Science & Technology

A boy looks through the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Lab during an event meant to examine the birth of the universe July 31. Photo from BNL

By Colm Ashe

Hundreds of North Shore residents gathered at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton July 31 for the last Summer Sunday of the season, a program which offers the public a chance to immerse themselves in the wide range of scientific endeavors that take place at the lab.

The final Summer Sunday’s events focused on a Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. The RHIC is the modern culmination of an age-old inquiry into the origins of the universe and the only operating particle collider in the United States.

The day’s events gave the public a chance to witness the enormity of the project, a size measured not only in square mileage, but also in international collaborators. Thousands of scientists from all over the world, even those on opposite sides of warring nations, have been brought together by this quest to unlock the secrets of matter.

The RHIC re-creates an explosion similar to the one that created the universe. Photo from BNL
The RHIC re-creates an explosion similar to the one that created the universe. Photo from BNL

From the main control room, scientists at BNL send ions spinning around a 2.5-mile circular track and smash them together at a velocity close to the speed of light. When the ions collide, they create a small explosion that lasts for an extremely brief time span—one billionth of one billionth of one one millionth of a second.

During the explosion, scientists get a finite window into the birth of the universe, measuring one billionth of one millionth of a meter across. In order to study this small speck of short-lived matter, the remnants of these collisions are recorded in two detectors, STAR and PHENIX. This data is then examined by some of world’s top minds.

According to Physicist Paul Sorensen, this collision re-creates “the conditions of the early universe” so scientists can “study the force that holds together that matter as well as all of the matter that exists in the visible universe today.”

What is this force that binds the universe together? At the event, renowned physicist and deputy chair of BNL’s physics department Howard Gordon addressed this puzzling question. His lecture provided the audience some background on the history of this quest, as well as an update on the discovery of the elusive particle that started it all—the Higgs boson.

Though theories regarding the Higgs field — a field of energy presumed to give particles their mass — have been around since the 1960s, it took five decades to finally find the Higgs boson. As reported by TBR’s very own Daniel Dunaief, this “God particle” was finally discovered in 2012 at Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s first ever particle accelerator.

This was the puzzle piece scientists worldwide had been counting on to validate their theory about the origins of matter. According to Gordon, “atoms, therefore life, would not form without the Higgs boson.”

Since this discovery, a vast global network of scientists and centers, including BNL, has been created to sift through the enormous amount of data generated by the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC produces enough data “to fill more than 1,000 one-terabyte hard drives — more than the information in all the world’s libraries,” according to theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss.

After Gordon’s lecture, some of the most promising physicists in the U.S. led guests on a tour of the facilities which process this data, along with an up-close introduction to RHIC, STAR and PHENIX, all of which are undergoing maintenance this summer.

Gaofeng Fan
Gaofeng Fan at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Photo by Siwei Zhang

The terror in the opening of the horror movie “When a Stranger Calls” comes when the police tell an anxious babysitter that threatening calls are “coming from inside the house.”

With the killer disease cancer, researchers spend considerable energy and time focusing on signals that might be coming from outside the cell. Many of those signals bind to a receptor in the membrane that corrupt a cell’s normal pathways, leading the cell to uncontrolled growth, the production of tumors or other unhealthy consequences.

Working in the laboratory of Nicholas Tonks, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, postdoctoral researcher Gaofeng Fan has spent over four and a half years studying a particular signal that comes from inside the cell. I

n a recent study published in Genes & Development, Fan demonstrated that a protein called FER, which adds a phosphate group to the inside part of a receptor called MET, plays a role in the ability of ovarian cancer to spread or metastasize. Already the target of drug development, MET is overexpressed in 60 percent of ovarian tumors. Thus far, developing drugs that block MET alone has not been particularly effective. Indeed, a humanized antibody that prevents human growth factor from binding to this receptor has shown “weak anti-tumor effect” in clinical trials, Fan suggested. In his research in cells, cultures and animal models, Fan demonstrated that ovarian cancer doesn’t spread and may have a different prognosis without FER.

“We found that the ligand [the human growth factor] is not necessary for the activation of the MET,” Fan said. “In the presence of FER, without the ligand, MET can be activated.” Understanding the role of FER in ovarian cancer may offer some clues about why only preventing signals from the outside aren’t enough to protect the cell. While Fan worked with ovarian cancer, he explained other scientists have shown that FER activation has been reported in lung, hepatic, prostate, breast and ovarian cancer. FER plays a part in cell motility and invasion, drug resistance and programmed cell death.

Fan’s work with FER started with a genetic experiment. Taking FER out of a cell, through a process called a loss-of-function assay, Fan found that the cell motility, or its ability to move, decreases. Once he took out FER, he also looked closely at MET activation. If the receptor required only human growth factor, which he included in his experiment, the removal of FER shouldn’t have any effect on its activity. “We found the opposite result,” Fan said.

Gaofeng Fan with his son Ruihan at Tall Ships America in Greenport in 2015. Photo by Xan Xu
Gaofeng Fan with his son Ruihan at Tall Ships America in Greenport in 2015. Photo by Xan Xu

A set of experiments with mice provided stronger evidence to support his belief that FER played a role in the spread of ovarian cancer. One of the mice had normal FER expression, while the other was missing the FER protein. When he compared the ability of cancer to metastasize, he found that cancer spread in a more limited way in the mice without the protein. “This confirmed the in vitro data and all the cell-based assays,” he said.

After six and a half years as a postdoctoral researcher, Fan is now looking for opportunities to teach and, perhaps, start his own lab in his native China. Fan hopes to continue to work on this system and would like to be a part of the discovery process that might find a small molecule inhibitor for FER. Once he and others find a FER inhibitor, they might be able to use it in combination with other drugs, including small molecules that inhibit human growth factor’s effect on the MET receptor.

Fewer than one in four women with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, which is typically the stage at which doctors find the disease, survive for five years.

Fan said he feels driven to help find a way to slow down the progression of this disease. “There’s an urgency to find a good, effective treatment.” To be sure, Fan cautioned that these studies, while encouraging and an important step in learning about ovarian cancer metastasis, require considerable work to become a part of any new treatment.

In his work, Fan was grateful for the support of Peter A. Greer, a principal investigator at the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University at Kingston in Ontario, Canada. Greer “is the leading scientist in research of FER proteins and he opened up all his toolbooks to me,” Fan said.

In an email, Greer described Fan as a “very gifted scientist with an outstanding training experience.” He hopes to “continue our collaboration in the area of ovarian cancer after [Fan] establishes his independent research program” in China. Greer, who spoke with Fan regularly through the process, said he is hopeful that the publication of the study in Genes & Development, in addition to other studies he and other labs have published, will “encourage drug development aimed at FER inhibitors suitable for clinical use.”

Fan also appreciated the guidance and flexibility of his CSHL mentor Nicholas Tonks, famous for his work on tyrosine phosphatase in which he studies the effect of removing phosphate groups. Fan’s research, however, involved understanding adding a phosphate group, through a kinase. “I got humongous support” from Tonks. “Without his help, I couldn’t come this far.”

A resident of Port Jefferson, Fan lives with his wife Yan Xu, who is earning her Ph.D. in materials science at Stony Brook. The couple has a six-year old son, Ruihan, who has enjoyed the Summer Sunday opportunities at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Ruihan spent hours viewing and constructing the structure of DNA. As for his work, Fan sees opportunities to help people battling this disease.“If we can collect more evidence from this story, we can propose” a way to boost the outcome of treatment, he said.

Joanna Kiryluk during her trip to the South Pole in 2009. Photo from Joanna Kiryluk

By Daniel Dunaief

She traveled to a place she felt might have been as unfamiliar as visiting the moon or Mars. The project that is such a large part of her life is looking for signals sent from well beyond those relative celestial neighbors.

Joanna Kiryluk, an assistant professor of physics at Stony Brook University, didn’t travel off the planet, although she visited a remote location that was considerably different, less populated and at a higher altitude than the sandy beaches of Long Island. In 2009, Kiryluk traveled to the South Pole as a part of the aptly named IceCube project, which was completed in 2010. Kiryluk and hundreds of other physicists around the world are studying the information gathered from detectors drilled deep into the ice below the surface.

Kiryluk is studying tau and electron neutrinos, which are created as products of cosmic ray interactions and carry very high energies. Scientists do not know which sources in the universe are capable of creating such high energies. Unraveling this is one of her research goals. The neutrinos produced by collapsing stars, or supernova, typically have energies that are about a million times smaller than the high-energy neutrinos discovered by IceCube.

Neutrinos have very small masses and travel at speeds close to the speed of light, Kiryluk explained. Since they interact with matter weakly, they pass through most objects without any interactions. On rare occasions, however, these neutrinos collide with a neutron or a proton, causing a characteristic reaction that provides a clue about where they are, what energy they had when they collided, and, perhaps where they originated.

For her research, Kiryluk recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award, which provides almost $900,000 to support her work over the next five years. “It’s a great honor,” said Kiryluk. “The chances of success for such proposals are small and, in this sense, it was also a pleasant surprise.” Kiryluk said the funding will enable her to employ two graduate students per year. Part of the money will also be used for educational purposes and outreach. Kiryluk has reached out to high schools including Brentwood and Riverhead High School to involve students and teachers in research. Kiryluk is also a proponent of a Women in Science and Engineering program, or WISE, that encourages the “involvement of under-represented groups” in science, including women.

Kiryluk credits her Ph.D. advisor, Barbara Badelek, a professor at the University of Warsaw in the Department of Physics and a professor at Uppsala University, for believing in her and in her ability. She suggested that such support was critical to her success and her focus. Badelek met Kiryluk in 1994 and supervised her undergraduate and Ph.D. work. Kiryluk was “immediately recognized as a remarkably good student: hard working, trying to achieve a deep understanding of problems and very enthusiastic,” Badelek explained in an email. Badelek added that she is “very pleased to see her maturity and growing scientific prestige.”

In the IceCube project, Kiryluk is a part of an experiment that involves over 300 scientists from 48 institutions from around the world. IceCube, which took seven years to build, was manufactured as a discovery experiment to find high-energy neutrinos, which originate from astrophysical sources. People who have known Kiryluk for decades suggest that she has the right temperament for such an ambitious joint effort.

Kiryluk is “quiet and calm, but works hard and never leaves things because she finds some difficulties,” explained Ewa Rondio, the deputy director for scientific matters at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland, who met Kiryluk when she was an undergraduate. Kiryluk’s goal is to measure the energy spectrum of these neutrinos. “We are interested in fluxes,” she said. These fluxes and energy spectra of high-energy neutrinos will provide insights in the sources and mechanisms of the most powerful accelerators in the universe.

A cubic kilometer of ice, IceCube, which has enough water to fill one million swimming pools, is large enough to capture more of these rare neutrino events. The key to unraveling what these signals indicate is to understand their energy and direction. The detectors don’t collect information from the neutrinos directly, but, rather from the interaction with particles in the ice. The neutrino interactions in ice produce a flash of light in the South Pole ice that the scientists measure with sensors. They study the pattern, the arrival times and the amplitude of this light at the sensors. This information can help determine the neutrino energy and direction.

Kiryluk is looking for high-energy events that are “most likely coming from outside of our galaxy,” she said. These particles are distributed all over the sky. While IceCube is capable of collecting data from the highest energy particles, it hasn’t yet gathered enough of these events to provide conclusive information at this range.

Kiryluk visited the South Pole for two weeks in 2009 before IceCube was finished. She was involved in the commissioning of the newly deployed detectors for the data acquisition system. The detectors are between 1,500 and 2,600 meters deep, which helps them “suppress any background events,” such as cosmic rays that are produced in the atmosphere. The facility is 3,000 meters high and has low humidity, which means it’s “easy to get dehydrated,” Kiryluk said. She described the working and living conditions at the South Pole as “modern.”

A native of eastern Poland, Kiryluk arrived on Long Island in 2001, when she worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory. She lives in Rocky Point. Kiryluk said the physics department is “growing.” Since her hire, nine assistant professors have joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University. As for her work, Kiryluk is inspired to understand how IceCube can be used as a “probe to study astronomy,” which enables her to be a part of the process of discovering “what is out there.”

Board hires first executive director to help facility grow

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is located at 5 Randall Road in Shoreham. File photo by Wenhao Ma

By Desirée Keegan

Marc Alessi lives just houses down from where inventor Nikola Tesla stayed when he was in Shoreham.

When Alessi held public office as a New York State assemblyman, he worked to secure state funding to purchase the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, to ensure it would be preserved and remain in the right hands.

Years later, he’s getting even more involved.

“I would drive past the site and look at the statue and think, I could be doing more,” Alessi said.

Now, he’s the executive director for the center’s board and is responsible for planning, administration and management, while also helping the science center develop and grow during its critical period of renovation, historic restoration and construction on the grounds of the former laboratory of Nikola Tesla.

Marc Alessi will help the Tesla Science Center become an incubator for innovation. Photo from Marc Alessi
Marc Alessi will help the Tesla Science Center become an incubator for innovation. Photo from Marc Alessi

“Marc has a lot of energy, enthusiasm and he’s got a lot of spirit, and I think those are qualities that will help to bring attention and help us to move forward in our efforts to make the science center more well known,” board of directors President Jane Alcorn said. “He’s been part of our past and has always shown an interest, so he’s knowledgeable about what we’re doing.”

Alessi, an entrepreneur, brings a lot of knowledge in areas that no other board member has, Alcorn said.

The Shoreham resident is an attorney with Campolo, Middleton, and McCormick LLP, is a former executive director for the Long Island Angel Network, helped establish Accelerate Long Island and currently serves as chairman and founding CEO of one of their portfolio companies, SynchoPET. He also serves on the board of directors of the Peconic Bay Medical Center and the Advisory Council for East End Arts.

“I believe I work for Nikola Tesla as much as I work for the board,” he said. “It’s my mission in life, whether I work as their executive director or not, to make sure he has his place in history. People were just floored by just what he was trying to accomplish, but if you just look at what he did accomplish, like remote control and x-ray and neon, and the alternating current electricity, [you could see] all that he did for humanity.”

One thing he would like to emphasize, that many may not know about Tesla, was how he tore up his royalty contract in an effort to ensure all people, not just the wealthy, would have electricity.

“Invention, technology and innovation doesn’t always have to be about personal enrichment,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just about improving the world around us.”

First for the center is turning the laboratory into a museum and preserving the site as a national historic landmark, which would be a tremendous tourism draw. Aside from the museum, a cinder-block building will add community space where civics and other local groups and robotics clubs can meet and utilize the space, which will also house educational opportunities.

“I would drive past the site and look at the statue and think, I could be doing more.” — Marc Alessi

Alessi was recently named executive director of the Business Incubator Association of New York State Inc., a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the growth and development of startup and incubator-based enterprises throughout the state.

Which is exactly what the Tesla Science Center is working toward.

“I can’t walk around my community without feeling a bit of his presence and a bit of a responsibility to make sure this site is preserved in perpetuity, and educates people about him, what he’s about and what is possible,” he said. “The whole board and the community is interested in seeing the Tesla’s of tomorrow have a place to come and be able to create. To try to invent.”

Alcorn believes that with Alessi’s help all of their ideas can come to fruition.

“He has a wealth of knowledge and connections with many people and many areas of business and government and incubators that will be of great help in sharing our goals and encouraging others in making this happen,” she said. “He does definitely share many of our ideas, but he also has plenty of ideas of his own.”

Alessi said he specializes in taking an idea and making it a reality, but with this site it means more than that to him.

“By celebrating Tesla you’re celebrating innovation, that’s at my core and DNA,” he said. “We’d love to see a maker space or an incubator where other folks in the community, not just students, can come in and have access to the tools that are necessary to make high-tech inventions. That will be great for our community. It’s about the Tesla’s of tomorrow. We want to empower that.”

By Wenhao Ma

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe celebrated Nikola Tesla’s 160th birthday Sunday outside his only remaining laboratory in Shoreham. Hundreds of people joined the celebration to honor the inventor of alternating current electricity and neon lighting.

The center has been holding Tesla’s birthday celebrations since 2013, when it completed its purchasing of the lab. Jane Alcorn, the president of the board of directors, said she believed that it’s important for people to remember Tesla.

“He has contributed so much to modern society,” she said. “Every time you turn on an electrical light or any kind of electrical appliance, it’s because Nikolas Tesla developed the alternating current system that we use today.”

The center also connected online with another Tesla birthday celebration that was taking place in Serbia, at the same time, and the parties greeted one other.

Alcorn and other board members are looking to build a museum on the site that would be dedicated to inventions and new technologies.

According to its website, the museum would complement the educational efforts of the schools within this region, as well as the community outreach activities of other prominent science institutions.

“He’s a visionary,” Alcorn said. “His ideas and what he saw coming in the future and the way he inspires people today to be visionary are all testaments to how important he is.”

GearHeadz bring home two awards from California

The GearHeadz robotics team displays its national trophy at Legoland in California. Photo from Chris Pinkenburg

What started with a small group of kids in a Long Island basement ended with cheers when the Rocky Point-area GearHeadz robotics team ran down the isle at Legoland in California to collect a national trophy.

“It was the greatest feeling ever,” GearHeadz coach Chris Pinkenburg said of how well his team produced on such a grand stage, to receive a fifth-place robot game and second-place programming award. “I’m extremely proud of them. They’re a very independent, unselfish team that can figure out a lot of problems on their own.”

The team competed in the FIRST LEGO League Long Island championship tournament back in February and was crowned second-place champion. From there, it competed on the national stage against 74 teams, including regional and state champions from the United States and Canada, as well as international guests from Germany and South Korea.

Each year, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which was founded in 1989, presents a theme under which teams solve real-world problems and build and program a robot to compete in missions.

The theme this time around was Trash Trek, so students had to present a project that could be the solution to an environmental hazard. The GearHeadz tried over 20 times and eventually came up with the right recipe for biodegradable bags that would limit the mass death of sea turtles and other marine life from accidental ingestion of plastic.

The GearHeadz’s robot base and some of its attachments used to complete missions. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The GearHeadz’s robot base and some of its attachments used to complete missions. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“We’ve worked together well as a team,” said Pinkenburg’s 14-year-old son Jade. “We’ve solved a lot of problems and succeeded on the Long Island and national stage.”

Speaking of problems, his team ran into a big one at nationals.

“The first two rounds went really, really bad,” Chris Pinkenburg said. “We got back from the second round and sat down together to try to figure out what’s wrong with our robot. It behaved very differently from previous times.”

Recently turned 14-year-old Jen Bradley discovered a bad cable, when she started wiggling it and noticed that the sensor reading was changing. Thankfully it’s only your best round that counts, and the team had spent so much time fixing its robot that it had minutes to get ready to perform for the third time.

“Everything depended on that last round,” Pinkenburg said.

The robot performed well, which earned the team fifth place.

“We have a lot of smart people here that work really hard,” 14-year-old Rex Alex said. “We put in the time and effort and we get results. It was a big stage, a new experience for me, and we had the pressure on us, but we rose to the occasion.”

Bradley and the Pinkenburg bunch had been there before but had never garnered a national award.

“We’re finally one of the best teams in the country. That’s nice,” Pinkenburg said, laughing. “Hard work does pay off. It’s a total team win.”

It was the culmination of five years of hard work while learning and striving to improve.

For 13-year-old Julius Condemi, it was interesting to meet and compete against so many different types of teams.

“It was really cool to see everyone’s methods of finishing the missions to get high scores,” he said. “The competitions are energetic and it’s busy, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The GearHeadz group even works with other teams to help, something Pinkenburg said makes the program unique.

“It’s competing against technical problems, not other teams,” he said. “The kids show gracious professionalism when helping other teams. The camaraderie is good and I can see the progress. It’s an amazing gift to watch that and to help them on their way.”

The GearHeadz are hoping to move up to a higher level of competition. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The GearHeadz are hoping to move up to a higher level of competition. Photo by Desirée Keegan

As the kids are nearing the end of the age limit to compete in the FLL, the team is working to raise a minimum of $15,000 to compete in the FIRST Robotics Challenge, in which they will design, build, program and operate 120-pound robots to compete in floor games.

To be a part of this league is why Pinkenburg first created a team. A perk to being a part of this league is that it offers scholarships.

“Boeing, Grumman, Intel, they hire you afterward,” he said. “They see it as a means to attract talent and make them known to talent.”

Clayton Mackay, also 14 years old, mainly builds attachments for the base of the robot, which could involve adding pieces that compress air or use springs, to complete the different missions. He was a friend to a lot of the teammates, like Julius and Rex, before joining the team, which he said has helped them be able to work together to be able to compete at a higher level. It also wouldn’t have been possible without their coach, who has been a huge source of knowledge.

“He’s a really nice guy who knows so much,” Mackay said. “He’s a great coach. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this team.”

Jade has learned a lot from and about his father during the process, and Pinkenburg has seen his son mature during the process.

“It’s brought out the best in him,” he said. “The social skills, dealing with the other teams, he’s really progressed tremendously. They all learned a lot about engineering and I see the personal development as the kids grow and evolve.”

Bradley said being on the team has been the highlight of grade school.

“It’s always been a big part of my life,” she said of robotics. “It’s really incredible. I’ve learned a lot about perseverance, about teamwork. I’ve made a lot of friendships while learning a lot.”

For more information about the team or to help donate to help them reach the next stage of the competition, visit the team’s website at www.rockpointroboticsclub.com.

Christopher Montalbano, left, and Gregory Montalbano, center, cut the ribbon on MIDI medical product development consulting firm’s Smithtown headquarters as Edward Dutton, right, looks on. Photo by Alex Petroski

A more than 40-year-old Long Island based company cut the ribbon on a brand new facility last Thursday.

The medical product development consulting firm MIDI officially opened a new headquarters and innovation center on Main Street in Smithtown in the Village of The Branch as a place to research and develop medical technology. MIDI has worked with clients such as Johnson & Johnson, GE Healthcare, Siemens and also will serve as a resource for Stony Brook University medical students in their new home.

“We strongly believe in creating growth opportunities for the medical and biotech industries on Long Island and in the greater New York area,” MIDI Principal and Huntington resident Gregory Montalbano said in a statement. He and his brother Christopher Montalbano are the principals of the Long Island-based firm which was started by their father Anthony in 1972. “Our new Innovation Center will foster new technology and product commercialization efforts for innovations obtained through academic research as well as for concepts developed by our local, national, and international commercial clients.”

The innovation center is equipped with a research, design and engineering studio, a prototyping lab and three-dimensional printing capability for the roughly 30 engineers, designers, software programmers and researchers. MIDI has supported the development of medical technologies over the years including the first commercial MRI scanner, surgical devices, a partial-body MRI, a three-dimensional dental scanner and countless others.

Gregory Montalbano suggested in an interview following the ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday that medical innovation could become a staple of Long Island industry in the coming years, replacing the manufacturing industry, which has slowly left Long Island, he said. Most similar facilities to MIDI’s innovation center are located on the west coast or in the Boston area, according to the firm, though the Montalbanos envision Long Island garnering that reputation in the future.

“Long Island is, in my opinion, becoming a very high-tech medical and bioscience hub,” he said. “In five to ten years, I feel that it will be very prevalent and people will be coming here in order to do that type of business and it’ll just grow from there.”

The look of other buildings along Main Street were taken into account in designing the innovation center, according to Kevin Harney, the principal of Stalco Construction, who served as the general contractor for the building.

“The architecture of the new $5 million, one-story building reflects the colonial feel of the historic Village of The Branch neighborhood, which dates back to the late 1600s,” Harney said in a statement. “The building’s façade features brick face, columns and other ornamental architectural elements prevalent in the landmark structures neighboring the new development.”

Chairman of the Planning Board of The Village of The Branch John Carro thanked MIDI and Stalco for maintaining that consistency.

“What’s very impressive, and we got a tour of the inside, is the high-tech inside of the building, but yet when you go to the outside, you see it matches the 1860s façade of all of the buildings along Middle Country Road here,” Carro said. “We appreciate that design and their working with the village in presenting their building in the proper manner.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-Shirley) sent a spokesperson to convey his excitement in the opening of the new facility and the possibilities it presents in the field of medical research and development. State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) attended the event and expressed a similar sentiment.

John Cincar uses the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

Two eyes and an iPad is all Vietnam veteran John Cincar needs to completely transform his day-to-day life.

Cincar, a resident at Stony Brook’s Long Island State Veterans Home, lost his ability to move his arms and hands, but only needs his eyes to operate a $12,000 iPad the home helped him secure this week as part of its mission to enhance residents’ independence. With help from the device and the home, Cincar said he could open the door to a world he had not been able to access on his own for years. By looking at control keys or cells displayed on the iPad screen, Cincar said he can generate speech, activate functions such as turning on a light or television, and even surf the internet.

“It’s very easy for me to use,” he said. “It does everything. I can get in touch with the world again.”

The eye-tracking device, which the veterans home referred to as an “eye gazer,” was a by-product of a donation from Bowlers to Veterans Link Chairman John LaSpina, a Long Island native and owner of various bowling alleys across the Island. The BVL is a not-for-profit organization that works to support American veterans, raises about $1 million per year through bowlers and bowling centers nationwide, and has a working relationship with the Long Island State Veterans Home, LaSpina said.

John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home
John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

“An opportunity like this just seemed so incredibly great that we couldn’t say no to it,” he said. “We’re talking about a facility totally dedicated to veterans. The place is immaculately clean. They do wonderful things.”

The BVL donation to the Long Island State Veterans Home was made possible from the proceeds of the “PBA50 Johnny Petraglia BVL Open,” which was held at the Farmingdale Lanes from Saturday, May 7 through Tuesday, May 10.

With the Vietnam era now more than four decades old, the Long Island State Veterans Home has been seeing more veterans who served in that war coming through its doors. And with each war comes a different kind of ailment that staff must combat.

“Many of these guys, their brains are fully intact, but their bodies are shot. They’re trapped,” said Jonathan Spier, deputy executive director for the Long Island State Veterans Home.

Just five years ago, Spier said, the home had only two Vietnam veterans living there. That number skyrocketed to more than 50 by 2016, he said, with former combat men suffering from specific injuries like exposure to Agent Orange and other muscle-related difficulties.

Fred Sganga, executive director of the veterans home, said the addition of the eye-tracking device only furthered his group’s mission to enhance the quality of life of more than 6,000 Long Island veterans.

“The goal is to maximize every veteran’s independence,” he said. “We want to be strategically ready for the next generation of veterans coming here, and this technology is transformational for someone who is a paraplegic.”

When asked how he planned on harnessing the power of the iPad to his benefit, Cincar said he hopes to study new languages, like Romanian — the language of the land he was born in.

Jennifer Anderson is a professor at Stony Brook University. File photo

By Kevin Redding

Jennifer Anderson is a professor at Stony Brook University. File photo
Jennifer Anderson is a professor at Stony Brook University. File photo

A lecture hall at Stony Brook University transported those in attendance back in time between the 17th and 19th centuries, when Long Island mariners left home for years of their lives, set sail into the deep, dark sea, and braved impossible odds in their voyage to hunt for whales.

“Long Island Whalers: Navigating a Changing World,” on April 15, was an all-day, open-to-the-public event that offered new and exciting research on an often-overlooked, hugely important part of Long Island’s heritage. So rather than read passages from “Moby Dick,” a panel of experts in varying fields of history and archaeology spoke at length about the more in-depth aspects of the whaling industry.

“This allows us to be on the front lines of sharing material, as it’s coming hot off the presses,” said Jennifer Anderson, an associate professor of Atlantic history at SBU and co-organizer of the event. “We live on this incredibly diverse island, from really urban and suburban areas to beautiful nature and agricultural history, and it’s easy to forget that there’s this really long human history of people making use of the maritime resources of Long Island — not just going to the beach, but actually deriving their livelihood from the waters surrounding us.”

With topics that ranged from the historical preservation of an important yet forgotten African American whaler named Pyrrhus Concer, and the role of race then and now, to the foreign and economic impact that came from sea travel, it wasn’t difficult to see the relevance this far-gone time has in 2016.

“This history is the basis of the modern Long Island society,” said speaker Frank Turano, who teaches Long Island environmental history at the college. “[We’re] built upon what happened in the past. That’s the key thing for people to understand; these are not just some quaint activities.”

Frank Turano is a professor at Stony Brook University. File photo
Frank Turano is a professor at Stony Brook University. File photo

Starting at 9 a.m. and ending around 6 p.m., the room was consistently full of people, all engaged in the presentations that followed. In particular, Robert T. Chase, a history professor in attendance, had a significant connection to the event’s subject matter, as a direct descendant of Owen Chase, First Mate aboard the Essex whaler. That ship’s wreckage by way of a behemoth sperm whale, and Owen Chase’s firsthand account of it, was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”

However, Robert Chase said he was more interested in the broader interracial movement going on at the time. According to him, people of color were central to the role in the industry, and often not talked about. “Sadly, they were the first to die because they were the least fed on the boat,” he said. “It’s really wonderful that this conference explores their history [further].”

In between panels, Stephen N. Sanfilippo sang the mid-1800s songs and recited the poetry of the Long Island whalemen. A teacher at Maine Maritime Academy, Sanfilippo’s been playing this music for 40 years. Rather than choose songs and poems about on-board debauchery and sea fights, he instead wanted to challenge the stereotypes surrounding the whalers. “I wanted to show that at least some whale men were mindful and sentimental,” Sanfilippo said. “I hope all of you will immerse yourselves in, what we have come to see as, the extraordinary lives that were, in their own time, the ordinary lives of ordinary Long Islanders.”

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By Elof Carlson

In 1907 a graduate student at Columbia University, Fernandus Payne, did a project supervised by his mentor, T.H. Morgan. He spent two years growing fruit flies in the dark. That’s 69 generations of fruit flies (or about 1,500 years if it were done on humans). Payne tested samples every 10 generations and found there was no change in eye color, a robust red, and there was no change in the flies’  attraction to light. They moved toward light.

In 1954 at Kyoto University, Syuti Mori placed some fruit flies in darkened containers and they have been bred and raised in the dark ever since. That’s about 1,500 generations (in humans it would be about 40,000 years in the dark).   

Mori wondered what changes would take place in the dark that would differ from the original control flies from which they were separated. He and his colleagues found that there were changes. The flies developed larger bristles (which can detect contact with objects and sense what they are) and they developed a greater sensitivity to hormones that are released as sex attractants.

Mori is now retired, but his colleagues continue to follow the new generations raised in the dark. They found 84 differences in their genes and they have already detected those affecting the bristles and those affecting sex hormone production and detection. Each gene difference is being isolated and its function is being worked out. They hope eventually to identify those genes that are random events that have no role in the adaptation to living in the dark and those that do have a role to play in living in the dark. They also hope, when the project is completed, to copy the appropriate mutations and insert them into control flies not raised in the dark, to see if these altered flies are as efficient as the 1,500th generation flies living in the dark.

This would be a nice contribution to the analysis of an evolutionary process because it would show the molecular basis for the differences between the two adaptive strains (one by selection and the other by genetic engineering) and how they differ from flies not grown in the dark.

Long-term experiments are relatively rare in science, especially those that are continued after the retirement or death of the original investigator. Both Payne’s experiment, more than a century ago, and Mori’s, which is ongoing, show how science is limited by what it knows and by what tools are available to advance our understanding.

In 1907 Morgan and his students had not yet worked out X-linked inheritance, mapping genes or determined mutation frequency. That genes were composed of DNA was not demonstrated until 1944. That DNA provided a mechanism for how mutations arise was not worked out until the late 1950s. Working out complete genomes of multicelled organisms did not occur until the 1990s. Inserting genes to specific places in the chromosomes was not possible until this decade. The experiments that can be done today were impossible even to imagine 100 years ago.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.