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Daniel Dunaief

Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Lauren Boebert’s behavior is, undoubtedly, my fault.

No, I don’t know her and I didn’t meet her and no, I wasn’t there that night when she acted in a way that some of those who have watched and rewatched the videos of her might deem inappropriate. That horrible night, which we’d all like to forget, forced her to deny she was vaping until the video came out showing her vaping. Those images made it clear that denial wasn’t just a river in Egypt and it wasn’t an option.

No, you see, I should have been better to her.

I could have sent her more positive vibes in the universe, because she deserves them. She’s a victim of my eye rolling and my negative attitude towards her. What else could she have done that night she was vaping, taking pictures and videos and acting in a way that didn’t protect the children she’s worried might learn the wrong lessons from the LGTBQ community? It’s the free floating negativity that forced her to need to blow off steam and enjoy herself in a way that reduced the pleasure other people could get from going out that night.

No, her soon-to-be ex husband Jayson and I should have been better to her. If we had put that positive energy into the world and had given her reason to smile and relax and feel coddled and supported, she wouldn’t have acted that way and had to deal with this mess.

I’m so sorry for the agony I have caused her and the discomfort you all might have felt at behavior and words that she didn’t mean to exhibit and that was less her than it was a manifestation of the version of her created by the doubters.

Of course, she meant to be rude and disrespectful to the president of the United States when he gave his State of the Union speech because that’s what she and her constituents wanted and far be it for me, Jayson or anyone else to get in the way of a good public tongue lashing at other officials who deserve it.

That’s one thing. This is another. Now, if the president had been at the theater, all bets are off as to what she would have felt, and rightly so, would have been appropriate, defensible and acceptable behavior.

But Biden wasn’t there, at least not that we know of. He was probably off either not doing what he should have been doing or doing what he shouldn’t have been doing. In some circles, the president can’t win for trying or for not trying, so he’s living in a heads-they-win, tails-he-loses scenario.

This isn’t about the big, old guy, though, who is an incredibly significant few years older than his predecessor. This is about that paragon of virtue and righteousness Lauren, who has, thankfully, returned to Washington. That swamp was missing something while she was gone and it feels more like home now that she’s back.

So, anyway, just to be clear, it’s my fault. Well, mine and Jayson’s and anyone else who had the temerity to live under the blanket of the very freedom she provides and then questions the manner in which she provides it. No, wait, that’s from “A Few Good Men” and not from “Beetlejuice” or any other event at which Lauren, her cleavage and her middle finger attended.

Look, I’m sure the security guards, who are hard working people, probably deserved her angry gesture. I should probably apologize to them, too, because she never would have felt the need to be “eccentric” and different if I had just accepted her for who she is, was, will be, or can be.

She needed to get it out of her system and now, she’ll be a better, stronger, faster person. Like the six million dollar man, we can rebuild her reputation, giving her a bionic eye that she can use to spot the president wherever he goes.

It’s not easy being powerful, connected and influential. We all need moments to escape from that, particularly when people don’t always appreciate the wonderful role models and leaders who are working for all of us, well for almost all of us. She can’t support those people who might corrupt our children’s minds with their unacceptable behavior and inappropriate viewpoints.

I know what you’re thinking, you sneaky eye rollers. I used to be one of you. But, no, I see the error of my ways, just as Lauren and Jayson and her ex-boyfriend Quinn do. We are all going to be better people because of this and we will learn and grow and try not to do anything in public where video cameras might catch us and make it hard to deny behavior recorded on film.

Right here, right now, let’s agree to send good vibes to everyone because that’s what makes the world go ‘round. Well, that and a readiness to lay the blame at the feet of those who deserve it.  So, yeah, I’m sorry and I wasn’t rolling my eyes just now. I was looking up at a bird, even though I’m inside and it’s night.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

You know that optical illusion with the vase and the two faces? If you’re looking at the outline of the white object, you see a vase, but if you look at the white as the background, you see two faces.

Is it possible that we might, at times, be missing something in our lives?

We drive from one event to another, often ignoring the people in the car next to us at a stoplight, at the birds resting on a telephone wire or at the last few rays of the sun as the light disappears over the horizon.

Instead, we’re focused on getting where we’re going, giving our mind a chance to wander to important things, like what we’re going to say to the coach of our son’s little league team, to our boss who wants to know why we’re late, or to that person at the deli counter who starts preparing our sandwich before we even order.

Along the way, we might be missing signs that could stimulate or enrich our mind in unexpected ways or that could provide the kind of unanticipated signs that serve as clues about our lives. Sure, some people read horoscopes for such help, they ponder the pithy poetry of fortune cookies, or they visit a psychic, who asks them if they’ve ever known a person named John or if they’ve ever gone with a date to a movie or like to take walks on the beach.

But, with our heads down, living on our phones, focusing on events and people far from us, is it possible that we might miss something akin to a puzzle piece in the mystery of our lives?

Sure, telemarketers are frustrating and annoying, offering us products we don’t need, asking us for personal information, and assuming a far-too-familiar tone.

What if those telemarketers, who are even more unpopular than used car salesman, journalists and politicians, offered us something between the lines of their scripts that might be of use to us? We don’t have to stay on the phone long with them and we don’t have to buy something we don’t want, but maybe we can give them half a minute, listening to them and politely declining their offer for more life insurance, a time share in the Everglades, or a chance to earn money as a personal shopper.

Maybe something they say will remind us of a task we wanted to accomplish, a phrase a friend or relative used to use, or a responsibility we haven’t yet met for ourselves. In a world in which there are no accidents, perhaps they can remind us of something we value.

Along the same lines, the scenery that flies by while we’re on a train, a bus or in a car could remind us of a picture we drew from our childhood, a tree we used to climb, or a friend who might need to hear from us but hasn’t felt strong enough to ask for help.

Hundreds and thousands of years ago, people looked to the skies for the kind of signs that might help them.

When we shut ourselves in our homes, disconnect from the people in the room or from the environment, we close down the opportunity to see or consider any signs from the world around us or to get out of our own limited physical, mental and emotional headspace. We also lock ourselves in to a particular way of thinking, removing the opportunity to consider whether today is a day to see the vase or the two faces.

By getting away from our computer screens, cell phones, and cubicles, we give ourselves a chance to see what the world offers, and how those cues affect the way we think about our lives.

Jasmine Moss. Photo by Susan Anderson

By Daniel Dunaief

As the first chemist in the history of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Professor John Moses has forged new connections at the lab, even as he maintains his affinity for and appreciation of his native Wrexham in Wales.

Indeed, Moses recently created and funded a fellowship for disadvantaged students in Wales, giving them an opportunity to visit the lab, learn about the science he and others do, and, perhaps, spark an interest in various science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Called Harbwr y Ffynnon Oer Scholarship, which means “Cold Spring Harbor” in Welsh, Moses’s laboratory recently welcomed Jasmine Moss, the first recipient, in early August.

“I hope it broadens” the horizons of those who travel to the lab, explained Moses in an email. “Wales is a small country” with a population of about three million. Coming to New York — a city with a much bigger population than Wales — “can only be an eye-opening experience.”

Jasmine Moss with postdoctoral fellow Dharmendra Vishwakarma. Photo by Theresa Morales

For Moss, who is studying for an integrated masters degree in biomedical engineering, the opportunity proved exciting and rewarding.

“I was expecting to feel intimidated” with everyone knowing so much more than she, Moss said during an interview on the morning of her third day in the lab. “I was expecting maybe a little bit not to understand everything. Everyone is amazing” and made her feel welcome.

The experience started with a walk around the campus, which included considerable information not only about the science but also about the history of the 133-year old laboratory.

Moss, who said this was the first time she’d been in a professional chemistry lab, helped conduct an experiment in which a reaction caused a liquid to change color because of the presence of copper.

“I did the measuring and putting it together,” said Moss, who added that she was “heavily supervised.” She did some calculations as well.

Moss suggested that her interest in science originated with a proficiency in math.

If she were having a bad day in secondary school, she could turn her mood and her mentality around by spending an hour in math class.

Beyond the science

Theresa Morales, a senior scientific administrator, created a schedule of activities and coordinated Moss’s visit.

“We want to do the same thing for any scholarship awardee,” Morales said. “We want to give them the overall experience. It’s not just about the science. We invite the person to realize the culture of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory” which has a “beautiful campus and great people” who occupy its labs, attend meetings, and share scientific insights and experiences.

A postdoctoral researcher in Moss’s lab, Josh Homer suggested that Morales did “the heavy lifting” in coordinating three days of activities and opportunities for Moss. Homer, who is collaborating with Professor Bo Li to develop new opiates that are non addictive for pain treatment, appreciated Moss’s reactions to the opportunities in the lab.

“I thought [Moss’s] face lit up,” he said. When people are exposed to science in a “manageable and digestible way, they learn that they can do it.”

Indeed, Homer, who grew up in New Zealand, recalled how a high school teacher inspired his interest in science.

“My journey genuinely kick started from one good teacher” who sparked an “inquisitiveness” within him, Homer said. 

Coming from a smaller country, Homer can relate to the opportunities science has provided for him.

“Chemistry has been a fantastic way to see the world and explore,” said Homer, who conducted his PhD research at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “Science is a universal language. Chemistry is the same in India, China” and all over the world.

A family experience

Jasmine Moss with her dad, Stephen Moss, front, with members of John Moses’s lab. Photo by Lorraine Baldwin

Moss traveled to New York for the first time with her parents Stephen and Emma, who stayed with her on campus, toured the grounds and library and attended a picnic.

While the library tour was less interesting to Moss, she said her father “really enjoyed it.”

Morales suggested that the lab “wants parents to feel just as good” and that the parents will have “the same enthusiasm for science and the experience as the scholar if they can feel they are a part” of the visit.

In addition to getting an inside look at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Moss and her parents ventured into the city, where she ate her first pizza and visited the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. She was particularly impressed with the speed at which the Empire State Building was constructed, which took a year and 45 days.

Prior to her visit, Moss’s understanding of the city of New York came from the version she observed through the sitcom “Friends.”

As for the next phase of her life, she expressed an interest in helping people, which could be through medical engineering, biology or in some other field.

“I want to do something meaningful,” Moss said.

Next steps

Moses hopes to bring students to the lab each year, particularly those who might have had problems or difficulties or are from a disadvantaged background. Moss suffers from anxiety and feels every new experience makes similar opportunities easier.

“The team really put me at ease almost immediately,” said Moss.

Moss was surprised by the similarities between Long Island and the United Kingdom. She suggested the best parts of Wales are the countryside and beaches. If she returned the favor and hosted guests in her native Wales, she would take them to an international rugby match in Cardiff.

As for other area sports, Moses comes from the little soccer town that could in Wrexham, which is now famous for the purchase of the local team by actor Ryan Reynolds and co-owner Rob McElhenney. While the actors have brought soccer dreams to life, Moses hopes Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory might help young students realize their science dreams.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Mother-in-law. Those three words could come with their own Darth Vader or Jaws soundtrack.

Mothers-in-law present the kind of material that creates both great drama and comedy.

This week, I lost my mother-in-law Judy. She was both a force of nature and fiercely loyal.

Sure, there were comedic elements to our interactions. She seemed unsure of what to ask me to call her. I’d pick up the phone and she’d stutter, “Hi, Dan, this is your … I mean, this is … Judy.”

It was a huge relief for both of us when my wife and I had kids, not only because she wanted more grandchildren and I wanted children, but it also gave both of a us an easy way to refer to her, even when the children weren’t around: “grandma” or, at times, “Grandma Judy.”

A small and slender woman, Judy was all about getting things done. Whenever she had something either on a physical or mental list, she wouldn’t stop until she could check it off.

“Did you bring the water upstairs yet?” she’d ask.

“Not yet, but I will,” I’d reply.

“Okay, good, so what else is new?” she’d continue.

“I had an interesting week of work. I interviewed the CEO of one of the biggest banks in the country, I met a former Knick player, and I spoke with several government officials about an ongoing sovereign debt renegotiation.”

“Wow, how wonderful,” she’d offer, grinning broadly. “Just don’t forget about the water.”

When you were in the circle with Judy, she was a strong and determined advocate and supporter. At a buffet, even at one of her own events, she’d take a plate full of food she knew I could eat and stash it somewhere, in case I wasn’t ready to eat. 

When my wife and I got married, I messed up. Judy, who ascribed to certain rituals, waited as long as she could for me to ask her to dance. When I didn’t oblige, she brought the photographer over.

“Come,” she said, “let’s pretend to dance so that we can get a picture.”

She was the ringmaster of a law practice for her husband and son. Everything flowed through her. She handled almost every administrative duty, including typing. She made sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, and that they were on time.

Allergic to lemon, Judy traveled with my wife, our children and me to Paris. She was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to share her food concerns, bringing with her a sheet with words written phonetically. My French isn’t particularly strong, but I was able to let everyone know of our food issues, to her tremendous relief.

While Judy didn’t and wouldn’t stab me in the back figuratively, she did use her long, bony, shockingly strong fingers to move me along while we were in line at the airport or heading towards the elevator at the Eiffel Tower.

Perhaps all the bones she gnawed on when she ate steak went directly to those incredibly strong and pointed fingers? Eventually, I was able to outmaneuver her need to jab me in the back.

Judy was incredibly devoted to her children, grandchildren, and extended family. She also had a passion for cats and fish. Even when she wasn’t particularly mobile, becoming something of a human question mark as she bent over to make sure she didn’t trip, she brought fish food to all her finned friends and cat food to her favorite felines.

I will miss the way she locked eyes and smiled at me each time we got together, and the way she described everything around her as “crazy.”

She’d often start sentences with, “You want me to tell you somethin’?”

And, Judy, I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to dance at my wedding. I tried to make up for it on numerous other occasions. You’d pretend to be surprised and I’d try to be gallant. Thanks for everything, including and especially making it possible to enjoy a lifetime with your spectacular daughter. We will both miss you and will cherish the memories.

Andrew Young. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

By Daniel Dunaief

Andrew Young is in a similar place to the one he was in when he first met his wife Lynne over two decades ago: spending time on the water. 

This time, however, instead of living aboard a 72-foot sailboat in San Diego, Young is shifting back and forth from his new home in Setauket to a motor boat, fully equipped to form a floating office, in the Setauket harbor.

Above, Andrew Young demonstrates where a cylindrical device for drug delivery could be implanted. Photo by Daniel Dunaief

In the time between his stints aboard ships, Young, who is a native of Taranaki, New Zealand, has conducted research on gut hormones, making the kinds of discoveries that helped lead to diabetes treatments and weight loss treatments such as Ozempic and Wegovy.

When the couple first started dating in 2001, Young was working at a company called Amylin, which was named after a hormone.

For years, no one knew exactly what the hormone did. Numerous scientists believed amylin worked in opposition to the pancreatic hormone insulin, which controls glucose levels in the blood and, when absent, leads to diabetes.

Young’s job was to solve the riddle of amylin. Coming from the beta cells of the pancreas, which are the same cells that produce insulin and that responded to the same stimuli, he suspected it was involved in metabolic control, but “we got it totally wrong for about four years,” he said.

Young helped discover that amylin and insulin weren’t working in opposition: they were functioning on opposite ends towards the same goal.

Insulin accelerates the exit of glucose from the blood, while amylin slowed the entry of glucose into the blood. Amylin works on gastric emptying and suppresses appetite. The “clever little beta cell was doing two jobs,” Young said. 

Adding in the second hormone made it easier to control glucose in the blood, without big ups and downs in sugar levels.

Replacing amylin meant the body needed about 30 to 50 percent of the amount of insulin the body might otherwise need. People who take insulin alone to treat diabetes require more insulin than the body usually produces.

“It’s an orchestra of hormones that get the job done,” Young said.

That’s especially true for hormones produced in the digestive tract The discovery of the physiology of amylin made the scientific and pharmaceutical world aware of the importance of the gut in metabolic control. For most pharmaceutical companies, the lesson began with Glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1, which has led to Wegovy and Ozempic.

Amylin and GLP-1 were both used for diabetes. Amylin analogs haven’t been approved for weight loss, but Young expects they will be. “The amylin story was kind of neat,” he said. “It focused our minds on the gut. GLP-1 was the next one of these gut hormones.”

A revelation on a poster

While pharmaceutical companies saw the potential benefit of stimulating GLP1, which triggered the release of insulin, they couldn’t create a drug that had an effect that lasted long enough to make a difference. 

The body makes GLP1 at about the same rate as it breaks it down, which means controlling blood sugar and appetite by altering GLP-1 was difficult. “You could get a decent anti-diabetic effect if you infused it continuously,” Young explained, as the half life of endogenous GLP-1 is about five minutes.

Young attended a poster session at the American Diabetes Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California in 1996.

Looking at a poster from Dr. John Eng, who works at the Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center, Young thought he saw a solution in the form of a hormone from the reptilian Gila monster.

Eng demonstrated that the hormone, which he called exendin-4 and which he studied with his own money, stayed in diabetic mice for 24 hours. Young thought this might lead to the development of a diabetes drug.

As he was reading the poster, Young realized he was standing next to someone who worked at competitor Eli Lilly.

“I thought he had figured it out as well” and that they were in a race to understand exendin-4, Young added.

Young arranged for the staff at Amylin to buy what they could of this compound and to make some of it in house as well. The company quickly performed numerous experiments in a short period of time, even before Eng arrived in San Diego.

Eng gave a seminar about what he knew about the molecule. Young then stood up and talked about what Amylin had since learned about it. 

Eng was “dumbstruck, but he realized at that stage that we were the people he should partner with,” Young added.

The hormone amylin and exendin-4 had many of the same effects, including inhibiting gastric emptying. They did, however, have opposite effects on other actions. Exendin stimulated insulin secretion, while amylin inhibited it. 

Better than an injection

Young has continued to work for six companies in scientific leadership roles. Amid the financial crisis of 2008, Young went to work in North Carolina for GlaxoSmithKline, which is now called GSK.

In 2015, Young co-founded Phoundry Pharmaceuticals with five other former GSK coworkers. Phoundry attracted the attention of Intarcia Therapeutics. Using an invention by Alza Corp and licensed to Intarcia, the company developed a thin, implantable cylindrical device that could push as much as 160 micro liters of drugs out over six months.

In looking for a treatment for its drug delivery system, Intarcia chose Phoundry.

“The limited volume of such a small implanted pump required very potent medicines,” Young said. “Phoundry’s competitive advantage was the knowledge of how to engineer in such potency.”

After the purchase of Phoundry in 2015, Young became Chief Scientific Officer at Intarcia. The FDA, however, rejected the use of exendin from Intarcia. Through an extended appeals process, the FDA is planning to allow one final discussion about the delivery of exendin through Intarcia’s device on September 21st.

The current version of the device lasts for at least three and six months in the body. The same device could be used to deliver other medicines. The pumps have been engineered with a failsafe system that disables its osmotic engine in the event of malfunction, so the drug is not released.

The device could deliver drugs for many chronic conditions, such as hypertension and osteoporosis and is intended for frequent administration of the same drug.

Not only a scientist

As for his work in the early stages of understanding hormones that have led to drugs that are now widely used to treat diabetes and obesity, Young is pleased with his contribution.

“Obesity is probably the most deadly disease on the planet, given its high and increasing prevalence and the cardiovascular risk factors that spring from it,” Young explained.

Novo Nortis recently announced that treating obesity alone, without any diabetes, reduces the risk of death.

Young himself is taking one of these drugs and has lost 36 pounds over six months. 

Part of a process that has led to six approved products, he is working as a consultant for several companies, and believes he still has more to give. “I intend to keep doing it,” he said. “I’ve got at least one more” down the road.

Given the long drug development process, he hopes to help move one or more pieces ahead.

As for his oceanic surroundings, Young didn’t exactly sweep his future wife off her feet when they met. “He invited me on his boat for dinner,” Lynne recalls. “He was outside the marina and he had on this sweater that was dirty and oversized.”

Young suggested they have soup for dinner and proceeded to pull out a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.

She knew Young, however, was “probably the guy when I walked on the boat and he said, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’” Other men had suggested an alcoholic drink.

Lynne, who is an attorney, also appreciated his collection of books.

The Youngs chose Setauket because they had cast a wide net, looking for a home on the water somewhere between the Canadian border and North Carolina. 

“This was it,” said Lynne, who is thrilled with the extensive art community in the area.

Courtesy of DC Comics

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

How come we never see superheroes in regular moments? To that end, I wanted to share a host of images that I hope might brighten your day (if you need it).

Superman picking his nose. Okay, let’s just get this one out of the way first. Sure, he leaps tall buildings in a single bound, fights crime everywhere, and stands for truth, justice and the American way, but what about the urge to clean out the dried super boogers in his nose? And, if he did, what would happen to them? Would they decay the way ours presumably do, or would they be like rocks trickling through our plumbing or remaining forever on the floor, impenetrable even to a speeding bullet?

Okay, backing off from the incredibly crude, let’s go to Superman’s fingernails. I’m guessing he can’t clip them with an average clipper. When he does trim then, are they so strong that it’d hurt to step on them?

How about Batman? Is there room in that suit for hiccups? What happens when he’s driving his super fast car or flying bat mobile and he gets the hiccups? I know my hiccups, which are loud enough to cause Superman’s super fingernails to bend, are so distracting that it’d be tough to fight crime, or even navigate at incredible speeds, when my diaphragm is spasming.

And then there’s Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter, if you’re old enough, and Gal Gadot, for the more modern fan, are both incredible fighters who save the day, rescuing mere mortals like Steve Trevor. But do they have the kind of arguments with their mothers that I’ve seen other women (no one in my family, of course) have with their mothers? Are they tempted to take out their truth lasso and demand that their mother say what she really thinks or share what she really did? Can you imagine Wonder Woman in a shouting match with her mother, reaching a point where she wraps the rope around her mom’s wrist and demands to know, “What do you really think of my new boyfriend” or even “you mean to tell me you never acted out against your own parents?”

How about Aquaman? Not to be too obsessed about the nose here, but does he ever get water up his nose, the way the rest of us do when we’re diving or doing awkward flips into the pool? Given the speed at which he swims, I would imagine such water in his nose might cause even more agony for him than it does for the rest of us, who find the dense medium of water difficult to traverse rapidly.

What about the Flash?

I haven’t seen the recent multiverse movie with him, but I would imagine his shoes, which withstand the incredible force of him tearing around town, are a vital piece of equipment that could be enormously problematic if they tear or have holes.And, unlike me, as I sit here with the tongue of my right sneaker hanging off, I would imagine he couldn’t wait any length of time to replace the shoes that glide over the ground at speeds that, if my interpretation of the recent movie trailers suggest, exceed the speed of light and can, to borrow from the singing superhero Cher, “turn back time.”

Sorry if you’ve now got that song ricocheting around your head. Come up with a better song and you’ll be fine or maybe just count backwards from 20 in French or any foreign language, if you know how to do that.

And what about Spider-Man? Does he ever eat something that totally disagrees with his system, making it impossible to leave the house until he’s taken a super dose of an antacid? Sure, super heroes inspire us with their incredible deeds, but I’d like to know how they manage through the kinds of everyday issues, challenges, and regular stuff in our lives.

Esther Tsai is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory to be selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

This is part 2 of a 2-part series.

Half of this year’s crop of recipients from New York State for Early Career Awards from the Department of Energy came from Brookhaven National Laboratory.

With ideas for a range of research efforts that have the potential to enhance basic knowledge and lead to technological innovations, two of the four winners earned awards in basic energy science, while the others scored funds from high energy physics and the office of nuclear physics.

“Supporting America’s scientists and researchers early in their careers will ensure the United States remains at the forefront of scientific discovery,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. The funding provides resources to “find the answers to some of the most complex questions as they establish themselves as experts in their fields.”

The DOE chose the four BNL recipients based on peer review by outside scientific experts. All eligible researchers had to have earned their PhDs within the previous 12 years and had to conduct research within the scope of the Office of Science’s eight major program areas.

Last week, the TBR News Media  highlighted the work of Elizabeth Brost and Derong Xu. This week, we will feature the efforts of Esther Tsai and Joanna Zajac.

Esther Tsai

Esther Tsai is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory to be selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

Listening to her in-laws argue over whom Alexa, the virtual assistant, listens to more, Esther Tsai had an idea for how to help the scientists who trek to BNL for their experiments. As a member of the beamline staff at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, Tsai knew firsthand the struggles staff and visiting scientists face during experiments.

Artificial intelligence systems, she reasoned, could help bridge the knowledge gap between different domain experts and train students and future generations of scientists, some of whom might not be familiar with the coding language of Python.

In work titled “Virtual Scientific Companion for Synchrotron Beamlines,” Tsai, who is a scientist in the Electronic Nanomaterials Group of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, is developing a virtual scientific companion called VISION. The system, which is based on a natural language based interaction, will translate English to programming language Python. 

“VISION will allow for easy, intuitive and customized operation for instruments without programming experience or deep understanding of the control system,” said Tsai.

The system could increase the efficiency of experiments, while reducing bottlenecks at the lightsource, which is a resource that is in high demand among researchers throughout the country and the world.

Staff spend about 20 percent of user-support time on training new users, setting up operation and analysis protocols and performing data interpretation, Tsai estimated. Beamline staff often have to explain how Python works to control the instrument and analyze data.

VISION, however, can assist with or perform all of those efforts, which could increase the efficiency of scientific discoveries.

After the initial feelings of shock at receiving the award and gratitude for the support she received during the award preparation, Tsai shared the news with friends and family and then went to the beamline to support users over the weekend.

As a child, Tsai loved LEGO and jigsaw puzzles and enjoyed building objects and solving problems. Science offers the most interesting “puzzles to solve and endless possibilities for new inventions.”

Tsai appreciates the support she received from her parents, who offered encouragement throughout her study and career. Her father Tang Tsai, who is a a retired professor in Taiwan, often thought about research and scribbled equations on napkins while waiting for food in restaurants. On trips, he’d bring papers to read and shared his thoughts. Tsai’s mom Grace, a professor in management in Taiwan who plans to retire soon, also supported her daughter’s work. Both parents read press releases about Tsai’s research and shared their experience in academia.

Tsai thinks it’s exciting to make the imaginary world of Star Trek and other science fiction stories a reality through human-AI interactions.

Joanna Zajac

From left, Joanna Zajac is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory to be selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

A quantum scientist in the Instrumentation Division, Joanna Zajac is developing a fundamental understanding of fast light-matter interconnects that could facilitate long distance quantum networks.

Zajac will design and build systems that use quantum dots to generate single photos in the wavelengths used for optical telecommunications.

These quantum dots could potentially generate photons that would work at telecommunication and atomic wavelengths, which could reduce the losses to almost nothing when quantum information travels through the current optical fibers network. Losses are currently around 3.5 decibels per kilometer, Zajac explained in an email.

By coupling quantum dot single photons with alkali vapors, the light-matter interconnects may operate as a basis for quantum information, making up nodes of quantum network connected by optical links.

“Within this project, we are going to develop fundamental understanding of interactions therein allowing us to develop components of long-distance quantum networks,” Zajac said in a statement. “This DOE award gives me a fantastic opportunity to explore this important topic among the vibrant scientific community in Brookhaven Lab’s Instrumentation Division and beyond.”

Zajac explained that she was excited to learn that her project had been selected for this prestigious award. “I have no doubt that we have fascinating physics to learn,” she added.

In her first year, she would like to set up her lab space to conduct these measurements. This will also include development experimental infrastructure such as microscopes and table-top optical experiments. She hopes to have some proof-of-principle experiments. 

She has served as a mentor for numerous junior scientists and calls herself “passionate” when it comes to working with students and interns.

Zajac, who received her master’s degree in physics from Southampton University and her PhD in Physics from Cardiff University, said she would like to encourage more women to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, “as they are still underrepresented,” she said. “I would encourage them to study STEM subjects and ensure them that they will do just great.”

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

A pet peeve isn’t something you race out to the breeder, the pound or anywhere else to get because it’ll be a buddy for the rest of your life.

No, a pet peeve is some annoyance that routinely bothers you, like watching someone shake their leg in class or listening to someone blow away the four leaves that dare to fall on their driveway each day.

To that end, I’d like to share some of my own pet peeves, for no other reason than that it’s easier and, perhaps, more fun to focus on the smaller stuff than to worry about, say, global warming, the 2024 election, or the eventual burning out of the sun. Some of these are truly tiny, while others are considerably larger by comparison. If you find that annoying, add that to your own list.

—A perfect dive into a hotel or community pool: yes, it’s lovely and amazing, but people aren’t fish. We shouldn’t be able to enter the water without making a splash or a ripple. When we were teenagers, my brothers and I watched in amazement as a boy about our age perfectly pierced the water during a vacation at a pool in Quebec. Only later did we learn that he was the son of a national diving champion. He should have had his own pool and not unnerved the foolish Americans at a Holiday Inn.

— Endless, personal and vicious criticism at the end of articles: I can’t help laughing when someone writes about how stupid the idea of the article was. Often, someone else suggests that the person A. didn’t have to read the story and B. didn’t need to take the time to comment.

— The knees digging into my back on an airplane: do other passengers care that my back is on the other side of that thin fabric? Perhaps they want some attention or they are eager to share their physical discomfort with others.

— The overwhelming urge to tell me what my dog needs: one man, in particular, who seems to have moved into the neighborhood recently, tells me how my dog looks each day. Yes, it’s hot, and no, I’m not walking him so far that he’s in danger. By stopping me to share his unsolicited dog instructions, he’s extending the time my dog spends in the heat and he’s annoying me.

— The desire other parents have to tell me how to raise my children: news flash — everyone’s children aren’t the same and, oh, by the way, these aren’t your kids.

— The disconnect between the time our children spend on their phones with their friends and the difficulty in connecting by phone with them when they’re away: why are our children on their phones constantly when they’re with us, but they are unreachable by phone when we text them? They remind us that we tell them to “be where they are” when they’re not with us, but they’re not with us when they are with us.

— The people who listen so poorly that they say “oh, that’s nice” when I tell them my pet peeve died: enough said.

— People who tap me on the shoulder to get my attention while they are talking to me at a baseball game: yes, believe it or not, I can multi task. I’m capable of listening to someone else’s story and responding appropriately while watching every pitch and hoping for either a home run or a foul ball that comes my way.

— People who commit my mistakes to memory: I don’t expect perfection and readily admit that I err. If and when I share a thought about someone else’s mistakes, I sometimes receive something to the effect of, “well, you did that, too” or “what you did bothered me 17.28 years ago, too.” Okay, if it annoyed you, why didn’t you say something at the time, instead of waiting until now? Were you hoping I’d say something at some point so you could unburden yourself?

Elizabeth Brost is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Half of this year’s crop of recipients from New York State for Early Career Awards from the Department of Energy came from Brookhaven National Laboratory.

With ideas for a range of research efforts that have the potential to enhance basic knowledge and lead to technological innovations, two of the four winners earned awards in basic energy science, while the others scored funds from high energy physics and the office of nuclear physics.

“Supporting America’s scientists and researchers early in their careers will ensure the United States remains at the forefront of scientific discovery,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. The funding provides resources to “find the answers to some of the most complex questions as they establish themselves as experts in their fields.”

The DOE chose the four BNL recipients based on peer review by outside scientific experts. All eligible researchers had to have earned their PhDs within the previous 12 years and had to conduct research within the scope of the Office of Science’s eight major program areas.

In a two part series, TBR News Media will highlight the work of these four researchers. This week’s Power of 3 column features Elizabeth Brost and Derong Xu. Next week, TBR will highlight the work of Joanna Zajac and Esther Tsai.

Elizabeth ‘Liza’ Brost

Elizabeth Brost is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

In work titled “Shining Light on the Higgs Self-Interaction,” Brost, who is an associate scientist, is studying properties of the Higgs Boson, which was a long sought after particle that helps explain why some particles have mass. The Standard Model of Particle Physics, which predicted the existence of the Higgs Boson, also suggests that the Higgs field can interact with itself. This interaction should produce pairs of Higgs Bosons at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, where Brost works.

A significant challenge in Brost’s work is that the production of such pairs occurs 1,000 times less frequently than the production of single Higgs Bosons, which researchers discovered to considerable fanfare in 2012 after a 48-year search.

Brost is leading the effort to use machine learning algorithms to cherry pick collision data in real time. Since these events are so rare, “it’s very important that we are able to save promising collision events,” she explained in an email.

The LHC collides protons at a rate of 40 million times per second, but the facility only keeps about 100,000 of those.

Thus far, everything Brost has seen agrees with the Standard Model of Particle Physics predictions, but “that just means we have to work harder and develop new strategies to search for new physics,” she said.

Brost earned her undergraduate degree in physics and French from Grinnell College and her PhD in physics from the University of Oregon. When she learned she’d won this early career award, she “couldn’t believe it was real for quite some time,” she wrote. “The hardest part was keeping it a secret until the official announcement.

She explained that she was only allowed to tell a few select people at BNL and close family members about the distinction, who were also sworn to secrecy. 

The award will allow her to expand the scope of the work she’s doing and to hire additional staff.

As an experienced mentor, Brost recognizes that there is “a lot of pressure to work on whatever is the newest or coolest thing in order to stand out from a crowd” at a collaboration like ATLAS [an extensive particle detector experiment at the Large Hadron Collider] which involves over 3,000 people.” She urged researchers to work on the physics they find interesting and exciting.

Derong Xu

Derong Xu is one of four scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant funding through its Early Career Research Program. Photo courtesy of BNL

An Assistant Physicist, Xu is working to enhance the  efficiency of the Electron-Ion Collider, a marquee tool that BNL will start building next year and is expected to be operational in the 2030’s.

The EIC will collide beams of electrons and protons or other atomic nuclei. By reducing the beam size, or packing the same number of particles into a smaller space, the EIC can increase the likelihood of these collisions.

Specifically, Xu plans to flatten the beam, which has never been used in a hadron collider. He will explore ways to reduce the interactions between beams and superconducting magnets. He will pursue a combined approach using theoretical and experimental methods, which will affect the parameters for the future EIC.

Generating flat hadron beams in existing hadron machines remains “unexplored, making our project a pioneering effort dedicated to investigating methods for maintaining beam flatness,” Xu explained in an email.

In addition to leveraging flat iron beams, Xu is also considering ways to increase the beam intensity by injecting a greater number of particles into the accelerator, which would boost the collision rate. Such an approach, however, means more electromagnetic force between the beams, requiring additional effort to maintain beam flatness.

To explore these potential approaches and determine an optimal trade-off between strategies, his project will collaborate with leading experts in accelerator physics, conduct comprehensive simulations and investigate an array of techniques.

“Through pushing the boundaries of accelerator technology and exploring diverse construction and beam creation techniques, we aspire to unlock novel scientific frontiers and achieve groundbreaking discoveries in nuclear physics,” he explained.

Receiving the award filled Xu with “immense excitement and pride.” He and his wife called their parents, who are traditional farmers, in China. When he explained to them that the award is a substantial amount of money, they advised him to “try your best and not waste the money,” he shared.

At an early age, Xu showed a strong interest in math and physics. His parents rewarded him with snacks when he got high scores. 

“That was my first equation in my life: high scores = more snacks,” he joked.

To share the subatomic world with people outside his field, Xu often makes analogies. He compares the collision of an electron beam with a proton beam to shooting a flying ping-pong ball with a gun. The ping-pong ball’s size (which, in this case, is a collection of protons) resembles the diameter of a human hair. The collisions create scattered products that provide insights into the subatomic world.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

All the world is a stage and, yes, all the men and women are merely players, as Shakespeare wrote in “As You Like it.”

Recently, my life has been filled with scenes and moments in which I have observed pieces of people’s lives.

I’ll start with something small.

Standing outside JFK Airport, waiting for a ride, I watched two people share their displeasure with each other.

The burly man with the large shoulders and the technicolor tattoos down his arms turned to the woman with a colorful Jersey Shore outfit to give her a piece of his mind.

“You’re selfish and narcissistic and you only think about yourself all the time and I’m sick of it and of you!” he barked.

“Everyone can see you and hear you,” the woman said, looking in my direction.

“I don’t care,” he spit out through clenched teeth, as his ride arrived and he shoved their large suitcases into a small trunk. “I’m not embarrassed. You should be.” The suitcases weren’t fitting the way he was jamming them in, but that didn’t stop him from trying, causing the car to rock back and forth. His angry actions had become a manifestation of his mood.

Once the luggage was packed in the back, he walked directly into the street, almost getting clipped by a passing car, pulled open the door and threw himself into the seat.

With her head cast down slightly, his companion opened her door, took off her backpack and entered the car.

On the other end of the spectrum, I sat next to a woman on a plane who exuded optimism. Recognizing her joy of hiking, her fiancee asked her to marry him at Acadia National Park. After their engagement, they stopped in Boston to attend a concert, which is her fiancee’s personal passion. Whenever they travel, they find time to hike and to hear live music.

A sales representative for a consumer company, she shared that she was a “people person” and that she was traveling on her own to see her family and to attend a bridal shower, while her fiancee stayed home to watch their dogs.

When she’s having a terrible day, she buys a stranger a coffee or breakfast, which invariably makes her feel better.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, I not only had jury duty recently, but I served on another criminal case.

This one wasn’t quite as straightforward and it involved domestic violence. While I won’t go into the details of the case now (more coming on this at a later date), I will share how much I appreciated getting to know the other 13 members (with the two alternates) of the jury.

Even though we all were eager to return to our lives, we took the deliberations seriously and didn’t race to a verdict. We assumed the mantle of responsibility that comes with serving on a jury. We didn’t agree during the discussions, with one woman repeating that she was “sorry” she couldn’t join the majority. We assured her that, as the judge suggested, each of us should listen to the others while remaining true to our beliefs.

And, to end on a lighter note, while our flight was delayed for over an hour, I listened as a woman with a small dog spread out her blanket near a young couple.

Responding to a compliment about her dog, she spent the next half hour telling the couple how absolutely adorable her furry companion was. She interrupted herself to post something on social media, laughing that she posted a picture of her meal from Wendy’s just the day before.

“Isn’t that hysterical?” she asked. It’s something, I thought.

The man, who indicated he traveled every week for business, suggested how “sick and tired” he was of delayed planes. He planned to give customer service a piece of his mind when he arrived.

While I didn’t observe that interaction, I did watch as another man passed a one way exit where guards told him he couldn’t get back to the terminal because TSA had shut down for the night.