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Daniel Dunaief

Felicia Allard

By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University recently added a wife and husband team to its Pathology Department. Felicia Allard and Eric Yee are joining SBU from the University of Arkansas.

Allard and Yee will “replace an individual who had moved to a leadership position at another institution and to meet increased caseloads in surgical pathology and cytopathology,” Ken Shroyer, the chairman of the Pathology Department, explained in an email.

Times Beacon Record News Media will profile Allard and Yee over the next two weeks.

Felicia Allard

Eric Yee and Felicia Allard. Photo by Joshua Valencia

A self-described “mountain girl” from Colorado, where she attended medical school and met her husband Eric Yee, Felicia Allard had only been to Long Island three times before accepting a job at Stony Brook.

She came once when she was interviewing for a residency and twice during the interview process.

Allard and Yee accepted the jobs in the middle of February and weren’t able to look at potential homes during the height of the lockdown caused by COVID-19.

For now, the couple have moved into temporary housing in Port Jefferson Station, as they look for longer term living options.

Allard, who will be an Associate Professor at SBU, said the move started with Pathology Department Chair Ken Shroyer, who was looking to fill two positions and reached out to Yee.

Shroyer was involved in a type of cancer work that interested her.

“The active pancreatic cancer research group was a big draw for me as I am hoping to expand my research career,” Allard explained in an email.

Allard said she was particularly interested in pancreatic cancer, in large part because of its intractability and the poor prognosis for most patients.

“It was clear to me that this is one of the areas where we had a lot of work to do in terms of being able to offer any type of meaningful treatment to patients,” she said.

Allard said she, like so many others in the medical community, entered the field because she wanted to make a difference. She searched for areas where the “greatest good could be done, and pancreatic cancer is still one of those.”

In her initial research, she studied the pancreatic neoplasm, exploring how cells went from pre-invasive to invasive to metastatic conditions. She is interested in how the tumor interacts with the patient’s immune system.

While Allard will continue to provide clinical services, she plans to collaborate with Shroyer in his lab. “I’m hoping naturally to be integrating into Dr. Shroyer’s group,” Allard said.

Shroyer welcomed Allard to the department and to his research team.

Allard is “a highly-qualified surgical pathologist with subspecialty expertise in GI tract pathology,” Shroyer wrote in an email. “She has a specific interest in pancreatic cancer, which will also complement our translational research program,” he said.

Shroyer expects that Allard will be integrated into several cancer research programs and he is “looking forward to having her join my team that is focused on the validation of prognostic and predictive biomarkers for pancreatic cancer.”

Shroyer’s lab, which includes Luisa Escobar-Hoyos, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology, will work with Allard to advance the translational aspects of keratin 17 research, building on earlier work to understand the mechanisms through which K17 causes tumor aggression, he explained.

As for her clinical work, Allard said she analyzes biopsies and resections from the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, and pancreas. She has also used cytopathology to look at pap smears and to analyze salivary tumor aspirations.

The time to consider any of these slides varies broadly. Sometimes, she receives a slide and the diagnosis is unequivocal within 30 seconds. Other times, a biopsy from a six-month old patient with diarrhea, for example, can have an extensive list of differentials. In that case, the diagnosis can take considerably longer, as a baby could be sick because of an autoimmune disorder, inflammatory bowel disease or an infection.

She said she can “perseverate for hours or even days” over the subtle clues that may help with a diagnosis.

Allard likened the diagnostic process to reading a detective novel, in which the reader might figure out the perpetrator on page three, while other times, the culprit isn’t discovered until page 300.

Allard said she and her husband have a similar clinical background.

Yee is “more of a tech geek than I am,” she said. “He understands artificial intelligence, computer science and bioinformatics more than I do. He is also interested in administrative and leadership to a greater degree.”

Allard said she and Yee may have professional overlaps, but they have unique interests, backgrounds and perspectives that they bring to work that give them each different strengths.

Allard said she knew she wanted to go into medicine in her junior year of high school. When Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, she recalls being impressed with that distinction.

In medical school, she said the field of pathology appealed to her because she appreciated the marriage of clinical care and basic science in the field.

She and Yee started dating just before medical school started for her. Yee was two years ahead in school. They continued their relationship from a distance while he did his residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School. While she was a resident, Allard said Yee had the “distinct pleasure of trying to train me.”

She likes to explore the boundaries of diagnosis to understand the nuances and all the data that factor into interpretations, to tease the art from the science.

Outside of her work, Allard enjoys reading and calls her Kindle one of her favorite possessions. She hopes to learn how to sail while a resident of Long Island.

Allard is excited to start working at Stony Brook. Shroyer was “very persistent and once he got us up to New York to interview, he was persuasive with respect to the type of career growth we could both potentially have,” she said.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Look, we’re out of practice. It’s totally normal. We’ve spent so much time talking to kids who don’t listen, to pets who need a break from us and to computers that seem determined to sabotage our efforts to work from home that we may have lost a step or two in our social graces.

Slowly, like hermit crabs emerging from their shells, we are stepping out into the phased world, in which we can do this, but can’t do that and where we are seeing more three-dimensional people and not those two-dimensional figures who flash across all manner of electronic devices.

As a quick refresher, I’d like to offer a reminder of the things that should give us pause if we’re about to share them with others who may be a bit sensitive.

The following should serve as verbal red flags:

Not that I’m looking, but … if whatever comes next is something you shouldn’t be staring at, such as anatomical areas, private letters or emails, you shouldn’t finish the sentence.

Don’t take this the wrong way … well, if a part of you recognizes that what you’re about to say could be problematic or painful for the listener, consider saying it in a different way or not saying it at all.

Obviously … this can go in one of two directions. A truly obvious statement doesn’t need sharing. A statement you think is obvious but isn’t so clear to the listener becomes a way to offend that person, who may have a reflexive defensive response.

I’m no expert, but … we all often talk about subjects in which we have no expertise. We might be anywhere from slightly informed to ill informed. We should be able to share what we think we might know, but we may not want to challenge someone who designs buildings on the best way to put together a LEGO house.

This is such a minor point that I hesitate to bring it up … maybe instead of hesitating, you should just not. Correcting the day of the week on a story about an event that occurred over 10 years ago seems unnecessary and distracting.

I don’t want to take the wind out of your sails … you’re probably about to do what you say you’re not doing, so own it and say you disagree completely or let me continue to sail off into my happy sunset.

What do I know, but … This expression suggests that you are about to do one of two things. You’re likely preparing to deliver serious criticism, but want to couch it by suggesting that it might not be based on anything other than a disdain for you, your wardrobe choices, your career path, or anything in between. Alternatively, you’re about to say something that seems supportive — “what do I know, but your idea for submersible homes seems compelling to me”  — but that really suggests that you’re hiding behind false humility. If someone follows your advice, the “what do I know” expression is your way of dodging any responsibility for their mistakes.

I don’t mean to offend you, but … this is one of my favorites. It suggests that you know you are about to be offensive and that you don’t mean it, but you just can’t help it. You’re about to share something that may dress up as helpful, like a Trojan horse, perhaps, but that will likely cause damage.

Holding our tongues can be incredibly difficult, especially when we’d like to tell the person in front of us how we want to make a minor, but likely obvious point that we hope doesn’t take the wind out of their sails or offend them. We also don’t know what we’re talking about because we’re not experts. Still, it was sort of good to see them.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

America was reluctant to enter both World Wars and yet we won them both, at a tremendous cost to previous generations.

Today, as we continue to battle through the coronavirus, I’d like to think we will persevere. We don’t need political spin. We have plenty of that from both sides.

We need a sense of optimism, of shared purpose and of a keen belief that we will prevail through hard work and a readiness to innovate and adapt. We see so many horrific headlines about the number of people who test positive and who are threatening the capacity of health care systems in Florida and Texas, among others.

Even as we do everything we can to protect our health and the safety of our friends and family, we need to believe in ourselves and in our ability to work together. Defeating the virus takes more than ignoring it or claiming victory for political expediency.

Whoever wins this presidential election in this incredibly challenging year will have enormous work to do. 

Even a vaccine that is tested and produced in mass quantities by the early part of next year, which seems spectacularly optimistic but is still possible, doesn’t automatically put us back on the path to the world of 2019.

After all, the flu vaccine doesn’t eradicate the illness. It comes back with a vengeance some years. Some people who receive the shot still get sick, oftentimes with less severe symptoms.

We need to recognize that the world has changed. We’ve had time to process it and to adjust, even if we’re sick of the new rules. We need to use all the space we have to turn what seems like a nuisance and an inconvenience into a modern triumph.

The country can and should rethink everything from ways to attend sporting events to the specific needs of the home office. Maybe sports stadiums should remove seats, put picnic tables in front of patrons and make the game-time experience for fans look different because, for the foreseeable future, it will be.

Yes, I know, that will cost an incredible amount of money, but it would also give patrons a chance to enjoy their own space, instead of hoping for a time machine that brings us back to an era when we gave strangers a high five when our team scored.

Maybe waiters and waitresses can provide virtual personalized service, connecting through online services that deliver, via conveyor belt beneath those tables, contactless food to guests.

We need to renovate our homes to enjoy the new reality. Maybe we need virtual artwork we can add to our walls, that helps expand our small rooms and that changes at the flick of a switch. Maybe we also can figure out ways to create virtual assembly lines, where workers provide their part of a mechanized process from a distance, in a basement, workspace, or outside in their enclosed yards. It may not be as efficient, because someone might have to transport those parts, but those driving opportunities also create jobs for people who become a part of a new, virtual factory.

We may want to go back to the way things were, but we need to recognize the realities, and the opportunities, that come from moving forward. Moving on will require us to develop new ideas, create new jobs, and believe in ourselves. We have survived and thrived through challenges before, by pulling together, by innovating, and by tapping into the combination of ingenuity and hard work. People are prepared to put in the effort to earn their own version of the American Dream. We need innovations, new businesses, and inspirations that reignite the economy, while protecting our health.

Marci Lobel. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Pregnant women with access to the outdoors are less stressed during the pandemic.

In fact, according to an unpublished finding that isn’t yet peer reviewed, pregnant women who had outdoor access were 67 percent less likely to worry about contracting the virus and 63 percent less likely to feel stress about being unprepared for the birth.

Lobel with a recent doctoral student, Jennifer Nicolo-SantaBarbara.

Stony Brook University recently awarded a project led by Dr. Heidi Preis in the Department of Psychology, with co-Principal Investigators Dr. Marci Lobel in the Department of Psychology and Dr. Brittain Mahaffey in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health that explored the link between stress and pregnancy. The researchers are hoping to identify what helps pregnant women and what may make them more vulnerable to the impacts of stress.

Stony Brook provided a total of $398,200 in seed funding to 17 research projects in response to the pandemic. Researchers at Stony Brook had put together 63 submissions, using a peer review process to choose the projects to fund, including the COVID-19 Pregnancy Experiences (or COPE) Study. The funding, which is for one year, is designed to provide the kind of seed funding that will lead to further research and that other funding agencies will support.

The COPE study tapped into a global network of collaborators that Lobel, who is the Director of the Stress and Reproduction Lab at SBU, established over the past 30 years to compare the different factors that mitigate or exacerbate stress for pregnant women in Spain, Israel, Italy, Germany Poland and Switzerland.

“The biological impact of COVID-19 is getting the lion’s share of attention, as it should,” said Lobel. “We don’t yet know enough about how the psychological impact will affect vulnerable groups, like pregnant women.”

Indeed, Lobel has spent three decades studying the effect of stress and related psychological factors on pregnancy. In other studies, major stressors, such as earthquakes, ice storms, and periods of warfare, confirm the toxic impact of prenatal stress, particularly for preterm births and low birth weight, she said.

Lobel and her colleagues created a self-report instrument called the Pandemic-Related Pregnancy Stress Scale, or PREPS, in which women report their specific concerns or anxieties caused by COVID-19.

Throughout the United States, the team sought responses from about 4,500 women recruited through social media at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Marci Lobel with her family at Yosemite in 2016. The photo credit is: Photo courtesy of Marci Lobel.

Among the women in the study, just over half of them were pregnant with their first child. In many studies that predated the current work, including some from her own research group, Lobel said women pregnant with their first child had higher levels of stress.

In some preliminary findings, 21.7 percent of pregnant women in the study reported severe levels of anxiety. “I think that is higher than what we typically would find in a population study of pregnant women,” Lobel said.

Women with a history of interpersonal violence also reported higher levels of stress and those whose prenatal appointments were canceled or altered were 1.78 times more likely to experience high stress related to a lack of preparedness and 1.49 times more likely to experience high stress related to worries about perinatal infection.

Some women in the study have found ways to reduce the accumulating stress about the health care crisis. The techniques that work for some women, Lobel said, may not work for others, suggesting that stress relief is specific to the individual and is usually determined by the situation itself.

“I don’t recommend any particular way of coping,” Lobel said. “What works for one may not work for another. It’s good to have a tool kit with lots of ways of coping.”

Indeed, some of the techniques pregnant women have found helpful include meditation, prayer, and faith-based practices. Pregnant women have also benefited from social support, which is particularly important during the pandemic when some women may feel “literally and figuratively isolated from others,” Lobel said.

Of all the research Lobel has done, the one that has received the most attention and landed her in the bible for pregnant women, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” was a study on optimism. She found that women who were more optimistic had better birth outcomes due in part to the better are they took of their health during pregnancy.

Coping with stress by avoidance predicts increases in emotional distress, Lobel explained. This corroborates much research which shows that avoidance is usually an ineffective way to cope with stress, except in limited cases such as when a stressful situation is brief and uncontrollable.

When people avoid the things that bother them, they can do it cognitively or through alcohol, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their developing fetuses. Avoidance can also involve excessive sleeping, as pregnant women may decide they don’t want to deal with life and stay in bed all day.

The scientists plan to collect a second set of data from these women, who were recruited through social media and who represent a diverse socioeconomic background, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors, on July 15th.

Lobel said she already has some preliminary, unpublished findings from Poland, which are showing the same kinds of stressors and distress among pregnant women. Polish women have expressed stress related to worries about lack of preparation for birth during the pandemic and stress related to worries about infection.

Lobel said the researchers hope to explore a host of questions as they collect more information. They hope to look at obsessions and compulsions and would like to measure anger. They also will measure levels of depression and anxiety and will compare that to the norms for non-pregnant women.

On the other side of the stress meter, the group will study how being pregnant during the pandemic may help some women appreciate their pregnancy more. For some women, the pregnancy may give them strength to deal with the pandemic, as they focus on having a baby.

The researchers will also explore the level of control women feel over the outcome of their pregnancy and the health of their baby. Feeling in control can create a positive response associated with lower distress.

While Lobel and her colleagues won’t answer all these questions in a year, they hope their initial studies will lead to more funding and research. “Hopefully, we’ll get a [National Institutes of Health] grant to follow up these women for a couple of years to study them and their children to see if there are any developmental or mental or physical health effects” of the pandemic.

Kevin Reed. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

At the beginning of this month, the North Atlantic started its annual hurricane season that will extend through the end of November.

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers a forecast in May for the coming season. This year, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season. The Center anticipates 13 to 19 storms, although that number doesn’t indicate how many storms will make landfall.

These predictions have become the crystal ball through which forecasters and city planners prepare for a season that involves tracking disturbances that typically begin off the West coast of Africa and pick up energy and size as they travel west across the Atlantic towards Central America. While some storms travel back out to sea, others threaten landfall by moving up the Gulf Coast or along Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.

Kevin Reed, an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and Alyssa Stansfield, a graduate student in his lab, recently predicted the likely amount of rainfall from tropical cyclones.

Alyssa Stansfield at the 33rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in 2018. Photo by Arianna Varuolo-Clarke

 

Using climate change projection simulations, Reed and Stansfield came up with a good-news, bad-news scenario for the years 2070 through 2100. The good news in research they published in Geophysical Research Letters is they anticipate fewer hurricanes.

The bad news? The storms will likely have higher amounts of rain, with increased rain per hour.

“If you focus on storms that make landfall over the Eastern United States, they are more impactful from a rainfall standpoint,” Reed said. “The amount of rainfall per hour and the rainfall impact per year is expected to increase significantly in the future.”

In total, the amount of rainfall will be less because of the lower number of storms, although the intensity and overall precipitation will be sufficient to cause damaging rains and flooding.

Warmer oceans and the air above them will drive the increased rainfall, as these storms pass over higher sea surface temperatures where they can gain energy. Warmer, moist air gives the hurricanes more moisture to work with and therefore more potential rainfall.

“As the air gets warmer, it can hold more water in it,” Stansfield said. “There’s more potential rain in the air for the hurricanes before they make landfall.”

Stansfield said the predictions are consistent with what climatologists would expect, reflecting how the models line up with the theory behind them. She explored how climate change affects the size of storms in this paper, but she wants to do more research looking at hurricane size in the future.

“If hurricanes are larger, they will drop rainfall over a larger area,” which could increase the range of area over which policy makers might need to prepare for potential damage from flooding and high winds, Stansfield said.

While her models suggest that storms will be larger, she cautioned that the field hasn’t reached a consensus about the size of future storms. As for areas where there is greater consensus, such as the increased rainfall their models predict for storms at the end of the century, Stansfield suggested that the confidence in the community about their forecasts, which use different climate models, is becoming “more apparent as more modeling groups reach the same conclusion.”

Alyssa Stansfield at Sequoia National Park in 2018. Photo by Jess Stansfield

In explaining the expectations for higher rainfall in future storms, Reed said that even storms that had the same intensity as current hurricanes would have an increase in precipitation because of the availability of more moisture at the surface.

While storms in recent years, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Florence and Dorian dumped considerable rain in their path because they moved more slowly, effectively dumping rain over a longer period of time in any one area, it’s “unclear” whether future storms would move more slowly or stall over land.

Several factors might contribute to a decrease in the number of storms. For starters, an increase in wind sheer could disrupt the formation of some storms. Vertical wind sheer is caused when wind speed and direction changes with increasing altitude. Pre-hurricane conditions may also change due to internal variability and the randomness of the atmosphere, according to Reed.

Reed said the team chose to use climate models to make predictions for the end of the century because it is common in climate science for comparison to the recent historical record. They also used a 30 year period to limit some of the uncertainty due to internal variability of weather systems.

Stansfield, who is in her third year of graduate school and anticipates spending another two years at Stony Brook University before defending her graduate thesis, said she became interested in studying hurricanes in part because of the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Alyssa Stansfield at Yosemite in 2019. Photo by Kathy Stansfield

When she was younger, she and her father Greg used to go to the beach when a hurricane passed hundreds of miles off the coast, where she would see the impact of the storm in larger waves. At some point, she would like to fly in a hurricane hunter plane, traveling directly into a storm to track its speed and direction.

Stansfield said one of the more common misconceptions about hurricanes is that the category somehow determines their destructive power. Indeed, Superstorm Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New York and yet it caused $65 billion in damage, making it the 4th costliest hurricane in the United States, according to the NOAA.

After Stansfield earns her PhD, she said she wants to continue studying hurricanes. One question that she’d like to address at some point is why there are between 80 to 90 hurricanes around the world each year. This has been the case for about 50 years, since satellite records began.

“That’s consistent every year,” she said. “We don’t know why that’s the number. There’s no theory behind it.” She suggested that was a “central question” that is unanswered in her field. 

Understanding what controls the number of hurricanes will inform predictions about how that number will change in response to climate change.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

This generation of college students have dealt with numerous shocks in their short lives. Most of them were born around the time of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That event triggered several battles on foreign soil, led to the Department of Homeland Security, and created a world in which people took off their shoes at the airport and passed through metal detectors on the way in to concerts and sporting events.

As if that weren’t enough, this generation then had to deal with the 2008 financial crisis, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and when life, for many, became considerably more challenging amid a painful decline in the subprime housing market.

Through their upbringing, they also heard about mass shootings, some of which occurred at school. They practiced shelter-in-place and had nightmares about killers roaming the same hallways where artwork depicting students’ families and the alphabet adorned the walls.

The contentious 2016 presidential election brought two largely unpopular choices onto center stage. After a bitter election fight, the country didn’t have much time to heal, as the Democrats and Republicans transformed into the Montagues and Capulets.

Indeed, while each side dug in deeply, their respective media supporters expressed nonstop outrage and acted dumbfounded by the misdirection and apparent idiocy of the leaders and their minions across the aisle.

Then 2020 happened. The virus has killed over 120,000 Americans, crippled economies, led to mass layoffs and unemployment and turned the hug and the handshake into bygone gestures from six months ago that somehow seem even longer ago. With the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, many protesters weathered the viral storm that had kept them inside for months to express outrage at a system where equal protection under the law seemed like a distant ideal.

Now, these same students face the possibility of returning to school. Some colleges have told their students to return earlier than normal, to forego visits to friend’s dorms, and to wear masks and social distance.

It seems likely that many of these colleges’ students, who have a familiar youth-inspired independent streak, will defy these new rules, much the same way many in the general public, including President Donald Trump (R), shun the idea of wearing masks.

If  I were running a college, and I’m glad I’m not because I’m struggling to provide sound  advice to two teenagers, I would triple and quadruple my medical staff. I would urge regular testing and I would make sure my college had the best possible treatments and plans ready.

Fortunately, the treatments for the virus have improved from the beginning, as the medical community has raced to provide relief to those battling draining and debilitating symptoms that have lasted for weeks or even months.

When people do contract the virus, as they inevitably will at some of these schools, I would urge students to rally around each other, their professors and anyone else who contracted COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this generation has had to grow up rapidly, to see ways each of them can play a role in helping each other. Students may not only become involved in the standard blood drives; they may urge their peers to check for antibodies and to donate convalescent plasma, which may help save lives and ameliorate the worst of the viral symptoms.

The modern college student doesn’t have to look to distant shores to find people overwhelmed and in need of their youthful energy and good intentions.

Many college students want to be relevant and contribute. They can and will have ample opportunities, with their antibodies, with their understanding and empathy, and with their ongoing resilience in the face of a lifetime of challenges.

Saket Navlakha. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

When people walk into their own home, they immediately ignore sensory cues around them. They may not notice the picture of their children on the wall, the lush leaves of the ficus plant, or the constant smell of soup that greets them when they return from work.

Similarly, animals and even flies become accustomed to cues in their environment, habituating to them so they can focus on more important signals, like the smell of nearby food or the appearance of a fly swatter.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Associate Professor Saket Navlakha and his post doctoral researcher Yang Shen recently studied the way flies subtract smells from the environment, giving them the opportunity to focus instead on odors that might be more important to their lives.

In a paper last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Navlakha and Shen converted the way flies use a signal filtering process to create a computer algorithm.

Navlakha explained that the tandem were using computer science to understand better a basic biological phenomenon of habituation and how it happens. “We’ve been studying background subtraction,” he said in a recent interview.

One of the applications for their work is in electronic noses. Hotels and even military departments may in the not too distant future use these systems to process odors to determine what’s in the environment.

These electronic noses detect faint signals within noisy backgrounds. Habituation enables them to remove from consideration those scents that would otherwise distract from the goal of scanning the environment for new information.

Navlakha suggested that humans, who are often a visually dominant species, are not always the best species at using a sense of smell to perceive the environment.

Saket Navlaka with his wife Sejal Morjaria, during a run in Port Washington in mid-May. Photo by Lawrence Lau

“Many other species rely on their noses as much as we rely on vision,” he said. “We don’t always have an intuitive sense of what is possible in the olfactory space. Sometimes, that limits our imagination.”

While Navlakha is not crafting sensors that can detect compounds, he is working on the computer science analogs to odor recognition and discrimination. He is exploring the kind of data analysis that would have applications in a range of fields. 

In one example, he said a sensor in an airport might be surrounded by a symphony of smells, including new pungent or even subtle toppings on pizza or even a new cologne from someone working in a watch repair store. 

The sensor might need to sift through all that data to find someone who is transferring a toxic chemical through an airport, the scent of which might be faint and almost insignificant compared with the other odors spreading through the terminal.

In a more everyday example, a sensor in the refrigerator might detect the subtle changes in odors emitted by foods that are starting to become inedible, such as an onion or cream cheese.

“You want to detect” when food is starting to turn so you can “eat it and use it” before it becomes inedible, Navlakha said. “These are the kind of problems we are exploring on the data analysis side.”

Navlakha specifically looked at the activity of Kenyon cells, which are special odor neurons. When a fly receives a new scent, about five percent of these cells turn on, developing a unique activity tag.

Once the fly becomes habituated to a smell that isn’t relevant for its survival — either to indicate the presence of food or to announce the arrival of a predator — Navlakha believes the number of Kenyon cells that make up the tag for the odor declines. While this is his theory, he said more work needs to be done to confirm these predictions.

A new odor repeats the process, bringing the fly’s attention to a new smell. The fly brain in principal can reverse the subtraction process for habituated odors if the odor becomes more rare or important for the fly’s survival. Researchers need to conduct more work to confirm this as well.

Navlakha hopes to frame the fluid process of recognizing, habituating and bolstering the signal for odors to understand how the brain is functioning.

He said the fly brain responds to smells based on two mechanisms. In the first, the fly has an innate, evolutionary behavior. In the second, the fly learns through experience. Navlakha studied the learned behaviors.

The next steps involve pushing more on the experimental front, determining the limits of odor discrimination and looking at the role of habituation.

He hopes to extend an experiment that others have done with people. Experimenters took three odors that were all relatively similar that come from three flowers. Most people could not discriminate between two out of the three odors. In an experimental group, they allowed people to habituate to one of three smells and then they had to discriminate between the other two. By subtracting out the common part of all three smells, they were more successful at decoding the difference between the others.

“We want to see if we can do this in fruit flies” while recording from a region of the fly brain called the mushroom body.

Navlakha also bought an electronic nose. Using this artificial system, he wants to test odor discrimination algorithms.

“One thing this would allow us to do is to test and validate these algorithms to see how well they perform,” he explained. “There are all kinds of tests to see what kind of power these sensors have.”

In the PNAS paper, Navlakha mostly used the literature for their biological inspiration. They discussed numerous parts of the paper with biological collaborators and including biological experiments. They did not introduce any new biological data.

He came across this literature about 18 months ago.

“We thought it was interesting because we could understand the whole series of transformations when a fly smells,” he said. He worked on how to understand the process from input to output.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, he has been spending considerably more time doing theoretical work and modeling. He and his wife Sejal Morjaria have also gotten out of the house to do some running.

As for his work, Navlakha is hoping to build on what he’s done so far and expects he will, if you’ll pardon the pun, follow his nose as the research progresses.

 

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

As we approach Father’s Day, I can’t help thinking that the creators of the alphabet hid important lessons in plain sight when they put the letters “n” and “o” between the letters “m” and “p.”

The letter “m” starts the Latin word “mater,” which means mother. The letter “p” starts the word
“pater,” which, also in Latin, means father.

Between mom and dad, then, resides the simple,
effective and important word “no.”

Parents who aren’t on the same page about decisions will find children who don’t believe a “no” ever means anything because they will run to the other parent to find someone who will render a “no” from the former parent meaningless.

Parents need the word “no” to unite them, bringing together the “m” and “p” that makes it possible to provide consistent parenting advice. When a “no” from dad is also a “no” from mom, children can’t divide and conquer with their parents.

Now, valuing and appreciating the word “no” doesn’t necessarily mean parents should say “no” to everything. In fact, when mom and dad agree on something for their children, they can and should celebrate the opportunities they urge their progeny to pursue.

When our children were young, we found ourselves falling into the repeated “no” pattern, mostly to protect our children. “Don’t go in the street, don’t put that toy in your mouth, don’t grab that dog’s tail, etc.” While all of those rules are valid and valuable, they also can create a culture of “no” that constantly reminds children of their limitations, giving them the equivalent of a Greek chorus of “no” that follows them around, preventing them from exploring the world or from considering opportunities and risks worth taking because they expect a giant “NO!” sign to appear in their closet, under their bed, at the entrance to their classroom or in the backyard.

My wife and I put considerable energy into redirecting our children, rather than giving them a negative answer. We suggested alternatives to their suggestion or even, at times, a compromise answer that wasn’t a negative so much as it was a reshaping of an impulse.

On an elemental level, the letters “n” and “o” also seem so apt for the world between mom and dad. After all, N for nitrogen represents 78 percent of the atmosphere while O for oxygen represents 21 percent, which means that, between the letter placeholder for mom and dad resides the letters for 99 percent of the atmosphere of the earth.

The elements nitrogen and oxygen also, like some families, exist in paired form as molecules instead of single elements. These molecules float around in the atmosphere as a duo, with a strong covalent bond keeping the orbiting electron shells full.

For children, saying “no” to their parents starts early as a way to fight back against the world of “no” while they drift into the world of the terrible twos or, in our children’s case, the threadbare threes. When these children are caught between their mother and father, they may find that their only defense against a disagreeable world is to hold up their own “no” shield.

That small word, however, is important to change the world as well, because children who can defend their “no” answer to parents can also refuse to accept problems they see in the world. Instead, they can defy policies or ideas that rankle them. Saying “no” to anything aids cognitive development and, as it turns out, is good preparation for parenting. It has to be true because it’s right there, hidden in place sight, in the alphabet.

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Angie Tempio with her boyfriend James O'Brien

By Daniel Dunaief

New York may have started Phase One of its reopening and other states may have reopened shops and businesses, but life won’t change much for Angie Tempio.

A native of Commack who had been working at the front desk at Funt Orthodontics in Setauket since 2017, Tempio received a heart transplant last summer and plans to do everything she can to protect herself amid threats from the pandemic.

Tempio, who was preparing to rebuild her life outside of an apartment she shares in Yaphank with her boyfriend James O’Brien, plans to remain as isolated as possible, lowering the chance of contracting COVID-19.

Angie Tempio with her boyfriend James O’Brien

 

“The world is opening back up,” Tempio said. “For me, it’s not. Nothing will change for a few months. I’m used to being left behind.”

Tempio, however, doesn’t feel sorry for herself or rue her situation. She now focuses on new possibilities. 

Diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy when she was 11, she slowly went into heart failure. She struggled for a few years before her transplant, but the last year was the toughest. She said her pacemaker kept her alive.

Tempio, who recently turned 26, had made her peace with death, particularly when she struggled to walk two steps at a time and when her failing heart beat only 30 times per minute. “I was lucky,” she said. Two months after she went on the transplant list, she “got the call, which is a miracle in itself.”

While Tempio feels overwhelmingly blessed that she can consider having children, she said she is also sensitive to the over 1,870 residents who died from COVID-19 in Suffolk County.

Tempio had a rare heart condition that caused her to be a small statistic. Even with the overall mortality rate for COVID-19 below one percent, she empathizes with people and their family who are on the other side of those small numbers.

“Experiencing being a small statistic has definitely made me look at things differently,” she said. “In my head, anyone can [be such a statistic] and most people aren’t realizing that and that’s what’s making me overly cautious.”

Tempio said she was a gymnast and was seemingly healthy before she developed the rare heart disease.

“Although I haven’t experienced the virus itself, I’ve been through the same obstacles,” she explained in an email.

Even when the coronavirus first started infecting people on Long Island, Tempio wore masks to the classes she is taking at Suffolk County Community College, where she hopes to study to become a transplant coordinator. She said she felt judgment from people who thought she was being overly concerned about the virus.

“Most people didn’t realize” how much more vulnerable she was to the virus than the typical person walking around Long Island, she said. 

While she’s waiting for the moment when she can emerge from a home cocoon, Tempio has been connecting with a network of friends and a close-knit heart transplant support group. She and 13 others are a part of a group that shares a profound and unique experience that brings them together and helps them connect with, and support.

“They have been my outlet during one of the hardest times in my life and I am so grateful to have them,” she said.

Tempio said she feels a responsibility to live her best and healthiest life. She believes she is “now living for my donor,” she said, and plans to “take the best care of this heart that I can.”

Dr. Frank Darras. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Dr. Frank Darras, Clinical Professor of Urology and Clinical/ Medical Director of the Renal Transplantation Program at Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine Hospital, has performed over 1,700 kidney transplants since 1990. 

This year has been especially challenging for the surgeon, as he has had to enhance safety procedures to protect patients who are on immunosuppressants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the new normal for kidney transplants, Stony Brook takes time to test patients for coronavirus. In the first few weeks after the virus hit Suffolk County, the tests took all day. In recent weeks, the labs have produced test results within one to three hours.

Through late April, Darras said the hospital hasn’t had to send anyone home who had a positive COVID-19 test.

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on the function of normal kidneys is difficult to predict, he said. Many of the patients with the most severe symptoms from the virus not only needed ventilators, but also needed dialysis treatments. In the majority of cases where people recovered from the virus, their kidneys also recovered.

The hospital has also seen patients who received kidney transplants who have contracted the virus. “Several of these [transplanted patients] had diminished function, but all of them recovered their kidney function,” Darras said.

The longer-term effects of the virus are unknown. Some patients who were severely ill may have recovered, but have kidney problems that slowly escalate over time.

“I would not be surprised to see that happen, whether that’s months or years down the road,” Darras said.

Another unknown is how the virus would affect the transplant community in the longer term. “In the worst case, it’ll make our living donor pool smaller,” he said. About one out of three kidney transplants comes from a living donor. “On the other hand, in the best case scenario, [the virus will have] relatively little impact. It’s too early to tell,” he added.

According to Darras, people who need kidney transplants can extend their life expectancy by two to three times. He estimated that about five to six percent of the people waiting for a transplant died while on a kidney waiting list.

Darras explained that “time is of the essence” for many patients because the “longer patients are on dialysis, the more urgent [the need] to get them transplanted,” and added that finding donors is critically important, particularly during the pandemic.

“There is a concern about trying to make sure that we can get enough kidneys,” he said. “Our job and the job of LiveonNY is to raise awareness about organ donation.”