Science & Technology

Simon Birrer Photo by Andrea Hoffmann

By Daniel Dunaief

When he was young, Simon Birrer asked his parents for a telescope because he wanted to look at objects on mountains and hills.

Simon Birrer.  Photo Studio, Mall of Switzerland

While he was passionate about science and good at math, Birrer didn’t know at the time he’d set his sights much further away than nearby hills or mountains in his professional career.

An Assistant Professor in the department of Astronomy and Physics at Stony Brook University, Birrer uses telescopes that generate data from much further away than nearby hills as he studies the way light from distant galaxies bends through a process called gravitational lensing. He also works to refine a measure of the expansion of the universe.

“All matter (including stars in galaxies) are causing the bending of light,” Birrer explained in an email. “From our images, we can infer that a significant fraction of the lensing has to come from dark (or more accurately: transparent) matter.”

Dark matter describes how a substance of matter that does not interact with any known matter component through a collision or pressure or absorption of light is transparent.

While they can’t see this matter through various types of telescopes, cosmologists like Birrer know it’s there because when it gets massive enough, it creates what Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of relativity, altering spacetime. Dark matter is effectively interacting with visible matter only gravitationally.

Every massive object causes a gravitational effect, Birrer suggested.

When a single concentration of matter occurs, the light of a distant galaxy can produce numerous images of the same object.

Scientists take several approaches to delens the data. They rely on computers to perform ray-tracing simulations to compare predictions with the astronomical images.

The degree of lensing is proportional to the mass of total matter.

Birrer uses statistics and helps draw conclusions about the fundamental nature of the dark matter that alters the trajectory of light as it travels towards Earth.

He conducts simulations and compares a range of data collected from NASA Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Hubble constant

Beyond gravitational lensing, Birrer also studies and refines the Hubble constant, which describes the expansion rate of the universe. This constant that was first measured by Edwin Hubble in 1929.

“An accurate and precise measurement of the Hubble constant will provide us empirical guidance to questions and answers about the fundamental composition and nature of the universe,” Birrer explained.

During his postdoctoral research at UCLA, Birrer helped develop a new “formalism to measure the expansion history of the universe accounting for all the uncertainty,” Tomasso Treu, a Vice Chair for Astronomy at UCLA and Birrer’s postdoctoral advisor. “These methodological breakthroughs lay the foundation for the work that is being done today to find out what is dark matter and what is dark energy,” which is a force that causes the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Treu, who described Birrer as “truly outstanding” and one of the ‘best postdocs I have ever interacted with” in his 25-year career, suggested that his former student was relentless even after impressive work.

Soon after completing a measurement of the constant to two percent precision, Birrer started thinking of a “way to redo the experiment using much weaker theoretical assumptions,” Treu wrote in an email. “This was a very brave thing to do, as the dust had not settled yet on the first measurement and he questioned everything.”

The new approach required considerable effort, patience and dedication.

Birrer was “motivated uniquely by his intellectual honesty and rigor,” Treu added. “He wanted to know the answer and he wanted to know if it was robust to this new approach.”

Indeed, researchers are still executing this new measurement, which means that Treu and others don’t know how the next chapter in this search. This approach will, however, lead to greater confidence in whatever figure they find.

Larger collaborations

Simon Birrer. Photo by Rebecca Ross

Birrer is a part of numerous collaborations that involve scientists from Europe, Asia, and Middle and South America.

He contributes to the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). A planned 10-year survey of the southern sky, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is under construction in northern Chile.

The Simonyi Survey Telescope (SST) at the observatory will survey half the sky every three nights. It will provide a movie of that part of the sky for a decade.

The telescope and camera are expected to produce over 5.2 million exposures in a decade. In fewer than two months, a smaller commissioning camera will start collecting the first light. The main camera will start collecting images within a year, while researchers anticipate gathering scientific data in late next year or early in 2026.

The LSST is expected to find more strong gravitational lensing events, and in particular strongly lensed supernovae, than any prior survey.

Birrer is the co-chair of the LSST Strong Lensing Science Collaboration and serves on the Collaboration Council of the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration.

Birrer is also a part of the Dark Energy Survey, which was a predecessor to LSST. Researchers completed data taking a few years ago and are analyzing that information.

From mountains to the island

Born and raised in Lucerne, Switzerland, Birrer, who speaks German and the Swiss dialect, French and English, found physics and sociology appealing when he was younger.

“I was interested in how the world works,” he said.

While attending college at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, he became eager to address the numerous unknown questions in cosmology and astrology.

“How little we know about” these fields “dragged me in that direction,” said Birrer.

An avid skier, mountaineer and soccer player, Birrer bikes the five miles back and forth to work from Port Jefferson.

In addition to adding a talented scientist, Stony Brook also brought on board an effective educator.

Birrer is “knowledgeable and caring, patient and at the same time, he knows how to challenge people to achieve their best,” Treu explained. “I am sure he will be a wonderful addition to the faculty and he will play a leading role in training the next generation of scientists.”

In terms of the advice he found particularly helpful in his career, Birrer suggested he needed a nudge to combine his passion for theory with the growing trove of available data. His PhD advisor told him to “touch the data,” he said. The data keeps him humble and provides a reality check.

The friction between thought and data “leads to progress,” Birrer added. “You never know whether the thoughts are ahead of the experiments (data) or whether the experiments are ahead of the thoughts.”

Dr. Alexander Orlov. Photo by John Griffin/SBU

Alexander Orlov recognized for contributions to the AIChE’s division dedicated to promoting research, education and innovation related to the design of creative engineering solutions to environmental challenges

Alexander Orlov, PhD, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University, is the recipient of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) Dr. Peter. B. Lederman Environmental Division Service Award.

The award recognizes outstanding service to the Environmental Division the AIChE. The AIChE has more than 60,000 members from more than 110 countries and is the world’s leading organization for chemical engineering professionals.

Orlov will receive the award during the AIChE’s annual meeting, which takes October 27 to 31 at the Convention Center in San Diego.

As an integral member of the AIChE, Orlov initiated fundraising and outreach efforts for the Environmental Division that helped to double its annual budget. His leadership led to a substantial increase in the Division’s membership. Both efforts led to his nomination for the service award.

Orlov is currently Co-Chair of the AIChE’s Sustainable Engineering Forum (SEF) Education Committee and an Institute for Sustainability Board Member. Previously, the Institute recognized Orlov for his education and commercialization efforts with the 2017 SEF Education Award and the 2021 AIChE SEF Industrial Practice Award.

In addition to his departmental faculty position at Stony Brook, Orlov is a faculty member of the Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Research, and an affiliate faculty member of the Chemistry Department and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science. He also serves as a Co-Director of the Center for Laser Assisted Advanced Manufacturing and Center for Development and Validation of Scalable Methods for Sustainable Plastic Synthesis and Processing.

Orlov received his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge. He has been teaching and conducting research at Stony Brook University since 2008.

 

Daniel Marx in front of one of the magnets at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

In a world filled with disagreements over everything from presidential politics to parking places, numbers — and particularly constants — can offer immutable comfort, as people across borders and political parties can find the kind of common ground that make discoveries and innovations possible.

Many of these numbers aren’t simple, as anyone who has taken a geometry class would know. Pi, for example, which describes the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, isn’t just 3 or 3.14.

In classes around the world, people challenge their memory of numbers and sequences by reciting as many digits of this irrational number as possible. An irrational number can’t be expressed as a fraction.

These irrational numbers can and do inform the world well outside of textbooks and math tests, making it possible for, say, electromagnetic radiation to share information across a parallel world or, in earlier parlance, the ether.

“All electronic communication is made up of waves, sines and cosines, that are defined and evaluated using pi,” said Alan Tucker, Toll Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Stony Brook University. The circuits that send and receive information are “based on calculations using pi.”

Scientists can receive signals from the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and now over seven billion miles away, thanks to the ability to tune a circuit using math that relies on pi and numerous mathematical formulas where the sensitivity to the signal is infinite.

The signal from the spacecraft, which is over 16 years older than the average-aged person on the planet, takes about 10 hours to travel back and forth.

“Think of 1/x, where x goes to 0,” explained Tucker. “Scientists have taken that infinity to be an infinite multiplier of weak signals that can be understood.”

Closer to Earth, the internet, radio waves and TV, among myriad other electronic devices, all use generated and decoded calculations using pi.

“All space has an unseen mathematical existence that nobody can see,” said Tucker. “These are heavily based on calculations involving pi.”

Properties of nature

Constants reflect the realities of the world. They have “a property that is fundamental and absolute and that no one could change,” said Steve Skiena, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Computer Science at Stony Brook University. “The reason people discovered these constants as being important is because they are relating things that arise in the world.”

While pi may be among the best known and most oft-discussed constant, it’s not alone in measuring and understanding the world and in helping scientists anticipate, calculate and understand their experiments.

Chemists, for example, design reactions using a standard unit of measure called the mole, which is also called Avogadro’s number for the Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro.

The mole provides a way to balance equations, enabling chemists to determine exactly how much of each reactant to combine to get a specific amount of product.

This huge number, which is often expressed as 6.022 times 10 to the 23rd power, represents the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon 12. The units can be electrons, ions, atoms or molecules.

“Without Avogadro’s number, it would be impossible to determine the ratio of particular reactants,” said Elliot Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who works in John Moses’s lab. “You could take an educated guess, but you wouldn’t get good results.”

Smith often uses millimoles, or 1/1000th of a mole, in the chemical reactions he does.

“If we know the millimoles of each reactant, we can calculate the expected yield,” said Smith. “Without that, you’re fumbling in the dark.”

Indeed, efficient chemical reactions make it possible to synthesize greater amounts of some of the pharmaceutical products that protect human health.

Moles, or millimoles, in a reaction also make it possible to question why a result deviated from expectations. 

Almost the speed of light

Physicists use numerous constants.

“In physics, it is inescapable that you will have to deal with some of the fundamental constants,” said Alan Calder, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University.

When he models stellar explosions, he uses the speed of light and Newton’s gravitational constant, which relates the gravitational force between two objects to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them.

The stars Calder studies are gas ball reactions that also involve constants.

Stars have thermonuclear reactions going on in them as they evolve. Calder uses reaction rates that depend on local conditions like temperature, but there are constants in these.

Calder’s favorite number is e, or Euler’s constant. This number, which is about 2.71828, is useful in calculating interest in a bank account as well as in understanding the width of successive layers in a snail shell among many other phenomena in nature.

Electron Ion Collider

The speed of light figures prominently in the development and calculations at Brookhaven National Laboratory as the lab prepares to build the unique Electron Ion Collider, which is expected to cost between $1.7 billion and $2.8 billion.

The EIC, which will take about 10 years to construct, will collide a beam of electrons with a beam of ions to answer basic questions about the atomic nucleus.

“It’s one of the most exciting projects in the world,” said Daniel Marx, an accelerator physicist in the Electron Ion Collider accelerator design group at BNL.

At the EIC, physicists expect to propel the electrons, which are 2,000 times lighter than protons, extremely close to the speed of light. In fact, they will travel at 99.999999 (yes, that’s six nines after the decimal point) of the speed of light, which, by the way, is 186,282 miles per second. That means that light can circle the globe 7.48 times per second.

The EIC will increase the energy of ions to 99.999% of the speed of light. With only three nines after the decimal, the protons will be traveling at a slower enough speed that the designers of the collider will make the proton ring about 4 inches shorter over 2.4 miles to ensure that the protons and electrons arrive at exactly the same time.

The EIC will attempt to answer questions about the mass and spin of the nucleus. They hope to understand what happens with dense systems of gluons. By accelerating nuclei or protons to higher energies, they will get more gluons and will look for evidence of gluon saturation.

“The speed of light is absolutely fundamental to everything we do,” said Marx because it is fundamental to relativity and the particles in the accelerator are relativistic.

As for constants, Marx suggested that its value might look like a row of random numbers, but if those numbers are a bit different, that could “revolutionize” an understanding of physics.

In addition to a detailed understanding of atomic nuclei, the EIC could also lead to new technologies.

When JJ Thomson discovered the electron, he toasted it by saying, “may it never be of use to anyone.” That, however, is far from the case, as the electron is at the heart of electronics.

As for pi, Marx, like many of his STEM colleagues, appreciates this constant.

“Once you look at the mathematical statement of pi, and how it relates in various ways to other quantities in math and physics, it deepens your appreciation of how beautiful the whole universe is,” Marx said.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

The Food and Drug Administration last week approved donanemab, or Kisunla, an intravenous treatment for early stage Alzheimer’s disease, adding a second medication for mild stages of a disease that robs people of memory and cognitive function.

Nikhil Palekar, Medical Director of the Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease and Director of the Stony Brook Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Trials Program. Photo courtesy Stony Brook Medicine/Jeanne Neville

The monoclonal antibody drug from Eli Lilly joins Leqembi from drug makers Eisai and Biogen as ways to reduce the characteristic amyloid plaques that are often used to diagnose Alzheimer’s.

While the medications offer ways to slow but do not stop or reverse Alzheimer’s and come with potential significant side effects, doctors welcomed the treatment options for patients who are at risk of cognitive decline.

Dr. Nikhil Palekar, Medical Director of the Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease and Director of the Stony Brook Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Trials Program, has been in the field for about two decades.

“Only in the last three years have I finally become quite optimistic” about new treatments, said Palekar, who is a consultant for Eisai. “We’ve had so many failures in the last few decades” with the current medications targeting the core pathologies.

That optimism comes at a time when more people in the United States and around the world are likely to deal with diseases that affect the elderly, as the number of people in the United States who are 85 and older is expected to double in the next 10 years.

The rates of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is about 13 percent for people between 75 and 84 and is 33 percent for people over 85 according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Alzheimer’s Association issued a statement welcoming the addition of Kisunla to the medical arsenal.

“This is real progress,” Joanne Pike, Alzheimer’s Association president and CEO, said in a statement. The approval “allows people more options and greater opportunity to have more time.”

To be sure, Leqembi, which was approved in June of 2023 and Kisunla aren’t a guarantee for improvement and come with some potentially significant side effects.

Some patients had a risk of developing so-called amyloid-related imaging abnormalities, which includes brain edema, or ARIA-E or hemorrhaging, or ARIA-H in the brain.

ARIA can resolve on its own, but can, in rare cases, become severe and life-threatening.

Patients taking these medications receive regular monitoring, including MRI’s before various additional treatments.

Patients are “monitored carefully” before infusions to “go over symptom checklists to make sure they don’t have neurological symptoms,” said Palekar. “If they have any symptoms, the next step is to head to the closest emergency room to get an MRI of the brain, which is the only way to know if a side effect is causing symptoms.”

Nonetheless, under medical supervision, patients who took the medication as a part of clinical trials showed a progressive reduction in amyloid plaques up to 84 percent at 18 months compared to their baseline.

The benefits for Leqembi, which is given every two weeks, and Kisunla, which is administered every four weeks, were similar in terms of slowing the effect of cognitive decline, said Dr. Marc Gordon, Chief of Neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks.

“Neither of them is a cure for Alzheimer’s,” said Gordon. “These medications are not a home run, but at least we’re on base.”

Not eligible

Not everyone is eligible to take these monoclonal antibody treatments.

These drugs are not available for people who have progressed beyond the mild stage of the disease. Clinicians advised those who are showing potential signs of Alzheimer’s to visit their doctors before the disease progresses beyond the point where these drugs might help.

Additionally, people on blood thinners, such as Eliquis, Coumadin, and Warfarin, can not take these drugs because a micro bleed could become a larger hemorrhage.

People who have an active malignant cancer also can’t take these drugs, nor can anyone who has had a reaction to these treatments in the past. The people who might likely know of an allergic reaction to these drugs are those who participated in clinical trials.

Doctors monitor their patients carefully when they administer new drugs and have epinephrine on hand in case of an allergic reaction.

Patients with two alleles – meaning from both parents – of a variant called APOE ε4 have a higher incidence of ARIA, including symptomatic, serious and severe AIRA, compared to those with one allele or non-carriers. 

If patients have this variant on both alleles, which occurs in about 15 percent of Alzheimer’s patients, Gordon and Palekar both counsel patients not to take the drug.

“We don’t think the risk is acceptable” for this patient population, Gordon said.

Ultimately, Palekar believes patients, their doctors and their families need to make informed calculations about the risks and benefits of any treatment, including for Alzheimer’s.

Beyond drugs

Palekar added that recent studies have also shown that an increase in physical exercise and activity, such as aerobic activity three times a week for 45 minutes each time, can “significantly help in patients with cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease,” he said.

After consulting with a physician to ensure that such activity is safe, patients can use a stationary bike or take walks which can benefit their bodies and their brains.

Additionally, various diets, such as the mind diet that combines the mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which emphasize eating green leafy vegetables and berries among other things, can benefit the brain as well.

Patients also improve their cognitive health by continuing mental activity through games as well as by retaining social connections to friends, family and members of the community.

Like many other people, Palekar witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer’s first hand. As a teenager, he saw his aunt, who was smart, caring and loving, stare out the window without being able to communicate and engage in conversation as she battled the disease.

As a condition involving amyloid plaques, tau proteins, and inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease may require a combination of treatments that address the range of causes.

“There’s going to be a combined therapy,” said Gordon. “Just like when we’re treating cancer, we don’t have just one drug. It’s going to be important to figure out the sequencing and whether drugs are given sequentially or cumulatively. It has to be a multi-faceted approach.”

From left, Adrian Krainer and Danilo Segovia with the Breakthrough Prize, which Krainer won in 2018. Photo from Danilo Segovia

By Daniel Dunaief

For many young children, the ideal peanut butter and jelly sandwich doesn’t include any crust, as an accommodating parent will trim off the unwanted parts before packing a lunch for that day.

Similarly, the genetic machinery that takes an RNA blueprint and turns it into proteins includes a so-called “spliceosome,” which cuts out the unwanted bits of genetic material, called introns, and pulls together exons.

Adrian Krainer. Photo from CSHL

When the machinery works correctly, cells produce proteins important in routine metabolism and everyday function. When it doesn’t function correctly, people can contract diseases.

Danilo Segovia, a PhD student at Stony Brook University who has been working in the laboratory of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor Adrian Krainer for seven years, recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about an important partner, called DDX23, that works with the key protein SRSF1 in the spliceosome.

“We obtained new insights into the splicing process,” said Krainer, who is the co-leader of the Gene Regulation & Inheritance program in the Cancer Center at CSHL. “The spliceosome is clearly important for every gene that has introns and every cell type that can have mutations.”

Krainer’s lab has worked with the regulator protein SRSF1 since 1990. Building on the extensive work he and members of his lab performed, Krainer was able to develop an effective treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a progressive disease that impacts the muscles used for breathing, eating, crawling and walking.

In children with SMA, Krainer created an antisense oligonucleotide, which enables the production of a key protein at a back up gene through more efficient splicing. The treatment, which is one of three on the market, has changed the prognosis for people with SMA.

At this point, the way DDX23 and SRSF1 work together is unclear, but the connection is likely important to prepare the spliceosome to do the important work of reading RNA sequences and assembling proteins.

Needle in a protein haystack

Thanks to the work of Krainer and others, scientists knew that SRSF1 performed an important regulatory role in the spliceosome.

What they didn’t know, however, was how other protein worked together with this regulator to keep the machinery on track.

Danilo Segovia in the lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Photo by Constance Burkin/CSHL

Using a new screening technology developed in other labs that enabled Segovia to see proteins that come in proximity with or interact with SRSF1, he came up with a list of 190 potential candidates.

Through a lengthy and detailed set of experiments, Segovia screened around 30 potential proteins that might play a role in the spliceosome.

One experiment after another enabled him to check proteins off the list, the way prospective college students who visit a school that is too hilly, too close to a city, too far from a city, or too cold in the winter do amid an intense selection process.

Then, on Feb. 15 of last year, about six years after he started his work in Krainer’s lab, Segovia had a eureka moment.

“After doing the PhD for so long, you get that result you were waiting for,” Segovia recalled.

The PhD candidate didn’t tell anyone at first because he wanted to be sure the interaction between the proteins was relevant and real.

“Lucky for us, the story makes sense,” Segovia said.

Krainer appreciated Segovia’s perseverance and patience as well as his willingness to help other members of his lab with structural work.

Krainer described Segovia as the “resident structural expert who would help everybody else who needed to get that insight.”

Krainer suggested that each of these factors had been studied separately in the process, without the realization that they work together.

This is the beginning of the story, as numerous questions remain.

“We reported this interaction and now we have to try to understand its implications,” said Krainer. “How is it driving or contributing to splice assembly.”

Other factors also likely play an important role in this process as well.

Krainer explained that Segovia’s workflow allowed him to prioritize interacting proteins for further study. Krainer expects that many of the others on the list are worth further analysis.

At some point, Krainer’s lab or others will also work to crystallize the combination of these proteins as the structure of such units often reveals details about how these pieces function.

Segovia and Krainer worked together with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor Leemor Joshua-Tor, who does considerably more biochemistry work in her research than the members of Krainer’s lab.

When a cowboy met a witch

A native of Montevideo, Uruguay, Segovia came to Stony Brook in part because he was conducting research on the gene P53, which is often mutated in forms of human cancer.

Segovia had read the research of Ute Moll, Endowed Renaissance Professor of Cancer Biology at Stony Brook University, who had conducted important P53 research.

“I really liked the paper she did,” said Segovia. “When I was applying for college in the United States for my PhD, I decided I’m for sure going to apply to Stony Brook.”

Even though Segovia hasn’t met Moll, he has benefited from his journey to Long Island.

During rotations at CSHL, Segovia realized he wanted to work with RNA. He found a scientific connection as well as a cultural one when he discovered that Krainer is from the same city in Uruguay.

Krainer said his lab has had a wide range of international researchers, with as many as 25 countries represented. “The whole institution is like that. People who go into science are naturally curious about a lot of things, including cultures.”

Segovia not only found a productive setting in which to conduct his PhD research, but also met his wife Polona Šafarič Tepeš, a former researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who currently works at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Tepeš is originally from Slovenia.

The couple met at a Halloween party, where Segovia came as a cowboy and Tepeš dressed as a witch. They eloped on November 6, 2020 and were the first couple married after the Covid lockdown at the town hall in Portland, Maine.

Outside of the lab, Segovia enjoys playing the clarinet, which he has been doing since he was 11.

As for science, Segovia grew up enjoying superhero movies that involve mutations and had considered careers as a musician, scientist or detective.

“Science is universal,” he said. “You can work wherever you want in the world. I knew I wanted to travel, so it all worked out.”

As for the next steps, after Segovia defends his thesis in July, he is considering doing post doctoral research or joining a biotechnology company.

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Planetarium

Exciting New Planetarium Show Explores a Sustainable Future in Space

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Reichert Planetarium, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport has premiered a new show, FORWARD! To the Moon, which runs Tuesday through Sunday, at 3 pm.

Take a journey beyond the Earth toward a sustainable future in space. NASA’s Artemis program will land the first woman and person of color on the surface of the Moon.

Narrator Kari Byron from Crash Test World and MythBusters launches us on a journey beyond the Earth toward a sustainable future in space. Within a single lifetime, we’ve progressed from the first space rocket launch to using space technologies in our everyday lives. Now, we are ready to start a new chapter in the history of human endeavor – to take our first steps toward a permanent, off-world presence.
Recommended for ages 8+
Purchase tickets here.

 

Clockwise from top left, Musankwa sanyatiensis leg bones as they were discovered in the ground on Spurwing Island, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. Image courtesy of Paul Barrett; Musankwa sanyatiensis fossil bones in situ, after mechanical preparation, and after CT scanning. Image courtesy of Paul Barrett; and an artist reconstruction of Musankwa sanyatiensis showing position of fossil bones (in blue). Rendering by Atashni Moopen

By Daniel Dunaief

The dinosaur family tree has few members in Zimbabwe, as only four fossils have been found in the region.

Kimberley Chapelle

Recently, researchers from several universities, including Kimberley “Kimi” Chapelle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, described a new species of dinosaur from a 210 million year-old fossilized hind leg in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

Reconstructing the entire dinosaur from the bones they discovered in Lake Kariba, the scientists, led by Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum of London, estimated that this plant-eating sauropodomorph weighed about 850 pounds and was among the larger dinosaurs in the late Triassic period.

The first new dinosaur species described in the Mid-Zambezi Basin of Northern Zimbabwe in more than 50 years, the sauropodomorph survived a mass extinction event that wiped out about 76 percent of all terrestrial and marine creatures. The sauropodomoprh group includes animals like the enormous Brontosaurus, which came later in the evolution of the lineage. Chapelle was on the field expedition in 2017 when Barrett noticed the fossil sticking out of the ground.

The discovery was “extremely exciting, as there was a high chance it was going to be something new,” said Chapelle. “It was well-preserved in articulation and we knew the bones came from the same individual.” She participated in the lengthy process that involved excavating the rare find, creating a reconstruction, isolating the bones to look at the structure, describing the fossil and comparing it to other, closely-related dinosaurs to determine where it sits on the family tree.

The researchers named this species Musankwa sanyatiensis, using the name of the houseboat Musankwa on which they lived and worked as they searched for fossils during the dry seasons around the man-made Lake Kariba.

“Musankwa is cool because it’s one of only a handful of dinosaurs from Zimbabwe, a country with amazing fossil resources that have yet to be fully discovered,” explained Jonah Choiniere, a Professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa, who served as Chapelle’s PhD advisor. “Because we don’t have any specimens of Musankwa in similar-age rocks in South Africa, it tells us that during the Triassic period there might have been slightly different species groups of dinosaurs in the two countries.”

The Earth looked considerably different when this long-necked dinosaur was searching for its plant meal, as the land masses of the planet were combined in one supercontinent called Pangaea. In that time, Musankwa’s predators likely included meat-eating therapods and crocodile-like reptiles, which are ancestors of modern crocodiles.

Keep your head up

Hunting for fossils in Zimbabwe, which presented an opportunity for this kind of discovery, came with some challenges.

Kimberley Chapelle with Jonah Choiniere at Lake Kariba. Photo from Jonah Choiniere.

For starters, researchers lived aboard the houseboat Munsankwa, whose name in the Tongan dialect means “boy close to marriage.” Lake Kariba, which was created between 1958 and 1963 and is the largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume, gets “really hot in the summer and all you want to do is swim,” said Chapelle.

That, however, is ill-advised, as modern crocodiles roam the waters of the lake so regularly that people stay far from the shoreline.

To combat the heat, Chapelle drank plenty of water, applied regular sunscreen and wore large hats and long sleeves to keep the strong rays of the sun off her skin. Additionally, the researchers worked between morning and afternoon. The scientific expedition had an armed game ranger with them, to keep scientists safe.

“When you’re looking at fossils, you are always looking at the ground,” Chapelle said. At one point, she looked up and saw a hippo about 50 feet from her. “You have to remember to be aware of your surroundings,” she  said.

Field experience

Choiniere, who inspired his former student to consider entering the field when he first arrived at the University of Witwatersrand, saw Chapelle in action when she first did some field work.

Chapelle’s scientific curiosity never faltered, despite some significant field misadventures that included staying in a rotten old farmhouse without plumbing, sleeping in tents in the freezing cold in the backyard of a rural pub, hiking through brambles over the side of a mountain, and touring around Germany eating nothing but stewed cabbage and pork in brown sauce, and staying three to a hostel room to save money.

“In [Chapelle’s] case, there was never any doubt — she loved the field from day one and has never looked back,” Choiniere explained.

Choiniere believes Chapelle has a “unique skillset among paleontologists,” as her talents include math, observations of shape and structure, histology, three-dimensional data processing and field work. Beyond her diverse skills, Choiniere appreciated Chapelle’s time management skills and her pleasant demeanor, which enabled her to greet him with a smile even when he delivered his part later than she anticipated.

A promising LI start

Chapelle, who started working at Stony Brook at the end of January, is enjoying a return to New York. A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, she  had done a postdoctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in 2021.

A current resident of Rocky Point, Chapelle lives close to the beach. She and her husband Dominic Stratford, an Adjunct Professor at Stony Brook and Archaeologist and Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, brought their Australian Shepherd named Shango with them.

A runner who recently completed the Shelter Island 10K and who loves taking pictures, Chapelle, who is the daughter of a doctor, originally thought she’d want to become a veterinarian. When she took a course in her third year of college with Choiniere, she was hooked by the link between evolution and anatomy.

As for the recent paper, Chapelle is pleased that people can read about this newly discovered dinosaur.

“This is years and years of work that gets put into this,” she said. “It also gives us a push to keep finding new things and publishing.”

From left, Raimundo Espinoza, founder and executive director of Conservación ConCiencia in Puerto Rico, is interviewed by Baratunde Thurston in Episode One of the docuseries. Photo courtesy of PBS

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

PBS’s Hope in the Water is a three-part docuseries investigating the world of aquafarmers and fishers. The series shows viable alternatives to providing food for an ever-growing population while supporting and sustaining the environment. Unlike many documentaries narrowing on the doom-and-gloom aspects, Hope in the Water leans into its name, celebrating individual and group efforts and emphasizing cooperative undertakings that have already made a difference. Climate change is touched upon but rarely central.

Baratunde Thurston in Episode One of ‘Hope in the Water’. Photo courtesy of PBS

Hope in the Water comes from the multi-award-winning producer David E. Kelley (Love & Death, Lincoln Lawyer, Big Little Lies) in association with four-time James Beard Award and Emmy Award winner Chef Andrew Zimmern and his production company, Intuitive Content (What’s Eating America, Family DinnerAndrew Zimmern’s Wild Game Kitchen, Feral).

Episode One, The Fish in the Sea, which premiered on June 19, breaks down into three sections. The first details the evolution of COAST—Community of Arran Seabed Trust—a Scottish grassroots movement that set out to “manage the seas on behalf of the next generation.” Inspired by a No-Take zone in New Zealand, COAST “campaigned to stop mobile fishing that damages [their] seabeds, jeopardizing future livelihoods and wildlife.” COAST saw the change and suspension of legal protections and faced governmental roadblocks but ultimately triumphed. The new approach led to a revitalization of the waters as well as a species abundance increase of 102%. 

A joyously energetic Baratunde Thurston provides much of the narrative drive in the second section, which takes place in Puerto Rico. Thurston is the host and executive producer of America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston and the creator and host of How to Citizen with Baratunde. The Emmy-nominated hyphenate (host-producer-writer-public speaker) is the ideal cheerleader for issues that intersect technology, politics, and climate. 

A scene from Episode 2 of ‘Hope in the Water’/ Photo courtesy of PBS

Devastated by 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the middle of the documentary tells of the founding of the World Central Kitchen (preparing and feeding over four million survivors) and the grants given to fishers for boat repairs, new engine purchases, and repairing the fishing ecosystem. At the heart is the fishing of the diamondback squid. The large sea creature, often up to sixty pounds and fished from depths as deep as 1,700 feet, is almost entirely meat. The shift promotes resilience and moves away from a dependence on imports.

The final segment shows Hawaii’s He’eisa Fishpond, eighty-eight acres and an eight-hundred-year-old location of traditional Hawaiian aquaculture. Here, one indigenous woman strives to grow fish traditionally, keeping one hundred percent of the resources local. (Hawaii is the largest consumer of fish per capita in the nation yet imports most of its seafood. The market economy overturned the long-standing fishpond culture early in the twentieth century.) This third chapter is the most intimate and personal, highlighting the power of the individual to engage the community.

The film is quickly—if often peripatetically—paced, with a constant cutting from interviews to broad oceanic vistas—rarely holding for more than fifteen seconds. (There is a vague sense that creators fear losing their audience.) In addition to an array of talking heads—activists, scientists, environmentalists, fishers, politicians—historical footage, personal photos, legal documents, and newspaper clippings flash and integrate throughout. 

A scene from Episode 3 of ‘Hope in the Water’. Photo courtesy of PBS

Episode One opens with a storm in Puerto Rico, played for dramatic effect. The entire sequence repeats when the narrative returns to this thread with a mostly tacit conclusion, justified with a tag: “These are real people, and the story is dangerous,” which is all “part of the cost of the food that we eat.” These are minor cavils in an otherwise engaging and refreshing boost of optimism. While the film presents a variety of facts—we eat twice as much seafood now as we did fifty years ago—statistics never bog down the film or obscure the story’s humanity.

In a predominantly upbeat approach, Hope in the Water embraces the oceans as the heart of the earth’s survival. The film’s message is not one of “hands off.” It expresses the necessity to be aware of the environment but also acknowledges the “need to feed.” The film is a worthwhile fifty minutes that is a tribute to the strength of community and the power of individuals to make change for the greater good. It “starts with us.”

The series continues on PBS with Farming the Water on June 26, which highlights solutions to the pollution and environmental issues surrounding farmed fish, and concludes with Changing the Menu on July 3, taking up a diversification of seafood. To view the entire series online, visit www.pbs.org/show/hope-in-the-water/.

More than 250 students from 65 Suffolk County schools entered science projects in the 2024 Elementary School Science Fair hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory on June 8.

Students used the scientific method to explore all kinds of questions about their favorite things and the world around them. The annual fair organized by Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs celebrated and showcased all projects submitted, ranging from finding the best detangler for Barbie dolls’ hair to using a hand-crafted wind tunnel to test wing shapes for the best lift.

“Our judges enjoyed reading through the projects and were impressed with questions, ideas, and designs,” Amanda Horn, a Brookhaven Lab administrator who coordinated the science fair, said before announcing the winning projects. “We certainly have some future scientists and engineers here today.”

Local teachers and Lab staff volunteered as judges to pick the top spots and honorable mentions for each grade level, from kindergarten to sixth grade. The competition also included a Judges’ Choice award for creative questions.

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. All participants received a ribbon in recognition of having won their grade level competition at their school.

Science Fair awards

The following students earned first place in their grade level: 

◆ Kindergartener Eden Campbell, Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Northport for “Tasting Color.” Eden’s project explored whether the color of food affects its taste. What was her favorite part of the experiment? “Eating the jellybeans,” she said.

◆ First grader Milan Patel, Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Northport for “How Does the Direction of a House Affect the Amount of Heat Absorbed from the Sun?” 

◆ Second grader Advika Arun, Bretton Woods Elementary School in Hauppauge, for “Slower and Steadier the Safer it Will Be.” For her experiment, Advika crafted small parachutes to test which materials fostered a slow and safe landing. She found that nylon worked the best. “I liked the part where we dropped them and we saw the speed they went,” she said. She added of her first-place win, “I’m really excited!”

◆ Third grader Isla Cone, Love of Learning Montessori School in Centerport, for “The Impact of pH on Boba.” Isla tested food-friendly liquids with different pH levels to find out which could form boba, the round and chewy pearls found in bubble tea. She confirmed that boba spheres occurred in liquids with a pH between 4 and 10. “I wanted to do a project that was related to food,” she said. “My favorite part was getting to eat all the stuff!”

◆ Fourth grader Jude Roseto, Cutchogue East Elementary School in Cutchogue, for “Rise of the Machines: AI vs. Human Creativity Writing.” 

◆ Fifth grader Luke Dinsman, Northport Middle School in Northport, for “Maximizing Moisture — Nature Knows Best.” In his project, Dinsman found that homemade, natural moisturizers worked better than store-bought lotions at treating the dry skin he experiences as a swimmer. A shea body butter with beeswax turned out to be the best option. Making the lotions and testing them was the best part of the process, Luke said. He added, “It’s just a really cool project.”

◆ Sixth grader Owen Stone, East Quogue Elementary in East Quogue for “Can Common Foods Help Grow Potatoes?” 

Judges’ choice

Kindergarten: John Jantzen, Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Sayville

First Grade: Julianna Zick, West Middle Island Elementary School in Middle Island

Second Grade: Timothy Donoghue, Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton

Third Grade: Charlotte Sheahan, Pulaski Road School in East Northport

Fourth Grade: Dominick Padolecchia, Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Sayville

Fifth Grade: Isabella Maharlouei, Raynor Country Day School in Speonk

Sixth Grade: Zoe Wood, Northport Middle School in Northport

Honorable mentions

Kindergarten: Michael McCarthy, Pines Elementary School in Smithtown; Scarlett Luna, Hampton Bays Elementary School in Hampton Bays; Autumn Vlacci, Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton

First Grade: Tyler Paino, Bretton Woods Elementary School in Hauppauge; Logan Pierre, Brookhaven Elementary School in Brookhaven; Nora Boecherer, Edna Louise Spear Elementary School in Port Jefferson

Second Grade: Charlotte Tholl, Forest Brook Elementary School; Gabi Opisso, Cutchogue East Elementary School in Cutchogue; Matthew Ingram, Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Northport; Erios Pikramenos, Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School in Rocky Point; Maya Salman, Edna Louise Spear Elementary School in Port Jefferson

Third Grade: Emma Puccio Edelman, Hiawatha Elementary School in Lake Ronkonkoma; Vincent Calvanese, Pines Elementary School in Smithtown; Kaylee Krawchuck, Ridge Elementary School in Ridge; Isabella Guldi, Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School in Rocky Point

Fourth Grade: Juliam Gianmugnai, Ridge Elementary School in Ridge; Joseph Frederick, Lincoln Avenue Elementary School in Sayville; Gabriel Affatato, Pulaski Road School East Northport; Levi Beaver, Raynor Country Day School in Speonk

Fifth Grade: Evangeline Jamros, Edna Louise Spear Elementary in Port Jefferson; Colette Breig, RJO Intermediate School in Kings Park; Riona Mittal, Bretton Woods Elementary School in Hauppauge

Sixth Grade: Eamon Ryan, Lindenhurst Middle School in Lindenhurst; Michael Mineo, Silas Wood 6th Grade Center in Huntington Station; Alex Uihlein, Montauk Public School in Montauk.

Science Fair Expo

While their projects were on display, students and their families browsed a Science Fair Expo that featured up-close, hands-on demonstrations guided by Brookhaven Lab staff, interns, and volunteers.

The activities connected to science concepts and tools found across the Lab, from magnets and particle accelerators to electron microscopy and conductors. Students peered through microscopes, learned how fuel cells and solar panels work, became junior beamline operators, and more.

 

Microcystis bloom in Lake Erie. Photo by Matthew Harke

Study links warming since the 1990s to the intensification of Microcystis blooms

Climate change is causing a series of maladies by warming land and sea. A study published online in Limnology and Oceanography Letters, demonstrates that one consequence of climate change that has already occurred is the spread and intensification of toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.

A team of scientists led by Christopher Gobler, PhD, a Professor  in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University, used high resolution satellite-based temperature data along with the growth response of the blue-green algae that plagues Lake Erie –  Microcystis. Their study demonstrates that since the 1990s, the western basin of Lake Erie has warmed and become significantly more hospitable to this alga and that ‘blooms’ of Microcystis have become more intense in these same regions. Microcystis can cause serious health concerns as the gastrointestinal toxin, microcystin, can be harmful to humans and animals.

“Toxic or harmful algal blooms are not a new phenomenon,” says Gobler. “These events can sicken humans by contaminating drinking water or harm aquatic life as toxins cycle through food webs.”

And the problem is worsening. “The intensity of these events has increased across the globe and this study has demonstrated that warming since the 20th century has expanded the bloom season of Microcystis in the western basin of Lake Erie by a month,” notes Gobler.

While several studies have predicted that toxic algae blooms may become more common in the future, this is one of the first studies to link the recent intensification of Microcystis blooms in a specific ecosystem to decadal warming. Confidence in the findings of the study came from the match of the modeled findings to the intensification of these events in western Lake Erie during this century.

“It was remarkable and reassuring to see our hindcast models fall in-line with observations in Lake Erie over the past 30 years,” said co-author, Benjamin Kramer, PhD, who received his doctorate at Stony Brook University and is now a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Minnesota. “It gives us confidence that these model parameters and our approach can be applied to hindcasting and even forecasting of these events elsewhere.”

The study brought together biologists with climate scientists who made use of ecosystem observations, laboratory experiments, and thirty years of satellite-based temperature estimates that are made daily and with a very high degree of spatial resolution.

“Today, collaborating with scientists outside of your discipline is almost a requirement to solve the tough questions,” said climate modeler, and co-author, Owen Doherty, PhD. “This study showed the value of interdisciplinary collaboration through a novel combination of laboratory, observational, and modeling work.”

And the study has important consequences for policy and the future of the oceans.

“This study demonstrates that the warming that has already occurred is now impacting human health and our water resources,” said Gobler. “An important implication of the study is that carbon emission and climate change-related policy decisions made today are likely to have important consequences for the spreading and intensification of toxic algal blooms in large lake ecosystems.”

Caption: Microcystis bloom in Lake Erie.

Photo credit: Matthew Harke