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Daniel Dunaief

The free event will be held on Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, Theater Two, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook.

By Daniel Dunaief

Want to hear characters from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein discussing artificial intelligence? Or, perhaps, get an inside look at an interaction between a scientist studying penguins and a potential donor? Maybe you’d like something more abstract, like a thought piece on aspects of memory?

You can get all three at an upcoming Science on Stage performance of three one-act plays written by award-winning playwrights that feature the themes of cutting edge research from Stony Brook University.

Ken Weitzman Photo courtesy of SBU

On October 30th at 4 p.m. at Staller Center for the Arts’ Theater Two, which holds up to 130 people, professional actors will read three 10-minute scripts. Directed by Jackson Gay, topics will include research about artificial intelligence, climate change in Antarctica and collective memory. Audience members can then listen to a discussion hosted by Program Founder and Associate Professor of Theater Ken Weitzman that includes the scientists and the playwrights. The event is free and open to the public.

Funded by a grant from the Office of the Provost at Stony Brook University and supported by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the performances are an “amuse-bouche,” or an appetizer, about some of the diverse and compelling science that occurs at Stony Brook University, said Weitzman. 

“The hope is that [the plays] generate interest and get people to want to ask the next question or that [the plays] stick with audience members emotionally or intellectually and makes them want to discover more.”

The upcoming performance features the writing of two-time Tony Award winning playwright Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown; Michele Lowe, whose first play made it to Broadway and around the world; and Rogelio Martinez, whose plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally.

The short plays will feature the scientific work of Nilanjan Chakraborty, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Heather Lynch, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, and Suparna Rajaram, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science in the Psychology Department.

“It’s a good example of what we are doing and the opportunities for us as we continue to put funding in the arts and the humanities and also in the intersection of that from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said Carl Lejuez, Stony Brook Provost, in an interview. This kind of collaborative effort works best “when it’s truly bi-directional. Both sides benefit.”

Lejuez credits President Maurie McInnis with setting the tone about the importance of learning the humanities and the sciences. Lejuez said McInnis talks during her convocation speech about how she had intended to become a physician when she attended college, but took an art history course that was part of a general education curriculum that changed her life. The sixth president of Stony Brook, McInnis earned her PhD in the History of Art from Yale University.

Lejuez highlighted a number of interdisciplinary efforts at Stony Brook University. Stephanie Dinkins, Professor in the Department of Art, bridges visual art and Artificial Intelligence. She has focused her work on addressing the shortcomings of AI in understanding and depicting black women.

The Simons Center for Geometry and Physics has an arts and culture program, while the Collaborative for the Earth has faculty from numerous disciplines. They are starting a new Tiger Teams to develop key areas of study and will offer seed funding for interdisciplinary work to tackle climate change.

Lejuez plans to attend Science on Stage on October 30th.

“I feel an almost desperation to learn as much as I can about all the aspects of the university,” he said. Not only is he there to “show respect for the work and give it gravitas, but it’s the only way [he and others] can do [their job] of representing and supporting faculty and staff” in science and the humanities.

An enjoyable experience

The participants in Science on Stage appreciate the opportunity to collaborate outside their typical working world.

Heather Lynch, who conducts research on penguins in Antarctica and worked with Lowe, described the experience as “immensely enjoyable” and suggested that the “arts can help scientists step out of their own comfort zone to think about where their own work fits into society at large.”

Lynch explained that while the specific conversation in the play is fictionalized, the story reflects “my aggregate angst about our Antarctic field work and, in that sense, is probably more literally true than any conversation or interaction with any real life traveling guest.”

Lynch believes the play on her work is thought provoking. “Science is a tool, what matters is what you do” with that science, she said.

Lynch was thrilled to work with someone new and believes Lowe probably learned about Antarctica and the challenges it faces.

Bringing talent together

The first iteration of Science on Stage occurred in 2020 and was available remotely in the midst of the pandemic. Weitzman had reached out to scientists at Stony Brook to see who might be willing to partner up with playwrights.

He  is eager to share the diverse combination of topics in a live setting from this year’s trio of scientists. “I did some nudging to make sure there were a variety” of grand challenge topics, he said.

Weitzman explained that bringing the humanities and arts together in such an effort generated considerable enthusiasm. “There’s such incredible research being done here,” he said. “I want to engage for this community.”

He hopes such a performance can intrigue people at Stony Brook or in the broader community about science, theater writing or science communication.

While the plays are each 10 minutes long and include actors reading scripts, Weitzman said the experience would feel like it’s being performed and not read, particularly because professional actors are participating. 

He also hopes one or more of the playwrights sees this interaction as an opportunity to create a longer piece.

“I would love it if [this experience] encourages a playwright to think it justifies a full length” script, Weitzman said.

Lynch wrote a pilot screenplay herself called “Forecast Horizon” that she describes as an intellectual exercise. If Netflix calls, however, she’s “definitely interested in having it live on,” she said. Writing the screenplay gave her a “better appreciation for how much more similar science is to the arts than I would have thought. Both involve solving puzzles.”

As for future funding, Lejuez suggested that the University was still figuring out how to allocate available funds for next year and in future years.

He would like to see how this first time in person goes. Depending on the interest and enthusiasm, he could envision a regular source of funds to support such future similar collaborations.


Some of the ways SBU combines arts and humanities with science

By Daniel Dunaief

The southern flagship State University of New York facility, Stony Brook University seeks ways to bring the best from the arts and humanities together with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Provost Carl Lejuez. Photo from SBU

Indeed, the school provides a home for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, where researchers tap into famed actor Alda’s improvisational acting skills, among other techniques, to connect with their audiences and share their cutting-edge work and discoveries.

In addition to the October 30th Science on Stage production at Staller Theater 2, Provost Carl Lejuez recently highlighted numerous additional interdisciplinary efforts.

This past spring, the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics presented artwork by Professor of Mathematics Moira Chas. Chas created artwork that combines yarn and wire, clot and zippers to illustrate mathematical objects, questions or theorems.

The Office of the Provost has also provided several grants to support interdisciplinary work. This includes two $25,000 grants that promote the development of new research teams to explore interdisciplinary areas of scholarly work and address challenges such as Digital Futures/ Ethical Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability, Critical health Studies/ Health Disparities, Global Migration, and other areas.

Additionally, the Collaborative for the Earth brings together faculty from the arts, humanities and social sciences with behavioral science and STEM faculty. The university is starting a new Tiger Teams that will develop key areas of study and offer seed funding to tackle climate change. The funding will explore ways to create solutions that policy makers and the public can adopt, as well as ways to address disparities in the impact of climate change and ways to support people who are disproportionately affected by this threat.

SBU added interdisciplinary faculty. Susannah Glickman, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, has interests such as computing, political economy, 20th century US and world history and the history of science.

Matthew Salzano, IDEA Fellow in Ethical AI, Information Systems and Data Science and Literacy, meanwhile, has a joint appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication. He studies rhetoric and digital culture, emphasizing how digital technology, including artificial intelligence, impacts and interacts with social justice.

Through course work, members of the university community can also address interdisciplinary questions. Associate Professor in the Department of Art Karen Lloyd teaches an Art and Medicine course, while  Adjunct Lecturer Patricia Maudies, also in the Art Department, teaches Art + The Brain. Both of these courses bring in guest lecturers from STEM and medicine.

Stony Brook also hosts centers aimed at interdisciplinary research, such as the Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS).

One of the current goals and objectives of the IACS strategic plan is to advance the intellectual foundations of computation and data, with high-impact applications in engineering, in the physical, environmental, life, health and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities.

President Barack Obama said he wanted even more funding for treatment. File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Years before he was the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama gave me a call.

I was working at Bloomberg News as a banking reporter and was covering some financial services issue. A source of mine suggested that I chat with this state senator from Illinois, whom he insisted was going places. My source clearly recognized Obama’s potential.

What I recall about a conversation that was akin to getting a rookie card for Derek Jeter was that Obama was erudite, eloquent and halting in his response to my questions. Attuned to the rapid pace of New York conversation, I was unaccustomed to the cadence of his conversation.

When Obama ran for office, I recognized not only his name but also his speech pattern.

I have had brushes with a wide range of people of varying levels of fame, often times in the context of my work as a journalist. Please find below a brief compendium of such interactions.

— Jim Lovell. The commander of Apollo 13, Lovell and his wife Marilyn attended an event in Florida where I was their point of contact. When the cool night breeze gave Marilyn a chill, Lovell jumped up to get her sweater and asked when they could leave. I asked my bosses, who wanted Lovell, who was the honored guest, to stay until after dinner. He was greatly appreciative when I told him he could finally lift off.

— Yogi Berra. I attended an event at Tavern on the Green event, where Berra was a client of the host. Even though I was only five foot, seven inches tall at the time (I’m probably a bit shorter now), I towered over the older and thin former Yankees catcher. When I told him it was an honor to meet him, he took my hand in his and offered a polite smile.

— Eliot Spitzer. Before he was a governor and client 9, Spitzer was a hard-charging New York Attorney General who went after investment banks for inflating stocks to help their business at the potential expense of investors. I spoke regularly with Spitzer, whose energy and intellect made it hard for my fingers to keep up while I was typing notes. I expected the impressive and ambitious Spitzer to ascend to national office.

— Scott Kelly. I interviewed Astronaut Scott Kelly after he set an American record for continuous time in space of 340 days aboard the International Space Station. With his then girlfriend, now wife, Amika Kauderer, in the room, the two of them described his book. She also recounted the second class treatment she received from some of the wives who weren’t impressed with her status as a girlfriend.

— Ed Koch. The former New York mayor was a staple at Bloomberg News, where I worked for several years. At 6 feet, two inches tall, Koch towered over me as he regularly filled his plate with some of the free snacks and sugary treats at the newsroom.

— Hank Paulson. I interviewed the former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs at an International Monetary Fund meeting in Hong Kong. After I asked the first question, Paulson, who would become Treasury Secretary, yanked the microphone out of my hands and spent the rest of the interview holding it up to his mouth. I tried to project my voice into the microphone and above the chatter in a crowded restaurant.

— Goldie Hawn. At a lunch at Shun Lee Palace near Lincoln Center with a former banker from the now defunct Lehman Brothers, I spotted the famous actress as I approached her crowded table. Dressed in a sleeveless black dress, she could tell I recognized her. Rather than look away, she gave me a warm and welcoming smile. I wished, even moments later, that I had given her a thumbs up or an appreciative grin. 

— Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. When I was at the New York Daily News, I spoke regularly with the Knicks legend for a rookie (Channing Frye) vs. veteran stock picking contest. While he lost the contest, he couldn’t have been friendlier and more receptive during our weekly calls, updating me on his life and sharing his weekly stock picks.

Jon Heusel Photo by Henry David

By Daniel Dunaief

Growing up in Hooper, a small town in the central part of Nebraska, Jon Heusel considered following in his parents’ footsteps.

His father William took him on house calls where he provided for a wide range of medical needs.

Jon Heusel with his father William.

Along the way, however, Heusel, whose mother Mona was also an intensive care unit nurse towards the end of her career, discovered genetics and immunology as he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska and then his MD, PhD at the University of Washington in St. Louis.

Enamored with these sciences and inspired to pursue a path of patient care from a different perspective, Heusel blazed his own trail, albeit one in which health care remained a professional focus.

Indeed, the second-generation doctor, who became Vice Chair for Clinical Pathology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University on October 2nd, has devoted his career to the translation of new technologies into healthcare solutions.

For the past decade, this involved next generation sequencing, but also other new technologies and computerized systems for analyzing the data.

Heusel is inspired by a drive to improve the healthcare at academic medical centers like Stony Brook and Washington University, where new discoveries can affect positive change.

“The more I learned about Stony Brook, which is an up-and-coming university, the more I thought it was a magnificent opportunity for me,” said Heusel, who admired the recent jump Stony Brook University has made in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.


Pathology Chair Kenneth Shroyer described Heusel as a “wonderful recruitment” and believes his background makes him especially well suited to his role.

“We want to develop in-house capacity to do advanced molecular testing to find actionable mutations that could inform therapeutic decision making,” said Shroyer. “He’s extremely experienced in that area.”

John Heusel’s medical school graduation with his parents William and Mona Heusel.

Shroyer suggested Stony Brook wants to develop opportunities for advanced sequencing technology within the molecular pathology lab, with a focus on molecular oncology.

Heusel described the development of a comprehensive diagnostic service in cancer as a high priority.

The cost of building new services with new technologies will require significant investment. The Pathology Department will work in partnership with the Cancer Center to build services.

“Ideally, the clinical services we build will also be attractive in supporting research and contract testing from companies in the pharmaceutical and biotech spaces,” Heusel explained.

By using informatics and digital pathology, Stony Brook can become a place where medical students and professionals in related areas including computational biology, genetic counseling and oncology increasingly want to come.

Heusel particularly appreciates the opportunity to translate technology and science into healthcare solutions.

“If you do this correctly, the tests, systems, programs and people you have recruited to run them will extend far into the future,” he said. “When this happens, you leave behind a legacy of excellence.”

Heusel will replace Eric Spitzer, who will retain his role of medical director of labs until Heusel takes over that role in January.

Shroyer described Spitzer’s contributions to the department and hospital as “tremendous,” adding that he has “been outstanding in his position as leader of the hospital laboratory. While we know [Heusel] is going to be extremely successful in part due to [Spitzer’s] help in the transition phase, we’re still going to miss” Spitzer.

Spitzer has been a valuable counselor to Shroyer and a mentor to many and is an “outstanding educator” who has been a “very impactful educator for our residents and medical students,” Shroyer said.

Educational opportunities

Heusel not only has ambitions for the university, but also for himself in his new job.

The new pathology vice chair is looking for opportunities to put his knowledge and instincts to work to make Stony Brook better — even if only in the slightest of ways, he said.

“The tumblers of fate must align themselves to become opportunities for transformational leadership; those are relatively rare,” he explained. “It’s my hope that I am well prepared and can recognize them when they cross my path.”

As for the public, Heusel recognizes that primary school teachers have a tough job in educating the public in general and in sharing the intricacies of science such as genetics. He admires them for their work.

He suggested that primary education could be reimagined amid the exponential growth in knowledge.

“I am hopeful that biology and genetics will be taught in a way that empowers people to understand their bodies and their health or disease better, but I think it is more important to teach our children to think critically,” he explained.

Part of Heusel’s job is to make the results of complex testing accessible to patients and, in many cases, their doctors.

“The growing importance of genetics in our understanding of health and disease means people will, over time, gain new insights simply because they are reading and hearing about these concepts much more often,” he explained. “It also highlights the critical role that well trained genetic counselors have in the healthcare of today and the foreseeable future.”

Jon Heusel with his wife Jean at a Gallery North art show.

Heusel and his wife Jean enjoy living in the Stony Brook area, where they have found the people welcoming. In the past, they have gone scuba diving and sky diving and have also done canoeing, hiking, kayaking and skiing.

As they have gotten older, they have tended towards quieter experiences. They have found the West Meadow Beach sunsets “amazing” and have enjoyed their introduction to shows at the Staller Center for the Arts.

Heusel also appreciates a life outside work that includes working with wood, painting, doing pottery, cooking and making up poems, songs on the ukulele and bad puns.

His parents generated a sense of compassion in Heusel and his sisters, with a “wonder of the human body, and with the ability to find humor in almost anything.”

As for his work, Heusel is thrilled that Shroyer recruited him to join the university. He admits, though, that he has had to adjust to local driving styles.

“I am surprised by the aggressive manner in which people drive inside their cars which is so very opposite from the friendliness they exude outside of them,” he said.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We have a Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, a Baseball Hall of Fame, a US Space Walk of Fame, a Model Car Hall of Fame, and a World Video Hall of Fame, to name a few.

Why not a love hall of fame, which we could build right here on Long Island, with a picturesque view of the Long Island Sound or of one of the many glorious parks? After all, love is all around us, as the song and countless movies suggest.

Beyond the love for a child, spouse or family member, here are some of my nominees for the Love Hall of Fame. Feel free to share some of yours, if you’d like.

— Love of a pet. This is an easy place to start. After a tough day, what’s better than the feeling of a happy, furry, wet nose in your hands? Dogs and cats are popular not just because they’re great companions and don’t talk back when we’re rude or annoying, but because they are often so happy to see us that they run to get their favorite toy, chase balls for us, go on runs around the neighborhood, or lean against us while we read a book or watch our favorite films.

— Love of a song. Time disappears when we hear a song whose lyrics say exactly what we’re thinking or feeling or whose melody transports us to the moment we met our partner or spouse, learned that we’d been hired by our dream company or received admission to our top choice for college. Music can carry us back to that magic moment.

— Love of nature. We don’t all see or appreciate nature in the same way. Some of us adore snakes, mud puddles, and dark clouds, while others are moved by sunsets, water lapping on the shore, or a hawk soaring overhead. Whatever your favorite moments, nature provides an infinite array of spectacles, from the movements and behaviors of other animals to spectacular landscapes.

— Love of a sport. This one is particularly easy at this time of year. Passionate baseball fans are enjoying the last few innings of the playoffs, continuing whatever superstitions they think will help their teams win, while football is grinding through the first half of the season, hockey just started and basketball opens next Tuesday. Fans of a team, a sport, or all sports have plenty of choices for their agony and ecstasy.

— Love of cooking and eating. I’ve watched people, like my college roommate, who truly adore the fine art of cooking. They toss spices into the air, roll their wrists to stir pots, and conduct the scents of their creations into their receptive nostrils. When these same chefs eat, they appear filled and fulfilled, savoring the sauces, textures, flavors and combinations of tastes they brought to life.

— Love of art. People dedicate hours creating wood cabinets, landscape paintings, and portraits, as their imaginations shape the material in front of them.

— Love of religion. The world sometimes makes no sense. With its traditions, rituals, and, hopefully, spiritual encouragement, religion can help us find meaning and purpose and can connect us with our ancestors and with something larger than ourselves.

— Love of travel. People journey outside their immediate surroundings, visiting unfamiliar places and meeting new people whose lives differ but whose priorities – taking care of their children, contributing to the world, meeting their needs – are often the same. Undeterred by language differences, we can work through conversations, sharing moments with people who can become an ongoing part of our lives.

— Love of oneself. I know, I know. Numerous people have an overabundance of this that makes them insufferable. And yet, some people benefit from the right balance of enjoying their own company and sharing that sense of well-being and joy with others. I’m pretty sure Mary Poppins was able to love the children in her care because she – in the form of Julie Andrews or Emily Blunt – appreciated her own company.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

The world is a mess.

For some, that world doesn’t even need to extend beyond the walls of their own home, as they deal with one personal or family crisis after another.

For others, that includes horrible headlines and the reality of a world in which people jump at the opportunity to attack them physically, verbally or both. The world is filled with so much dry kindling that any kind of spark seems sufficient to lead to a brush fire.

And, stupidly, many of us look at our phones or watch the news right before we go to bed, giving our unconscious minds the opportunity to marinate in the misery and to imagine ourselves caught in circumstances beyond our control that conjure our worst nightmares on steroids.

Once our minds start to ponder these horrific realities, some of which play out in the protests and counter protests that characterize an American landscape filled with divisions and tectonic differences, we find ourselves staring, wide eyed, into a dark abyss.

Despite the need to give our minds and souls a rest to rebuild our resilience and prepare us for the next day, we struggle to sleep for any length of time.

Like a bad habit we can’t kick, sleep deprivation defines our existence, making us more vulnerable, angrier, and reactive to the kinds of stimuli, conspiracy theories, and information that unnerves us.

Shutting that down and ignoring the reality of a world coming apart doesn’t seem like an option, even if we ourselves aren’t doing anything other than losing sleep, arguing with friends, family or coworkers, and promising to vote for the person whose anger, frustration, and alarm bells sound similar enough to our own.

These restless nights exacerbate our feelings of unease and anxiety. Even for people who didn’t have a hard day filled with deadlines, challenging assignments, impossible bosses, or frustrating losses, the end of the day can feel less like a chance to reflect on triumphs than a moment to surrender to a cruel circadian rhythm that leaves us with even less emotional and energy reserves each day.

We need the kind of sleep that doesn’t depend on over the counter remedies. We need to feel safe, secure, and relaxed enough to rest.

For many of us in the United States, that relaxation can arise out of a belief in a better tomorrow. We can control ourselves, the world we create for our children, and the way we interact with each other.

We might sleep better if we feel like we improved someone else’s day, if we volunteer to help others, or if we take a moment to appreciate what we can control.

Getting up and circling the house at 2 or 4 am won’t help us the next day, nor will logging onto our computers and sending or responding to emails. We’re not doing our best work at those hours and we aren’t our most insightful.

The benefit of stories in which the characters live “happily ever after” is that it gives our minds resolution and helps us believe that things will work out for us as well.

Our parents and grandparents rarely tell us to give up, give in, and surrender to problems outside of our control. We shouldn’t tell ourselves that either, no matter how late at night we might start to believe it.

A good night’s sleep won’t help us solve the world’s problems, but it may help us start to solve some of our own. People have told me many times not to make decisions when I’m angry or frustrated. The same holds true for being tired. Finding solutions to our nighttime problems may contribute to discovering some relief from the pressures and worries of the day.

Wei Yang at a poster session for a conference. Photo by Dr. Bo Zhou

By Daniel Dunaief

When cancer spreads, it becomes especially dangerous. Indeed, metastatic cancer accounts for 90 percent of deaths from this disease.

Stony Brook University Associate Professor Wei Yang, who joined the Pathology Department on August 1st, hopes to reduce metastatic mortality.

Yang is looking both upstream for the kind of molecular biological signals that might make cancer more likely to spread and downstream, for processes that overcome the body’s natural defenses and that lead to increased morbidity and mortality.

As he described, the goal is to prevent micrometastases, which are metastatic tumors that are too small for a radiographic scan, from growing into clinically relevant macrometastases that can be detected through imaging such as X-ray scans.

Micrometasases can form at an early stage, sometimes even before the detection of primary tumors. They are typically asymptomatic and are rarely lethal, as many cancer survivors die with, but not of, these micrometastases.

In work he conducted in California at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Yang focused on the protein kinase RIPK2, which is over expressed in prostate cancer.

By inhibiting RIPK2 kinase in cell culture and animal models, Yang reduced prostate cancer metastasis by over 90 percent after four weeks of treatment. Inhibiting this protein made cancer progression over 10 times slower.

Innate immune cells and epithelial cells express RIPK2 at various levels. RIPK2 is over expressed in about 18 cancer types and the high expression is generally associated with worse patient outcomes.

RIPK2 is localized in the cytoplasm, which is inside the cell, rather than on the cell surface, which makes it difficult to train the immune system to destroy it. Small molecule compounds, however, can penetrate into the cytoplasm of tumor cells.

Developing oral drugs to shut off RIPK2 is a promising approach to disrupting this protein.

Repurposing an existing drug

The Food and Drug Administration has already approved a multi-kinase inhibitor called Ponatinib, which can inhibit the pro-metastatic RIPK2 signaling pathway in prostate cancer.

Yang believes it is “very promising” to repurpose this drug to treat prostate cancer patients who don’t respond to hormone therapies.

His animal experiments showed that RIPK2-higher tumor cells can grow into macromestases in multiple organs, such as bones, liver and adrenal glands. RIPK2 was also detected in cancers such as kidney and breast. Its expression levels are typically higher than in normal tissues.

Yang is the first to demonstrate that targeting RIPK2 reduces cancer metastasis.

He has been working on prostate cancer since he conducted his postdoctoral research at Harvard University/ Boston Children’s Hospital in 2006.

He started by analyzing three comprehensive and publicly available clinical databases. Using stringent criteria, he identified seven promising drug targets in prostate cancer metastasis. Among the seven, RIPK2 was the most significantly overexpressed and its expression increased along with prostate cancer progression from benign to lethal cancer.

Most patients diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer die within two to three years. About 31 percent live five years or longer. 

For Yang, who earned his PhD from Peking University, the goal is to understand and prevent the lethal process of metastatic progression. He aims to develop clinically actionable drug targets and biomarkers.

Upstream and downstream

Yang is searching for genes and proteins that regulate the expression of this protein kinase, to find out what increases the expression of RIPK2 in tumor cells.

He has identified three transcription factors that are important for the expression of RIPK2 mRNA in prostate cancer cells. Previous studies showed that these factors are key drivers of prostate cancer aggressiveness.

He explained that it’s promising that patients with the overexpression of these transcription factors may benefit from targeting RIPK2 to reduce cancer aggressiveness. He is also identifying a gene signature associated with RIPK2 signaling activity. This will allow him to identify additional patients who may benefit from inhibiting this protein.

Seeking collaborators

Yang said he came to Stony Brook University for a host of reasons, including to have more lab space where he can employ two post doctoral researchers, two or three graduate students, one research support specialist and two undergraduates.

He is in the second year of a five year National Cancer Institute grant and is also in the second year of a three-year Department of Defense grant.

Yang would like to find collaborators at Stony Brook who can bring specific levels of expertise in areas such as lipid signaling.

In addition to RIPK2, Yang also focuses on palmitoylation signaling in cancer metastasis. Palmitoylation is a type of lipid modification on proteins and is a reversible post-translational modification whose deregulation contributes to diseases including cancer.

Stony Brook has a “world class lipid signaling research center,” he explained in an email, and he would like to find collaborators in this arena.


Married with a 14-year old son, Yang enjoys traveling with his family to cities and national parks and reading history and science fiction books. One of his favorite authors is Yuval Noah Harari.

As a child, Yang was particularly interested in science. Cancer affected his family, as his grandfather had liver cancer that was diagnosed early enough to receive treatment and his aunt is living with lung cancer.

While he has a sense of urgency to study metastatic cancer, Yang said the field does not receive as much funding and attention as other areas of cancer research. He estimates that about 10 percent of the cancer budget supports investigations into metastatic cancer.

His approach, he said, will remain focused on actionable plans and on efforts that have “high translational potential,” he explained.

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We need people around us for a host of reasons.

We have the kind of division of labor that makes it possible for someone like me with no mechanical skills whatsoever to fix, repair, install or replace something we need, like a dishwasher or roof, to pick up the phone and call a specialist who can do the job.

We also need people to provide the kind of food we don’t grow or cook ourselves and to ship that food across the country or the world.

How would we people watch without people strutting, holding hands, barking commands on cell phones, or pausing to take a giant mouthful of hot pizza?

We also need people for social and emotional reasons.

It’s helpful to have someone who can tell you whether your shoes match your outfit, who can point out if you have food in your teeth, or who can nix your idea to share a risqué joke with your boss.

We go through stages in life when our social needs rise and fall, depending on our age, vulnerabilities, and emotional equanimity.

I have several friends whose children are living through different phases in life, entering and leaving colleges, changing jobs or location, and starting or ending serious relationships.

When people in unfamiliar settings first settle into a new routine, they can feel vulnerable, disconnected, and incredibly lonely.

Making matters worse, they see other people around them laughing with friends, moving in a group, or chatting animatedly on the phone. Social media doesn’t help, as they can see pictures of other people having the times of their lives on other college campuses, surrounded by their new friends, while they look to the vacant space to the left and right of them.

These transitionary periods can make people feel as if they are the only ones without an invitation to an incredible party on the other side of the fence. They can hear music and laughter, they can smell the barbecued chicken, and they can see the flickering lights.

It’s as if a magnetic attraction drew everyone else together, while that same force repelled them, making them outsiders in their towns and universities.

While most young people can and do find comfort from companionship, the time when they feel as if they are on their own can seem extraordinarily long.

That’s where we come in.

You see, we are surrounded by students who are going to college, have returned for a few days or longer, or who have graduated and are trying to find their place in the world.

Some of them want or need nothing from us, as they glide effortlessly between their professional or academic responsibilities and their recharging social contacts.

Others, however, may be too unnerved or unsure to ask for help or to try to get what they may not even acknowledge they need.

The cost of offering an encouraging word, of asking about a student who is rounding up grocery carts in a parking lot, is restocking shelves at a department store or who is taking our order at a fast food restaurant is low.

Most of us are creatures of habit. We tend to go to the same places to eat, to buy our food, or to get our hardware store supplies.

When we go to those stores, we might see those same familiar faces, some of whom might be hiding behind extra long bangs or appear to be staring at their phones or shoes.

We don’t have to become best friends with any of them, and we don’t need to pull up a chair and ask their life stories.

We can, however, spend more than a few seconds getting whatever we need. We can ask how school is going, about the products they are selling or about the changing weather.

Those contacts, brief though they may be, could provide the kind of connection that offers them more of what they needed than whatever we purchased for ourselves in a store.

And who knows? Maybe our awkward attempts to offer some unsolicited connection can give them a good story to tell their current or future friends.

Surrounded by people, we can sometimes feel even more disconnected than we might if we were alone. Let’s try not to be too distracted to notice what someone else might need an encouraging or supportive word or two.

Students are not like the cracks in the sidewalk or the contour of a winding road: they may benefit from something we can and should consider sharing and that doesn’t cost anything more than our time and consideration.

Alexander Zamolodchikov Photo by John Griffin/SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Alexander Zamolodchikov Photo by John Griffin/SBU

Stony Brook University might need to rename a wing of the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics the Breakthrough Prize alley. That’s because theoretical physicist Alexander Zamolodchikov recently shared a $3 million prize in fundamental physics, matching a similar honor his neighbor on the floor and in the department, Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, earned in 2019.

Zamolodchikov shared this year’s award with University of Oxford Professor John Cardy for their contributions to quantum field theories which describe particle physics as well as magnetism, superconducting materials and the information content of black holes.

“I’m not working for prizes, but it’s kind of encouraging that other people think that my contribution is significant,” said the Russian-born Zamolodchikov, who joined Stony Brook in 2016 and had previously worked at Rutgers for 26 years, where he co-founded the High Energy Theory Center.

While Zamolodchikov was pleased to win the award and was understated in his response, his colleagues sang his praises.

Zamolodchikov is “one of the most accomplished theoretical physicists worldwide,” George Sterman, Director of the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics and Distinguished Professor at Stony Brook University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said in a statement. “He has made groundbreaking advances, with enormous impact in many physics fields, such as condensed matter physics, quantum statistical physics and high energy physics, including our understanding of fundamental matter and forces.”

Sterman added that Zamolodchikov’s insights have influenced the way theoretical physicists think about foundational concepts.

“Having such a giant in your institute is always great,” said van Nieuwenhuizen, who said the two Breakthrough Prize winners sometimes discuss physics problems together, although their fields differ.

Founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Julia and Yuri Milner and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prizes are referred to as the “Oscars of science.”

A scientific throwback

Zamolodchikov has a “very pleasant personality” and couldn’t be a better neighbor in a corridor in which five of the offices house distinguished professors, van Nieuwenhuizen said.

Van Nieuwenhuizen, who was a deputy for C.N. Yang for six years, said the two of them often discussed whether to continue to build a theoretical physics department or to branch out into applied physics.

The direction for the department “wasn’t so obvious at the time” but the institute members decided to continue to build a fundamental physics group, which attracted the “right people. In hindsight, it was the right decision,” van Nieuwenhuizen added.

In some of his lectures and discussions, Zamolodchikov, who often pushes his glasses up on his forehead, works with equations he writes on a blackboard with chalk.

He suggested that many in the audience prefer the slow pace of the blackboard and he uses it when appropriate, including in class lectures. Having grown up in pre-computer times, he considers the blackboard his “friend.” 

“He’s a throwback,” said van Nieuwenhuizen. “I happen to think that is the best way of teaching.”

Thinking about eating bread

Zamolodchikov said he often gives his work considerable thought, which he believes many scientists do consciously and subconsciously, wherever they are and what they are doing.

When his daughter Dasha was about four years old, she asked him what he was thinking about all the time. He joked that he was contemplating “how to consume more white bread.”

Even today, Dasha, who conducts biological research, asks if he is “still thinking about white bread.”

Family commitment to physics

When Zamolodchikov’s father Boris returned from World War II, the Soviet Union built a physics institute in his town of Dubna.

His father had an “exceptional understanding” of some parts of physics, such as electromagnetic theory and he would talk in their house about science. Boris Zamolodchikov was chief engineer of a laboratory that was working on the first cyclotron.

“He convinced us that physics was something to devote the life to,” Zamolodchikov explained.

Zamolodchikov (who goes by the name “Sasha”) and his late twin brother Alexei (who was known as Alyosha) looked strikingly similar, but were never sure whether they were fraternal or identical twins. The twins collaborated on research in physics until Alexei died in 2007.

Zamolodchikov and his brother understood each other incredibly well. One of them would share a thought in a few words and the other would understand the idea and concept quickly.

“It was some sort of magic,” said Zamolodchikov. “I miss him greatly.”

Indeed, even recently, Zamolodchikov has been working to solve a problem. He recalls that his brother told him he knew how to solve it, but the Stony Brook Distinguished Professor forgot to ask him about the details.

When Zamolodchikov, who thinks of his twin brother every day, learned he had won the prize, he said he feels “like I share this honor with him.”

Description of his work

In explaining his work, Zamalodchikov suggests that quantum field theory, which was questioned for some time before the mid-1970’s, has been used to describe subatomic physics.

On a general level, quantum field theory helps explain nature in terms of degrees of freedom.

“I was trying to solve simplified versions of these field theories,” said Zamolodchikov. He provided insights into what quantum field theory can describe and what kind of physical behavior would never come from quantum field theory.

His work shed light on phase transitions, from liquids to gases. He was able to find a solution through quantum field theory that had a direct application in explaining phase transition.

Experimentalists did the experiment and found the signature he expected.

“When I make a prediction about the behavior in phase transition and they do the experiment and find it exactly as my prediction, it’s remarkable,” he said. “My prediction involves an exceptionally complicated but beautiful mathematical structure.”

A scene from 'Monsters, Inc.' Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

“Monsters, Inc.” and the modern media share some terrifying traits.

You see, at the beginning of the animated Pixar movie, the Monsters from Monstropolis collect energy by scaring children at night.

It’s a relatable phenomenon, especially for those of us with an active imagination and who insisted their parents check under their bed, in the closet and in every conceivable place a monster might hide before going to sleep. I’m not referring to anyone in particular in that description here, in case anyone might be wondering.

So, anyway, in Monstropolis, the terror and screams from the children fill canisters of energy that monsters bring back home through the magic doors, which are often closets.

Similarly, the modern media is filled with terrible stories, finger pointing, angry headlines and the kind of click bait that demands people read the story or they’ll die or, perhaps, worse, become a Democrat or a Republican.

I understand the division in our country. Well, let me rephrase that. I understand that division in the country can be productive and can allow people to share ideas from different backgrounds or from opposite sides of a political fence.

I don’t completely understand why the country has become so fractured and stubborn in its thinking that people view those who are on the other side as unworthy or as the enemy.

The enemy of what, exactly?

News organizations have poured gasoline on our cultural dumpster fire by sharing and blaring headlines about how dumb the other side is, and how specific people, often from one political camp, are to blame for their problems.

On any given day, it’s easy to find a Trump-is-an-idiot-who-is-destroying-the-country story from CNN, the Washington Post or the New York Times. It’s just as easy  to find a Biden-is-too-old, Harris-is-a-disaster, or Futterman-can’t-dress-himself-well story from the other side.

I get it: those stories sell news, draw eyeballs, get advertisers and generate heat and energy.

It’s an energy that feeds on itself, as the next day’s stories often not only include the latest gaffe from the president or the latest outrage from the former president, but they also rekindle all the outrage from the ridiculous things each of them did in the days, weeks and months before.

Those stories are easy to write, because they only require about four paragraphs of new information. After that, it’s off to the races, adding all the usual background about how this objectionable act or speech comes after so many other similar incidents.

What these news organizations don’t often do, however, is what managers often encourage from their employees. If you’re going to bring a problem, try to suggest a solution.

That’s going to be tougher. It’s so much easier to point the finger, to call people names, and to blame others than it is to develop a cohesive and workable plan that might fail.

Maybe these news organizations should demand more from themselves. They shouldn’t fall into the trap of sharing the latest bad news or  problem, but should also force themselves to find people who have better ideas or who can offer solutions.

Returning to the movie “Monsters, Inc.”, perhaps there are other ways to generate energy that don’t terrify people

Laughter, as the cliche goes, is the best medicine. Maybe we aren’t laughing enough or maybe we aren’t laughing enough together. It’s far too easy to become a part of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, shaking our heads and mocking the ridiculous actions of others.

Sure, news organizations should capture the culture of the country and report on real people and real events. But they should also take the time and effort to do more than write the same mad libs story every day about the idiocy of the other side. They should offer the kind of solutions that can help people get a good night’s sleep and that don’t trigger sound and fury, signifying nothing.

A scene from 'Oppenheimer'

By Daniel Dunaief

Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University joined the chorus of moviegoers who enjoyed and appreciated the Universal film Oppenheimer.

“I thought the movie was excellent,” said Leemor Joshua-Tor, Professor and HHMI Investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “It made me think, which is always a good sign.”

Yusuf Hannun, Vice Dean for Cancer Medicine at Stony Brook University, thought the movie was “terrific” and had anticipated the film would be a “simpler” movie.

Jeff Keister, leader of the Detector and Research Equipment Pool at NSLS-II at Brookhaven National Laboratory, described the movie as “interesting” and “well acted.”

Joshua-Tor indicated she didn’t know anything about Robert Oppenheimer, the title character and leader of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. She “learned lots of new things” about him, she wrote. “I knew he was targeted by McCarthy-ism, but didn’t realize how that came about and the details.”

Keister also didn’t know much about Oppenheimer, who was played by actor Cillian Murphy in the film. “Oppenheimer seemed to quietly struggle with finding his role in the story of the development of the atomic bomb,” Keister said. “At times, he wore the uniform, then later seemed to express regret.”

Like other researchers, particularly those involved in large projects that bring together people with different skills and from various cultural backgrounds, Oppenheimer led a diverse team of scientists amid the heightened tension of World War II.

Oppenheimer was “shown to have been granted an extremely powerful position and was able to form a relatively diverse team, although he was not able to win over all the brightest minds,” Keister wrote.

Joshua-Tor suggested Oppenheimer “charmed” the other scientists, who were so driven by the science and the goal that they “accepted him. The leader of the team should be a great scientist, but doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest genius. There is a genius in being able to herd the cats in the right way.”

Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, “loved” the movie. Hurowitz has worked with large projects with NASA teams as a part of his research effort.

Hurowitz suggested that the work that goes into coordinating these large projects is “huge” and it requires “a well laid out organizational structure, effective leadership, and a team that is happy working hard towards a common goal.”

‘Stunning’ first bomb test

Keister described the first nuclear bomb test as “stunning” in the movie. “I have to wonder how the environmental and health impacts of such a test came to be judged as inconsequential.”

Some local scientists would have appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to see more of the science that led to the creation of the bomb.

Science is the “only place the movie fell short,” Hannun said. “They could have spent a bit more time to indicate the basic science behind the project and maybe a bit more about the scientific accomplishments of the various participants.”

Given the focus of the movie on Oppenheimer and his leadership and ultimate ambivalence about the creation of the atomic bomb, Keister suggested that scientists “could be better encouraged to understand the impacts of applied uses of new discoveries. Scientists can learn to broaden their view to include means of mitigating potential negative impacts.”

Research sponsors, including taxpayers and their representatives, have an “ethical responsibility to incorporate scientists’ views of the full impacts into their decisions regarding applications and deployment of new technology,” Keister said.

Joshua-Tor thinks there “always has to be an ongoing conversation between scientists and the citizenry” which has to be an “informed, somewhat dispassionate conversation.”

Recommended movies about scientists

Local researchers also shared some of their film recommendations about scientists.

Hurowitz wrote that his favorite these days is Arrival, a science fiction film starring Amy Adams. If Hurowitz is looking for more lighthearted fare, he writes that “you can’t go wrong with Ghostbusters,” although he’s not sure the main characters Egon, Ray and Peter could be called scientists.

Keister also enjoys science fiction, as it “often challenges us with ethical dilemmas which need to be addressed.” While he isn’t sure he has a favorite, he recommended the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina starring Alicia Vikander as a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence,.

Joshua-Tor recalls liking the film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as John and Alicia Nash. She also loved the film Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.