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Daniel Dunaief

United States Supreme Court Building

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Republican senators have abdicated their responsibility for vetting a candidate for the Supreme Court.

President Donald Trump (who is a Republican, as if you didn’t know) could nominate a toothpick, a swimming pool, or a face mask and those objects, appealing though they may be, would become the ninth member of the Supreme Court, replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The process was over before it began. The president, who is so fond of calling any event that might not proceed in his favor “rigged,” has exactly what he wants: a collection of at least 50 senators willing to rubber stamp the nominee to the Supreme Court, a lifelong appointment, for myriad reasons, not the least of which is to break a possible contentious election tie if and when the waters are muddy enough in the presidential election.

You have to hand it to them; they know a power grab when they see one, and this is a spectacular opportunity to reshape the court with Trump’s third nominee.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham didn’t say that his party agreed to consider the candidate when he spoke to one of the Republicans’ favorite publicists, Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

No, he said, “We’ve got the votes to confirm Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg’s replacement before the election,” according to a report in the New York Post.

That doesn’t preclude the infinitesimally small possibility that one or more of them might actually consider the merits of any candidate Trump, who is, in case you missed it, a Republican, might nominate, but it certainly suggests that the game is over well before it began.

Yes, I’m sure many people are as confident that the Democrats will all vote “no” on the candidate as that the Republicans will vote “yeah, hooray, yippee, we won.”

But that doesn’t make the votes from either party, and, specifically, the votes by each individual senator any more legitimate.

The Republicans have so effectively lined up the members of their party that none of them will question the magnificent incredible choice of the justice-to-be-named later.

They have so much confidence that the choice will be the best possible candidate for the highest judicial appointment in the land that they have no real need to consider the merits of her candidacy.

This has become an all out sprint to fast-track their candidate directly onto that important bench, without even the token consideration for her past decisions, her views on the Constitution, or her thoughts on important legal precedents.

If Republican senators have so much faith in the president’s choice, they should forfeit their salaries, go back home and allow the president to vote for them on every issue. I suspect the president wouldn’t object to adding such responsibility to his daily routine.

I understand that we live in polarized and divided times. I get that Senators reflect and amplify the differences that are pulling this nation apart. Each of them has an opportunity, no, a responsibility, to consider the job they are supposed to do, and not the party they are expected to support.

I don’t even need a Republican to vote against the president’s candidate to give me hope that someone in that esteemed chamber gets it. I just need a Republican to ask a genuinely difficult question. The hearings will go something like this:

Democrat: You’re unqualified and here’s why.

Republican: My Democratic colleague is wrong, offensive and disgraceful (see my last column for the search for grace). You’re the best person to protect the legal interests of every American.

Candidate: Was there a question in there?

James Misewich Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Even as the pandemic continues to cast a pall over the prospects for the economy, the federal government is finding ways to support science. Recently, as a part of a $625 billion award to a host of institutions, the Department of Energy earmarked $115 million over five years for a part of a project led by Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The science, called quantum information systems, could have applications in a wide range of industries, from health care to defense to communications, enabling higher levels of artificial intelligence than the current binary system computers have used for decades. By benefiting from the range of options between the 0s and 1s that typically dictate computer codes, researchers can speed up and enhance the development of programs that use artificial intelligence.

The investment “underscores the confidence the federal government has with respect to how important this technology is,” said James Misewich, the Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Photon Sciences at BNL. “Despite the challenges of the time, this was a priority.”

Local leaders hailed the effort for its scientific potential and for the future benefit to the Long Island economy.

“I have seen strong support inside of Congress and the administration for funding requests coming out of the Department of Energy for ideas on how to move the DOE’s mission forward,” said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1). “I have also seen a very high level of appreciation and respect for BNL, its leadership, its staff, its mission and its potential.”

Zeldin said the average American spends more time than ever engaging with technologies and other discoveries that were made possible by the first quantum revolution. “Here we are on the verge of a second quantum revolution and BNL is at the forefront of it,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin sees limitless possibilities for quantum information science, as researchers believe these efforts will lead to advancements in health care, financial services, national security and other aspects of everyday life. “This next round of quantum advancements seeks to overcome some of the vulnerabilities that were identified and the imperfections in the first wave,” he said.

State Senator James Gaughran (D-Northport) expects quantum science to provide a significant benefit to the region. “We believe this is going to be a major part of our economic future,” he said. “It is a huge victory for Long Island.”

The return on investment for the state and the federal government will also materialize in jobs growth. This is “going to employ a lot of people,” Gaughran said. “It will help to rebuild the type of economy we need on Long Island. The fact that we are on the front lines of that will lead to all sorts of private sector development.”

While the technology has enormous potential, it is still in early enough stages that research groups need to work out challenges before they can fully exploit quantum technology. BNL, specifically, will make quantum error correction a major part of their effort.

As quantum computers start working, they run into a limitation called a noisy intermediate scale quantum problem, or NISQ. These problems come from errors that lower the confidence of getting the right answer. The noise is a current limitation for the best quantum computers. “They can only go so far before you end up with an error that is fatal” to the computing process, Misewich said.

By using the co-design center for quantum advantage, Misewich and his partners hope to use the materials that “beat the NISQ error by having the combination of folks with a great team that are all talking to one another.”

The efforts will use a combination of classical computing and theory to determine the next steps in the process of building a reliable quantum information system-driven computer.

Misewich’s group is also focusing on communication. The BNL scientists hope to provide a network that enables distributed computing. In classical computing, this occurs regularly, as computer scientists distribute a problem over multiple computers.

Similarly, with quantum computing, scientists plan to distribute the problem across computers that need to talk to each other.

Misewich is pleased with the combination of centers that will collaborate through this effort. “The federal government picked these centers because they are somewhat complementary,” he said. The BNL-led team has 24 partners, which include IBM, Stony Brook University, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Yale University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Columbia University and Howard University, among others.

“We had to identify the best team and bring in the right people to fill the gaps,” Misewich explained.

Using a combination of federal funds and money from New York State, BNL plans to build a new beamline at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, which will operate at very low temperatures, allowing scientists to study the way these materials work under real word conditions.

BNL would like the work they are doing to have an application in calculations in three areas: the theory of the nucleus, quantum chemistry, which explores ways to design better materials, and catalysis.

A quantum computer could help make inroads in some challenging calculations related to electron-electron interactions in superconducting materials, Misewich said, adding that the entire team feels a “tremendous sense of excitement” about the work they are doing.”

Indeed, the group has been working together for close to two years, which includes putting the team in place, identifying the problems they want to tackle and developing a compelling strategy for the research to make a difference.

The group is expecting to produce a considerable amount of research and will likely develop various patents that will “hopefully transfer the technology so companies can start to build next generation devices,” Misewich said.

Along with local leaders, Misewich hopes these research efforts will enable the transfer of this technology to a future economy for New York State.

This effort will also train a numerous graduate and post doctoral students, who will be the “future leaders that are going to drive that economy,” Misewich said.

The research will explore multiple levels of improvement in the design of quantum computers which they hope will all work at the same time to provide an exponential improvement in the ability of the computer to help solve problems and analyze data.

From Photofest

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Normally, I’d build towards my request, but I know you’re busy. So, here’s the request: please send stories about your observations of graceful actions in our community. When I get enough of them, I’ll put them together in an article. If they keep coming, I’ll put together additional columns.

Now, onto the pitch: the challenges of today and in the uncertain times ahead continue to increase even as we are now only a few months away from the countdown to 2021. What kind of Halloween will we have this year? What kind of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or, if you’re a fan of the show Seinfeld, Festivus, awaits? We know we can’t plan for the kinds of things that we used to, like seeing friends and family in large groups, snuggling up close to watch movies or to tell stories of the triumphs of our children or our companies.

As of the date of this week’s paper, we have 47 days between now and the election and who knows how much longer between now and when an already-contested national election is actually decided. That means we will hear the word “disgraceful” bandied about as if it were the best way to take down the other side.

Democrats and Republicans will call the acts, thoughts and plans of the other side “disgraceful.” While you may agree with one person or party about how your favorite politician’s opponent is, indeed, completely lacking in grace and has ideas, thoughts or expressions that are as close to an abomination as you can imagine, those words and accusations don’t elevate your hero or you, for that matter.

Sure, it feels good to find targets for the frustrations and disappointments of a difficult year. However, during challenging times such as these, how about if we share the grace with which people are handling these challenges?

Teachers, principals, janitors and everyone else associated with schools are operating under extremely difficult conditions. Surely you must have seen one of the people in the education world come up with a graceful solution to these maddening moments?

Then there are all the people involved in health care, from first responders, to nurses, to doctors. I suspect we could create a wall of stories that reveal the grace under pressure that not only inspired you over the course of this difficult year, but also could inspire other readers looking for positive messages.

Police officers, fire fighters and other emergency services workers never know exactly what they’ll face in a day, from a cat stuck in a tree to an unstable domestic violence incident, to an escalating confrontation among protesters on opposite sides of a boiling nation. The grace some of these people demonstrate can lower the temperature and restore calm and peace.

Speaking of grace, religious leaders can and do lead by example, writing sermons and acting with patience and dignity that encourage us to find the best of ourselves.

While it’s tempting to write that Mrs. Smith is a graceful teacher, please think about what she does that’s so endearing. When you show us the story, by providing an anecdote about how Mrs. Smith defused a bullying situation or encouraged your daughter to stop sucking her thumb with subtle hand gestures, you are taking our hand and leading us into that socially-distanced classroom full of masked learners.

Hopefully, whatever stories you share, if you have the time, will motivate us to follow the examples of others who have found a way, despite circumstances that may seem out of their control, to reveal the kind of grace that soothes the soul and brings meaning to each day.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

What are we all waiting for? A vaccine ranks high on the list, if you read the newspapers and hear the dialog and diatribes from that epicenter of anger, hostility and finger pointing known as Washington, D.C.

But, really, how much will a vaccine change our lives? If a vaccine were available tomorrow, would you take it? For a vaccine to create herd immunity, a majority (70 percent or more) of the population would need to take a safe, effective treatment.

In an unscientific survey of 18 people to whom I promised anonymity, eight of them said they would take a vaccine if it were available tomorrow, while the other 10 said they would wait anywhere from several months to a year to take it. Several of the respondents elaborated on the rationale behind their decisions.

Jody said she would take it because “absolutely anything that helps us get kids back into school and the world moving again” is worth the effort.

Melissa said she would also take a test. Her husband is currently in a clinical trial and doesn’t know if he received the vaccine or a placebo.

While Sheila suggested she usually waits a month or two after a new vaccine comes out to determine if there are any side effects, she would take it whenever it’s available “as long as the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] backs it.”

A health care worker, Doug explained that his company won’t let him work without getting a flu shot. He wondered whether the company’s policy would be the same after a COVID vaccine comes out. Indeed, a vaccine would create a college conundrum, as schools that require a new vaccine before students return for the spring might cause some students to choose remote learning or to take a semester off.

Stephanie would only consider taking a vaccine if Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it was safe and effective.

Matt would not rush to get a vaccine. He said he doesn’t “buy the first model of a car or wait in line to get the newest cell phone. Let’s see how it works.”

Jacob was much more adamant, expressing concern that the urgency to get a test on the market would create a potential health hazard.

John shared Jacob’s concerns, saying he’s nervous about anything new. “I would consider taking a vaccine a year from now,” John said, but not until researchers and doctors know more about it.

Cindy, who is suffering with several other health problems, said she wouldn’t take a vaccine for a year or more. She doesn’t know if the vaccine might interact with medications she’s currently taking, while she’s also concerned that any change in her body might alter her overall health. Mindy wouldn’t rush to get a vaccine. “Testing takes time and if it were available that quickly, I would not trust the effectiveness and/or safety,” she said.

So if my non-scientific sample is reflective of the overall population, a vaccine, even if it’s effective and safe, would take more than the typical few weeks after it is available to provide a benefit to both the individual and the greater population.

While an available vaccine might be a relief, it also causes concerns about whether the process moved too quickly. Assurances from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and Dr. Fauci might help ease those worries. To borrow from the sports world, the population is eager for an umpire to call balls and strikes after the pitch is thrown, and not before, to satisfy a timeline for people eager to return to the life of handshakes and hugs.

Anže Slosar. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Ever since Ancient Romans and Greeks looked to the stars at night, humans have turned those pinpricks of light that interrupt the darkness into mythological stories.

Two years from now, using a state-of-the-art telescope located in Cerro Pachón ridge in Northern Chile, scientists may take light from 12 billion light years away and turn it into a factual understanding of the forces operating on distant galaxies, causing the universe to expand and the patterns of movement for those pinpricks of light.

While they are awaiting the commissioning of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, researchers including Brookhaven National Laboratory Physicist Anže Slosar are preparing for a deluge of daily data — enough to fill 15 laptops each night.

An analysis coordinator of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope’s dark energy science collaboration, Slosar and other researchers from around the world will have a unique map with catalogs spanning billions of galaxies.

Anže Slosar

“For the past five years, we have been getting ready for the data without having any data,” said Slosar. Once the telescope starts producing information, the information will come out at a tremendous rate.

“Analyzing it will be a major undertaking,” Slosar explained in an email. “We are getting ready and hope that we’ll be ready in time, but the proof is in the pudding.”

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is named for the late astronomer who blazed a trail for women in the field from the time she earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Vassar until she made an indelible mark studying the rotation of stars.

Slosar called Rubin a “true giant of astronomy” whose work was “instrumental in the discovery of dark matter.”

Originally called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Rubin Observatory has several missions, including understanding dark matter and dark energy, monitoring hazardous asteroids and the remote solar system, observing the transient optical sky and understanding the formation and structure of the Milky Way.

The study of the movement of distant galaxies, as well as the way objects interfere with the light they send into space, helps cosmologists such as Slosar understand the forces that affect the universe as well as current and ancient history since the Big Bang.

According to Slosar, the observatory will address some of its goals by collecting data in five realms including examining large structures, which are clustered in the sky. By studying the statistical properties of the galaxies as a function of their distance, scientists can learn about the forces operating on them.

Another area of study involves weak lensing. A largely statistical measure, weak lensing allows researchers to explore how images become distorted when their light source passes near a gravitational force. The lensing causes the image to appear as if it were printed on a cloth and stretched out so that it becomes visually distorted.

In strong lensing, a single image can appear as two sources of light when it passes through a dense object. Albert Einstein worked out the mathematical framework that allows researchers to make these predictions. The first of thousands of strong lensing effects was discovered in 1979. Slosar likens this process to the way light behind a wine glass bends and appears to be coming from two directions as it passes around and through the glass.

The fourth effect, called a supernova, occurs when an exploding star reaches critical mass and collapses under its own weight, releasing enough light to make a distant star brighter than an entire galaxy. A supernova in the immediate vicinity of Earth would be so bright, “it would obliterate all life on Earth.”

With the observatory scanning the entire sky, scientists might see these supernova every day. Using the brightness of the supernova, scientists can determine the distance to the object.

Scientists hope they will be lucky enough to see a supernova in a strongly lensed galaxy. Strong lensing amplifies the light and would allow scientists to see the supernova that are otherwise too distant for the telescope to observe.

Finally, the observatory can explore galaxy clusters, which are a rare collection of galaxies. The distribution of these galaxies in these clusters and how they are distributed relative to each other can indicate the forces operating within and between them.

The BNL scientist, who is originally from Slovenia, is a group leader for the BNL team, which has seven researchers, including post docs. As the analysis coordinator of the dark energy science collaboration, he also coordinates 300 people. Their efforts, he said, involve a blend of independent work following their particular interests and a collective effort to prepare for the influx of data.

Slosar said his responsibility is to have a big-picture overview of all the pieces the project needs. He is thrilled that this project, which was so long in the planning and development stage, is now moving closer to becoming a reality. He said he has spent five years on the project, while some people at BNL have spent closer to 20 years, as LSST was conceived as a dark matter telescope in 1996.

Scientists hope the observatory will produce new information that informs current understanding and forms the basis of future theories.

As a national laboratory, BNL was involved in numerous phases of development for the observatory, which had several different leaders. The SLAC National Accelerator in Stanford led the development of the camera that will be integrated into the telescope. BNL will also continue to play a role in the data analysis and interpretation.

“Fundamentally, I just want to understand how the universe operates and why it is like this and not different,” said Slosar.

COVID-era Human Language Analysis Lab Meeting in July, top row from left, MZ Zamani, Matthew Matero, Nikita Soni ; bottom row from left, Adithya Ganesan, Oscjar Kjell, Linh Pham and H. Andrew Schwartz in the middle. Photos taken July, 2020

By Daniel Dunaief

Computers might not be able to tell you how they are doing, unless they run a diagnostic test, but they might be able to tell you how you are doing.

Using artificial intelligence, a team of scientists at Stony Brook University recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how social media posts and mobile phone data may be able to predict excess drinking among restaurant workers.

By using data from texting, social media and mobile phone apps, these researchers, led by Andrew Schwartz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, are hoping to use artificial intelligence to predict excessive drinking.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, unhealthy drinking involves seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men.

Schwartz said the study hopes to be able to address whether the researchers, including Richard Rosenthal, the Director of Addiction Psychiatry at Stony Brook Medicine and Christine DeLorenzo, Associate Professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Psychiatry, could “say what the mood predicts how much participants will be drinking in the future.”

By analyzing the content of texts and social media posts, Schwartz and a team that also involves scientists from the University of Pennsylvania will explore whether an increase in stress is more likely to happen before an increase in drinking.

The researchers will study the effect of empathy, which can be health promoting and health threatening. “We believe AI-behavior-based measures will work better than questionnaires for detecting an unhealthy style of empathy,” Schwartz explained in an email. The AI will search for non-obvious patterns of social media posts and texts to determine which type of empathy a person might demonstrate and whether that empathy could lead to a drinking spiral.

Empathy theoretically may add to stress for bartenders and restaurant workers as they often listen to customers who share their tale of woe with food service professionals and are also in a social job.

Indeed, amid the pandemic, where levels of stress are higher during periods of uncertainty about public health and in which restaurant workers might be more likely concerned about their employment, this study could provide a way to understand how increases in alcohol consumption develop potentially to inform new ways to interrupt a negative spiral. “The extra stress of job security is heightened right now” for restaurant workers, among others, Schwartz said.

By validating AI against accepted tools, the researchers hope to gauge the AI-decoded link between emotion and unhealthy drinking behavior by aligning what an individual is expressing in social media with indicators of their emotional state and drinking.

Participants in the study are filling out brief surveys several times a day.

In the long run, the scientists hope this kind of understanding will allow future public health professionals to offer support services to people without the cost of having to administer numerous questionnaires.

The researchers had received word that their proposal had received the kind of score from the NIH that suggested they would likely get funded last July. They could have received positive funding news any time from November through May, which was when they learned that they had secured the financial support to pursue their research.

The topic of study is “extremely relevant,” he added, amid the current uncertainty and the potential for a second wave in the fall or winter.

“We’re interested in studying how unhealthy drinking develops and how it plays out in people’s daily lives,” Schwartz said.

Social media provides a window into the emotional state of the participants in the research.

To be sure, the researchers aren’t looking at how people post about drinking, per se, online. Instead, the scientists are looking at how people in the study answer questions about their drinking in the regular questionnaires.

The researchers came together for this effort through the World Well Being Project, which is a research consortium in collaboration with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Stony Brook University and Stanford.

The project involves groups of computer scientists, psychologists and statisticians to develop new ways to measure psychological and medical well-being based on language in social media, according to the group’s web site, which describes “Authentic Happiness.”

In a recent study, 75,000 people voluntarily completed a personality questionnaire through Facebook and made their status updates available. Using these posts, the researchers were able to predict a user’s gender 92 percent of the time just by studying the language of their status updates.

Researchers in substance use approached the World Well Being Project, which Schwartz is a part of, about the topic of unhealthy alcohol use.

The Artificial Intelligence methods Schwartz is developing and that the scientists are testing through this grant are aimed at understanding how a person is changing their language over time through their digital footprint.

In the future, Schwartz believes this approach could contribute to personalized medicine.

“When someone is most at risk, apps that are validated [may be able to] detect these sorts of patterns,” he said. While this study doesn’t provide a personalized patient app, it should provide the tools for it, he explained.

Optimizing this work for false positive and false negatives is a part of this study. The researchers need to create the tools that can make predictions with minimal false positives and false negatives first and then hope it will be used to interact with patients.

In this type of artificial-intelligence driven work, researchers typically need about 500 words to come up with a conclusion about a person’s emotional state. A goal of this work is to get that number even lower.

Fotis Sotiropoulos, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, offered his enthusiastic support for this effort.

Schwartz is blazing a trail in advancing AI tools for tackling major health challenges,” Sotiropoulos said in a statement. “His work is an ingenious approach using data-science tools, smart-phones and social media postings to identify early signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism and guide interventions.”

METRO photo
Daniel Dunaief

By Daniel Dunaief

A heaviness hovers in the air as we prepare to pack our daughter’s stuff into the car and drive her back to college, an environment fraught with new rules and anxiety. We realize this experiment in campus life, such as it is, might end in days or even a few weeks, as her school may pull the same rip chord it used in March.

While she is returning to campus, all but one of her classes is remote. The in-person class meets twice a week, so she is going back to a restricted college life for two hours a week of in-person learning.

Last year, with its jumble of emotions from taking her to college for the first time, seems so wonderfully innocent and low stress by comparison.

By taking her to college this week, she is already arriving on campus three weeks after classes began and is scheduled to return home before Thanksgiving. That means she’ll be on campus, at most, for two and a half months. That is two weeks longer than summer camp.

We want her to learn, have fun, meet new people and take advantage of college opportunities. Taking these goals one at a time, I’m not convinced that remote classes in which professors record lectures students can watch at their leisure provides the ideal academic experience.

How can they ask questions? How can they turn to the person sitting next to them, or, in the modern world, six seats away, and ask to repeat what they didn’t hear or to see if the professor might have misspoken?

College learning occurs on and off campus. In an ideal world, students not only learn from their professors and teaching assistants, but also from each other. They form study groups where they share notes and test each other.

They could share their screens and form virtual study groups. In these small groups, however, they can and do send private chats to other people and feel freer to respond to the beep or flash of light on another electronic device, distracting them from the group exercise.

The personal connection through the computer is also limited, as people can’t slap each other on the back or chase each other around a library during a much-needed break.

We also want her to have fun, which isn’t the top priority for schools desperate to stay alive financially while keeping the campus community healthy. Even with the most active measures to protect everyone, the virus finds ways to evade detection and to spread.

The virus has become the boogeyman of our childhood nightmares, but instead of lurking under the bed or in dark corners of the closet, it waits on door knobs, in airborne particles and on banisters.

To protect everyone, the school isn’t allowing students to visit other dorms. They are limited in social gatherings outside, where they have to be six feet apart and also need to wear masks.

In a recent email, my daughter’s school told her, “If you see something, say something.” Those words, which became the cultural norm after 9/11, suggest that careless students are the equivalent of viral terrorists. Perhaps a better approach would be to encourage students to model safe behavior and to protect themselves and others on campus.

To facilitate safer social interactions, schools might consider putting up tents, in which they place small circles on the floor that are six feet apart. Students could visit each other in these settings, where they can talk and laugh and see each other in person and wear that great blouse or cool shirt that doesn’t look as good on zoom.

Ultimately, the opportunities they have will depend on the ability of the school, working with students, to figure out what they can do and not what they can’t or shouldn’t. We hope the challenges and adversity of the current reality somehow bring our daughter figuratively closer to her new friends, at a safe social distance.

Ivar Strand Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Ivar Strand had to put on a suit at home to interview virtually for a new job.

In the midst of the pandemic, Brookhaven National Laboratory was looking for a Manager of Research Partnerships in the Strategic Partnership Program and, despite the fact that the lab was limiting the people who were on site, was moving forward to fill a job opening.

“It was a strange situation,” Strand said, but the job piqued his interest, particularly because he’d be working with Martin Schoonen, the leader of BNL’s Strategic Partnership Programs office and an associate laboratory director for environment, biology, nonproliferation and national security. Schoonen and Strand, who worked together at Stony Brook in the late 1990’s, have known each other for over 25 years.

While Strand worked at Stony Brook as an Assistant Vice President of Sponsored Programs, he had a visiting appointment at BNL for five years, from 2005 to 2010. Several of the staff at BNL “remembered who I was, which made the transition a little bit easier,” he said.

Strand most recently worked at Long Island University, where he was the Executive Director in the Office of Sponsored Projects.

Schoonen was pleased to welcome Strand to the BNL fold. “[He is] taking on a pivotal role to develop contractual arrangements with potential partners and assist with growing and diversifying the labs funding sources,” Schoonen said in a statement.

In effect, Strand is facilitating collaborations among institutions. He will facilitate not only the connections and collaborations, but also encourage broadening and deepening professional connections to create either project specific or ongoing strategic partnerships

Strand will work to increase the awareness of the capabilities BNL can provide to researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors. The main drawback in a job he started on May 26 has been that he hasn’t been able to “build face-to-face relationships,” he said. Speaking with people for the first time through web-based platforms is not the same as running into someone who is walking across the site.

Building the relationship with the Department of Energy also represents a new challenge for Strand, who has previously worked with educational institutions as well as with Northwell Health.

“I spent my whole career building partnerships at various research institutions,” he said. After facilitating those collaborations, Strand has entered into agreements and then moved one. At BNL, he has the added dynamic of “making sure it satisfies the requirements of the DOE.” The scope of his work comprises all the research funding coming into the lab outside of the direct money that comes from the DOE, which represents about 90 percent of the funds for research at the lab.

Some of these other initiatives are collaborative, which involve DOE funds that also have a requirement to find a company to contribute financially, such as the Technology Commercialization Fund.

Working with finance and departmental business managers, Strand oversees the non-direct DOE money that comes in. When educational institutions and companies participate, particularly to supply funding, Strand and the strategic partnership team become a part of the conversation.

BNL often competes against the other national labs for major projects. Once the government selects a winner, as it did for the construction of the Electron Ion Collider, the DOE often asks the lead on the project to tap into the expertise and talents of the other institutions. When BNL recently won the EIC contract over Jefferson Laboratory in Virginia, the DOE asked BNL to partner with Jefferson to build the facility. New York State originally agreed to contribute $100 million to the construction of the EIC. Strand said the lab is hopeful that the commitment would come through.

In addition to the scientific discoveries that the EIC will bring, it is also a construction project that will provide the state with jobs. “I’m involved in some of the discussions in order to provide information about the project,” Strand said.

The transition to a government lab will require Strand to maneuver through structured agreements from the DOE, which is a bit of a challenge. The DOE uses structured agreements, while educational institutions also do but often are willing to use the agreements the sponsors propose.

Strand is pleased that BNL recently received approval to participate in the Atom Consortium, which was started by Glaxo and the University of California at San Francisco. The negotiation had been going on for several years. “It allows us to enhance our big data computing capabilities and expertise,” he explained.

Strand is excited about rejoining BNL. “I’ve always wanted to work in the lab and understand how best to build collaborations under the government umbrella,” he said.

Strand hoped his unconventional approach to some of the partnership challenges will work in the context of the structured environment of a national laboratory.

Indeed, in 2007, when he was working at Stony Brook, the university received the funds to buy a supercomputer. The two institutions, however, had decided to house the supercomputer at BNL, which made it a “challenging transaction” for all parties. He and others had to help Stony Brook become an enlisted partner, which allowed BNL to house the supercomputer on site.

In the bigger picture, Strand said he and Schoonen are reviewing where the lab will be from a strategic perspective in five years. In addition to industry, they are looking to collaborate with other federal sponsors with whom they haven’t traditionally partnered. They have to make sure that these efforts conform with DOE’s growth agenda.

A first-generation American whose parents were born in Norway, Strand said his parents met in the United States. A resident of South Setauket, Strand lives with his wife Maritza, who is an implementation specialist for ADT payroll. A tennis player and golfer, Strand alternates visiting and hosting his brother, who lives in Norway and is a veterinarian.

Strand is looking forward to his ongoing collaborations with Schoonen. “Having worked with him in the past, I have a lot of respect” for Schoonen, Strand said. “I jumped at the chance to be reunited with him. He’s an unbelievably great guy to work for.”

Stock photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Next week, I invite you to the virtual and completely imaginary People’s National Convention, or PNC. It’s not a Democratic Convention or a Republican Convention. It’s just a fake gathering, virtually and invisibly, in which real people can stop worrying about partisan politics and enjoy the chance to live
each day.

Now, this PNC won’t nominate any one person, because, let’s face it, no singular person is capable of succeeding with the challenges that face our nation in this extraordinarily challenging year.

We’ll keep the speeches to a minimum because we don’t think people listen to most of what others say at these things anyway. Our first speaker will come up with a mask and will start by rolling her large and expressive eyes. She’ll try to convey, without using her mouth or her cheeks, which will be hidden behind her mask, a wide range of emotions. In fact, we might have a “guess-her-expression” game and the person who wins will receive absolutely nothing in the mail.

After that, we’ll launch into a rage presentation. Our speaker will bark, growl, throw himself around the room and urge you, with his arm motions, to get off your sofa and join him. He’ll work his way up to a fevered snarl and then he’ll bang his fists so hard against the TV set that he’ll shatter the screen. You’ll see the cracks on the TV, but don’t worry, the cracks and the blood — we won’t use real blood — are all on the PNC end. Your TV is fine. At the end of his speech, he’ll take a 2020 sign, or one of those 2020 New Year’s glasses with the holes for the eyes in the zeroes, put them on the floor and stomp on them.

After our rage speaker, we’ll have a fear speaker. He, too, won’t use words. He’ll move from left to right, then right to left and then, you guessed it, left to right again, on your screen, afraid of something over his shoulder. He might see a shadow. He’ll be frightened because, as the other conventions suggested, we must feel the need to fear something. He’ll run towards the letters PNC and will smile with relief, knowing that the PNC will protect him.

To offset this potentially overwhelming programming, we’ll offer a counterbalance of kids and pets accompanied by light-hearted music on a harpsichord. We call this portion of the programming the “Awwwww” segment. We’ll show images of toddlers laughing, baby bunnies hopping around a flower-strewn meadow and dolphins cutting in and out of the surface of the water.

We’ll have the icon room, where you can stand up, or not, as you see fit when you see the images. We’ll start with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where the ancestors of so many modern Americans arrived. We’ll add the Grand Canyon, the California coastline, Yellowstone National Park and Niagara Falls.

Then, we’ll have people trip and fall and try to juggle cell phones ineffectively. When the phones land, their screens, which might or might not have images of familiar faces, will crack. Will the entire segment be funny? Not necessarily. No one is always funny, but they promise to try because laughter might be our best medicine.

We’ll have a few actual speakers who use words, who tell inspirational stories about triumph over impossible odds. We’ll talk about people who were told many times that they couldn’t do something, until they went out and did it.

At the conclusion of the PNC, we’ll celebrate our friends and neighbors and the people who enhance every day and we’ll promise each other we’ll be better to them, and to ourselves.

Joel Hurowitz before the PIXL launch at the end of July. Photo by Tanya Hurowitz

By Daniel Dunaief

For six years, Joel Hurowitz worked as Deputy Principal Investigator on a team to build an instrument they would send to another planet.

Joel Hurowitz

An Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, Hurowitz and the team led by Abigail Allwood at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory created an instrument that would search for evidence of life that is likely long ago extinct on Mars.

The team designed a 10-pound machine (which will weigh less than four pounds in Mars’s lower gravity environment) that is about the size of a square lunchbox and houses x-ray equipment that can search along the surface of rocks for life that may have existed as long as three to four billion years ago.

Mars’s surface environment became less hospitable to life starting around three billion years ago, when the planet lost most of its atmosphere, causing the surface to dry out and become extremely cold. Surface life at this point likely became extinct.

Called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, the instrument was one of seven that lifted off at the end of July as part of a Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance rover will land at the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on February 18th, 2021.

After all that work, Hurowitz had planned to watch the launch with his family in Florida, but the pandemic derailed that plan.

“I got to watch the launch with my family,” Hurowitz said. He was on two zoom conferences, one with the Mars 2020 team and the other with members of the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook. “It was a really special experience” and was the “best teleconference of the last six months,” he said.

As the rocket makes its 35.8 million mile journey to Mars, the JPL team will turn on the PIXL to monitor it, run health checks and do routine heating of the components to make sure it is operating. After the rocket lands, the rover will go through a commissioning period. Numerous subsystems need to be checked out, explained Hurowitz.

The first test for the PIXL will be to analyze a calibration target the researchers sent to Mars, to make sure the measurements coincide with the same data they collected numerous times on Earth. This ensures that the instrument is “working the way we want it to. That’ll happen in the first 40 sols.”

A sol is a day on Mars, which is slightly longer by about 40 minutes than a day on Earth.

Once it passes its calibration test, the PIXL can start collecting data. Hurowitz described the instrument as “incredibly autonomous.” It sits at the end of the rover’s arm. When the scientists find a rock they want to explore, the PIXL moves an inch away from the surface of the rock and opens its dust cover. The scientists take pictures with a camera and a set of laser beams. These beams help determine whether the PIXL is an optimal distance from the rock. If it isn’t, the instrument manipulates itself, using struts that allow it to extend or retract away from the rock.

Once PIXL gets in the right position, it fires an X-ray beam into the rock. The beam is about the diameter of a human hair. The x-ray that hits the rock is like wind going through chimes. Rather than make a familiar sound, the elements in the rock emit a specific x-ray signal as the atoms return to their ground state. Putting together the signals from the rock enables Hurowitz and the PIXL crew to determine its chemistry.

Even though the rocks are likely a combination of numerous elements, they “separate themselves cleanly in our spectra,” Hurowitz said. The SBU Geosciences expert expects the elements in the rocks to have different proportions than on Earth. Mars, for example, has more iron than sodium. A granite rock on Earth would likely have considerable sodium and some potassium, with a little iron.

Hurowitz and the PIXL team will be looking for rocks that may have evidence of prokaryotic organisms that are Mars’s versions of similar species found in undisturbed areas of Western Australia, where researchers discovered ancient fossilized life.

The rocks in Australia contain the oldest accepted fossilized forms of life, which are about 3.5 billion years old and are considered the best analogues for what the PIXL team might find on Mars.

In Australia, which is where Allwood grew up, scientists discovered microbial mats, which are single-celled organisms that build up, one layer after another, into a colony. These mats worked together to build up towards the sunlight, which fuels their metabolism. They use raw chemicals in the environment like dissolved sulfur, iron and manganese.

The Martian mats, if they find them, likely had to adapt to considerably different conditions than on Earth. The Martian environment may not have had large oceans or river systems and craters filled with lakes.

The scientists won’t be able to look for an individual microbe, but rather for indirect signals, such as laminated structures that formed in ways that are unique to microbial communities.

Hurowitz, Allwood and the PIXL team are looking for clues from an unusual lamination in the rock that they would likely associate with a microbial mat. By looking closely at the lamination, they may be able to develop hypotheses about whether a mat was taking chemicals out and depositing it to make a mineralized home for itself.

If they find rocks of interest, the rover’s drill will collect a sample and hermetically seal it in a tube.

A future mission to Mars, planned for 2026, could retrieve some of these samples, which, when they return, could confirm the presence of life on Mars. PIXL will continue to operate as long as the filament in the x-ray tube lasts, which should be between 1,300 and 1,400 uses.

Allwood, who shared an office with Hurowitz when they worked together at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she approached him when she started assembling a team.

Finding life on Mars would answer a question that has intrigued those on Earth for thousands of years, Allwood said. Such Martian life would indicate that “we’re not alone. There was life and it was next door,” she said.