Science & Technology

Matthew Lerner. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Though hampered by the pandemic in their direct contact with people who have autism, the founder of The Autism Initiative and research director Matthew Lerner along with the Head of Autism Clinical Education Jennifer Keluskar at Stony Brook University are managing to continue to reach out to members of the community through remote efforts. In a two-part series, Times Beacon Record News Media will feature Lerner’s efforts this week and Keluskar’s work next week.

Through several approaches, including improvisational theater, Matthew Lerner works with people who are on and off the autism spectrum on ways to improve social competence, including by being flexible in their approach to life.

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, he has had to apply the same approach to his own work.

Lerner, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, recognizes that it’s difficult to continue a project called SENSE ® Theatre (for Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology), where the whole function of the process is to provide in-person social intervention.

The SENSE Theater study is a multisite National Institute of Mental Health-funded project focused on assessing and improving interventions to improve social competence among adolescents with autism. The core involves in person intervention through group social interaction.

Matthew Lerner with his sons Everett,6, and Sawyer,2. Photo by Chelsea Finn

That, however, is not where the effort ends.“There are arms of that study that are more educational and didactic,” Lerner said. “We’re starting to think about how we could capitalize on that.”

In the ongoing SENSE effort, Lerner is coordinating with Vanderbilt University, which is the lead site for the study, and the University of Alabama.

Stony Brook is in active contact with the families who are participating in that effort, making sure they know “we are doing our best to get things up and running as quickly as possible,” Lerner said.

The staff is reaching out to local school districts as well, including the Three Village School District, with whom Lerner is collaborating on the project, to ensure that people know the effort will restart as soon as it’s “safe to be together again.”

Lerner is also the founder and Research Director of The Autism Initiative at SBU, which launched last year before the pandemic altered the possibilities for in-person contact and forced many people to remain at or close to home for much of the time. The initiative provides programs and services for the community to support research, social and recreational activities and other therapeutic efforts.

The Stony Brook effort initially involved video game nights, adult socials and book clubs. The organizers and participants in the initiative, however, have “stepped up in a huge way and have created, in a couple of weeks, an entirely new set of programming,” Lerner said.

This includes a homework support club, guidance, webinars and support from clinicians for parents, which address fundamental questions about how to support and adapt programs for people with autism. The group is keeping the book club active. The initiative at least doubled if not tripled the number of offerings, Lerner suggested.

Additionally, SBU has two grants to study a single session intervention adapted for teens with autism. The project has been running for about nine months. Lerner said they are looking to adapt it for online applications. For many families, such remote therapy would be a “real boon to have access to free treatment remotely,” he said.

Lerner had been preparing to conduct a study of social connections versus loneliness in teens or young adults with autism. Since COVID-19 hit, “we have reformulated that and are just about to launch” a longitudinal a study that explores the effects of the lockdown on well-being and stress for people who have autism and their families.

Lerner is looking at how the pandemic has enhanced the importance of resilience. He said these kinds of studies can perhaps “give us some insight when we return to something like normalcy about how to best help and support” people in the autism community. “We can learn” from the stresses for the community of people with autism during the pandemic.

To be sure, the pandemic and the lockdown through New York Pause that followed hasn’t affected the entire community of people with autism the same way. Indeed, for some people, the new norms are more consistent with their behavioral patterns.  “Some autistic teens and young adults have said things to me like, ‘I was social distancing before it was cool,’” Lerner said.

Another teenager Lerner interacted with regularly went to the bathroom several times to wash his hands. When Lerner checked in on him to see how he was doing amid the pandemic, he said, “I was made for this.”

Lerner also said people who aren’t on the spectrum may also gain greater empathy through the changes and challenges of their new routines. People find the zoom calls that involve looking at boxes of people on a full screen exhausting. After hours of shifting our attention from one box to another, some people develop “zoom fatigue.”

Lerner said someone with autism noted that this experience “may be giving the rest of us a taste of what it’s like for folks on the spectrum,” which could provide insights “we might not otherwise have.”

Even though some people with autism may feel like the rest of the world is mirroring their behavioral patterns, many people in and outside the autism community have struggled with the stresses of the public health crisis and with the interruption in the familiar structure of life.

The loss of that structure for many with autism is “really profound,” which is the much more frequent response, Lerner said. “More kids are telling us they are stressed out, while parents are saying the same thing.” In some sense, the crisis has revealed the urgency of work in the mental health field for people who are on and off the spectrum, Lerner said.

The studies in autism and other mental health fields that come out of an analysis of the challenges people face and the possible mental health solutions will likely include the equivalent of an asterisk, to capture a modern reality that differs so markedly from conditions prior to the pandemic. There may be a new reporting requirement in which researchers break down their studies by gender, age, race, ethnicity, income and “another variable we put in there: recruited during social isolation.”

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly a Rembrandt hidden in the basement until someone discovers it in a garage sale, but it’s pretty close.

More than two decades ago, a Malagasy graduate student named Augustin Rabarison spotted crocodile bones in northwestern Madagascar, so he and a colleague encased them in a plaster jacket for further study.

David Krause, who was then a Professor at Stony Brook University and is now the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, didn’t think the crocodile was particularly significant, so he didn’t open the jacket until three years later, in 2002.

When he unwrapped it, however, he immediately recognized a mammalian elbow joint further down in the encased block of rock. That elbow bone, as it turned out, was connected to a new species that is a singular evolutionary masterpiece that has taken close to 18 years to explore. 

Recently, Krause, James Rossie (an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University) and 11 other scientists published the results of their extensive analysis in the journal Nature.

The creature, which they have named Adalatherium hui, has numerous distinctive features, including an inexplicable and unique hole on the top of its snout, and an unusually large body for a mammal of its era. The fossil is the most complete for any Mesozoic mammal discovered in the southern hemisphere.

“The fossil record from the northern continents, called Laurasia, is about an order of magnitude better than that from Gondwana,” which is an ancient supercontinent in the south that included Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica, Krause explained in an email. “We know precious little about the evolution of early mammals in the southern hemisphere.”

This finding provides a missing piece to the puzzle of mammalian evolution in southern continents during the Mesozoic Era, Krause wrote.

The Adalatherium, whose name means “crazy beast” from a combination of words in Malagasy and Greek, helps to broaden the understanding of early mammals called gondwanatherians, which had been known from isolated teeth and lower jaws and from the cranium of a new genus and species, Vintana sertichi, that Krause also described in 2014.

The closest living relatives of gondwanatherians were a group that is well known from the northern hemisphere, called multituberculates, Krause explained.

The body of Adalatherium resembled a badger, although its trunk was likely longer, suggested Krause, who is a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook. 

Krause called its teeth “bizarre,” as the molars are constructed differently from any other known mammal, living or extinct. The front teeth were likely used for gnawing, while the back teeth likely sliced up vegetation, which made probably made this unique species a herbivore.

The fossil, which probably died before it became an adult, had powerful hind limbs and a short, stubby tail, which meant it was probably a digger and might have made burrows.

Rossie, who is an expert in studying the inside of the face of fossils with the help of CT scans, explored this unusually large hole in the snout. “We didn’t know what to make of it,” he said. “We can’t find any living mammal that has one.”

Indeed, the interpretation of fossils involves the search for structural and functional analogs that might suggest more about how it functions in a living system. The challenge with this hole, however, is that no living mammal has it.

Gathering together with other cranial fossil experts, Rossie said they agreed that the presence of the hole doesn’t necessarily indicate that there was an opening between the inside of the nose and the outside world. It was likely plugged up by cartilage or other soft tissue or skin.

“If we had to guess conservatively, it would probably be an enlarged hole that allowed the passage of a cluster of nerves and blood vessels,” Rossie said. 

That begs the question: why would the animal need that?

Rossie suggests that there might have been a soft tissue structure on the outside of the nose but, at this point, it’s impossible to say the nature of that structure.

The Associate Professor, who has been a part of the research team exploring this particular fossil since 2012, described the excitement as being akin to opening up a Christmas present.

“You’re excited to see what’s in there,” he said. “Sometimes, you open up the box and see what you were hoping for. Other times, you open the box and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to say about this [or] I don’t know what I’m looking at.’”

For Rossie, one of the biggest surprises from exploring this fossil was seeing the position of the maxillary sinus, which is in a space that is similar across all mammals except this one. When he first saw the maxillary sinus, he believed he was looking at a certain part of the nasal cavity, where it usually resides. When he studied it more carefully, he realized it was in a different place.

“All cars have some things in common,” said Rossie, who is interested in old cars and likes to fix them. The common structural elements of cars include front and back seats, a steering wheel, and dashboard. With the maxillary sinus “what we found is that the steering wheel was in the back seat instead of the front.” 

A native of upstate Canton, which is on the border with Canada, Rossie enjoyed camping growing up, which was one of the initial appeals of paleontology. Another was that he saw an overlap between the structures nature had included in anatomy with the ones people put together in cars.

A resident of Centerport, Rossie lives with his wife Helen Cullyer, who is the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Studies, and their seven-year-old son.

As for the Adalatherium, it would have had to avoid a wide range of predators, Krause explained, which would have included two meat-eating theropod dinosaurs, two or three large crocodiles and a 20-foot-long constrictor snake.

Centre ValBio staff members distribute face masks to the Malagasy people.

By Daniel Dunaief

Long Islanders are pitching in to protect the people of Madagascar, called the Malagasy, from COVID-19. They are also trying to ensure the survival of the endangered lemurs that have become an important local attraction and a central driver of the economy around Ranomofana National Park.

Patricia Wright, a Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University and founder and executive director of the research station Centre ValBio (CVB), is working with BeLocal to coordinate the creation and distribution of masks. They have also donated soap, created hand washing stations at the local market, and encouraged social distancing.

BeLocal, an organization founded by Laurel Hollow residents Mickie and Jeff Nagel, along with Jeff’s Carnegie Mellon roommate Eric Bergerson, is working with CVB to fund and support the creation of 200 to 250 masks per day. BeLocal also purchased over 1,800 bars of soap that they are distributing at hand washing stations.

Wildlife artist Jessie Jordan is volunteering her time to help the Malagasy people.

All administrators for regional government in the national park area near CVB, which is in the southeastern part of the island nation, have received masks. The groups have also given them to restaurant owners and anybody that handles food, including vendors in the market.

At the same time, CVB has received permission to become a testing site for people who might have contracted COVID-19. At this point, Wright is still hoping to raise enough money to buy a polymerase chain reaction machine, which would enable CVB to perform as many as 96 tests each day.

The non-governmental organization PIVOT, which was founded by Jim and Robin Hernstein, has also helped create screening stations to test residents for fever and other symptoms of the virus. As for the masks, BeLocal and CVB are supporting the efforts of seamstresses, who are working 7 days a week.

Jessie Jordan, a wildlife artist based in Madagascar who has been living at CVB for several weeks amid limited opportunities to return to the United States, has been “busy collaborating with local authorities and contributing masks, soap and hand washing stations to the community.”

At this point, Jordan said people were concerned about the economy, but not as afraid of the virus. “The local health centers are less busy right now because of confinement measures and people are scared of testing positive,” she explained in an email.

The Malagasy who benefit from the national park economically through tours and the sale of local artwork have suffered financially. Social distancing in the cities is “nearly impossible,” while Jordan said she has heard that some people in the countryside don’t have access to TV or radio and are not aware of the situation.

As of last week, Madagascar had 132 confirmed positive cases of the virus. Through contact tracing, the government determined that three people brought COVID-19 to the nation when they arrived on different planes. The country had 10 ventilators earlier this month for a population that is well over 23 million.

BeLocal researched the best material to create masks that would protect people who worked in the villages around Ranomafana. “We researched templates and materials and worked together with CVB to choose the best material that would be available,” Leila Esmailzada, the Executive Director of BeLocal, explained in an email.

BeLocal organized a team that reached out to Chris Coulter, who had started making soap several years ago. Coulter has worked with local officials to make soap.

“We knew Coulter from a few years ago” from an effort called the Madagascar Soap Initiative to get soap into every home and make it accessible, explained Mickie Nagel, the Executive Director of BeLocal. “We hope the people making it right now will consider turning this into a business.” Before Madagascar instituted restrictions on travel, BeLocal and CVB had purchased several sewing machines.

Representatives from BeLocal and CVB have been conducting hand washing and social distance education efforts to encourage practices that will limit the spread of COVID-19.  Government officials have also shared instructions on the radio and TV, Wright said. When the mayor of Ranomofana Victor Ramiandrisoa has meetings, everybody stands at least six feet apart.

CVB has produced picture drawings in Malagasy that are plastered on the sides of cars that describe hand washing procedures and social distancing. “We also have educational signs in the post offices, restaurants and in the mayor’s offices that we paid for,” Wright explained. She said the government, CVB and BeLocal are all educating people about practices that can limit the spread of the deadly virus.

“Organizations in Ranofamana are collaborating with the local government on efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Esmailzada wrote. “The local government recently began conducting PSA’s along the road and in main markets about hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing and CVB staff are leading by example.”

As for the lemurs Wright, whose work was the subject of the Imax film “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” said the country has taken critical steps to protect these primates.

“The government of Madagascar is assuming the worst and is not allowing anybody into the park,” Wright said. The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, has closed national parks to protect the lemurs, Wright said.

The lemurs have the support of conservation leader Jonah Ratsimbazafy, who earned his PhD while working with Wright at Stony Brook University. Ratsimbazafy is one of the founding members of the Groupe d’Etude et de Research sur les Primates, which is a community based conservation organization that protects lemurs. 

Wright and others are concerned the virus may spread to lemurs. Several lemurs species have the angiotensin converting enzyme, or ACE2, that forms the primary point of attachment for the virus in humans.

Indeed, scientists around the world are working to find those species which might be vulnerable to the virus. According to recent research preprinted in bioRxiv from a multi-national effort led by scientists at the University of California in Davis, several species of lemur have high overlap in their ACE2 inhibitors. This includes the endangered aye-aye lemur, which is the world’s largest nocturnal primate, and the critically endangered indri and sifaka.

“We are worried that lemurs might get the virus,” Wright said.

Photos courtesy of Jessie Jordan

Jessica Liao, a junior at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, garnered the top spot in the 2020 Model Bridge Building Contest, held virtually and broadcast online for the first time this year by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. 

Students from 17 Nassau and Suffolk County high schools designed and constructed a total of 190 model bridges intended to be simplified versions of real-world bridges. In this contest, efficiency is calculated from the bridge’s weight and the weight the bridge can hold before breaking or bending more than one inch. The higher the efficiency, the better the design and construction.

Student competitors typically bring their bridges to the Lab to be tested. But for this year’s competition, to help maintain social distance during the developing coronavirus pandemic, engineers at Brookhaven ran the tests and broadcast them to the students virtually.

Liao beat out the competition by building a bridge that weighed 17.25 grams and supported 59.44 pounds. Her bridge had an efficiency of 1562.98, the number of times its own weight the bridge held before breaking or bending more than one inch.

Aidan Wallace, a junior from Walt Whitman High School placed second with a bridge that weighed 17.54 grams, held 51.01 pounds, and had an efficiency of 1319.14.

Third place went to junior Michael Coppi from Ward Melville High School. Coppi’s bridge weighed 9.02 grams, held 25.01 pounds, and had an efficiency of 1271.77.

Sophia Borovikova, a senior from Northport High School won the aesthetic award for the best-looking bridge. Her bridge took 10th place in the contest, weighing 16.17 grams and holding 33.29 pounds for an efficiency of 933.83.

The construction and testing of model bridges promotes the study and application of principles of physics and engineering and helps students develop “hands-on” skills, explained Ken White, manager of Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs. Students get a flavor of what it is like to be engineers, designing structures to a set of specifications and then seeing the bridges they build perform their function.

“These same skills are put to the test for the Lab’s engineers on projects like the National Synchrotron Light Source II and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, both world-class research tools that operate as DOE Office of Science user facilities for scientists from all across the world, and the upcoming Electron-Ion Collider,” said White. “Preparing the next generation of engineers to work on projects like these is important to the Lab and the Department of Energy.”

Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs coordinated the Regional Model Bridge Building Contest. Now, the two top winners — Liao and Wallace — are eligible to enter the 2020 International Bridge Building Contest in May. For this year’s contest, contestants will mail their bridges to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where university faculty and engineers will run the breakage tests and post the results online.

Prior to COVID-19-related school closures on Long Island, Gillian Winters, a science teacher from Smithtown High School East, conducted a bridge competition in her classroom to help students prepare for the contest at Brookhaven. She also built a bridge of her own to compete among students.

“My favorite part is to see the creativity the kids can come up with because they’re all very different,” Winters said. “Some of them have a pretty straightforward way of doing things, and some of them want to put a new twist on things. I love to see how they develop, and by the end, they really have learned a little bit about how to follow the instructions and what a specification really means.”

Borovikova said she plans to pursue civil and environmental engineering or mechanical engineering after graduation. “I really enjoyed the creative process — trying to figure out all of the different parts that are going to come together to form the bridge,” she said. “Designing the bridge was actually a pretty quick process for me because I like to try to imagine concepts right off the top of my head. Then actually letting the bridge come to fruition was really interesting for me, because I saw my design come to life.”

Wallace said he spent many hours creating his bridge and making sure it would qualify. “From this contest, I have learned more about hands-on building and the engineering of bridges,” he said. “I was happy with my results, but of course would have liked to place first!”

The award ceremony for the competition is currently pending, but the Lab hopes to hold it before the end of the academic year, according to Susan Frank, the competition coordinator and educator at the Lab’s Science Learning Center. For more information, please visit

SBU Professor Malcolm Bowman teaches an online course from his 'office' in a camper in New Zealand during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ultimate in remote teaching: 9,000 miles from the classroom

By Daniel Dunaief

Halfway between where they grew up and their home in Stony Brook, Malcolm and Waveney Bowman had a choice to make: venture back northeast to New York, which was in the midst of a growing coronavirus crisis or return southwest to New Zealand, where the borders were quickly closing.

The couple chose New Zealand, where their extended family told them not to dare visit. The Do Not Enter sign wasn’t as inhospitable as it sounded.

Malcolm Bowman, a Distinguished Service Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, recognized that he could continue to teach three courses from a great distance, even a camper on a small stretch of land in the northwest part of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand.

“We could be anywhere on the planet,” Malcolm suggested to his wife. “Why don’t we see if we can set up camp?”

Climbing aboard the last plane out of Honolulu before New Zealand closed its borders, the Bowmans didn’t have much of a welcoming party when they arrived at the airport. Their family told them, “We love you, but you can’t come anywhere near us,” Malcolm recalled. “Coming from the states, you could be infected.”

If his family took the American couple in, they would have had to report the contact, which would have forced Waveney’s brother and his wife, Derek and Judy Olsson, into personal isolation for two weeks.

Derek filled the trunk of an old car with food and left the key under the front tire. The Stony Brook couple set up a temporary living space in two campers on a small piece of land in the middle of the night, where they have been living for over a month. All told, their 235 square feet of living space is about 12% of the size of their Long Island home.

The country has been in lockdown, where people are practicing social distancing and are limiting their non-essential outings.

Malcolm realized he had to “rise to the challenge” which, in his case, literally meant climbing out of his bed at all hours of the morning. New Zealand is 16 hours ahead of New York, which means that he had to be awake and coherent at 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning in New Zealand to teach a course that meets at 10 a.m. on Monday morning on Long Island.

With a cell tower up the hill behind their camper, the Bowmans could access the internet. While they had shelter, they still needed electricity. Fortunately, Malcolm’s brother Chris, who is an engineer, provided solar panels to generate electricity.

Living south of the equator means the Bowmans are heading into winter in New Zealand, where the days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky, which makes the solar panels that provide electricity less effective. Malcolm describes the biggest challenges as the “time difference and mosquitoes.”

In a typical day, the professor rises at 4 a.m. or earlier local time to teach his classes, participate in online seminars, attend University Senate and other committee meetings, continue his research and take care of his students, all through Google Meet and Zoom. He co-teaches Physics for Environmental Studies, Contemporary Environmental Issues and Polices and Advanced Coastal Physical Oceanography.

Malcolm’s favorite part of the day occurs at sunrise, when the cloud formations over Mercury Bay serve as a canvas for the colorful red and orange rays of the sun that herald the start of another day down under.

He recognizes that he and his wife’s current indefinite time in New Zealand provides them with a comfortable connection to the land of his youth, where he can enjoy some of the beaches that have made the country famous and hear the sounds of flightless birds near his camper home.

Given the focus on work early in the day, Malcolm can choose his activities in the afternoon, which include catching up on emails, reading the New York Times, cleaning up the campsite and fishing for the evening’s meal.

Even from a distance of almost 9,000 miles from New York, the Bowmans agonize with their neighbors and community members in the Empire State.

“It’s very difficult watching all the suffering, sickness, death, inadequate availability of life-saving equipment, the enormous stress health care workers are under and the loss of income for many families,” Bowman explained in an email. “Our eldest daughter Gail is a medical worker at the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead so she is fighting at the front line. Very exhausting work.”

The Bowmans, who are naturalized American citizens, have no idea when international flights will resume from New Zealand.

A retired elementary school teacher who taught at the Laurel Hill School in Setauket for 34 years, Waveney wears a mask when she visits a large supermarket that is 12 miles away once a week. Malcolm, who also goes to the supermarket, said the store only allows one family member per visit.

As New Zealand natives, the Bowmans can live in the country indefinitely, but their intention is to return to Stony Brook as soon as possible.

Even though the shorter daylight hours and rainy days lower the amount of power the Bowmans can collect from their solar panels, the couple loves the outdoors. They have camped with their four children during summers in the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont and have both been involved with scouting activities, which emphasizes self sufficiency and living close to nature.

As a former amateur radio enthusiast, Malcolm is also adept at setting up communication systems in remote settings. He offers a message of hope to Long Islanders, “You can weather this storm. If possible, work and stay home and stay isolated.”

The Bowmans have followed the advice of the 37-year old Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who urges people to “be especially kind to each other.”

All photos courtesy of Malcolm Bowman

Dr. Michael H. Brisman, right, receives an award from Kevin Sanders, Center for Science, Teaching, & Learning, acknowledging NSPC’s sponsorship of the nation’s first competition for high school students to focus on STEM/health science.

Sponsors of the second Neurological Surgery, P.C. Health Science Competition, a program of the Center for Science Teaching & Learning, have extended the “virtual” event’s registration deadline to noon on Thursday, May 14, to allow as many Long Island high school students to register as possible. 

“The effect of the spread of COVID-19 on everyone who lives on Long Island can’t be understated,” said Michael H. Brisman, M.D., an attending neurosurgeon and chief executive officer of Neurological Surgery, P.C. 

“It has no precedent. However, my partners and I decided that at this difficult time a declaration of hope was needed to inspire the young people in our community to continue to look to the future and take an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs. That’s why the second NSPC Health Science Competition will be held as planned, but conducted online to assure  the safety of participants, judges, and educators.”

Moreover, “To allow as many students to participate as possible we’ve changed the event’s registration deadline to Thursday, May 14, from April 30,” said Brisman. Nearly 300 high schools teams have already applied to compete.

A $25 non-refundable registration fee per team applies to all entries. The NSPC HSC is available exclusively to Nassau and Suffolk high school teams. Last year, the competition drew teams from 38 Long Island schools and 50 prize winners shared $80,000 in score-based awards. The 2019 program’s finals were held on the campus of LIU/Post in Greenvale. 

To compete, teams will create a Google site and upload: 1) Images of their poster board/digital poster board or a <20 slide PowerPoint presentation; 2) A 10 minute video in which team members can be seen explaining their project, and 3) All executed competition documents. 

Further information about how to construct a Google site and other application requirements are available online at Entries must be received by 4 p.m. (EST) on Wednesday, May 27. Results to be announced and live streamed on Monday, June 15.

Student teams will be judged in one of five categories: Behavioral Sciences; Biology-Medicine/Health; Biology-Microbiology/Genetics; Health Related Biochemistry/Biophysics, and Bioengineering and Computational Biology. The five first place winners in last year’s competition were Feyi Rufai of Roslyn High School, Alessi Demir of Manhasset High School, Michael Lawes of Elmont Memorial High School, Jason Sitt of Lynbrook Senior High School, and Christopher Lu of John L. Miller Great Neck North High School. Each first place winner received a $5,500 prize. The exact breakdown of prizes can be found at

“The young people who were part of the first competition were brilliant and inspiring. Their understanding of medicine and health-related subjects was impressive. These students are exactly the people we need to address the high demand for STEM, health science, and healthcare-related jobs here on Long Island and across the nation. The first NSPC Health Science Competition (HSC) exceeded our goals in terms of the number of schools and students who competed,” said Brisman. 

“I believe the 2020 ‘virtual’ competition will further motivate both those who participate and others, who observed these innovative young people, to pursue their interest and careers in healthcare and related sciences,” he added.

For more information about the NSPC Health Science Competition, complete competition rules, and deadlines, please visit or call 516-764-0045.

Mikala Egeblad with a blown-up image of a neutrophil extracellular trap, or NET. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Mikala Egeblad couldn’t shake the feeling that the work she was doing with cancer might somehow have a link to coronavirus.

Egeblad, who is an Associate Professor and cancer biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, recently saw ways to apply her expertise to the fight against the global pandemic.

She studies something called neutrophil extracellular traps, which are spider webs that develop when a part of the immune system triggered by neutrophil is trying to fight off a bacteria. When these NETs, as they are known, are abundant enough in the blood stream, they may contribute to the spread of cancers to other organs and may also cause blood clots, which are also a symptom of more severe versions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has now infected over two million people worldwide.

“I always felt an urgency about cancer, but this has an urgency on steroids,” Egeblad said.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory reached out to numerous other scientists who specialize in the study of NETs, sometimes picking up on the tweets of colleagues who wondered in the social networking world whether NETs could contribute or exacerbate the progression of Covid19.

Egeblad started by reaching out to two scientists who tweeted, “Nothing about NETs and Covid-19?” She then started reaching out to other researchers.

“A lot of us had come to this conclusion independently,” she said. “Being able to talk together validated that this was something worth studying as a group.”

Indeed, the group, which Egeblad is leading and includes scientists at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, published a paper last week in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, in which they proposed a potential role for NETs.

“We are putting this out so the field doesn’t overlook NETs,” said Egeblad, who appreciated the support from Andrew Whiteley, who is the Vice President of Business Development and Technology Transfer at CSHL.

With a range of responses to the coronavirus infection, from people who have it but are asymptomatic all the way to those who are battling for their survival in the intensive care units of hospitals around the world, the biologist said the disease may involve vastly different levels of NETs. “The hypothesis is that in mild or asymptomatic cases, the NETs probably play little if any role,” she said.

In more severe cases, Egeblad and her colleagues would like to determine if NETs contribute or exacerbate the condition. If they do, the NETs could become a diagnostic tool or a target for therapies.

At this point, the researchers in this field have ways of measuring the NETs, but haven’t been able to do so through clinical grade assays. “That has to be developed,” Egeblad explained. “As a group, we are looking into whether the NETs could come up before or after symptoms and whether the symptoms would track” with their presence, she added.

To conduct the lab work at Cold Spring Harbor, Egeblad said her team is preparing to develop special procedures to handle blood samples that contain the virus. 

As the lead investigator on this project, Egeblad said she is organizing weekly conference calls and writing up the summaries of those discussions. She and the first author on the paper Betsy J. Barnes, who is a Professor at the Feinstein Institute, wrote much of the text for the paper. Some specific paragraphs were written by experts in those areas.

At this point, doctors are conducting clinical trials with drugs that would also likely limit NET formation. In the specific sub field of working with this immune-system related challenge, researchers haven’t found a drug that specifically targets these NETs. 

If the study of patient samples indicates that NETs play an important role in the progression of the disease, particularly among the most severe cases, the scientists will look for drugs that have been tried in humans and are already approved for other diseases. This would create the shortest path for clinical use.

Suppressing NETs might require careful management of potential bacterial infections. Egeblad suggested any bacterial invaders might be manageable with other antibiotics.

NETs forming in airways may make it easier to get bacterial infections because the bacteria likes to grow on the DNA.

Thus far, laboratory research studies on NETs in COVID-19 patients have involved taking samples from routine care that have been discarded from their daily routine analysis. While those are not as reliable as samples taken specifically for an analysis of the presence of these specific markers, researchers don’t want to burden a hospital system already stretched thin with a deluge of sick patients to provide samples for a hypothetical pathway.

Egeblad and her colleagues anticipate the NETs will likely be more prevalent among the sicker patients. As more information comes in, the researchers also hope to link comorbidities, or other medical conditions, to the severity of COVID-19, which may implicate specific mechanisms in the progression of the disease.

“There are so many different efforts” to understand what might cause the progression of the disease, Egeblad said. “Everybody’s attention is laser focused.” A measure that is easy to study, such as this hypothesis, could have an impact and “it wouldn’t take long to find out,” she added. Indeed, she expects the results of this analysis should be available within a matter of weeks.

Egeblad believes the NETs may drive mucus production in the lungs, which could make it harder to ventilate in severe cases. They also may activate platelets, which are part of the clotting process. If they did play such a role, they could contribute to the blood clotting some patients with coronavirus experience.

Egeblad recognizes that NETs, which she has been studying in the context of cancer, may not be involved in COVID-19, which researchers should know soon. “We need to know whether this is important.”

From left, Kerstin Kleese van Dam, Brand Development Manager at BNL Diana Murphy, and John Hill at the Practical Quantum Computing Conference (Q2B) in San Jose, CA, Dec. 2019. Photo courtesy of Kerstin Kleese van Dam

By Daniel Dunaief

Brookhaven National Laboratory is putting its considerable human and technical resources behind the global effort to combat the coronavirus.

John Hill, the director of the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, is leading a working group to coordinate the lab’s COVID-19 science and technology initiatives. He is also working on a team to coordinate COVID-19 research across all the Department of Energy labs.

“We are proud that the tools we built at BNL, which include the NSLS II, which took 10 years to build and cost about a billion dollars,” will contribute to the public health effort, Hill said. “We feel that science will solve this problem, and hopefully soon. It’s great that BNL is a part of that fight.”

In addition to using high-technology equipment like the NSLS II to study the atomic structure of the virus and any possible treatments or vaccines, BNL is also engaging a team led by Kerstin Kleese van Dam, who is the director of BNL’s Computational Science Initiative.

According to Hill, the combination of the physical experiments and the computing expertise will provide a feedback loop that informs the efforts with each team. Kleese van Dam’s team is using supercomputers to run simulated experiments, matching up the atomic structure of the viral proteins with any potential drugs or small molecules that might interfere with its self-copying and life-destroying efforts.

The computer simulations will enable researchers to narrow down the list of potential drug candidates to a more manageable number. Experimental scientists can then test the most likely  treatments the computer helped select.

Across the world, the scale of the science to which BNL is contributing is even larger than the Manhattan Project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, said Hill.

In just three months since scientists in China produced the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, researchers around the world have produced over 15,000 research articles, some of which have been published in scientific journals, while researchers have self-published others to share their findings in real time.

Working with computer scientists from different fields at BNL, Kleese van Dam is helping researchers screen through the abundant current research on COVID-19. The number of papers is “accelerating at a rate no one can read,” Hill explained. 

Kleese van Dam and four of her scientists are setting up a natural language processing interface so scientists can type in what they want to find, such as a protein binding with a specific complex, and put it into a search engine. She is working on an initial service that she hopes to expand. Additionally, the computer science team is planning to start a project to look at epidemiological data to determine how various people might react to different treatment.

Kleese van Dam and her team are also working to build an archive in the United States that they hope will host at least the results of the Department of Energy funded projects in medical therapeutics. “[We are] convinced that this would provide a much better starting point for future outbreaks, as well as providing a near term clearing house of results,” she explained in an email.

As for the work at the synchrotron, Hill said that the high-energy x-rays can determine the specific atomic configuration of proteins in the virus.

The NSLS II, which was designed to study the structure of batteries, geology and plant cells, among other objects, can look at “small protein crystals better than anywhere else in the world.”

The virus relies on a docking mechanism that allows it to enter a cell and then insert its malevolent RNA to disrupt the cell’s normal function. Understanding how the pieces come together physically can allow researchers to look for small molecules or approved drugs that could interfere with the virus.

One of the many advantages of the synchrotron over protein crystallography is that the NSLS II doesn’t need as many copies of proteins to determine their atomic structure. Hill said protein crystallography needs samples that are about 100 to 200 microns in size, which is about the width of a human hair, which can take weeks to months to years to grow. This is a “bottleneck in the whole process” of solving protein structure, he said.

On the other hand, the NSLS II only requires samples of about a micron in size. This “greatly speeds up the process,” he added. Two different groups of researchers, from the pharmaceutical industry and from academia and national labs, are conducting experiments on the NSLS II.

Hill said he was receiving viral proteins scientists believe will bind with the virus from collaborators in the United Kingdom. The scientific process is as quick and collaborative as it’s ever been among researchers, he said. The proteins arrived recently.

That collaborative process would have “taken months to set up under normal circumstances,” Hill said. Instead, it only took a few days.

At the same time, BNL is constructing a cryo-electron microscope, which doesn’t have the same resolution as the NSLS II, but does not need crystals and can study individual proteins. Researchers need about 10,000 of them and can average the images together. The resolution is five to 10 times worse than x-rays.

BNL is accelerating the construction of the cryo EM and hope to have the first beam in mid-May. Commissioning will take some extra time, Hill said. The first structure of the coronavirus spike protein was determined by using an electron microscope.

For Hill and Kleese van Dam, who each have dedicated much of their time to these efforts, the opportunity to contribute to a project that could have implications for a public that is battling this disease is rewarding and offers reasons for optimism. 

“To be able to help at such a scale is indeed humbling and gratifying,” said Kleese van Dam. “Science is going to solve this problem,” added Hill. “That gives me comfort.”

Daniel Mazzone. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Like many people who hunch down when they step into cold air, many materials shrink when exposed to the frigid temperatures.

That, however, is not the case for samarium sulfide when it has impurities such as yttrium sprinkled throughout. Indeed, the material goes through negative thermal expansion, in which cold air causes it to expand.

Daniel Mazzone, a post-doctoral fellow in Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Department who is joining the Paul Scherrer Institute in May, wanted to know how this happened.

Working with synchrotrons on three different continents, at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II at BNL, the Soleil synchrotron in France and the SPring-8 synchrotron in Japan, Mazzone and a team of scientists explored the properties of this metal.

The work that led to an understanding of the properties that made the metal expand in cold temperatures could have applications in a range of industries. Some companies use materials that balance between expansion and contraction to prevent the lower temperatures from altering their configuration. 

Mazzone said the expansion properties can be fine tuned by altering the mixture of materials. With these results, he and his colleagues “bring a new material class to the focus of the community,” he wrote in a recent email.

So, what is happening with this samarium sulfide mixed with yttrium particles?

In a paper in the journal Physics Review Letters, Mazzone and his partners, including Ignace Jarrige, who is the group leader of the Soft Inelastic X-ray Scattering Beamline, described the way mobile conduction electrons screen the samarium ions, causing a fractional transfer of an electron into the outermost electronic samarium shell. Quantum mechanical rules govern the process.

Using the Pair Distribution Function beamline at NSLS-II, the researchers performed diffraction experiments. The scientists determined how the x-rays bounced off the samarium sample at different temperatures. The sample was contained in a liquid helium cooled crysotat.

“We track how the x-rays bounce off the sample to identify the locations of atoms and the distances between them,” Milinda Abeykoon, the lead scientist of the PDF beamline, said in a press release. “Our results show that, as the temperature drops, the atoms of this material move farther apart, causing the entire material to expand up to three percent in volume.”

In France and Japan, the researchers also used x-rays to explore what electrons were doing as temperatures changed.

“These ‘x-ray absorption spectroscopy’ experiments can track whether electrons are moving into or out of the outermost ‘shell’ of electrons around the samarium atoms,” Jarrige explained in a press release.

The valence electrons in samarium, which are the outermost electrons, are in a shell that is under half full. That means that they are more reactive than they would be if they the shell was full, as it is with noble gases.

The researchers observed that a fractional part of the electrons are transferred from the conduction band in the outermost samarium shell. This causes the samarium to expand, as the outermost shell needs to accommodate an extra electron. When this happens for the numerous ions in the system, this can have an important effect.

By working with Maxim Dzero, who is a theoretical physicist at Kent State University, the scientists were able to apply the Kondo effect, which was named after solid-state physicist Jun Kondo. Back in the 1960s, Kondo explained how magnetic impurities encourage electron scattering at low temperatures, which not only increases the volume of the materials, but can also increase their electrical resistance.

In the Kondo effect, electrons align their spins in the opposite direction of the larger magnetic articles to cancel its magnetism. For the samarium material, the outer shell moves around the atomic core, creating the magnetic moment of the samarium ion. 

“For some elements, because of the way the outer shell fills up, it is more energetically favorable for electrons to move out of the shell,” Jarrige explained in a press release. “But for a couple of these materials, the electrons can move in, which leads to expansion.”

A phone call among several of the collaborators led them to believe the process involved with the samarium was akin to the one that causes water to expand when it freezes. As scientists build on this understanding, they will likely need to create or search for similar but alternative materials to samarium sulfide, Mazzone said. 

Samarium sulfide is incredibly expensive. Materials scientist will need to find the right elements that can “do the same job,” he explained. “The next step is to find the materials that are cheaper and optimize it.”

Mazzone, who is currently living in his home country of Switzerland, is preparing for his next job, which is expected to start next month.

He and his wife Fabienne, who is an economist at the ski producer Stöckli, enjoyed living on Long Island during his two year post-doctoral research experience.

“Switzerland is landlocked and surrounded by mountains,” said Mazzone, who speaks German, French, English and some Italian. “Having a beach at the front door [when they lived on Long Island] was beautiful.”

Dedicated climbers, the Mazzones traveled to the Shawangunk and Adirondack mountains while they lived on Long Island to find an outlet for their passion for rock climbing.

As for his future work, Mazzone anticipates remaining in academia where he would like to continue his research and teach. He plans to conduct additional experiments on the Kondo effect. These materials also feature properties such as unconventional superconductivity and other quantum phases that may help with quantum computing.

Lijun Wu is the 17th recipient of this esteemed award. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Despite the pause New York and so many other states are taking to combat the coronavirus, the awards can, and will, go on.

The Microscopy Society of America gave Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Lijun Wu the 2020 Chuck Fiori Award. The Award, which started in 1993, recognizes the achievements of a technologist in the physical sciences who has made long-standing contributions in microscopy or microanalysis.

Wu is the second consecutive BNL staff member to win the Chuck Fiori award. Dmitri Zakharov took home the honors last year.

Lijun Wu during a trip to Alaska last summer. Photo from Jiangyan Fang

Wu is an engineer in the Electron Microscopy and Nanostructure Group in the Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Division. He works with transmission electron microscopy in quantum materials, batteries, catalysts, and other energy materials. Wu learned how to write software programs on his own. His first effort in this area involved a program that indexed electron diffraction patterns. He has also created programs for simulating microscopy images and diffraction patterns.

Wu, who is hoping to pick up the award at the Microscopy Society of America meeting in August if the meeting still takes place, said he was “excited” to receive this distinction and was pleased for the support throughout his career at BNL.

Wu “has made significant contributions to the field of electron microscopy, especially quantitative electron diffraction,” group leader and senior scientist Yimei Zhu, said in a statement. “Applying his expertise in the field and talents in computer programming, [he] has advanced electron microscopy for material characterization. He well deserves the award.”

One of the most important contributions Wu, who has been at BNL since 1996, has made was in developing an electron diffraction method for measuring valence electron distribution. The valence electrons are the ones in the outermost shell of any substance or material.

Wu worked with Zhu and Johan Taftø, a visiting scientist from the University of Oslo, to develop an electron diffraction–based method for measuring valence electron distribution.

He appreciates the support and encouragement he has received from Zhu since he arrived at BNL.

Transmission electron microscopes can provide atomic-resolution images and electron-energy loss spectroscopy, Wu suggested. Through this work, scientists can determine where atoms are and what kind of atoms are present.

He would like to measure the distribution of these valence electrons through a process called quantitative electron diffraction.

By understanding how atoms share or transfer electrons, researchers can determine the physical properties of materials. Electron diffraction measurements can describe valence electron distribution from the bonds among atoms.

Wu and his colleagues developed a method called parallel recording of dark-field images. Through this technique, the scientists focus a beam above the sample they are studying and record numerous reflections from the same area. This is like studying the partial reflection of objects visible in windows on a city street and putting together a composite, three-dimensional view. Instead of cars, people, traffic lights and dog walkers, though, Wu and his colleagues are studying the distribution of electrons.

The information the scientists collect allows them to measure the charge transfer and aspherical valence electron distribution, which they need to describe electron orbitals for objects like high-temperature superconductors.

Using an electron probe, the team developed the technique to measure the displacement of atoms in crystal lattices with one-thousandth-of-a-nanometer accuracy.

To learn how to write software, Wu used several resources.

“I used literature and read books for computer programming,” he said. “I spent many, many years” learning how to write programs that would be useful in his research. He also consulted with colleagues, who have written similar programs.

Wu explained that the calculations necessary for his work far exceeded the functionality of a calculator. He also needed a super computer to handle the amount of data he was generating and the types of calculations necessary.

“If we used the older computer technique, it would take days or weeks to get one result,” he said.

A native of Pingjing in Hunan Province in China, Wu said learning English was considerably more challenging than understanding computer programming.

The youngest of nine siblings, Wu is the only one in the family who attended college. When he began his studies at the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University, he said he was interested in physics and computers.

The college, however, decided his major, which was materials science.“They assigned it to me,” Wu said. “I liked it.”

He and his wife Jiangyan Fang, who is an accountant, have a 25-year-old son David, who lives in Boston and works with computers.

Wu, who started out at BNL as a Visiting Scientist, said he is comfortable living on Long Island. He said Long Island is cooler than his home town in the middle of China, where it’s generally hotter and more humid. For a week or two each year, the temperature can climb above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

As for his work, Wu said he looks at the atomic level of substances. His techniques can explore how a defect in something like a battery affects how ions, like lithium, get in and through that.

“When you charge or discharge a battery, [I consider] how an electron gets through a defect. I always think about it this way.”

Wu has been working with Zhu and visiting scientist Qingping Meng from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where Wu earned his Bachelor’s of Science and his Master’s in Science, on an initiative that advances the ability to determine valence electron distribution.

Wu is preparing a new publication. “I’m writing the manuscript and will introduce the method we are developing,” he said.