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Heather Lynch

Heather Lynch, above, is the inaugural director of the Collaborative for the Earth at Stony Brook University. File photo courtesy Rolf Sjogren/National Geographic

Heather Lynch is hoping to take a few pages out of the Coke and Pepsi playbook, which is rarely, if ever, used in the fields where she works.

A penguin expert who has traveled more than 9,000 miles to Antarctica to monitor populations of these flightless water foul, Lynch, who is the IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution, plans to use her new role as the inaugural director of the Collaborative for the Earth at Stony Brook University to accomplish several tasks, including shaping the way people think about environmental issues like climate change.

“Coke and Pepsi understand the importance of psychological research and persuasion,” Lynch said. “The environmental community has not used any of the tools to get at the hearts and minds” of the public.

Scientists have been trying to reach people in their heads when they also need to “reach them in their hearts,” she added.

Lynch hopes to figure out ways to bring in people who are experts in psychology and persuasion instead of adding another model of climate change consistent with so many others that have made similar predictions.

Lynch, whom a steering committee chose from among several qualified tenured faculty at SBU to take on this new role, will also help organize forums in which researchers and participants worldwide discuss pressing environmental issues.

In the forums, Lynch plans to encourage debate about challenging topics on which researchers disagree, such as the role of nuclear power in achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. She also hopes to address the concept and moral hazard of geoengineering.

In recent years, scientists have debated whether geoengineering, in which scientists use chemical means to cool the atmosphere, could exacerbate the problem or give people false hope that taking steps to reduce emissions or mitigate climate change may not be necessary.

Lynch also suggested other “third-rail topics” as population control may be fodder for future Stony Brook forums.

Scientists “don’t discuss controversial things,” said Lynch. “There tends to be an echo chamber in the scientific community. The forum will help us air these issues.”

To be sure, Lynch believes the issue of climate change and the urgency of the climate crisis is well established. The differences she hopes to discuss relate to various potential solutions.

“I’m hoping to focus on things where we disagree,” she said. “We need to get at the root of that.”

SBU Provost Carl Lejuez, to whom Lynch is reporting in this role. File photo

The right candidate

As a candidate, Lynch met numerous criteria for the search committee and for Provost Carl Lejuez, to whom Lynch is reporting in this role.

“Her research is and has been squarely placed to understand climate change and the climate crisis and how we try to move forward toward a healthier planet,” said Lejuez.

Lynch is also a “creative, entrepreneurial thinker” who has an “exciting vision for what the Collaborative can be,” Lejuez said. “She has a real strength in leadership and is very good at bringing people together.”

Lejuez has several goals for the Collaborative in its first year. He would like Lynch to start creating forums that can “live up to the potential of being a leader in creating that academic conference that brings rigor to real-world problems” and is connected to policy, industry and politics and that has clear deliverables.

Additionally, Lejuez would like the Collaborative to move toward an understanding of Stony Brook’s role in the future of climate science, climate justice and sustainability.

New podcasts

Lynch plans to dedicate considerable energy to this effort, cutting back on some of her teaching time. She plans to conduct podcasts with people on campus, speaking with them about their work, what keeps them up at night, what technologies excite them and a host of other topics.

She also hopes to bring in the “brightest lights” to big-stage events at Governors Island and on Long Island.

She is pondering the possibility of creating a competition akin to the entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank.” At Stony Brook University, faculty judges could evaluate ideas and advance some of them.

The Shark Tank could give students an opportunity to propose ways to create a greener Stony Brook campus.

As for the psychology and social science of environmental efforts, Lynch plans to work with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to explore ways to understand how people think about these issues.

The evidence and impact of climate change increases the urgency of this work and the potential contribution of the university to debating, addressing and proposing solutions.

Earlier this year, Hurricane Otis intensified within 12 hours from a tropical storm to a deadly Category 5 hurricane, slamming into Mexico.

The potential for future storms with intensification that occurs so rapidly that forecasts might not provide warnings with sufficient time to take emergency measures should ring alarm bells for area residents.

Hurricane Otis, whose intensification was the second-fastest recorded in modern times, “should scare everybody on Long Island,” said Lynch. “People think toddling along with business as usual is an option. That is not an option.”

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.

Clare Flynn conducts a census count of gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour in Antarctica in January 2023.

By Daniel Dunaief

Humans may have nothing on penguins when it comes to viral marketing. Almost immediately after the Covid pandemic shut down tourism in parts of Antarctica, some gentoo penguins likely altered their choice of nesting sites.

Clare Flynn with her award- winning poster at the Pacific Seabird Group annual meeting in Feb. 2023. Photo by William Kennerly

As if the penguins got an avian email alert indicating that tourists eager to send a post card from the only post office in Antarctica weren’t coming, these flightless birds quickly divvied up desirable real estate, which, for a gentoo penguin, means bare rock on which they make nests out of pebbles.

“Antarctica is seen as a mostly pristine place where humans have very little impact,” said Clare Flynn, a PhD student in the lab of Heather Lynch, the Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences Endowed Chair for Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University.

Flynn used a combination of ground counts from researchers and drone footage to tally the nests during the Covid years. Based on these numbers, she concluded that tourism has been “depressing the population sizes at Port Lockroy” and nearby Jougla Point.

The study suggests that even limited human visits to remote locations can alter decisions by wildlife, affecting the kind of reproductive choices that could, over time and with greater numbers of people coming, affect population sizes.

Pomona College Biology Professor Nina Karnovsky, who is an undergraduate thesis advisor and mentor for Flynn but didn’t participate in this research, suggested that this kind of analysis highlights the need for greater awareness of human influence.

“It shows that people even visiting the colony can have impacts,” Karnovsky said. “Tourism is a double-edged sword. You want people to experience Antarctica and see how precious life there is.” At the same time, researchers don’t want any such visits to have negative side effects.

Nest numbers

The number of penguin nests in Port Lockroy surged to 978 in the 2021/ 2022 breeding season. That is considerably higher than the 535 nesting pairs in the 2018/2019 season, according to data compiled and analyzed by Flynn. What’s more, when the post office returned to normal operations, bringing back tourists in 2022 and 2023, the nest number at Port Lockroy returned to its earlier levels, at 529.

The overall number of nesting gentoo penguins didn’t change dramatically in a cluster of gentoo penguin colonies around Wiencke Island during Covid, as many of these birds likely shifted their breeding locations from nearby sites that don’t have as much human activity, such as Damoy Point.

“It’s shocking how quickly [the changed nesting sites] happened,” Flynn said, occurring over the course of two years, not generations. “Tourism is just ramping up when the penguins are choosing nesting sites.” The shifting nest sites accounted for most of the increase in Port Lockroy and Jougla Point. Some of the gentoo penguins who may have skipped a breeding season, however, also might have decided to give it a go amid the pandemic closure.

Post office attraction

Flynn and Lynch have a few theories about what caused these nesting patterns.

Flynn suggested the nesting sites at Damoy Point and Dorian Beacon, where the number of nesting colonies declined during the lockdown, may have been close to carrying capacity, which means that prospective penguin parents found the equivalent of No Vacancy signs when they searched for places to build their nest.

Sites near the post office were not at carrying capacity prior to the pandemic. From visual inspection of the drone images, these sites had available bare rock, which is a limiting factor for gentoo penguins.

Flynn believes that pedestrian traffic may have dissuaded penguins from creating nests.

Human disturbance

Boat traffic may also be dissuading gentoo penguins from nesting. While there is a limit to the number of people who can land at any given time, people often cruise around the area in zodiacs, which increases the noise and could create a physical barrier for swimming penguins.

Last month, Lynch brought Flynn’s analysis of nesting numbers during the pandemic to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Finland. Policy makers are considering implementing a no-wake zone in Port Lockroy harbor as a first step to reduce disturbance.

While the number of nests typically varies by year at these sites, the dramatic increases and decreases lie outside that normal range, Flynn said. She called the numbers “eye popping,” as Port Lockroy had the largest population size ever recorded in 2021/ 2022 and Jougla Point saw the largest population size in 2021/2022 in over 20 years. Damoy Point and Dorian Beacon, by contrast, had huge drops.

Understanding the effects of tourism is becoming increasingly important, particularly as the appetite for travel to this area increases.

While gentoo penguins are doing well overall, an increase in the kind of tourism that exists at Port Lockroy could affect their breeding success.

“We need to understand how increasing levels of tourism affect these species so that the effects in conjunction with climate change effects don’t cause a disaster” for several penguin species, Flynn added.

Rewarding pivot

Flynn hadn’t intended to study the effects of Covid on the gentoo penguin. Instead, she was using drone images to identify whether penguins nested in the same place from one year to the next.

While Flynn was annotating images from 2018 through 2021, Lynch noticed the changes at Port Lockroy during those years. After Flynn took a deeper dive into the numbers, she made a new poster just one week before presenting her results at the Pacific Seabird Group annual meeting in February.

The “exhausting” effort, as Flynn put it, paid off, as she won runner up honors for best PhD poster at the conference. She has since sent the results out to Biological Conservation for publication.

Ecology spark

Flynn grew up near Baltimore and attended Pomona College, where she anticipated exploring her interest in math. She switched her focus to ecology. An ecology and evolution class she took with Karnovsky cemented her decision and brought her into the world of seabirds.

Karnovsky recalled how Flynn “loved collecting data,” which, in Southern California is “not a walk in the park, literally.” Flynn had to contend with cactus and poison ivy on an owl project.

Karnovsky believes her former student could “go on and do great things in this field.”

At one point about five years ago, Karnovsky told Flynn she might “go to Antarctica one day to study penguins,” Flynn recalled. At the time, Flynn thought the idea sounded “crazy.”

Karnovsky’s suggestion about Flynn’s future was less crazy than it was prescient.

When she’s not following her research calling, Flynn enjoys following recipes. She makes baked goods and is particularly fond of a blueberry muffin recipe she found in Bon Appétit magazine. Instead of putting in too many blueberry, which sink in the muffin, she makes a blueberry compote and sprinkles lemon zest sugar on top.

As for her future, Flynn hasn’t decided on a post PhD plan. This could include becoming a professor or pursuing a data science career.

“I could see her becoming a really wonderful professor because she also sees mentoring as really important,” Karnovsky said.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Sure, the book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” could be helpful.

Until you’ve gone through pregnancy and had a child, you don’t really know what’s around the corner. Other parents sometimes expect you to follow their footprints to the promised land, which somehow didn’t always seem like the happiest place on Earth for them or their screaming kids.

You hear about terms like first, second and third trimester, which sound like safe little building blocks you might want to play with on the floor, stacking one on top of another while Mozart plays blissfully in the background.

But, really, so much of life, even during those days before childbirth, when moms are expecting, doesn’t follow a script or textbook cue cards.

My wife and I tried to keep at least a month ahead of the “nesting phase” and the “tired phase” among so many others in the books.

We went to Lamaze classes where, despite being in our mid 30s, we felt remarkably young in New York City compared to so many other first-time parents in their late 30s and early 40s who were sharing pregnancy stories and preparing to “breathe, honey,” and to count the time in between contractions.

Our birth plan went out the window when, after my wife’s three valiant days of pushing, our doctor decided to do a C section. How do you make important decisions when you’re beyond exhausted and when your excitement and anxiety seem to be in an extended foot race for your attention?

Just before the doctor started the procedure, she told me that if I passed out at any time, they were going to leave me on the cold, concrete floor, stepping over me to tend to my wife and daughter.

Fortunately, everything worked out, despite the challenges for my wife of recovering from abdominal surgery that made even the simplest of motions, like rising out of a chair, difficult and painful.

So, here we are, over two decades later, and we and others are still maneuvering around playbooks we’ve had to rewrite. It seemed fitting, given that it’s Mother’s Day this Sunday, to reach out to a few successful scientists — I cover science, so these are my peeps — to ask them a few questions.

IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University Heather Lynch explained some of the best parenting advice she got was to think of “running the household like running a business, and outsource what can be outsourced with zero guilt.”

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor and HHMI Investigator Leemor Joshua-Tor, meanwhile, said she learned to trust her gut, especially for the timing of discussions with her daughter. As her daughter enters her teenage years, Joshua-Tor has taken more of an advisory role, letting her have more control over her life while offering a calming presence.

Joshua-Tor wrote in an email that she thought “my daughter would have a good role model with a mom that had a fulfilling career and work life.”

Joshua-Tor was pleased to hear her daughter bragging about her mom’s career.

Lynch, who studies penguins that share parenting duties, credits marrying well for her parental success.

She and husband, Matthew Eisaman, who has a joint appointment at Stony Brook and Brookhaven National Laboratory, “split things 50-50 and if I had to do even 51% of everything, I think this whole house of cards would collapse,” she explained in an email.

Amid the pandemic, which wasn’t in any parenting textbooks (but probably will be in the future), Joshua-Tor said she tried to keep her daughter positive while ensuring her safety.

As a parent, Joshua-Tor added, “nothing was as I expected, but how deep things hit you is a biggy.”

Melissa Cohen with her children Andrew and Alice Turner. Photo courtesy of Alan Turner

Port Jefferson will likely be greener at this time next year, thanks to the efforts of 59 first graders at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, their families and village trustees.

As a part of what Trustee Rebecca Kassay hopes will be an annual tradition, first graders will hear a talk in their class this Friday, April 29, on National Arbor Day, by Heather Lynch, IACS endowed chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University. At that point, the students will also get coupons for free saplings of white oak, red spruce or winterberry shrubs.

The students and their families can plant the trees or shrubs in their backyards if they have space and clearance or at the Port Jefferson Country Club. The trees planted at the country club will not interfere with any golf games or other activities.

“We want to help foster that relationship between our young, upcoming stewards of Port Jefferson and the natural environment,” said Kassay, who spearheaded the project.

Planting trees will help offset losses incurred during storms and as some of the older trees die.

While sharing games like bird bingo, Lynch also hopes to speak with first graders about the role that native plants can play on Long Island.

“Planting trees is like a gift to their future selves,” said Lynch, who also described the effort as “paying it forward.” She hopes first graders see the role they play in Port Jefferson history by planting trees that will grow as they do and that will become a part of their enduring legacy.

While first grade students will receive saplings for free as a part of the project, Port Jefferson residents can also buy them for $1 at the farmers market on Sunday, May 8, while supplies last.

Kassay is describing the purchase for residents as a “dollar and a dream.”

Planting these trees will strengthen the ecology of the area, providing homes and food sources for local birds and insects and reducing runoff, Lynch added.

The trustees will invite the first graders, as well as community members, to help plant the tree nursery at the country club on Thursday, May 5, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with a rain date of May 6. Residents can park at the country club and follow signage from The Turn restaurant to the tree nursery beyond the driving range. 

Family response

For several families in Port Jefferson, this kind of effort validates their commitment and interest in the village.

Nadine and Richard Wilches moved to Port Jefferson last year with their 9-year old son Lucas and their 7-year old daughter Cecilia.

“One of the reasons we moved to Port Jefferson is to experience a closer-knit community that includes taking care of the environment,” Nadine Wilches said. “Planting this tree will be a learning experience.”

Cecilia, who is in first grade at Edna Louise Spear school, shared some of her awareness of trees.

Without trees, “there would be no air,” Cecilia said. “The tree eats carbon dioxide. We eat the opposite, which is air, so the tree does the opposite.”

Cecilia has learned some of what she knows about trees from the work her brother Lucas is doing on photosynthesis in his class.

Lucas was born on Earth Day and also appreciates the connection to preserving the planet, the mother said.

Wilches added that the family tries to be cautious about their carbon footprint and has a hybrid car and an electric car.

She appreciates that the school and the village are “reinforcing our home values around the environment.” 

If Cecilia could ask a tree a question, she would want to know if it hurts a tree when it loses its leaves.

First grader Andrew Turner appreciates how trees provide a home for animals. He will join the group planting saplings at the country club, and wants to know how long it takes a tree to grow.

Andrew, who likes woodpeckers and who currently wants to be a paleontologist like his father, Alan Turner at Stony Brook University, enjoys jumping in leaf piles in the fall.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.”

— Rebecca Kassay

Andrew’s mother Melissa Cohen, who is a graduate program coordinator in Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, said she appreciates how this effort will help children in the school develop an understanding of trees and the benefits they bring to the community.

Longer term, Lynch, Kassay and others hope the first graders who participate in this effort develop a connection to the trees they plant.

“We envision these kids growing up with their trees,” Lynch said. “It would be amazing if the kids could all take pictures with their trees now and we can [see] them taking pictures when they graduate high school as a rite of passage.”

Kassay said these trees offer numerous benefits, including lowering heating costs from the shade they produce, increasing property values and stabilizing the soil by soaking up runoff from storms.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today,” Kassay said.

Heather Lynch

As part of its Ecology and Climate Change lecture series, the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will welcome Stony Brook University’s Heather Lynch for a presentation titled Mapping Penguins with Satellites, Drones and Other Technologies in the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium on April 14 at 7 p.m.

In Mapping Penguins, with Satellites, Drones, and Other Technologies, Professor Lynch will share insights from her innovative research into the population dynamics of penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. To better understand rises and falls in this population due to climate change, tourism, and fishing, Lynch marries traditional field work with a range of technologically sophisticated methods including satellite remote sensing, drone imaging, and advanced computational models.

“Penguin populations have been changing rapidly over the last 40 years,” says Lynch. “But understanding why those changes have occurred and what we might expect for the future is a surprisingly difficult challenge. [In this lecture,] I’ll discuss the threats facing Antarctic penguins and how scientists are bringing together new technology, artificial intelligence, and advanced predictive modeling to help guide policymakers in their work to protect one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses.”

Dr. Heather J. Lynch is the Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences Endowed Chair for Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University. She earned a B.A. in Physics from Princeton University, an M.A. in Physics from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard. She is also a National Geographic Explorer and past winner of the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists.

Join Lynch as she shares her insight and research. $6 per person, members free. To register, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Heather Lynch Photo courtesy of Rolf Sjogren/ National Geographic

By Daniel Dunaief

To borrow from the Pink song in the movie Happy Feet, the Pew Trusts for Marine Conservation recently delivered “something good” to Stony Brook University’s Heather Lynch. 

Endowed chair for ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University’s Institute for Advanced Computational Science, Lynch was selected as one of six Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation.

Lynch, who uses a host of tools including physics and satellite imagery to study penguin populations in Antarctica and associated island groups including in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, is one of six international recipients of the 2022 fellowship, which includes $150,000 over three years, and is a mid-career prize.

Lynch plans to use the funds to chronicle species health in the macaroni and king penguin and forecast risks to Antarctica’s penguin populations.

Lynch’s work is “really important,” said Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), who nominated Lynch for the fellowship. Lynch provides the kind of information “we need to make effective decisions about protecting Antarctica.”

Christian, who has known Lynch for about five years, said Lynch’s consistent commitment helps “provide a broader picture of what’s happening down there over a longer time frame.”

Christian is particularly pleased that Lynch’s work in the Antarctic brings necessary attention to the region, even though “it’s far away at the end of the world,” she said. “People understand that [the Antarctic] is worth investing time and resources into studying.”

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation provides recipients with an opportunity to interact with other winners and alumni. This year, the Pew Trust received over 50 nominees.

Past honorees at Stony Brook University include Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Sciences at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Ellen Pikitch and Endowed Research Chair for Nature and Humanity Carl Safina.

Jane Lubchenco, who won a Pew Fellowship in marine conservation in the 1992, was the first woman to lead the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and is the current Deputy Director for Climate and Environment in the White House.

Rebecca Goldburg, Director of Environmental Sciences at the Pew Charitable Trusts, appreciates the mixture of high-level research Lynch produces and the application of her discoveries to conservation and added that Lynch has “outstanding scientific achievement that is well-integrated into decision making.”

Climate change

While researchers haven’t broadly chronicled the movement of macaroni penguins into the Antarctic, Lynch anticipates that climate change would draw them into the Antarctic.

“My hope is that a focus on macaroni penguin census data will illuminate their trends,” she explained in an email.

King penguins, meanwhile, have recently arrived in the Antarctic. The presence of king penguins would represent a turning point for Lynch, as they would suggest that the Antarctic is starting to show ecological similarities with the sub-Antarctic.

King penguins have attempted to breed on Elephant Island, which is about 800 miles from their typical habitat in South Georgia. While this species of penguin has traveled this distance in prior years, their decision to settle and try to raise chicks, which they haven’t successfully done, is “new and ecologically interesting,” Lynch explained.

Lynch suggested such a geographic expansion is rare because these birds are long-lived and an established pair will breed in the same location for years. Even in young individuals traveling to new territories, the rate of range shift is slow and hard to track.

“The movement of king penguins into Antarctica is exactly what would have been predicted and so it is an exciting (if, from a climate perspective, disturbing) time to be watching this all unfold,” she said.

King penguins can form large colonies, which could, over the course of a longer period of time, create competition for space with chinstraps. Lynch suggested that the region could be in the early days of an ecologically important event.

Where’s Waldo?

As for macaroni penguins, whose stories about how they got their name include one involving a sailor slang for men who dressed in bright colors, they have frequently been the “Where’s Waldo?” of what Lynch does, she said, as she encounters them by chance in a colony of another species.

She is pulling together several decades of offhand notes about her findings on macaronis to track them systematically. She believes collecting information about populations of macaroni and king penguins in Antarctica is going to be informative.

In analyzing penguin populations across species, Lynch plans to take the kind of approach portfolio managers apply when they consider where to focus their attention.

A mutual fund manager with a large percentage of the value of the fund linked to changes in the stock price of Apple would likely track the earnings of the company and its share price more closely than stocks in which she has smaller holdings or whose values don’t fluctuate much.

For penguins, Lynch suggested that scientists and conservationists may “need to understand those colonies, and there may not be that many, that contain a large percentage of the world’s population,” she said.

For a long time, researchers have focused on colonies that were easier to study because they were small and close by. “I don’t think we can justify that approach anymore,” Lynch said.

Picking penguin spots

Goldburg appreciates Lynch’s framework for penguin conservation.

Lynch will address the “key penguin colonies,” some of which are contributing disproportionately to the risk of penguin declines, Goldburg said. This approach will enable conservationists to monitor important sites because they “can’t do everything.” 

Understanding penguin populations goes beyond a simple rule that more of any population is necessarily better. Major increases or decreases should be cause for concern because they reflect shifts in the functioning of the ecosystem, she explained.

Christian is confident the work Lynch does will provide policy makers with key information.

“Her work is really important and it deserves to have a lot of visibility and funding,” Christian said. “Without understanding what’s happening to species that are living down there, we can’t” design effective strategies to protect them and their ecosystems.

Lynch provides the kind of information necessary to “make effective decisions about protecting Antarctica,” Christian added.

By Daniel Dunaief

Noah Strycker once made a bet with a cruise ship full of passengers: if any of them spotted him without binoculars at any point during a 14-day trip, he would buy them all drinks. Even with that incentive, no one won a free drink, in large part because Strycker’s passion for birds means his binoculars are never out of arm’s reach.

A master’s candidate in Heather Lynch’s lab at Stony Brook University, Strycker, who has turned his world travels in search of his feathered friends into books, is working through the second year on Lynch’s specialty: penguins.

As a part of the team, Strycker is contributing to a population analysis of chinstrap penguins. Last year, he ventured to Antarctica with a field team for several months to count colonies of these six-to-ten pound birds.

The “piece de resistance” of that journey was a trip to Elephant Island, which is where, over 100 years earlier, Ernest Shackleton and his crew were marooned for several months before their rescue.

During Strycker’s journey to the famous but uninhabited island, the team counted the number of chinstrap and compared the population to the last known count, which occurred 50 years ago.

They determined that the chinstrap has had a significant decline, in some cases losing more than half its population in some areas. After a survey of Elephant Island and Low Island, the research team suggested that the decline in the chinstrap’s main source of food, krill, likely caused this reduction.

As for this year, Strycker had planned to travel back to Antarctica until the pandemic caused the cancellation of the trip. He is conducting a literature search to find previous chinstrap penguin counts. In the final part of his master’s program, he will help provide an updated assessment for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

While the IUCN provides information on threatened or endangered species, Strycker recognizes that the chinstrap won’t likely be on that list. “There are many millions of them,” he explained in a recent interview. “[But] they are declining. We are trying to give the IUCN updated information.”

Lynch’s lab will provide information for IUCN’s green list, which is for species that aren’t endangered. Species on this list might benefit from additional information that could help shape a future conservation strategy.

Strycker, who traveled to 41 countries in 2015 to count as many birds as possible in a year, appreciated and enjoyed his interaction with penguins. These flightless birds have no fear of humans so they waddled up to him and untied his shoelaces. They also fell asleep next to his boot and preened the side of his black wind pants.

Strycker landed in the world of penguins when he was working as a naturalist guide on a cruise ship and met Lynch, whose team was on the same boat.

Lynch was delighted with the chance to add Strycker to her team. “One of the most difficult things about our work is that there is such a steep learning curve for doing Antarctic field research,” Lynch explained in an email. “To grab someone like [Strycker] with so much Antarctic experience under his belt was just fantastic.”

Lynch appreciates how Strycker led the chinstrap survey work, not just in collecting the data but also in analyzing and writing it up. Strycker is “a terrific writer (and very fast, too) and his finesse with writing helped us get our research out for review faster than would normally be possible,” she said.

After seeing and hearing birds around the world, Strycker has an unusual favorite — the turkey vulture. When he was in high school in Eugene, Oregon, Strycker watched a nature documentary with David Attenborough in which the host put rotting meat out in a forest. In no time at all, turkey vultures discovered the feast. “That is the coolest thing I’ve seen,” Strycker recalls thinking.

Months later, he discovered a road kill deer while he was driving. He put the dead animal in the trunk of his ’88 Volvo Sedan and dumped it in his front yard, waiting to see if he could duplicate Attenborough’s feast. Fairly soon, 25 turkey vultures arrived and were sitting on the roof of his house. The neighbors didn’t complain because Strycker grew up on a dead end, 20 acres from the nearest house.

Fortunately for him, his parents didn’t seem too upset, either. “When they realized that their only child had become addicted to birds at a young age, they rolled their eyes and said that there’s much worse things that he could become addicted to,” Strycker recalled.

As for Long Island, Strycker said the area is currently in fall migration season. All the birds that nested in Canada are passing through New York on their way to spend the winter in warmer climates.

The migration patterns typically start with shorebirds in August, transition to warblers in September and to waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, which appear in October and November.

“This fall has also been exciting because several species of northern songbirds have ‘irrupted’ south, so we’re seeing unusually high numbers of them on Long Island,” said Strycker. This month, red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches, and pine siskins have appeared in large numbers, which doesn’t happen every year.

At this time of year, birds sometimes get lost outside their usual range. Last week, a painted redstart, which should be in Arizona, arrived in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

“I was out there at dawn the next morning, along with half the birder population of New York, but unfortunately it had already moved on,” said Strycker.

People interested in tracking bird migration by radar can use the website birdcast.info, which can predict bird migration like the weather using radar data. Strycker advises interested birders to type “Stony Brook” into their local Bird Migration Alert tool.

Once he earns his degree, Strycker plans to build on and share his experiences.

He would like to write books, give presentations and “generally inspire the world about birds.”

Photo by Heather Lynch


Heather Lynch of Port Jefferson took this gorgeous photo at West Meadow Beach while kayaking on Aug. 31. She writes, ‘I’ve travelled all over the world and I think the North Shore beaches and waterways are among the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world. You don’t need a massive park to experience the peaceful quiet of a summer evening surrounded by egrets and osprey.’

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com

SBU team member Steve Forrest scales the rock face as chinstrap penguins look on. Photo by Christian Åslund

By Daniel Dunaief

The canary in the Arctic coal mines, chinstrap penguins need more ice. These multitudinous flightless birds also depend on the survival and abundance of the krill that feed on the plankton that live under the ice.

With global warming causing the volume of ice in the Antarctic to decline precipitously, the krill that form the majority of the diet of the chinstrap penguin have either declined or shifted their distribution further south, which has put pressure on the chinstrap penguins.

Indeed, at the end of December, a team of three graduate students (PhD students in Ecology and Evolution Alex Borowicz and Michael Wethington and MS student in Marine Science Noah Strycker) from the lab of Heather Lynch, who recently was promoted to the inaugural IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, joined Greenpeace on a five week mission to the Antarctic to catalog, for the first time in about 50 years, the reduction in the number of this specific penguin species.

The team boarded Greenpeace’s ship, the Esperanza, for a five week mission. Photo by Christian Åslund

The group, which included  private contractor Steve Forrest and two graduate students from Northeastern University, “saw a shocking 55 percent decline in the chinstrap on Elephant Island,” Lynch said. That drop is “commensurate with declines elsewhere on the peninsula.”

Elephant Island and Low Island were the targets for this expedition. The scientific team surveyed about 99 percent of Elephant Island, which was last visited by the Joint Services Expedition in 1970-1971.

The decline on Elephant Island is surprising given that the conditions in the area are close to the ideal conditions for chinstraps.

In some colonies in the Antarctic, the declines were as much as 80 percent to 90 percent, with several small chinstrap colonies disappearing entirely.

“We had hoped that Elephant Island would be spared,” Lynch said. “In fact, that’s not at all the case.”

While many indications suggest that global warming is affecting krill, the amount of fishing in the area could also have some impact. It’s difficult to determine how much fishing contributes to this reduction, Lynch said, because the scientists don’t have enough information to understand the magnitude of that contribution.

The chinstrap is a picky eater. The only place the bird breeds is the Antarctic peninsula, Elephant Island and places associated with the peninsula. The concern is that it has few alternatives if krill declines or shifts further south.

“Chinstraps have been under-studied in the last few decades, in part because so much attention has been focused on the other species and in part because they nest in such remote and challenging places,” Lynch explained in an email. “I hope our findings raise awareness of the chinstraps as being in serious trouble, and that will encourage everyone to help keep an eye on them.”

While these declines over 50 years is enormous, they don’t immediately put the flightless waterfowl that tends to mate with the same partner each year on the list of endangered species because millions of the sea birds that feel warm and soft to the touch are still waddling around the Antarctic.

Researchers believe that the biggest declines may have occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, in part because areas with more regular monitoring showed reductions during those times.

Still, where there are more recent counts to use as a standard of comparison, the declines “show no signs of abating,” Lynch explained.

The evidence of warming in the Antarctic has been abundant this year. On Valentine’s Day, the Antarctic had its hottest day on record, reaching 69.35 degrees Fahrenheit. The high in Stony Brook that day was a much cooler 56 degrees.

“What’s more concerning is the long term trends in air temperature, which have been inching up steadily on the Antarctic Peninsula since at the least the 1940’s,” Lynch wrote in an email.

At the same time, other penguin species may be preparing to expand their range. King penguins started moving into the area several years ago, which represents a major range expansion. “It’s almost inevitable that they will eventually be able to raise chicks in this region,” Lynch suggested.

The northern part of the Antarctic is becoming much more like the sub Antarctic, which encourages other species to extend their range.

Among many other environmental and conservation organizations, Greenpeace is calling on the United Nation to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. The Antarctic was the last stop on a pole to pole cruise to raise awareness, Lynch said.

One of the many advantages of traveling with Greenpeace was that the ship was prepared to remove trash.

“We pulled up containers labeled poison,” Lynch said. Debris of all kinds had washed up on the hard-to-reach islands.

“People are not polluting the ocean in Antarctica, but pollution finds its way down there on a regular basis,” she added. “If people knew more about [the garbage and pollution that goes in the ocean], they’d be horrified. It is spoiling otherwise pristine places.”

Lynch appreciated that Greenpeace provided the opportunity to conduct scientific research without steering the results in any way or affecting her interpretation of the data.

“We were able to do our science unimpeded,” she said.

Counting penguins on the rocky islands required a combination of counting birds and nests in the more accessible areas and deploying drones in the areas that were harder to reach. One of Lynch’s partners Hanumant Singh, a Professor Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, flew the drones over distant chinstrap colonies. The researchers launched the drones from land and from the small zodiac boats.

The next step in this research is to figure out where the penguins are going when they are not in the colony. “Using satellite tags to track penguins at sea is something I’d like to get into over the next few years, as it will answer some big questions for us about where penguins, including chinstraps, are trying to find food,” Lynch said.