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Daniel Dunaief

Cell phone etiquette. METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

You’re meeting with your boss, and you can feel your phone vibrating in your pocket with a new text message, an incoming email or a good old-fashioned phone call.

What do you do?

You’d be on pins and needles if someone you knew, your spouse or partner, perhaps, were expecting a baby. Or, perhaps, someone was traveling a great distance through a storm and you were eager to hear that your friend or family member had arrived safely.

But most of the time, the stakes aren’t quite as high with incoming information. In fact, some of the time, we’re getting spam that seeks our attention.

So, when we are talking to our boss, we generally realize that responding to our demanding electronics probably isn’t a great idea.

But what about when we are talking to a parent, a friend, a child or a neighbor?

Given the frequency with which I have seen the tops of people’s heads as they look down at their phones instead of in their eyes, it seems people have concluded that eye contact is so 20th century.

Since when did people outside the room become so much more important and demanding than the ones with whom we are interacting? If we can’t find people who are as interesting in person as the ones far away, perhaps it is time to move to interact with some of those fascinating folks.

I understand that people online don’t have bad breath and messy hair and aren’t wearing the same clashing outfit that they wore last week, and that continues to threaten to give us a migraine.

Maybe we ought to consider classes in electronic etiquette that teachers can share with students or with people who are receiving their first phone.

We can address not only how to handle an incoming text while in the middle of a conversation, but also how to unplug ourselves and our lives from endless messages, games, movies and TV shows.

If I could go back to the time when we handed phones to our children, ensuring that the phone would eventually replace bedtime stories, dinnertime conversation and eye contact, I would consider establishing our own “Ten Commandments” of phone ownership and usage.

These might be:

10. Limit the time each day when you use your phone, with only extraordinarily limited exceptions. If you need to use your phone for schoolwork for two or three hours, that still counts as phone usage.

9. Leave the phone in another room when you’re not using it.

8. If you can’t say something supportive or pleasant on social media, don’t say anything.

7. No anonymous messages or criticism. If you can’t use your name or stand behind what you write, you shouldn’t have written it in the first place.

6. Don’t take embarrassing pictures of your parents and share them with your friends. Older people don’t tend to look as glamorous in digital pictures as younger people, so be kind.

5. Internet fame is not a life goal.

4. When you become better at using your phone than your parents (which occurs in a surprisingly short time), share your wisdom and skills with them. Think of it as familial community service.

3. Don’t assume everything you find online is true. In fact, at least once a week, or even once a day, find something on the internet that you think is false. Use trusted sources to contradict what you think an internet provider got wrong.

2. If it looks like everyone else is having a better time than you, put your phone down. They aren’t.

1. If you can tell your parents to wait while you respond to a text or call from a friend, make sure you tell your friends the same thing when your parents reach out to you.

Dr. John Clarke. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Live from Upton, New York, it’s … Dr. John Clarke.

While the arrival of the new Occupational Medicine Director and Chief Medical Officer at Brookhaven National Laboratory doesn’t involve late-night comedy, or a live studio audience, it does bring a medical doctor with a passion for bringing his rap and musical skills to a health care audience.

Dr. John Clarke. Photo from BN

Formerly the director of occupational medicine at Cornell University, Dr. Clarke joined the Department of Energy lab as Occupational Medicine Director and Chief Medical Officer for BNL in June..

“My role is to help maintain safety and wellness among the workers,” said Dr. Clarke. “If we have employees who start coming in for some sort of complaint and we see a pattern, that may help us identify who could be at risk of something we didn’t know about that we are detecting.”

A doctor who served as chief resident at New York Medical College in family residency and Harvard University in occupational & environmental medicine, Dr. Clarke said he plans to support a range of preventive efforts.

“I’m excited about the potential to engage in what’s considered primary prevention,” said Clarke, which he defined as preventing a disease from occurring in the first place.

Through primary prevention, he hopes to help the staff avoid developing chronic illnesses such as cancer, while also ensuring the health and responsiveness of their immune systems.

Through physical fitness, a plant-based diet including fruits and vegetables, adequate sleep and hydration with water, people can use lifestyle choices and habits to reduce their need for various medications and enable them to harness the ability of their immune systems to mount an effective response against any threat.

“Modifying your lifestyle is the therapy,” he said. “If you engage [in those activities] in the right way, that is the treatment.”

Dr. Clarke added that the severity and stage of a disease may impact the effectiveness of such efforts. For any vaccine and for the body’s natural immunity to work, people need a healthy immune system.

When Dr. Clarke practiced family medicine, he saw how patients lost weight through a diet that reduced the need for medication for diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Losing weight and staying active does provide a therapeutic impact, where you could be medication free,” he said.

To be sure, living a healthier lifestyle requires ongoing effort to maintain. After reaching a desired weight or cholesterol level, people can backslide into an unhealthier state or condition, triggering the occurrence or recurrence of a disease.

In the vast majority of cases, Clarke said, “you have to make a permanent lifestyle change” to avoid the need for pharmaceutical remedies that reduce the worst effects of disease.

BNL has an exercise physiologist on staff who “we hope to engage in consultations with employees,” said Clarke. He would like the exercise physiologist to go to the gym with staff to show them how to use equipment properly to get the maximum benefit.

BNL already has some classes and various initiatives that promote wellness. “One of the things we’d like to do is coordinate and try to publicize it enough where employees are aware” of the options available at the lab to live a healthier and balanced life, he added.

BNL also has a dietician on staff. Dr. Clarke has not worked with the dietician yet, but hopes it will be part of an upcoming initiative. As he and his staff respond to the demand, they will consider bringing on other consultants and experts to develop programs. 

Covid concerns

Like others in his position in other large employers around Long Island, Dr. Clarke is focused on protecting workers from any ongoing threat from Covid-19.

“We’re still learning more as [SARS-CoV2, the virus that caused the pandemic] evolves,” he said. BNL does a “great job about monitoring the prevalence and the numbers of cases in Suffolk County and among workers.”

Dr. Clarke said he and others at BNL are following the Department of Energy, New York State and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on these issues.

If the numbers of infections and hospitalizations increase in the coming months, as people move to more indoor activities, BNL may consider deploying a strategy where the lab provides more opportunities for staff to work remotely.

Prior to his arrival at BNL, Dr. Clarke worked as a consultant for a company that was looking to create numerous permanent jobs that were remote.

He suggested that workers need to remain aware of their remote surroundings and shouldn’t work near a furnace or any heater that might release dangerous gases like carbon monoxide. 

Additionally, people should avoid working in areas that aren’t habitable, such as in an attic. Dr. Clarke urges people to notify and consult their employer if they have concerns about working safely at home or on site.

Music vs. medicine

A native of Queens who spent three years of his childhood in Barbados, Dr. Clarke attended Columbia University, where he majored in sociology and music while he was on a pre-med track.

While he was an undergraduate, Dr. Clarke wrote, produced and performed original music. An independent label was going to help secure a major label deal.

He chose to attend medical school at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Dr. Clarke has championed a program he calls “health hop,” in which he has used rap to reach various audiences with medical care messages. In 2009, he won a flu prevention video contest sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services for an “H1N1 rap.”

Train commuters may also recognize him from his work for the Long Island Railroad, for which he created a “gap rap.” The public service announcement was designed to protect children from falling into or tripping over the gap between the train and the platform.

Dr. Clarke has produced music for numerous genres, including for a children’s album and a Christian album.

As for life outside BNL, Dr. Clarke is married to Elizabeth Clarke, who is a nurse practitioner and is in the doctorate of nursing practice and clinical leadership program at Duke University.

When he’s not spending time with his wife or their children, he enjoys home projects like flooring and tiling.

Dr. Clarke is pleased to be working at the national Department of Energy lab.“BNL is a great place, because the science and the work they do has an impact,” he said.

Facebook photo/New York Yankees

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

If I were pitching to Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, I would probably take a long pause before throwing my first pitch.

I know it’s absurd to think of this older man who never threw a ball much harder than low high school level pitching to a generational legend, but let’s play out the fantasy for a laugh or two.

I wouldn’t pause so I could figure out how to get him out. Sure, it’d be nice to do my job well and my teammates might appreciate it if I gave us a better chance to win a game.

Instead, I would need to ponder the moment that history might be calling. I’d be thinking about the best choreographed reaction to him hitting a home run. I mean, after all, the pitchers who surrender his long home runs are, in their own way, famous.

They share the moment between when they release the ball, and he obliterates it into the night sky, sending thousands of people screaming out of their seats, arms in the air, sharing in the majesty that wouldn’t be possible without my meatball pitch sputtering, laughably, towards his powerful bat.

If he sent a ball out of the stadium, I would be joining select company, with so many pitchers around the majors surrendering home runs in a historic year.

I’d be thinking about how I’d look in newsreels or newscasts or digital versions of the Aaron Judge year to remember.

I could imagine ways to overreact. I could throw my glove on the mound, gesture wildly by putting my hands in the air, or shake my head so violently that my manager and the trainer would have to waddle out to the mound to put me in a neck brace.

Or, maybe I’d hold my glove up to my face and appear to yell a stream of expletives into my mitt, as if, somehow, I knew I should have thrown a different pitch in a different spot.

Then again, I could rub my fingers in some dirt and write a capital “AJ” on my uniform, like scarlet letters, except it wouldn’t be anything puritanical, and I would be acknowledging my inferiority.

None of that seems like me, even in my fantasy world.

Being stoic would make me too much of a personality-less pitcher. Let’s face it: even in my imaginary moment of being an above average starter or relief pitcher, the time to focus on me would be incredibly short.

Let’s say I didn’t blink after he hit the home run. Or, maybe, I tracked the flight of the ball carefully, like a zebra eyeing a lion suspiciously in the Serengeti. That might get me on TV and make me more than just another guy who gave up a home run to Aaron Judge.

Maybe I’d wait at home plate and give him a high five or a fist bump to acknowledge a full season worth of greatness. While kids do that in Little League, professional players generally don’t acknowledge the remarkable achievements of their opponents.

When he reached second base, I could put down my glove and clap from the mound, ever so briefly. Then, perhaps, I’d take off my hat and salute him.

Or, maybe I could take a page out of the more subtle but celebrated Mona Lisa textbook. I could give just a hint of a smile as if I were saying, “you beat me and you’re a pretty spectacular hitter. There’s no shame in losing this battle and now we’re weirdly connected, like we’re kind of twins, except that you’re great and going to be remembered forever and I’m just going to be remembered for starting the ball on its magical journey into the history books.”

Babak Andi holds a 3-D model of the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

For close to two and a half years, the world has had a microbial enemy. The SARS-CoV2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has resulted in close to 6.5 million deaths, caused lockdowns, restricted travel, closed businesses, and sickened millions. The key to fighting such a dangerous enemy lies in learning more about it and defeating its battle plan.

Working with principal investigator Daniel Keedy, Assistant Professor at the City University of New York and Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, Babak Andi, who is a beamline scientist from the structural biology group at Brookhaven National Laboratory, spent over two years studying a key viral enzyme.

Recently, the researchers revealed the structure at five temperatures of an enzyme called Mpro, for main protease. This enzyme, which separates proteins the virus makes, is critical for the maturation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. They published their work in the Journal of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCrJ).

Using the Frontier Macromolecular Crystallography (FMX) beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II at BNL, Andi collected data on the structure of the enzyme at temperatures ranging from 100 degrees Kelvin, which is about negative 280 degrees Fahrenheit, all the way up to 310 degrees Kelvin, which is normal body temperature. “Nobody had done that, specifically for this protein,” said Andi.

Keedy, who guided the data collection, processed the information and wrote most of the paper, described the effort as a “great collaboration.” The gradual change in the conformation of the enzyme helped the scientists learn how it may move or shape-shift in general, he explained.

Keedy had worked with BNL in the past and pursued research at the FMX beamline because the scientists at BNL had “been working with Mpro on site, and were very approachable and open to the idea.”

Finding the specific structure of important proteins like Mpro can help researchers, pharmaceutical companies and doctors search for inhibitors or small molecules that could be specific to these proteins and that might interfere with their function.

Andi and other scientists at this beamline worked through the pandemic shutdown because of the potential practical application of what they were doing.

“We almost had all the infrastructures in place to allow other scientists to connect and operate the beamlines remotely, enabling them to collect data on Covid-19 virus proteins,” said Andi. “In my opinion, being able to support all the academic and industrial scientists to collect data for Covid-19 research was our greatest achievement during the worst period of the pandemic.”

While coming into the lab in those early months raised concerns about their own health, Andi and his colleagues, who developed safety protocols, felt an urgency to conduct this research.

“When Covid hit, we had a sense that this is our duty, this is our job to contribute to this field, to make sure that every scientist who works on Covid-19 had easy access to our beamlines, facilities and all the tools [necessary] to make new drugs,” said Andi. 

How they solved the structure

The technology for the beamline enables Andi and other scientists to collect data quickly and even remotely. Speed helps because the longer x-rays hit a protein, the more likely they are to cause the kind of damage that makes determining the structure difficult, particularly at higher temperatures.

The first step in this research was in producing this protein, which Andi’s collaborators at BNL in the biology department provided. The biology department also helped with crystallization.

Andi prepared the beamline and aligned the x-ray beam, which are necessary to collect data.

The scientists rotated and moved the crystal through the x-ray, distributing the beam over the length of the crystal to minimize radiation damage.

The small size of the x-ray beam made it possible to keep the beam focused on the smallest dimension of the structure. The researchers studied the crystal at five different temperatures, starting at cryogenic all the way up to physiological.

Of the 195,000 structures listed in the Protein Data Bank, or PDB, only five had been determined at body temperature. That includes two from the group of collaborators who participated in this study.

Andi collected three or four data sets at each temperature.

“The different conformations we saw may inspire a new twist on antiviral drug development that targets a different place in the protein, but with a similar or better effect,” Keedy explained.

The researchers did not include other factors that might affect the conformation of the protein, such as pH, pressure, the number of ions or salts in the environment, among others. For the Mpro protease to work, it has to bond to another similar protein, forming a dimer.

Andi said the Pfizer treatment Paxlovid binds to the active site of this enzyme, inactivating it.

The drugs he is looking for are similar, although he is also searching for other places on the enzyme besides its active site.

Keedy hopes to try to make a monomeric form of the enzyme through a mutation. He could then find drug-like small molecules that target the exposed interface between the two copies.

BNL origins

After he completed his PhD and post doctoral work at the University of Oklahoma, Andi started his career at BNL 11 years ago as a post doctoral researcher.

During his childhood, Andi was initially interested in astronomy. When he enrolled at a university outside the United States, he took an entrance exam.

“Based on your score, it tells you which discipline of science you can go into,” he said. His score directed him to the field of cell and molecular biology.

“I’m happy this happened,” he said. “I find that I’m actually more interested in molecular biology than in astronomy.”

Outside of work, Andi enjoys do-it-yourself projects. Astronomy also continues to appeal to him, as he is fascinated with astrophotography and reads astronomy articles.

As for the work with a Covid enzyme, Andi hopes he has other opportunities to contribute. 

“I am interested [in continuing] the research in this field,” he explained. “That depends on time, resources and current or future priorities.”

Twilight Zone. Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Conversations with friends, relatives and neighbors have taken a turn into “The Twilight Zone” episodes recently.

Decades ago, when I spoke with my friends, we discussed our activities, ambitions and plans. We might have complained about our bosses, described a business trip, shared an encounter with a stranger on a plane or train, or described our frustrations with our favorite sports teams.

Sure, we still do that, but, as the years pass, the discussions drift. This is where I’d cue the music.

In Episode One, we have two college friends who shared a room for several years, who sweated through a spectacularly hot summer in Boston with no air conditioning, and who, over the decades, visited each other’s homes with and without our wives and children.

So, these two friends recently started catching up.

“I can’t stand the hair that’s coming out of my ears,” I offered. “It makes it harder to hear and to be taken seriously by anyone looking at me.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty unwelcome,” my friend laughed. “My back is killing me. I wake up every morning and it takes me a while to feel comfortable enough to stand and shuffle to the bathroom.”

“My hip has been a problem,” I reply.

“I also don’t see particularly well. I don’t like driving when it’s dark,” he added.

“My knee is sore,” I added, “but I think that’s from compensating for my hip.”

And so it went, for about 10 minutes, until we broke the description of all that ails us and transitioned to a discussion of all that inspires, and worries, us about our college-age children.

“I hope you feel better soon,” I offered as we got off the phone.

“At this point, I’d just take not feeling worse,” he said.

Okay, so that wasn’t too terrifying, right? Two 50-ish guys chatted and shared personal details about the aging vessels that carry us through life.

That takes us to Episode Two. Imagine, if you will, a group of older adults, representing the 50ish and the 80ish generation, chatting in person together.

“Have you been to the doctor recently?” one of the people asked.

“Which one? For what?” a second one replied.

“How many doctors do you have?” a third one asked.

And that is where the conversation became a competition. Each person, slowly and deliberately, shared the number of doctors he or she visits.

“I’ve had kidney stones, so I have a urologist,” I offered, as if I were recounting trophies on a shelf or comparing the number of friends I have with someone else in fourth grade rather than recalling a specialist who helped me deal with excruciating agony.

“Do you have an ENT doctor? I have one,” someone else said.

My competitive spirit again got the best of me.

“I have the best GI guy, who gave me a great colonoscopy. I had such a nice rest while I was under anesthesia,” I said.

I pictured a younger version of me, sitting with the group, staring, open-mouthed at the enthusiasm with which all of us, me included, counted our doctors and the reason we needed them.

In Episode Three, a man in his 30s walked his dog, limping along with a supportive black boot on his leg. Another man (me) appeared, pulled along by his oversized dog.

“Not to get too personal,” I said, “but your shoes don’t match.”

The good-natured man smiled and said he thought he had shin splints from running, but discovered he had a hairline fracture that required several weeks of rest in a boot.

“I went to my parents’ house in New Hampshire and ran over five miles on an uneven road. The next day, I could barely move. I have to rest it for six weeks,” he said.

I nodded and wished him a speedy recovery.

“Well, maybe it hurts just because I’m older,” he offered.

You have no idea, I thought, as I could feel the urge to hold back a clock that pushes each of us forward through time. 

Cue the music.

From left, Chang Kee Jung, Barry Barish and Carl Lejuez. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves existed, but figured interference on the Earth would make them impossible to observe. He was right on the first count. On the second, it took close to a century to create an instrument capable of detecting gravitational waves. The first confirmed detection, which was generated 1.3 billion light years away when two black holes collided, occurred in September of 2015.

For his pioneering work with gravitational waves, which now include numerous other such observations, Barry Barish shared the Nobel Prize in 2017 with physicists Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne.

In the fall of 2023, Barish is bringing his physics background and knowledge to Stony Brook University, where he will be the inaugural President’s Distinguished Endowed Chair in Physics. Barish will teach graduate students and serve as an advisor to Chang Kee Jung, Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Distinguished Professor.

From left, Barry Barish and Chang Kee Jung. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

“I’m really happy,” said Jung in an interview. “Nobel Prize winning work is not all the same. This work [Barish] has done with LIGO [the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] is incredible.”

Jung suggested the discovery of these two merging black holes “opened up a completely new field of astronomy using gravitational waves.” The finding is a “once-in-a-generation discovery.”

Gravitational waves disrupt the fabric of spacetime, a four-dimensional concept Einstein envisioned that combines the three dimensions of space with time. These waves are created when a neutron star with an imperfect spherical shape spins, and during the merger of two black holes, the merger of two neutron stars, or the merger of a neutron star and a black hole.

Jung suggested a way to picture a gravitational wave. “Imagine you have a bathtub with a little rubber ducky,” he said. In the corner of the bathtub, “you slam your hand into the water” which will create a ripple that will move the duck. In the case of the gravitational wave Barish helped detect, two black holes slamming into each other over 1.2 billion light years ago, when life on Earth was transitioning from single celled to multi celled organisms, started that ripple.

While Barish, 86, retired after a lengthy and distinguished career at CalTech in 2005, Stony Brook has no plans to create a team of physicists who specialize in this area. “The most important thing is that people together exchange ideas and figure out what to do next that’s interesting,” Barish said in an interview. “I’ll keep doing gravitational waves.”

Instead of encouraging graduate students and even undergraduates to follow in his footsteps, Barish hopes to “help stimulate the future here and help educate students,” he said.

An important call

Jung, who became chair of the department in the fall of 2021, has known Barish for over three decades. On a periodic informal zoom call, Jung reached out to Barish to tell him Stony Brook had offered Jung the opportunity to become chair. Barish suggested he turn it down. As Jung recalled, Barish said, “Why do you want to do that?”

On another informal call later on, Jung told Barish he decided to become chair, explaining that he wanted to serve the university and the department. Barish asked him what he would do as chair. Jung replied, “‘I would like guys like you to come to Stony Brook. It took [Barish] about 10 seconds to think about it and then he said, ‘That’s possible.’”

That, Jung said, is how a Nobel Prize winning scientist took the first steps towards joining Stony Brook.

Last week, Barish came to Stony Brook to deliver an inaugural lecture as a part of the newly created C.N. Yang Colloquium series in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Stony Brook officials were thrilled with Barish’s appointment and the opportunity to learn from his well-attended on-site lecture.

In remarks before Barish’s packed talk at the Simons Center Della Pietra Family Auditorium, Carl Lejuez, Executive Vice President and Provost, said he hears the name C.N. Yang “all the time,” which reflects Yang’s foundational contribution to Stony Brook University. “It’s fitting that we honor his legacy with a speaker of Dr. Barish’s character who, like Yang, is also a Nobel Prize winner. It’s a really nice synergy.”

Indeed, Yang, who won his Nobel Prize in 1957, coming to Stony Brook “instantaneously raised the university profile,” said Jung, whose department is the largest on campus with 75 faculty.

Surrounded by a dedicated team of scientists, and with the addition of another Nobel Prize winner to the fold, Jung believes the team will continue to thrive. 

“If you put together great minds, great things will happen,” he said.

Seeing the bigger picture

Barish is eager to encourage undergraduates and graduate students to consider the bigger picture in the realm of physics.

“[In general] we train graduate students to do something really important by making them narrower and narrower and narrower, so they can concentrate on doing something that’s worthy of getting a thesis and is as important as possible,” Barish said. “That works against creating a scientist who can look beyond something narrow. That’s bothered me for a long time.”

The problem, Barish continued, is that once researchers earn their degree, they continue on the same path. “Why should you happen to have had a supervisor in graduate school determine what you do for the rest of your life?” he asked.

Once students have the tools of physics, whether they are experimental or theoretical, they shouldn’t be so locked in, he urged. “It’s possible to use these same tools to do almost any problem in physics,” Barish added.

His goal in a course he plans to teach to advanced graduate students (that’s also open to undergraduates) is to provide exposure to the frontiers of science.

A few years ago, Barish recalled how the New York Times ran a picture of a black hole above the fold. He taught a class how scientists from around the world combined radio telescopes to make it act like one radio telescope the size of the Earth.

Helping students understand how that happened “pays off in the long run in making our physics students that we turn out be broader and more interesting and more interested in physics,” Barish said.

When Barish arrives next September, Jung said he plans to have some assignments for interactions with undergraduates. “Undergraduate research is critically important,” Jung said. Barish will also interact with various student groups, as well as the community outside the university.

“We will create those opportunities,” Jung said.

Queen Elizabeth II. Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

During the Platinum Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the monarch’s 70 years on the throne, Clary Evans, a radiation oncologist who works at Northwell Health, her husband Tobias Janowitz, a scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and their families got together with another English family to mark the occasion.

They made a cake and had tea, “aware that this was probably the last time” they would celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s lengthy legacy, Evans recalled in an email.

Residents of Suffolk, England, Evans’s parents Philip and Gillian shared memories and thoughts on Queen Elizabeth II, who died last week at the age of 96.

Before Elizabeth’s coronation at the age of 27, Philip Evans, who was a teenager, traveled with his brother Anthony to Trafalgar Square, where they camped out near the fountain.

After a night filled with an early June rain in 1953, Evans and his brother awaited the moment to see the queen, whose coronation occurred 16 months after she became queen.

Gillian and Philip Evans with their Patterdale terrier puppy in Mettingham, Suffolk, UK in August of this year. Photo from Clary Evans

The next morning, as crowds continued to grow, the police pushed the newer arrivals in front of the group, which meant Phillip was in the third tier of onlookers.

Through the crowd, he caught a glimpse of the young queen, offering a stiff wave to her subjects.

“It was a marvelous thing to do,” Evans said by phone from his home. The travel and waiting in the rain meant it “wasn’t easy.”

Gillian Evans, meanwhile, traveled with her family to visit her aunt, who, at the time, was the only one in her family who owned a television.

“It was lovely to see what a beautiful spectacle it was,” Gillian Evans said.

The queen executed her duties admirably under an intense spotlight that never dimmed during her over 70 years of service, she added.

“What a remarkable lady she had been,” Gillian Evans added. “She said she would give herself to the nation for as long as she lived, and she did. Right up to the very, very last, which is wonderful.”

While Gillian Evans thought such conditions were akin to being in  prison, with all the limitations and the constant responsibilities, she believed the queen “loved it. It showed in her face.” Being a part of a “love match” with her husband Prince Philip “must have helped enormously.”

The Evans matriarch, 83, who is a retired diagnostic radiographer, is amazed at the effect the queen’s death is having on residents.

Philip Evans, who said the queen did “jolly well,” recognized that the queen made mistakes, one of which arose during her muted reaction to the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997.

“She had a really bad time when Princess Diana was killed,” said Philip Evans, who retired in 2000 as a general surgeon. “She was just pulled down by the power of the press. In legalese, ‘she was badly advised.’”

During a recent visit to the ophthalmologist, Evans chatted with three people about the queen and her son Charles, who has now become King Charles III.

People were saying “the queen had done a good job” and that they believed her son was “well suited” for his new role.

Philip Evans has noticed that the church bells ringing in the aftermath of her death don’t have their typical sound.

The sound alternates between loud and muted. The churches are using a so-called half-muffled peal, which creates a somber echo. The bells rang the same way last year after Prince Philip’s death.

“It’s very alarming and tells you that something is odd,” Evans said.

As the country prepares for the funeral of a queen born eight years after the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and who died two years after COVID-19, Clary Evans recognized that Queen Elizabeth II was a “link to those values of duty and service that were strong in those war and post-war years.”

Aleida Perez during BNL's virtual teaching sessions this summer

By Daniel Dunaief

For well over two years, herd immunity, vaccination status, social distancing, masking and airborne particles became regular topics of conversation. 

People have a range of understanding of these terms and how to apply them to understanding the fluid conditions that are an evolving part of the pandemic.

Aleida Perez

This summer, with funding from the National Science Foundation, a group of scientists and doctors from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, New York University and MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics, worked together with middle school and high school teachers around Long Island to prepare lesson plans on how to use and understand the application of statistics to the pandemic.

“It was a wildly successful summer,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “We spent hours and hours of time” working with teachers who developed lessons that addressed a host of issues related to COVID-19.

It was “an amazing experience” and the teachers “were the best part,” said Dr. Nachman.

Allen Mincer, Professor of Physics at New York University, has been working on and off with BNL for over two decades on various educational programs. He has been more actively engaged in the last four years.

As he and his collaborators were discussing possible educational outreach topics, they focused on the disruptive disease that changed the world over the last few years.

“This year, we were talking about it and, instead of doing random applications of statistics, we figured, why not do something that’s very practical in everyone’s mind,” Mincer said.

The projects and discussions, which were all conducted virtually, centered on numerous misconceptions people have about the pandemic. Teachers focused on questions including: what is the “efficiency” of a vaccine and how is it determined, what does a positive virus test result mean, if I am vaccinated, why do I care if others are, why take a vaccine when there are side effects, and I have to go to school and mix with people, so why shouldn’t I also let down my guard in other ways, among others.

“The challenges that this virus brings concerning topics like herd immunity was very interesting,” said Scott Bronson, manager of outreach to K-12 teachers and student for BNL’s Office of Educational Programs.

Scott Bronson during the BNL virtual teaching sessions this summer.

For teachers and their students, the realities of the pandemic were the backdrop against which these teachers were seeking to provide guidance. “It was happening live,” said Bronson. “What is herd immunity? That’s where the work of [Dr. Nachman and Mincer] came together beautifully.”

Bronson added that students will have a chance to explore the kinds of questions pharmaceutical companies are addressing, such as “What would you want the next vaccine to do” and “What would you do to make the vaccine better at preventing infection.”

The organizers put together teams of three to four high school and middle school teachers who created statistics lessons plans for the group.

“The way we worked it out, we put teachers in groups,” said Aleida Perez, supervisor of student research and citizen science programs for Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Office of Educational Programs. “We wanted to have different teachers with different courses and different perspectives on how to do things.”

One of the overarching goals was to help students understand such lessons as what it means to have a negative result on a virus test or what it meant when scientists and pharmaceutical companies described a vaccine’s efficacy.

The teachers explored the probability of side effects like myocarditis and whether the “benefit outweighs the risk of taking the vaccine,” Perez said.

For many of the teachers, the discussion expanded beyond COVID to an analysis of any infectious agent. Indeed, one of the groups of teachers described a zombie apocalypse.

The teachers provided a “nice overview to look at the education of public students,” said Perez.

The group hopes to make these lessons available for other teachers, although they haven’t determined where or how to post them.

The scientific team also hasn’t determined yet how to measure the long term impact or effectiveness of these lessons.

ATLAS project

As a part of the team involved in the ATLAS physics program at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, Mincer uses statistics to design, test and implement the tools to pick and choose from numerous reactions and then to study the data collected.

“We actually keep about a billion events out of the 100 trillion or so interactions the LHC produces in a year,” Mincer explained.

In previous years, Mincer has taught about statistics in general and its use in ATLAS. This year, he focused on statistics and its application to pandemic questions.

Several years ago, Mincer taught a freshman seminar called “Great science, fabulous science and voodoo science,” in which he described what students could learn from statistics, how the media covers science, science and government policy and how lawyers use science in the courtroom.

“After explaining statistics [and sharing] why we can only say we have evidence down to this level, I had a student tell me he’s dropping out of science as a major because he wanted certainty and I disillusioned him,” Mincer said.

As for the work with the high school teachers, Mincer said it was “great what they have been able to do” in preparing lessons for their students and sharing information about statistics.

Mincer has received some additional funds from the NSF to support two more such educational outreach programs, one of which will tentatively cover climate change.

“Statistics can be used to quantify the likelihood of events in the absence of climate change,” he explained.

Statistics provide a tool to document subtle but potentially significant changes in climate.

While Bronson wouldn’t commit to a discussion of climate change for the next group of teachers, he said he “wouldn’t be surprised if we look at climate change” and that “there’s a lot of interesting areas to explore in this field.”

Glass of water. METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

For decades, my wife and I have had one of those five-gallon water dispensers in our house. We enjoy the taste of ice cold water, and we recycle the empty containers when we’re done.

We have a regular water delivery service. Our monthly order varies depending on how many of our children, and their friends, are in the house. Typically, the best, and only way to connect with our water delivery service, is through an online interaction. Reaching an agent has been close to impossible.

Recently, we had one of those surreal technological moments with our company.

I received our usual email message, reminding me that the next day was my delivery day and I should leave out my empty bottles.

I did as I was told, because it’s so comforting to take instructions from an automated system. That night, on my last walk with our dog, I noticed that the empty bottles were still where I put them.

Okay, I thought. Maybe they’ll bring them the next day.

When I checked my emails, I received a notification indicating that the bottles were delivered and asking if I’d like to tip the driver. Realizing that my powers of observation could have been faulty, I went back outside, where the reality of the empty bottles defied the assertion of the automated email.

I tried to reach the water company through a chat service, but the automated system explained that agents were busy and couldn’t handle my request.

I found an old email from the company and wrote to them, explaining that they thought they had delivered a product, for which I would likely be charged.

On my second try the next morning, I reached a live person. Tempted as I was to exclaim my glee at speaking with a real person, I remained focused on the mission. I explained that I hadn’t received the water and would like them to bring it as soon as possible.

“You’re not scheduled for another delivery for a month,” she explained.

“Right, but I didn’t get the water yesterday,” I replied. “Can you send a truck with water?”

“Well, it says you did get the water,” she said.

“Who is saying I received the water? I’m telling you no one delivered the water,” I answered. “Can I please get the water I’m paying for?”

“Hold on,” she said, putting me on hold for several minutes.

“No, sir, I’m sorry, but we have a new computer system and I can’t reschedule the water delivery for you. I can credit you for this month.”

“Well,” I sighed. “I appreciate the gesture, but you’re not proving all that reliable. I pay for you to provide water. Maybe I’ll switch companies.”

“I can give you $5 off the water for next month,” she said.

“That’s assuming you deliver the water,” I replied.

“Let us know what you’d like to do. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Tempted as I was to answer that she hadn’t done anything for me, I said I appreciated her effort.

That night, I brought the empty bottles back into the house and discussed the situation with my wife.

The next evening, five water bottles appeared in the usual spot. I brought them in and was pleased I hadn’t shopped for more at the supermarket.

By the next evening, I could barely contain my laughter when I found five more bottles in the usual spot. I quickly canceled the delivery for October and lugged the next five bottles into the house.

Concerned that these deliveries might become daily, I approached the usual spot with trepidation the next evening. I was relieved to see that the deliveries stopped.

Arjun Venkatesan is testing an enhanced coagulation approach to treat contaminated water. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

One person’s toilet flush is another’s pool of information.

Arjun Venkatesan, Associate Director for the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, has gathered information from wastewater plants to search for traces of opioids and other chemicals.

Such monitoring is a “great tool” and relies on the sensitivity of the method, Venkatesan said.

Indeed, other scientists, including Professor Christopher Gobler, Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook, have used wastewater monitoring to collect information about the prevalence of Covid-19 in a community.

Gobler explained that such monitoring has proven to be an “ideal way to track community infections. Through early to mid 2022, positive test rates and wastewater virus levels tracked perfectly. Since then, people began home testing and now, wastewater epidemiology is probably our best sign of community infection rates.”

In a joint effort through the Center for Cleanwater Technology, Venkatesan’s team monitors for chemicals, including opioids and other drugs. Such tracking, which college campuses and local governments have done, does not involve gathering information from any specific home. Instead, the scientists take anonymous samples from a larger dorm or a neighborhood, hoping to track changes in the presence of chemicals or a virus to enable health care mitigation efforts.

Venkatesan has been looking at common over-the-counter drugs and anti-viral treatments that residents used to treat Covid-19 infection, particularly before the development and distribution of several vaccines. He noticed an increase in over the counter use that matched the increase of Covid cases, which suggested that the infected people took these pain medicines for their symptoms first.

Venkatesan’s group monitored the use of these drugs over the last two years to confirm the trends. This baseline allowed him to “see increasing trends” in usage, he said. The increase “clearly indicates something more than what the drugs are regularly used for.”

Opioids

Venkatesan’s group has been working with the Department of Health to develop standard protocols to measure drugs at these sewage treatment plants. The testing needs to be updated to account for changes in consumption of new drugs that are being synthesized.

Each sample Venkatesan and his colleagues collect typically has hundreds of thousands of people in it, because the treatment plants process sewage for a large collection of communities. “This keeps anonymity,” he said. “We don’t want to dig up [information] from a single family home.”

The method is also cost effective when a single sample represents a larger population. This kind of information, however, could help public health professionals monitor the presence of drugs broadly in a community, providing them with a way to track the prevalence of addictive and potentially harmful drugs.

Venkatesan is developing methods to track fentanyl, a highly addictive drug linked to numerous deaths throughout the country and the world. Studies in other regions have demonstrated elevated levels of this drug.

Venkatesan said New York State responded to the pandemic by developing surveillance over the last few years. The approach was not well known and was limited mostly to illicit drugs. The pandemic made a significant impact, which helped officials appreciate the value of such a tool.

The state could also theoretically monitor for any chemicals that are stable enough in sewage.

While Venkatesan hasn’t measured traces of alcohol at sewage treatment plants, researchers and public health officials could create a screen to measure it. He was involved in a study that monitored for alcohol and nicotine consumption in many cities. “We could get interesting trends and understand community and population health in a better way,” he said. The pandemic has “helped establish the importance of this network.”

Surveys in which people call and ask about the consumption of drugs or alcohol can contain self-reporting error, as respondents may not know exactly how much they drink or may be reluctant to share those details.

Wastewater monitoring could capture trends, including whether communities have a spike in the use of drugs or alcohol on Friday nights or on weekends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created standardized methods for monitoring Covid-19 in the wastewater of cities and states.

Wastewater monitoring techniques are different for detecting viruses compared to chemicals. Venkatesan’s group is developing different method to screen for opioids. “We are excited about it,” he said. “Hopefully, next year, we should be able to monitor communities.”

As long as the sampling doesn’t cross any predetermined ethical line, monitoring could provide an effective way of looking at the trends and data, he said.

With so much water flowing through pipes and treatment plants, one of the biggest challenges in these efforts is to understand variables that affect what the scientists are monitoring.

The time between when a toilet is flushed in an apartment to the time when it reaches a plant can vary, depending on numerous variables, which creates uncertainty in the data.

To reduce this variability, scientists could do some sampling in manholes, between treatment plants.

Scientific roots

Venkatesan took an elective at the end of college in environmental science when he attended Anna University in Chennai, India. It was the first time he observed a wastewater treatment plant.

Fascinated by the process, he earned a Master’s in Environmental Engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and then went on to get a PhD at Arizona State. He also did his post doctoral research in Arizona.

Stony Brook was looking for a scientist to screen for contaminants in drinking water, including PFAS chemicals, which is a group of chemicals that are stable, hard to break down and are linked to thyroid cancer, among others.

PFAS chemicals are used in cleaners, textiles, fire-fighting foam and other applications.

Venkatesan leads drinking water efforts, while waste water epidemiology remains an ongoing project of interest.

Gobler hired Venkatesan five years ago to help run and then to exclusively run the drinking water initiative at Stony Brook.

Through the process, Venkatesan has “brought new insights and research programs related to wastewater epidemiology, bisolids and many other topics,” Gobler explained. Venkatesan has “exceeded expectations,” as he transitioned from a postdoctoral researcher to become Associate Director for Drinking Water Initiatives.”

Gobler called his colleague a “complete professional” who is “very positive and a good person to work with.”

In his research, Venkatesan develops technologies to remove these PFAS chemicals, while monitoring is also a part of that effort. Activated carbon filters can remove these chemicals from groundwater. These filters, however, require frequent replacement. Venkatesan is exploring ways to improve the life of the carbon filter.

PFAS chemicals make rain water unsafe to drink. Removing PFAS chemicals is an “important research topic locally and globally.”