engaged the STARS participants and students from the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Jason Williams, Assistant Director of Inclusion and Research Readiness at the DNA Learning at CSHL; Brittany Johnson, an educator at the DNA Learning Center; Katie Montez, a teacher at the Red Cloud Indian School ;and Carol Carter, Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, wanted to connect minority students with practicing physicians and scientists in leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health to allow them to ask questions of concern regarding the vaccines.

Dr. Monica Webb-Hooper

“We did this to empower them to function as trusted resources for their families, friends and network,” Carter, who participated as an individual rather than as a formal representative of Stony Brook University, explained in an email.

The conversations included interactions with Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, or NIMHD at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Monica Webb Hooper, Deputy Director of the NIMHD; Dr. Gary Gibbons, Director of the National Heat, Lung and Blood Institute; and Dr. Eugenia South, Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Presbyterian Medical Center of Philadelphia.

The high school students prepared informed questions.

Dr. Gary Gibbons

“The students were encouraged to do their own research” on the interview subjects, Williams explained. “We asked students not to look just at [each] interviewee’s science work, but also any personal background/ biography they could find. Students had multiple opportunities for follow up and were largely independent on their choices of questions.”

Samantha Gonzalez, a student at Walter G. O’Connell Copiague High School, asked South about her initial skepticism for the vaccine.

South acknowledged that she had no interest in taking the vaccine when she first learned she was eligible. “I almost surprised myself with the fierceness with which I said, ‘No,’” South said. “I had to step back and say, ‘Why did I have this reaction?’”

Some of the reasons had to do with mistrust, which includes her own experiences and the experiences of her patients, whom she said have had to confront racism in health care. In addition, she was unsure of the speed at which the vaccine was developed. She had never heard of the mRNA technology that made the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/ BioNTech possible.

“I had to do my own research to understand that this wasn’t a new technology,” she said.

Dr. Eugenia South

South went through a learning process, in which she read information and talked to experts. After she received answers to her questions and with the urging of her mother, she decided to get the vaccine.

“I’m so thankful that I was able to do that,” South said.

The team behind Students Talk Science not only wanted to empower students to make informed decisions, but also wanted to give them the opportunity to interact with scientists who might serve as personal and professional role models, providing a pathway of information and access that developed amid an extraordinary period.

“We wanted to engage high school students in something unique going on in their lifetime,” Carter said.

To be sure, Carter and Williams said the scientific interactions weren’t designed to convince students to take the vaccine or to urge their parents or families to get a shot. Rather, they wanted to provide an opportunity for students to ask questions and gather information.

“We purposely did not participate in the discussions because our goal was not to convince or ‘preach,’ but to enable students and their networks to make informed decisions,” Carter said.

Parents had to read and sign off on the process for students to participate. The organizers didn’t want a situation where they were doing something that conflicts with a parents’ decisions or views.

Williams added that the purpose of the conversations was never to say, “you must get the vaccine. Our purpose is to talk about information.”

The objective of these interactions is to help minority students find a track for a productive career in ten years.

In addition to questions about hesitancy, Williams said some of the high school students expressed concerns about access to vaccines. He is pleased with the result of this effort to connect students with scientists and doctors.

The group was “able to get some of the most important scientists in the country to sit with high school students,” he said. “It was very powerful to give students access to these role models.”

The goal is to stay with these students, mentor them and stay in touch with them until they graduate from college and, perhaps, return as research scientists.

Even for students who do not return, this type of interaction could provide an “impactful experience that prepares them for other opportunities,” Williams explained, adding that the STARS program would incorporate the Students Talk Science Series into the program more formally in the future, with new students and topics most likely during the school year.

The interviews are available at the following website: https://dnalc.cshl.edu/resources/students-talk-science/.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

An electroencephalogram (EEG) study of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) identified a neural signal that may help explain the variation of how those with ASD perceive or understand the mental states of others (called “Theory of Mind”). Led by Matthew Lerner, PhD, of Stony Brook University, the study is published in Clinical Psychological Science.

While challenges with Theory of Mind have long been associated with ASD, it is now known that many people with ASD do not struggle with his sort of perspective-taking. For example, those with increased autism symptoms do not necessarily exhibit increased deficits in the understanding others socially, and vice versa. However, this variability in Theory of Mind is not well understood.

A total of 78 adolescents ages 11 to 17 participated in the study, most with ASD. With the EEG in place, the participants viewed Theory of Mind vignettes of social scenes and made mental state inferences on the characters’ behavior as their brain activity was recorded.

“We know the brains of those with ASD process social experiences differently, yet little work has linked these differences directly to Theory of Mind,” says Lerner, Associate Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook. “In our study, we first identified an electrical brain-based marker that relates to Theory of Mind ability in typically-developing teens, and found that it does so in ASD, too. This marker, called the Late Positive Complex (LPC), seems to reflect one’s ability to hold and reflect an idea or situation in one’s mind.”

Lerner and his team found that LPC scores in ASD adolescents related to better Theory of Mind accuracy and fewer ASD symptoms. More importantly, The LPC statistically explained the relationship between ASD symptoms and Theory of Mind accuracy, suggesting that this EEG signal may explain why some individuals with ASD struggle with Theory of Mind.

“Essentially, if this marker is present in someone with ASD, they do not seem to have trouble with Theory of Mind, but if it is absent they do.”

The authors point out that evidence from the EEG study suggests that deficits in Theory of Mind reasoning in those with ASD occur relatively early in the brain process of perception, and stem from difficulties holding an idea or image in mind when it is no longer visible.

They conclude that “the current findings increase understanding of the neural mechanisms implicated in social-cognitive functioning in ASD and further inform clinical practice, research and theory involving social cognition in ASD.”

 

Above, microscopic image showing brown, antibody-based staining of keratin 17 (K17) in bladder cancer. Image from Shroyer Lab, Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Detectives often look for the smallest clue that links a culprit to a crime. A fingerprint on the frame of a stolen Picasso painting, a shoe print from a outside a window of a house that was robbed or a blood sample can provide the kind of forensic evidence that helps police and, eventually, district attorneys track and convict criminals.

Kenneth Shroyer MD, PhD                  Photo from SBU

The same process holds true in the world of disease detection. Researchers hope to use small and, ideally, noninvasive clues that will provide a diagnosis, enabling scientists and doctors to link symptoms to the molecular markers of a disease and, ultimately, to an effective remedy for these culprits that rob families of precious time with their relatives.

For years, Ken Shroyer, the Marvin Kuschner Professor and Chair of Pathology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, has been working with a protein called keratin 17.

A part of embryological development, keratin 17 was, at first, like a witness who appeared at the scene of one crime after another. The presence of this specific protein, which is unusual in adults, appeared to be something of a fluke.

Until it wasn’t.

Shroyer and a former member of his lab, Luisa Escobar-Hoyos, who is now an Assistant Professor at Yale, recently published two papers that build on their previous work with this protein. One paper, which was published in Cancer Cytopathology, links the protein to pancreatic cancer. The other, published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, provides a potentially easier way to diagnose bladder cancer, or urothelial carcinoma.

Each paper suggests that, like an abundance of suspicious fingerprints at the crime scene, the presence of keratin 17 can, and likely does, have diagnostic relevance.

Pancreatic cancer

A particularly nettlesome disease, pancreatic cancer, which researchers at Stony Brook and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, including CSHL Cancer Center Director David Tuveson, have been studying for years, has a poor prognosis upon diagnosis.

During a process called surgical resection, doctors have been able to determine the virulence of pancreatic cancer by looking at a larger number of cells.

Shroyer and Escobar Hoyos, however, used a needle biopsy, in which they took considerably fewer cells, to see whether they could develop a k17 score that would correlate with the most aggressive subtype of the cancer.

“We took cases that had been evaluated by needle biopsy and then had a subsequent surgical resection to compare the two results,” Shroyer said. They were able to show that the “needle biopsy specimens gave results that were as useful as working with the whole tumor in predicting the survival of the patient.”

A needle biopsy, with a k17 score that reflects the virulence of cancer, could be especially helpful with those cancers for which a patient is not a candidate for a surgical resection.“That makes this type of analysis available to any patient with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, rather than limiting it to the small subset of cases that are able to undergo surgery,” Shroyer said. 

Ultimately, however, a k17 score is not the goal for the chairman of the pathology department.

Indeed, Shroyer would like to use that score as a biomarker that could differentiate patient subtypes, enabling doctors to determine a therapy that would prove most reliable for different groups of people battling pancreatic cancer.

The recently published report establishes the foundation of whether it’s possible to detect and get meaningful conclusions from a needle biopsy in terms of treatment options.

At this point, Shroyer isn’t sure whether these results increase the potential clinical benefit of a needle biopsy.

“Although this paper supports that hypothesis, we are not prepared yet to use k17 to guide clinical decision making,” Shroyer said.

Bladder cancer

Each year, doctors and hospitals diagnose about 81,000 cases of bladder cancer in the United States. The detection of this cancer can be difficult and expensive and often includes an invasive procedure.

Shroyer, however, developed a k17 protein test that is designed to provide a reliable diagnostic marker that labs can get from a urine sample, which is often part of an annual physical exam.

The problem with bladder cancer cytopathology is that the sensitivity and specificity aren’t high enough. Cells sometimes appear suggestive or indeterminate when the patient doesn’t have cancer.

“There has been interest in finding biomarkers to improve diagnostic accuracy,” Shroyer said. 

Shroyer applied for patent protection for a k17 assay he developed through the Stony Brook Technology Transfer office and is working with KDx Diagnostics. The work builds on “previous observations that k17 detects bladder cancer in biopsies,” Shroyer said. He reported a “high level of sensitivity and specificity” that went beyond that with other biomarkers.

Indeed, in urine tests of 36 cases confirmed by biopsy, 35 showed elevated levels of the protein.

KDx, a start up biotechnology company that has a license with The Research Foundation for The State University of New York, is developing the test commercially.

The Food and Drug Administration gave KDx a breakthrough device designation for its assay test for k17.

Additionally, such a test could reveal whether bladder cancer that appears to be in remission may have recurred.

This type of test could help doctors with the initial diagnosis and with follow up efforts, Shroyer said.“Do patients have bladder cancer, yes or no?” he asked. “The tools are not entirely accurate. We want to be able to give a more accurate answer to that pretty simple question.”

Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton hosted a virtual Elementary Science Fair awards ceremony on June 4. Suffolk County students from kindergarten through sixth grade who garnered first place and honorable mentions in the 2021 Elementary Science Fair Competition were honored. 

Volunteer judges considered a total 184 science projects by students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Seven students earned first place in their grade level for stand-out experiments Fifteen students received honorable mentions for their experiments. Students qualify for Brookhaven Lab’s competition by winning science fairs held by their schools.

Students who earned first place in their grade level received medals and ribbons, along with banners to hang at their school to recognize the achievement. Here are the winners and their projects:

Kindergartener Violet Radonis of Pines Elementary, Hauppauge Public Schools, “Which Mask You Ask? I Am on the Task.” 

First grader Ashleigh Bruno, Ocean Avenue Elementary, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Rain, Rain Go Away” 

Second grader Celia Gaeta, Miller Avenue School, Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, “How the Moon Phases Affect Our Feelings”       

Third grader Emerson Gaeta, Fort Salonga Elementary, Kings Park Central School District, “Can You Hear Me Through My Mask?” 

Fourth grader Matthew Mercorella, Sunrise Drive Elementary, Sayville Public Schools, “Shh…I Can’t Hear” 

Fifth grader Grace Rozell, Ocean Avenue School, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Edible Experiments” 

Sixth grader Patrick Terzella, Hauppauge Middle School, Hauppauge Public Schools, “Too Loud or Not Too Loud?”

View all science fair projects: https://flic.kr/p/2kZPtqY

Finding fun in the scientific process

This is the second year that the Office of Educational Programming (OEP) at Brookhaven Lab organized a virtual science fair to ensure that local students had the opportunity to participate safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each year, the competition offers thousands of students a chance to gain experience — and have fun — applying the scientific method. The Brookhaven Lab event recognizes the achievement of the students in winning their school fair and acknowledges the best of these projects.

“The Brookhaven Lab Elementary School Science Fair encourages students to utilize the scientific method and answer a question that they have independently developed,” said Amanda Horn, a Brookhaven Lab educator who coordinated the virtual science fair. 

Students tackled a wide range of questions with their experiments, including exploring how the moon phases affect our feelings to testing different materials, investigating how to improve their at-home internet connection, and finding safe masks for their friends and families.

First grader Ashleigh Bruno, who garnered a top spot for an experiment on acid rain, evaluated the pH levels in local water sources to learn if animals could live safely within them. 

“I was really happy because I learned how to test the water and it was really fun to do with my family,” Bruno said.

Third grader Emerson Gaeta explored whether wearing a frame with different kinds of face masks could improve how we hear people who are speaking while wearing a mask. She used a foam head equipped with a speaker to measure how loud sounds came through the masks.

“I was here once before and I didn’t win,” Gaeta said. “Now I won first place so I’m really happy about that.”

Fourth grader Matthew Mercorella said he was excited to learn of his first-place win for his experiment seeking to find the best sound-proofing material. He found the best part of his project to be the process of testing materials by playing music through a speaker placed inside of them to see which put out the lowest and highest decibels.

“It encourages the students to think like a scientist and share their results with others,” said Horn. “Our goal is to provide students with an opportunity to show off their skills and share what they have learned.”

Honorable Mentions:

Kindergarten
Carmen Pirolo, Bellerose Avenue Elementary, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Egg Shells and Toothpaste Experiment”
Filomena Saporita, Ocean Avenue Elementary, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Rainbow Celery”

First Grade
Evelyn Van Winckel, Fort Salonga Elementary, Kings Park Central School District, “Is Your Mouth Cleaner Than A Dog’s?”
Taran Sathish Kumar, Bretton Woods Elementary, Hauppauge Public School District, “Scratch and Slide”

Second Grade
Luke Dinsman, Dickinson Avenue School, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “What Makes a Car Go Fast?”
Adam Dvorkin, Pulaski Road School, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Salty Sourdough”
Lorenzo Favuzzi, Ivy League School, “Prime Time”

Third Grade
Ethan Behrens, Tangier Smith Elementary, William Floyd School District, “Deadliest Catch”
Anna Conrad, Dayton Avenue School, Eastport-South Manor Central School District, “Hello Paper Straws”

Fourth Grade
Michael Boyd, Cherry Avenue Elementary, Sayville Public Schools, “Utility Baby”
Michaela Bruno, Ocean Avenue Elementary, Northport-East Northport Union Free School District, “Weak Wi-Fi, Booster Benefit”

Fifth Grade
Hailey Conrad, Dayton Avenue School, Eastport-South Manor Central School District, “Breathing Plants”
Rebecca Bartha, Raynor Country Day School, “Natural Beauty Makes a Better Buffer”
Colin Pfeiffer, Tamarac Elementary, Sachem Central School District, “Turn Up the Heat”

Sixth Grade
Akhil Grandhi, Hauppauge Middle School, Hauppauge Public School District, “Which Fruit or Vegetable Oxidizes the Most in Varied Temperature?”

For more information, visit www.bnl.gov.