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Daniel Dunaief

Saket Navlakha

By Daniel Dunaief

Plants have to solve challenges in their environment – without a brain or the kind of mobility mammals rely on to survive – through strategies and computations that keep them alive and allow them to reproduce.

Intrigued by plants and by the neurobiology that affect decisions or behavior in a range of other organisms, Associate Professor Saket Navlakha recently joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to study the processes a range of organisms use.

“Biological systems have to solve problems to survive,” said Navlakha. “The hope is that by studying these algorithms, we can inspire new methods for computer science and engineering and, at the same time, come up with new ways to predict and model behaviors of these systems.”

Navlakha, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Maryland College Park and conducted postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Machine Learning Department, focuses on the “algorithms of nature,” in which organisms evolved ways to solve problems that enhance the likelihood of their survival.

In his first three months at CSHL, Navlakha plans to do an interview tour, speaking with researchers who study cancer, molecular biology, neurology and plants.

While his primary areas of focus have been on plants and neurobiology, he appreciates that the internationally recognized research facility presents “new opportunities” for him and a lab in which he intends to hire four to six scientists over the next two years.

Adam Siepel, the chair of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology and professor at the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, led the recruitment of Navlakha.

In an email, Siepel wrote that Navlakha “immediately struck us as an ideal candidate for the center” in part because he is a “free thinker with an eye for interesting and important problems in biology.”

Navlakha believes processes and strategies that foster survival spring from a set of principles that helps them thrive and adapt. In 2018, when he was at the Salk Center for Integrative Biology, he wrote a piece for Wired magazine about species extinction. “By not preserving [species that become extinct], we are losing out on interesting ideas that evolution gave them to survive,” he said.

Even amid these losses, however, Navlakha recognizes the lessons computer scientists and engineers like him can learn. Through losses and failures, humans can understand the limitations of algorithms that only allowed a species to survive up to a point, as conditions pushed its algorithms past a tipping point.

At its core, Navlakha’s approach to these algorithms includes the idea that biological systems perform computations. He originally studied brains because they are “such an elegant computer, doing all kinds of things that modern, human-made computers can’t do,” he said.

When he was at the Salk Institute, he spoke with colleagues in plant biology who told him about research that examined how plants modify their shape amid a changing environment, which is what triggered his interest in plants.

One of the themes of his work involves understanding trade-offs. Doing well in one task typically means doing worse in another. He likened this analysis to investing in stocks. An investor can put considerable funds into one stock, like Apple, or diversify a portfolio, investing less money per stock in a variety of companies from different sectors.

“We’ve been studying how plants hedge” their bets, he said. The hedge in this description bears no relation to a collection of plants at the edge of a property.

A plant can create one huge seed that might survive a drought or other environmental threat, or it can diversify the types of seeds. “We’re really interested in understanding these trade-offs, how they hedge, and what kind of strategies” they employ, he said.

Ziv Bar-Joseph, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who has known Navlakha for over eight years, suggested Navlakha has “deep insights.” 

In an email, Bar-Joseph described Navlakha’s biggest achievement as his work that shows how the brain uses a computational method to store and retrieve smells. 

“This work both solved an important mystery about how the brain functions and informed us on novel usages of an important computational method, thus contributing to both areas,” Bar-Joseph explained.

Navlakha doesn’t have a typical laboratory filled with beakers, pipettes or plants growing under various conditions. He relies on wet labs to provide data that he then interprets and analyzes as a part of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. While his training is in computer science, he has shown a talent for experimental research as well. 

Bar-Joseph recalled how Navlakha performed experiments and analysis. In a short time, Navlakha “was able to master very involved techniques and obtained very good results.” 

Navlakha explained that the work he does colors the way he sees the world. “People walk by plants without paying attention to the incredible computations that they’re doing to keep us on this planet,” he said. “Computation is the basis of life.”

A resident of Great Neck, Navlakha recently married Sejal Morjaria, an infectious disease physician at Sloan Kettering, who works with patients who have cancer. The couple met through an online dating app when he was in San Diego and she lived in New York. They chatted for a while without any expectation of seeing each other, until he traveled to Washington, D.C                                 for a conference.

Navlakha enjoys playing numerous sports, including tennis and basketball. He also played hockey. He and Morjaria participate in yoga classes together.

Navlakha, who grew up in Miami, Florida, said he had to readjust to life on Long Island after living in Southern California for several years. “San Diego makes you weak,” he joked.

In his work, Navlakha hopes to bring together two fields in a different way.

Given the importance of computations, Navlakha appreciates a corollary to the concept proposed by Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” For Navlakha, “I compute, therefore I am” describes processes he studies among animals and plants.

'Come From Away' on tour

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

You know those thought bubbles artists draw in cartoons, where the reader can see what each character is thinking even as the person might be saying something like, “Bless your heart”?

I tried to imagine possessing that real-life talent when I recently attended the show, “Come from Away.”

The musical, which debuted close to seven years ago, offers a retelling of the story of people diverted on their planes on 9/11 to the small town of Gander on the island of Newfoundland in Canada.

The local folks, with their indigenous
accents, offer support for the sudden influx of thousands of people from all over the world who are stuck in a place where they can’t get to their clothes, pets or toothbrushes.

The world changed dramatically on that day, as people on those redirected planes gained an almost immediate perspective on the inconvenience of their experience compared to the tragedy other families endured.

The people from Gander were incredibly hospitable and heroic, stepping outside their own needs to welcome and support the collection of people trapped with them for an indeterminate period of time.

While I don’t want to spoil the story — and please stop reading if you’d like to experience the show without any specific expectations — the musical also addressed one of the crueler elements that arose in the aftermath of that awful day: Some Americans developed a fear of Muslims.

One of the Muslim men stuck in Gander immediately drew suspicion from his fellow passengers. What, they wanted to know, was he doing and was he a threat to them?

In the days, weeks and months that followed those despicable attacks, many Americans developed an unfounded fear of all Muslims, just as people became distrustful of Japanese-Americans after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the reasons I wished I had a thought bubble as I watched the show was to see and appreciate what the other members of the audience recalled in their own lives.

Indeed, for me, the toughest part of the beginning of the show was immersing myself in the story. While I recognized that I was hearing about the experiences of people in a faraway place, I kept recalling the day when my then 3-month-old daughter seemed to sense our panic, fear and sadness, refusing to sleep or even allow us to put her down.

I also thought about the friends and professional contacts who got up, went to work and never returned to their families that day.

And now, several days after attending the show, I see that President Donald Trump (R) has decided to attack two of his favorite Democratic targets by retweeting images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York as Muslims, standing in front of an Iranian flag.

The suggestion, perhaps, is that they must be terrorists or be standing with the cruel regime in Iran if they don’t immediately support a president whose explanation for his own recent actions in Iran seems to change by the day.

Moving away from his world view, however, I feel as if we’re still fighting an irrational battle where one group — Muslims — is considered dangerous to “our way of life.” Do we really believe that any one religion could be eager to destroy us? Can we casually allow anti-Muslim fears to return?

Surely, we must have learned something in the last 18 years? The enemy doesn’t wear one set of clothing or practice one religion. We don’t have to wait for tragedy or for extraordinary circumstances to rise to the moment, the way the residents of Gander did.

Donghui Zhu

By Daniel Dunaief

About 5 percent of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease have a genetic mutation that likely contributed to a condition that causes cognitive declines.

That means the vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s have other risk factors.

Donghui Zhu, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine who joined Stony Brook University this summer, believes that age-related decline in the presence of the element magnesium in the brain may exacerbate or contribute to Alzheimer’s.

Donghui Zhu

The National Institutes of Health believes the former associate professor at the University of North Texas may be on the right track, awarding Zhu $3.5 million in funding. Zhu believes magnesium helps prevent the loss of neurons, in part because of the connection between this element, inflammation and the development of Alzheimer’s.

Numerous other factors may also contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Diabetes, lifestyle, a specific sleep cycle and low exercise levels may all play a role in leading to cognitive declines associated with Alzheimer’s, Zhu said.

According to some prior research, people with Alzheimer’s have a lower level of free magnesium in their body and in their serum levels than people who don’t suffer from this disease, he added.

In the short term, he aspires to try to link the magnesium deficiency to neuronal inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease.

Zhu plans to use some of the funds from the grant, which will run for the next five years, on animal models of Alzheimer’s. If his study shows that a lower level of magnesium contributes to inflammation and the condition, he would like to add magnesium back to their systems. Magnesium acts as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent.

“If we supply a sufficient amount of magnesium, can we slow down or reverse the process of this disease?” Zhu asked. “We hope it would.”

Any potential cognitive improvement in animal models might offer a promising alternative to current treatments, which often only have limited to moderate effects on patient symptoms.

In the longer term, Zhu would like to contribute to an understanding of why Alzheimer’s disease develops in the first place. Knowing that would lead to other alternative treatments as well.

“I don’t think my group or we alone can solve this puzzle,” he said. “We are all trying to chip in so the scientific community can have an answer or solution for the public.”

Like people with many other diseases or disorders, any two people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis don’t necessarily have the same causes or type of the progressive disorder.

Women represent two-thirds of the Alzheimer’s population. Zhu said this isn’t linked to the longer life span for women, but may be more of a by-product of the change in female hormones over time.

In his research, he plans to study female and male animal models separately, as he looks to understand how the causes and progression of the disease may differ by gender.

In the human population, scientists have linked drug addiction or alcoholism with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. He plans to perform additional studies of this connection as well.

“It’s the consensus in the community that alcohol addiction will increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Zhu said. People who consume considerable alcohol have reduced blood flow to the brain that can endanger or threaten the survival of blood vessels.

“This is another topic of interest to us,” he added.

Zhu is collaborating with other experts in drug addiction studies to explore the link with Alzheimer’s. 

In his research, he hopes to link his background in biology and engineering to tackle a range of translational problems. 

Stefan Judex, a professor and interim chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook, is excited about the potential for Zhu’s work.

Zhu is “a fast rising star in the field of biomaterials and fills a gap in our department and the university,” Judex explained in an email. “He is well-equipped to apply his unique research skills to a number of diseases, ultimately aiding in preventing and treating those conditions.”

In addition to his work on Alzheimer’s, Zhu also pursues studies in several other areas, including nano-biomaterials, biodegradable or bio-resorbable materials, regenerative medicine for cardiovascular and orthopedic applications, and drug delivery device and platforms

During his doctoral studies and training at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he focused on dementia and neuron science, while his postdoctoral research at the University of Rochester involved engineering, where he did considerable work on tissue engineering and biomaterials.

Zhu decided he had the right training and experience to do both, which is how he picked up on tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and neuroscience.

“They are not totally exclusive to each other,” he said. “There are many common theories or technologies, methods and models we can share.”

Adults don’t generate or create new neurons. He hopes in the future that an engineering approach may help to reconnect neurons that may have lost their interaction with their neighbors, in part through small magnesium wires that can “help guide their reconnection,” which is, he said, a typical example of how to use biomaterials to promote neuro-regeneration.

In his lab, he works on the intersection between engineering and medicine. The interdisciplinary and translational nature of the research attracted him to the new Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine at Stony Brook.

He described Stony Brook as the “total package for me” because it has a medical school and hospital, as well as an engineering department and entrepreneurial support.

He has already filed numerous patents and would like to form start-up companies to apply his research.

Judex wrote that he is “incredibly pleased and proud that Dr. Zhu joined” Stony Brook and that it is “incredible that he received this large grant within the first few months since his start.”

In his career, Zhu would like to contribute to new treatments.

“Some day,” he said, he hopes to “put a real product on the market.”

 

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Amid the delightful sensory experiences of a recent warm-weather vacation, my wife and I enjoyed an unexpected gift: The words other people chose to share on their T-shirts.

The messages weren’t limited to any one age group, as the young and old took time to find phrases they shared with strangers who were enjoying time in warmer weather.

A boy, aged about 12, stood in a line with a white T-shirt with a message in all-capital letters: “Help I’m on a family vacay.” To round out the picture, he had a dour and distracted look as he was clearly waiting for other members of his family to catch up to him in line.

Another boy about the same age strutted around with a colorful shirt that suggested: “You need me on your team.” In a culture where sports plays such a prominent role in the identity of children and parents who drive children they imagine might one day be making six, seven, eight or nine figure salaries on fields all over the country, that shirt was consistent with the belief in the American Sports Dream.

Numerous adults and young adults offered a connection to their favorite sports teams. For one football fan, though, merely sharing the Philadelphia Eagles emblem was insufficient. Near his beloved Eagles logo, he urged his team to “Beat Dallas.” This year, that was especially fitting as the Eagles overtook the Cowboys in the last few weeks of the year to win the NFC East title.

I’m not sure if this coupling was deliberate, but a woman’s T-shirt suggested that readers “Follow your soul,” while her companion wore a Nashville Predators shirt, indicating, at least in the moment, that her friend’s soul may track the hockey team from Tennessee.

A young girl, walking next to her father, wore a shirt that suggested that she’d “Rather Be a Mermaid.” Given how desperately Ariel, the Little Mermaid of Disney fame, sang about wanting to escape the ocean, I couldn’t help thinking about the line from the song “Under the Sea,” where the crab Sebastian admonishes her — King Triton’s youngest daughter — that “the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.”

An older African-American couple borrowed from the movies as the man wore a shirt that suggested he was “Straight Outta Money.” The message probably resonated for others who may have blown through some of their travel and entertainment budget for time in a warm climate.

Advertising a New England town coupled with a local accent, a woman sported a message that read, “Baa Ha Ba, Maine,” offering a connection to the Bar Harbor tourist destination along the coast of Maine that is a short drive to Acadia National Park.

A young boy urged people on his T- shirt to “Be the Change,” an expression that an actor or actress might borrow to spread a specific message after winning a coveted award for performing their craft.

Offering a take on the fine art of putting off responsibilities and chores, a young man wore a shirt that said, “I don’t procrastinate. I delegate to my future self.” After reading so many variations of the theme that the procrastinators club would be meeting some time next week, I enjoyed a refreshing take on the process of setting something aside for a later time.

An older man with white hair and a thick white mustache and beard brought along two noteworthy T-shirts: The first celebrated his 80 years, as part of a beach tour, and the second promised that “Beneath this beard is a handsome man.”

Nicholas Gladman with a harvest of sorghum at Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research Lab in Riverhead. Photo by Sendi Mejia

By Daniel Dunaief

When people buy a bag of potato chips, they often find that half of the bag is filled with air. The same is true of a sorghum plant, which produces livestock feed and is converted into ethanol, part of many gases that power cars.

Nicholas Gladman

In a typical sorghum plant, half of the flowers become grain, while the other half remain infertile. As the world grapples with food shortages and scientists seek ways to increase the yield of a wide array of plants, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory wondered whether they could increase that yield.

Building on previous work done in the lab of Doreen Ware, an adjunct professor at CSHL, postdoctoral fellow Nicholas Gladman characterized a mutation for a single gene that lowered the level of a hormone. The effect of the lower hormone, or jasmonic acid, at a specific time and place within plant development doubled the fertility of the sorghum plant.

“When we don’t have a functional version of this enzyme, it releases this form of development that wouldn’t normally occur,” Gladman said. “You get increased fertility in flowers.”

The gene they studied is called MSD2. The researchers published their work in International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Another gene, MSD1, which Ware’s lab characterized in 2018, is a likely regulator for MSD2. Other genes may also serve as regulators of MSD2, Gladman said. Disruptions in either gene leads to altered flower development and seed production.

Gladman’s postdoctoral research adviser Zhanguo Xin collaborated on the work. Xin, who is a research molecular biologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, explained that Gladman characterized the mutants, identified the interaction between MSD1 and MSD2 and identified the regulatory sequences of MSD1.

This research could extend to other cereal crops, which have the same conserved sets of genes that affect their growth and fertility.

A concern in altering any gene resides in the overall effect on the health of the plant. Creating a super plant that falls over and dies in a slight wind, can’t fend off common infections, or requires a perfect blend of soil would likely offset the benefit of the increased fertility. Plant geneticists would like to ensure any mutation doesn’t make the plant less viable in the long run.

“Sometimes there can be a trade off between an agriculturally beneficial genetic change by introducing other detrimental effects,” Gladman explained in an email. “Optimally, plant geneticists will try to ensure the side effects of any mutation are insignificant to farmers; sometimes, this is more difficult and the downsides may not always present themselves at the early stages of lab investigation.”

This particular gene is narrowly and spatially expressed within the plant, Gladman said, and the researchers haven’t been able to identify or quantify the effect of this gene on anything else other than flowers and floral architecture.

The gene and the hormone would be a concern if it were expressed more broadly and at high levels throughout other plant tissues, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, he said.

The researchers have looked at other tissues, such as the leaf and stem, and have found that MSD2 is expressed in low levels in these other areas. Plants that have the MSD2 mutation do not demonstrate any noticeable differences in growth compared to nonmutants in the field or in greenhouse conditions. If this mutated gene had an agricultural benefit, farmers would likely crossbreed a plant that had this gene with an elite sorghum hybrid line

Ideally, the benefits of the increased fertility would combine with benefits of all the genetic components of the hybrid lines as well. The way the researchers involved in this study produced this more fertile version of sorghum is an “acceptable type of breeding for organic or conventional farming,” Gladman said.

While the plant increases the grain number per seed head, it doesn’t necessarily produce greater overall yield in part because the seeds are smaller. Researchers haven’t been able to confirm that yet in a field condition, although they hope that’s the case.

Gladman was grateful for the opportunity to work in Ware’s lab and to collaborate with Xin. The effects of disrupting similar genes in maize and Arabidopsis, which is a plant in the mustard family that scientists often use in genetic studies, influences flower fertility.

He said researchers in Ware’s lab can perform additional developmental analysis. The researchers in Ware’s lab may seek additional collaborators for other analyses down the road as well.

“How this particular pathway is triggered and cross-communicates with other developmental pathways is very complex, but influences so much about traits that control grain production and yield that it is essential for further investigations,” he explained.

Gladman arrived at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2017. Prior to conducting research on Long Island, he finished his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he worked on Arabidopsis. He decided he wanted to get more involved with crop species and explored research opportunities at United States Department of Agriculture labs. He was working with Xin in Lubbock, Texas, before transitioning to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Gladman has been delighted by the “wonderful place to learn,” where he is surrounded by “people who are always willing to talk and engage and collaborate.”

A resident of Greenlawn, Gladman enjoys hiking along the Hudson and in the Adirondacks. He credits a high school biology class he took in Grandview Heights High School in Columbus, Ohio, with instilling in him and his three brothers an appreciation and love of science. He particularly enjoyed a unit on the “genetics of disease” that inspired him to pursue a career in the sciences.

As for his work, Gladman is excited to be a part of research that may, one day, increase the productivity of crop species. He said thoughts about food shortages are “a constant concern and driver of our research.”

 

Stock photo
Daniel Dunaief

They are called rubber chicken dinners for a reason. Much of the time, corporate events masquerading as social gatherings offer little in the way of flavor, taste or entertainment.

This one, however, had so much potential. A group invited my wife and me to attend a football game. The connection came through my wife, who interacts regularly with our hosts and received the invitation months earlier. When we read the invitation, we knew she could invite our son, although we also knew he had two midterms the day after the big game, which meant that I could escort her.

I have, on occasion, demonstrated a surprising nimbleness in jamming my foot into my mouth. Unintentional and harmless though the effort may be, I have worked hard to pull back on (a) sharing too many details, (b) making too many jokes and (c) asking anything about controversial topics.

We walked into a suite, where our host immediately caught my wife’s eye and shook her hand. I’d met him several times and he graciously welcomed me as well, although I realize my decidedly unimpressive place in the world.

My wife had given me a rundown of the people we’d likely meet, even as I tried to look over some of their shoulders to watch the football game occurring past the tray of appetizers, the plate of sliders, the collection of untouched cookies and the bowl of half-eaten popcorn.

A woman whose name had made the list shook my hand and smiled at me. I waited the usual three seconds to see whether she was planning to bolt to chat with someone more interesting, more powerful, taller, better dressed or more well versed in the world of football. After all, she was wearing a football jersey and, while my son can name the rosters of most teams because of his fantasy football acumen, I’m much more limited in this sport.

She, however, kept looking me in the eye, encouraging further conversation. We described the lives of our children. That generally constitutes safe topics, so I was on terra firma.

When I asked where she grew up, she said California until she went to high school on Long Island. I’m not sure why I asked because Long Island is truly a huge place, but I wondered what school she attended.

She told me it was in Setauket and it was called Ward Melville.

Wow, I replied, I went there, too. She said she was on the tennis team and we both remembered the name of the coach who had been there years ago, Vicki Goldfarb. My new acquaintance’s father, as it turns out, was a fighter pilot who had moved to Long Island to work for Grumman when he became an engineer.

It became a remarkably detailed conversation. She lived about a mile away from me for five years, until I graduated a few years ahead of her from Ward Melville.

When she excused herself for a moment, I figured that I might have overplayed the conversation. At that point, I tried to get a closer look at the football game, until my wife and I started talking with our hosts about their family’s skiing adventures.

As we started to leave, I once again found myself chatting with the Ward Melville graduate. She shared a few more compelling stories about her family and her life, including an adventurous trip to Green Bay, where her husband celebrated a landmark birthday in the snow and cold.

This was, decidedly, not a typical rubber chicken event for me and one that I hope continues if we follow up and get together some time in 2020. And, in case you are wondering, I don’t think I committed any social faux pas.

Interns Nylette Lopez (rear) and Stephanie Taboada characterize catalysts as they attempt to convert carbon dioxide and methane into synthesis gas this past summer at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Photo from BNL.

By Daniel Dunaief

This article is part two in a two-part series.

Local medical and research institutions are aware of the challenges women face in science and are taking steps to ensure that women receive equal opportunities for success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM). Times Beacon Record News Media reached out to members of each institution and received an overview of some initiatives.

Brookhaven National Laboratory 

The Department of Energy-funded research facility has created a number of opportunities for women, including Brookhaven Women in Science. This effort has been active for over four decades and its mission, according to Peter Genzer, a BNL spokesman, is to support the development of models, policies and practices that enhance the quality of life for BNL employees and emphasize the recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention of women.

BWIS offers annual awards, outreach events and various networking opportunities in the lab and community, while the lab’s Talent Management Group partners with BWIS to bring classes and speakers to discuss issues specific to women.

In October, the group hosted Kimberly Jackson, a vice chair and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Spelman College, who gave a talk titled “Realigning the Crooked Room in STEM.”

The Leona Woods Distinguished Postdoctoral Lectureship Award at BNL, meanwhile, celebrates the scientific accomplishments of female physicists, physicists from under-represented minority groups and LGBTQ physicists and to promote diversity and inclusion. BNL awarded the lectureship this year to Kirsty Duffy, a fellow at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

For the past five years, BNL has also partnered with a local chapter of Girls Inc., which helps to “encourage young women towards careers” in STEM, Genzer explained in an email.

BNL has also collaborated with the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County to organize a new patch program that encourages Girl Scouts to work in scientific fields. As of September, county Girl Scouts can earn three new Brookhaven Lab patches, and the lab hopes to extend the program nationwide across the Department of Energy complex.

BNL also provides six weeks of paid time off at 100 percent of base pay for a primary caregiver after birth or adoption and one week of full pay for a secondary caregiver. BNL is exploring plans to enhance support for primary and secondary caregivers, Genzer said.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has taken several recent steps as part of an ongoing effort to encourage gender diversity.

In October, a group of four CSHL administrators traveled to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to discuss mentoring. The goal was to train them on how to design and deliver mentoring training regularly to the faculty, postdocs and graduate students on campus, said Charla Lambert, the diversity, equity and inclusion officer for research at CSHL. The first version of the training will occur next spring. The ultimate goal is to ensure the research environment at CSHL emphasizes good mentoring practices and is more inclusive for all mentees.

CSHL has also hosted a three-day workshop in leadership practices for postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty since 2011. The workshop, which is run through the Meetings & Courses Program, trains about 25 postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty each year and has about one per year from CSHL, addresses how to hire and motivate people, while providing constructive feedback.

Lambert said family-friendly policies were already a part of CSHL policies, which include a child care facility. Members of the faculty receive extra funding when they travel to conferences to provide additional child care.

Lambert, who is a program manager for extramural Meetings & Courses overseeing diversity initiatives, has worked to get the demographic data for participants centralized, analyzed and used in developing policies. She believes this kind of data centralization is an area for potential improvement in the research division, where she is working to ensure an equitable distribution of resources among CSHL scientists.

Throughout her nine-year career at CSHL, Lambert said she has worked with the meetings and courses division to make sure the 9,000 scientists who visit the facility each year include women as invited speakers. She also works to reach course applicants from a wide range of institutions, including outside of prestigious research schools.

Ultimately, Lambert is hoping to help change the culture of science among the researchers with whom she interacts from a wide range of institutions. She feels that those people who leave the STEM fields because something about the culture of science didn’t work for them represent a “huge loss” to the field and creates a “survivorship bias.”

Stony Brook University 

For Stony Brook, gender diversity is “very important,” said Latha Chandran, the vice dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs at the Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine. 

Chandran said more men entered the field of medicine 14 years ago. That has completely changed, as women have outnumbered their male counterparts in medicine for the last three or four years.

Chandran cited a number of statistics to indicate changes at the medical school. For starters, women faculty constituted 38 percent of the total in 2011. This April, that number climbed to 48.1 percent. That puts Stony Brook in the top 79th percentile of medical schools in terms of female representation.

While the overall numbers are higher, women are still underrepresented in the top tiers of the medical school, as 18 percent of the department chairs are women. She hopes more women can lead departments and that they can serve as role models that others can aspire to follow.

As for harassment, Chandran said Stony Brook was above the national mean in 2011. For almost all categories, Stony Brook is now below the national mean.

In 2011, Stony Brook created We Smile, which stands for We can Eradicate Student Mistreatment in the Learning Environment. The goal of this program is to educate people about harassment and to ensure that any mistreatment is reported. Through this effort, Stony Brook medical students are aware of the policies and procedures surrounding reporting.

Stony Brook is also addressing any bias in admission procedures by prospective applicants, who receive a standardized scenario to address with an admissions officer. In 2025, admissions officers will not have any information about the qualifications of the individual and will evaluate his or her response during interviews only based on response to scenarios.

Stony Brook University has almost finalized its search for a chief diversity candidate. Chandran expects that the medical school will “continue to make progress.”

Getty Images

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

The Democratic hopefuls for the presidency sure seem angry these days, as the election clock counts down to less than a year. Last week, a man in Iowa had the audacity, the temerity, the unmitigated gall to ask Joe Biden, the front runner, about his son Hunter, who is at the center of this Ukrainian maelstrom.

Biden reacted with anger and righteous indignation, calling the man a “damn liar.”

Good one. Or was it? Is that really the best way to react? Biden then nicknamed him “fat.” Yikes! That seemed cruel and disrespectful.

The man was throwing salt in either self-inflicted or Republican-directed wounds. But, hey, Biden’s son did sit on the board of an energy company in the Ukraine, which creates bad optics. It doesn’t mean he or his son did anything wrong.

What’s weird now, though, is that Biden seemed to feel the need — or perhaps the test-marketed driven necessity — to attack the man who dared ask the question. That seems to be taking a page out of the book of the incumbent, who uses anger as a regular tool to define his enemies and keep them off balance, while rallying his troops.

So, what happened to Mike Bloomberg? The billionaire was recently asked whether he was trying to buy the election. Out came the righteous indignation, along with a story about how he made his money, all the great work he did as mayor and how he won’t be beholden to any special interests. Grrr!

What about Bernie Sanders? He’s a cult figure among many Democrats, but his demeanor seems to be one of the angry, older white man. He reminds me of the Howard Beale character, played by Peter Finch, in the 1976 movie “Network.” Beale urges people to get up out of their chairs, go to the window and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” 

Sanders, or the Larry David version of him, could easily be uttering the same line in response to (a) health care costs, (b) the cost of college tuition for people who could otherwise use education to change their lives, (c) climate change or (d) all of the above.

And then there’s the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I know she’s not running for president, but she finally lashed out at a reporter — does that also sound familiar — and suggested that her religion kept her from hating people. Her tone, method and message had more than a hint of anger, if not toward the president whom she and the Democrats were impeaching than to the reporter.

The words she spoke, as she pointed her finger, were, “Don’t mess with me.” I was reminded of the line Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Martha Bach, said in the 1981 movie “Arthur,” starring Dudley Moore, “Don’t screw with me, Burt.”

If this past week is a preview of the upcoming primary and general elections, we’ve got about 11 months of Beale slogans and Bachs slaps to the faces.

The wrestling match may once again change its tune for “the Ds” and “the Rs” when we know which D will be facing off against the most likely R.

Maybe the Ds host a party for themselves where they describe the hopes, opportunities and promise of the American Dream for one and all.

Maybe the Rs decide counterpunching has been overplayed, and they start hosting their own party, where they celebrate low taxes, low unemployment, a strong economy and their plans for an even better future.

Primal anger, however, seems more likely as we prepare for a testy election. Wouldn’t it be a welcome relief if at least one of the candidates offered civil, calm, graceful and pleasant replies, even to questions he or she found challenging?

Photo by ©Constance Brukin, 2018/ CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

This article is part one in a two-part series.

Women have made great strides in science, but they haven’t yet found equal opportunity or a harassment-free work environment.

After the National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2018 that highlighted sexual harassment and unconscious bias, a team of scientists came together at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory last December to discuss ways to improve the work environment.

Led by Carol Greider, an alumni of CSHL and the director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins and a Nobel Laureate, and Jason Sheltzer, a fellow at CSHL, the group recently released its recommendations in the journal Science.

While the atmosphere and opportunities have changed, “It’s not a clear-cut enlightenment and everybody is on board,” said Leemor Joshua-Tor, a professor at CSHL and a member of the group that discussed the challenges women face in science at the Banbury Center last year.

The Science article highlights earlier work that estimates that 58 percent of women experienced unwanted sexual attention or advances at some point in their careers. The authors write that this harassment is often ignored or excused, which can cause talented and capable women to leave the field of scientific research.

A member of the group that came together to discuss how to continue to build on the progress women have made in the STEM fields, Nancy Hopkins, an Amgen Inc. professor of biology emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped bring attention to the disparity between opportunities for men and women in science in the 1990s.

“My generation pushed [opportunities for women] forward and got through the door,” Hopkins said. “We found out that when you get through the door, the playing field wasn’t level.”

Hopkins said the progress is “still not enough” and that leaders like Greider and Sheltzer, whom she praised for tackling this nettlesome issue, “are now identifying problems that we accepted.”

For starters, the group agrees with the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which believes treating sexual harassment in the same way as scientific misconduct would help. 

The scientists, which include CSHL’s CEO Bruce Stillman, recommend creating institutional and government offices to address substantiated claims of sexual misconduct and to educate institutions on harassment policy, using the same structures for research misconduct as models. 

An office that verified these claims could offer reporting chains, consistent standards of evidence and defined protocols.

Additionally, the scientists believe researchers should have to answer questions from funding agencies about whether they have been found responsible for gender-based harassment at any point in the prior 10 years, as well as whether they have been a part of a settlement regarding a claim of professional misconduct, research misconduct or gender-based harassment in the same time period. 

This policy, they urge, could prevent institutions from tolerating serial offenders who have generated a high level of research funding over the years.

“People that go through a complete investigation and have been found to have committed egregious harassment [can] get a job somewhere else, where nobody knows and everything happens again,” Joshua-Tor said. This policy of needing to answer questions about harassment in the previous decade would prevent that scenario.

The dependence scientists have on lab leaders creates professional risk for students who report harassment. The fortunes of the trainees are “very much dependent on the principal investigator in an extreme way,” explained Joshua-Tor. Senior faculty members affect the future of their staff through letters of recommendation.

“There’s a lot at stake,” said Joshua-Tor, especially if these lab leaders lose their jobs. Indeed, their students may suffer from a loss of funding. The authors recommend finding another researcher with a proven track record of mentorship to manage the lab.

Even though many senior scientists have considerable responsibilities, Joshua-Tor said principal investigators have assumed mentorship duties for others in unusual circumstances. 

“There were cases where people died,” so other scientists in neighboring labs took over their staff, she explained.

If, however, the institution can’t find another researcher who is available to take on these additional responsibilities, the authors recommend that the funding agency make bridge funding available to these researchers.

In addition to claims of harassment, the scientists discussed the difficulty women face from conscious and unconscious bias.

Joshua-Tor recalls an experience in a physics lab when she was an undergraduate. She was a lab partner with a man who was a “fantastic theoretician,” but couldn’t put together an experiment, so she connected the circuits. “The professor would come and talk” to her lab partner about the experimental set up while ignoring her and treating her as if she were “air.”

The scientists cited how male postdoctoral researchers tend to receive higher salaries than their female counterparts, while male faculty also receive larger salaries and start-up offers. Men may also get a larger share of internal funding, as was alleged with a $42 million donation to the Salk Institute.

To provide fair salaries, institutions could create anonymized salary data to an internal committee or to an external advisory committee for regular review, the scientists suggested.

Additionally, the researchers urged work-life balance through family-friendly policies, which include encouraging funding agencies to consider classifying child care as an acceptable expense on federal grants. Conferences, they suggest, could also attempt to provide on-site childcare and spaces for lactation.

While these extra efforts would likely cost more money, some groups have already addressed these needs.

“The American Society for Cell Biology has a fantastic child care program, where, if you are traveling, they have funds to alleviate extra child care services at home,” Joshua-Tor said. “If this is something we need and it’s in everybody’s psyche that it has to be taken care of for a meeting, it will be commonplace.”

Finally, the group addressed the challenge of advancing the careers of women in science. Female authors are often underrepresented in high-impact journals. Women also tend to dedicate more time to teaching and mentorship. The group encouraged holistic evaluations, which focus on an analysis of a candidate’s scientific and institutional impact.

Hopkins suggested that the solutions to these challenges at different institutions will vary. “You have to pick solutions that work in your culture” and that involve the administration. Ultimately, leveling the playing field doesn’t happen just once. “You’ve got to solve it and stay on it,” she urged.

Next week’s article explores some of the efforts of Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Lab and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to provide an inclusive environment that ensures women have an equal opportunity to succeed in the STEM fields.

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File photo from Stony Brook University

An award-winning scientist, grandmother, aunt, mother and wife, Dr. Lina Obeid, died Nov. 29 at the age of 64 after a recurrence of lung cancer.

Lina Obeid spending time with her granddaughter Evelyn. Photo by Marya Hannun

Born in New York and raised in Lebanon, Obeid was a State University of New York distinguished professor of medicine and the dean of research at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, where she conducted research on cancer and aging. In 2015, she was named as one of The Village Times Herald’s People of the Year along with her husband Dr. Yusuf Hannun.

A Celebration of Life memorial service for Obeid will take place Dec. 7 at Flowerfield in St. James from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and will include remarks and a reception. Attendees are encouraged to wear bright colors.

SBU faculty appreciated Obeid’s scientific, administrative and mentoring contributions, as well as her engaging style.

Michael Bernstein, interim president of SBU, said Obeid was “very well liked and respected” and that her loss leaves a “big hole” at the university.

Obeid “oversaw our research programs, specifically the core facilities on which all our laboratory scientists depend, for sample analysis, for microscopy of cells” among other areas, Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Renaissance School of Medicine wrote in an email.

He lauded Obeid’s personable approach, which he said, “rubbed off on many people,” creating a “renewed sense of optimism in our ability to impact all three missions: research, teaching and clinical care.”

Obeid and Hannun, who is the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, knew each other in high school, started dating in medical school and were married for 36 years. The couple recently shared a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 16th International Conference on Bioactive Lipids in Cancer, Inflammation and Related Diseases in October. The award represents the first time a woman received this honor.

Supriya Jayadev, who was a graduate student in Hannun’s lab at Duke University and is the executive director of Clallam Mosaic in Port Angeles, Washington, called Obeid a “role model” for women in science. “Not only was she a strong leader with the ability to compete in a male-dominated field, but she retained her femininity and grace.”

Daniel Raben, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has known Obeid and Hannun for more than two decades.

“She had a huge impact on the sphingolipid field because of the contribution she made,” Raben said. “It’s a huge loss. She was a giant.”

Dr. Maurizio Del Poeta, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at SBU, knew Obeid since 1995.

“I once asked her if she had any advice for my grants to get funded,” he recalled in an email. Obeid suggested she didn’t know how to get funded, but that his work wouldn’t get funded if he didn’t submit proposals.

She “never took ‘no’ for an answer. She would insist and insist and insist again until she [would] persuade you and get a ‘yes,’” he added.

Del Poeta said Obeid did a “marvelous” job enhancing research facilities, while she was a “caring physician” for veterans at the Northport VA Medical Center.

Obeid and Hannun were co-directors of a National Institutes of Health program in Cancer Biology and Therapeutics, which this year received a grant renewal for another five years.

Obeid’s daughter Marya Hannun recalled her mother as “warm, honest, and funny” without being cynical. Marya said her mother cared about everyone around her and was rooting for them to succeed.

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy.”

— Mayra Hannun

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy,” Marya Hannun wrote in an email.

She suggested her mother was passionate about food, which shaped how they lived and traveled. When the family visited Greece, Obeid swam out for sea urchins, cracked them on rocks and ate them on the beach. She was a passionate cook who learned from her mother, Rosette, who wrote a Palestinian cookbook.

The Hannun family laughs “about how we plan out holidays around food and spend
our meals talking about the next meals,” Marya wrote.

Obeid was part of one of the first class of women admitted into the International College High School. She earned her bachelor of arts at Rutgers University, but was also creative as a child and interested in fashion and design.

“Anyone who [saw] her wouldn’t be surprised,” Marya said.

Obeid is survived by her husband, her parents, Rosette and Sami, her nieces and nephews, her triplet children and her two grandchildren.

Obeid and Hannun’s daughter Reem is married to Dr. Khaled Moussawi and lives in Baltimore. Awni and his wife Kathy Hannun have two children, Evelyn and Yusuf, and live in New York City.

Binks Wattenberg, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that “people like [Obeid] only come along a few times in one’s lifetime.”

In an email, he recalled how she had a
“way of looking into your eyes and persuading you to do an experiment that she thought absolutely had to be done.” He appreciated her enthusiasm, which made Wattenberg feel as if he was doing “absolutely
essential work.”

Obeid regularly invited her researchers for meals at her house, where they felt as if they also joined the family, said Dr. Gerard Blobe, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine who earned his doctorate in Yusuf Hannun’s lab over 20 years ago.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations in Obeid’s name to the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Potential donors can access the site at cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu/giving.