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Stony Brook University

#2 Frankie Policelli takes a shot during Saturday's game. Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

The Stony Brook men’s basketball team (8-14, 4-5 CAA), led by a second half explosion from graduate forward Frankie Policelli, stormed past the Hampton Pirates (5-17, 2-8 CAA) on Jan. 28 at the Convocation Center in Hampton, VA to pick up a 71-66 victory. 

Policelli scored a career-high 34 points, shooting 11-of-20 from the floor and 12-of-14 from the free-throw line. The New Hartford, New York, native exploded for 31 points in the final 20 minutes, shooting 11-of-16 from the field and 9-of-10 from the line in the second stanza.

Policelli also hauled in 12 rebounds, giving him his team-leading eighth double-double of the season.

The Seawolves trailed the Pirates, 37-30, at halftime and used a second half comeback to upend Hampton. Stony Brook began the frame on a 12-4 run to regain the lead and backed by Policelli they never looked back.

Policelli fooled Hampton freshman forward Kyrese Martin with his pump fake and step-through move that gave the Seawolves the lead with less than 14 minutes remaining. At that point, Policelli had scored 10 points in the half. The graduate helped maintain control of the lead and continued to build on it. He also got help from freshman forward Leon Nahar, who splashed the second three-pointer of his career.

The Seawolves opened the second half on a 27-9 run and built a lead of up to 13 points, at 65-52. Policelli exploded in the second half scoring 31 of the Seawolves’ 41 points. The team shot 55.6 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from the free-throw line in the second stanza. 

With the victory, Stony Brook picked up its fourth conference win of the season.

“Great team win for us. I couldn’t be prouder of how we competed and found a way to win tonight. A lot of guys made huge plays and were factors in the game, but Frankie’s second half is the best 20 minutes of offensive basketball I’ve been a part of. Our guys are competing and battling as hard as they can,” said head coach Geno Ford.

#15 Sharmarla King eyes the basket during Sunday's game. Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

The Stony Brook women’s basketball team (13-7, 7-2 CAA) moved into a tie for second-place in the CAA, after sprinting past the Towson Tigers (12-8, 6-3 CAA), 83-66, at Island Federal Arena on Jan. 29.

The Seawolves were led by three student-athletes, who each scored 20+ points. Junior guard Shamarla King, sophomore forward Sherese Pittman, and senior guard Gigi Gonzalez all dropped 20 or more points in the game. 

Stony Brook and Towson played a very tight game throughout the entire first half and most of the third quarter, until the Seawolves regained control and never looked back. 

With just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, King nailed a huge three-pointer, off an assist from graduate guard Daishai Almond, to tie the game at 52-52. King’s three sparked the Seawolves on both ends of the floor. King erupted for a career-high 22 points and she hauled in 10 rebounds. It was her first-career double-double and she set career-highs with eight field goals made and four threes made.

On the following possession, Almond stole the ball and drove all the way to the basket to finish the layup in transition. It gave Stony Brook a two-point lead. After another stop defensively, Gonzalez turned on the jets and sprinted to the basket where she finished a layup and drew a foul in the process.  She would complete the three-point play and Stony Brook led 57-52, going on a 8-0 run. 

Gonzalez exploded for 14 points in the third quarter and totaled 18 points in the second half. The point guard finished the game with one of her most complete stat lines of the season. She dropped 20 points (7-of-13 from the floor, 5-of-5 from the free-throw line) and added seven assists and six rebounds.

Stony Brook led 57-54 at the end of the third frame and maintained its lead the rest of the way with a stifling defensive attack and contagious scoring on the offensive end.

Stony Brook forced Towson into multiple scoring droughts of over two minutes, which allowed the Seawolves to go on a 7-0 run and 8-0 run in the final quarter. The Seawolves outscored the Tigers, 26-12, in the fourth quarter. The Seawolves snapped Towson’s six-game winning streak and have now won nine of their last 11 games.

Next up, the team will remain home to take on the Drexel Dragons on Feb. 5. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on SNY and FloHoops.

From left, Darren Martin and Benjamin Hsiao during a visit to Ram’s Head Inn on Shelter Island. Photo from Darren Martin

By Daniel Dunaief

One person’s garbage is another’s treasure.

Benjamin Hsiao

Benjamin Hsiao has plans to convert garbage — from dog poop to food waste and even cardboard boxes — into the kind of low cost materials and fertilizers that can help combat climate change. His primary target is agricultural residues because of their volume and collectability.  

A Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Stony Brook University, Hsiao and collaborator Darren Martin at the University of Queensland in Australia recently were awarded one of 16 multidisciplinary grants totaling $11.4 million from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program.

Hsiao, who is the primary investigator, will receive $570,000 over the next nine months in Phase I of the research effort while Martin will collect $180,000 from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia.

The researchers plan to take a zero waste approach to create a circular system that will generate efficiencies, reduce pollution and combat climate change.

The research is focused on creating immediate solutions for current problems, Hsiao said.

The NSF received “many quality submissions” and chose the winners after a rigorous review process, the NSF said.

The proposal from Hsiao and Martin stood out as it is “based on strong science” and make a clear connection to climate change,” NSF officials said.

Hsiao and Martin were delighted with the award and the opportunity not only to make contributions through their own research, but also to work with some of the other recipients.

“I am so pleased on many counts,” Martin explained in an email from Australia. First, Martin and Hsiao, who met at a conference in 2014, followed through on long standing plans to work together. Second, this program, which the NSF started in 2019, is about “early engagement with the market to get feedback on new technologies and platforms.”

Martin suggested it was akin to a “business model boot camp” that includes support and opportunities to pressure test ideas early. “This approach could really accelerate and compress the number of years traditionally taken to see helpful new technologies out in society sooner.”

If they are successful and effective, the scientists can apply for competitive Phase II funding within the year, which includes $5 million for two years and which four or five of the Phase I recipients, who are from a host of A-list research institutions, will receive.

Solids and liquids

Hsiao has been working with solid plant-based waste to create filters that can purify water at a low cost since 2009.

“Nanoscale cellulose materials can be used for water purification,” said Hsiao.

The needles of plants, from shrubs to bushes to feedstock, all have the same cellulosic nanostructure. Hsiao’s technology can convert these different feedstock into similar carboxy-cellulose nanofibers that can be used as purifying agents with negative charge. These filters can remove oppositely charged impurities.

Additionally, Hsiao plans to use solid plant based biomass to create a biogel. Rich in nutrients, the biogel is like the naturally occurring residue that is at the bottom of streams, which is a nutrient-rich mix of dead trees and grass.

The biogel, which is also funded by the NSF, has three applications. First, it can replace soil to grow food or for seed germination, which could be useful to grow food in space. It can also reduce the impact of drought.

Second, it can make a farm more resistant to drought because the material in biogel retains water for a longer period of time and amid drier conditions.

Third, the biogel can induce vegetation or plant growth in drier or sandier areas. Such growth, which could occur along the shoreline of Long Island, could help reduce erosion, Hsiao said. The biogel can also reduce desertification.

Martin explained that Stony Brook University and the University of Queensland have two different biogel platforms that they may hybridize.

Hsiao’s team is “very strong in the chemistry and physical chemistry side,” Martin wrote. “Being based in a Chemical Engineering School, we have been pretty good over the years at finding the most efficient, cost-effective ways to manufacture bio-based materials and composites at scale.”

Fertilizer

Building and expanding on this work, Hsiao is focusing on the liquid waste from biomass as well.

“With the new thinking, we have a circular design,” he said.

Using a nitric acid treatment that is similar to composting and that removes human pathogens, liquid biomass can become an effective fertilizer, which sanitizes animal and human waste.

Nitric acid also releases the existing nutrients in feedstock, which provides more nitrogen and phosphorous to help plants grow.

The ideal treatment would involve providing a controlled amount of fertilizer each day, Hsiao explained.

Farmers, however, can’t put that kind of time and resources into spraying their fields. Instead, they spray a fertilizer that becomes run off when it rains. Artificial intelligence and robots can deploy fertilizer in a more cost effective manner.

The nitrogen from the run off winds up in streams and other water bodies, where it can cause a process called eutrophication, leading to the kind of algal blooms that rob oxygen of water, making it more difficult for desirable marine life to survive and close beaches to swimming.

By using an efficient process for producing fertilizer that includes taking the inedible parts of plants, and making them a part of the circular process, run off could decrease by “half or even more,” Hsiao said.

Martin added that he and Hsiao have, in the back of their minds, a plan to create scalable fertilizer for single family farms in developed and developing nations.

“Our modeling may indeed show that ‘distributed manufacturing’ of the biogels from agricultural residues using a ‘mobile factory placed on the farm’ may be the smartest way to get there,” Martin explained. “This is exactly the sort of question the Convergence Accelerator is designed to test.”

Martin said that he hopes this technology lead to an array of jobs that support farming under a variety of circumstances.

Sorghum, which is one of his favorite crops, is ultra resilient and is of increasing global importance. Its ability to withstand environmental stress and thrive on low input marginal farmland make it the ‘golden crop of the future,’ Martin added.

This crop makes it an “attractive option to transform infertile land into profitable agrivoltaic farms supplying raw materials for emerging non-foo markets such as these biogels,” Martin wrote.

Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

The Stony Brook swimming and diving team picked up 12 first-place finishes en route to a 186-109 win over Rider Univerity in Newark, NJ on Jan. 21 to conclude its dual meet season. The 12 first-place finishes marked a new season-high in one dual meet for the squad.

The Seawolves started the meet off with a bang, securing a first-place finish in the 200 medley relay. The relay team was composed of senior Reagan MacDonald, graduate Jessica Salmon, and freshmen Michelle Vu and Alanna DePinto.

Sophomore Emma Hawkins kept the momentum rolling with a win in the 1000 freestyle with a final time of 11:03.33. Junior Mary Kate Conway and MacDonald followed behind with wins in the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke, respectively. 

Salmon touched the wall at 1:08.86 to earn the win in the 100 breast and senior Maddy Enda clocked in at 2:10.91 for a first-place finish in the 200 butterfly. Junior Sara DiStefano captured a victory in the 1 meter dive and MacDonald kept the momentum with a victory in the 200 yard back. After Salmon collected a win in the 200 yard back and freshman Aili Talcott touched the wall first in 500 freestyle, Vu and DiStefano closed out the day with first-place finishes in the 100 yard and 3-meter dive.

“Today’s meet was a great end to our dual meet season. The energy was high with lots of great dives and swims. Now we will be switching gears going into the home stretch of the season with our championship at the end of February,” said head coach Mark Anderson.

The Stony Brook men’s track and field team competed hard at the Villanova Invitational held at the Ocean Breeze Track and Field Facility on Staten Island on Jan. 21.

Freshman Aleksander Micich earned the best finish for the Seawolves on Saturday. He finished in second place in the long jump event, with a final jump of 6.90 meters.

Senior Patrick Abel continued his strong start to the season. He finished in third place in the 60 meter dash. The Brooklyn, New York, native crossed the finish line in 6.97 seconds.

Sophomore Nicolas Lavazoli also earned a third-place finish in the meet. He crossed the finish line in 22.11 seconds in the 200 meter race.

Graduate Robert Becker finished fifth in the 1000 meter event. He crossed the finish line with a time of 2:24.27.

Graduate Joshua Titus rounded out the top five finishes for the Seawolves, clocking in at 8.37 to secure a fifth-place finish and a new personal best in the 60 meter hurdles.

The Stony Brook women’s track and field team earned three top five finishes at the Villanova Invitational at the event..

Junior Grace Sisson paced the Seawolves, earning a fourth-place finish in the 3000 meter with a final time of 10:02.97. Graduate Dana Cerbone, senior Aristea Franks, sophomore Enyero Omokeni, and graduate Siara Guevara recorded a top five finish in the 4×400 meter relay event. The crew finished the race in 3:55.93, earning a fifth-place finish. Junior Danella Dawkins also secured a fifth-place finish for Stony Brook, clocking in at 8.90 in the 60-meter hurdles.

“Each week we compete we are trying to get better; tonight, was no different. I feel we did get better in some events but were a bit stagnant in others. But we will go back to work on Monday and get ready for next week,” said head coach Andy Ronan.

Kaushik Mitra. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

From over 66 million miles away, they take pieces of a puzzle and try to fill in the picture. In addition to looking at what’s there now, they also use clues to look back in time.

For the last eight years, researchers suspected that the presence of manganese oxide suggested that Mars had atmospheric oxygen billions of years ago. That’s because, on Earth and in water, oxygen converts manganese to manganese oxide.

Such a process whets the appetite in the search for prehistoric life on Mars that, like so many creatures on Earth, breathed oxygen.

The Martian story, however, involves puzzle pieces that came together in a different way.

In a paper published last month in Nature Geosciences, Kaushik Mitra, a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University in the Department of Geosciences, suggested through geochemical modeling that oxygen on Mars, even if it was abundant billions of years ago, wouldn’t have created manganese oxide.

That’s because the water on Mars was acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5, which is below the neutral 7 level. Under those conditions, oxygen wouldn’t oxidize manganese.

Using experiments, Mitra showed that the manganese oxide could form in acidic water in other ways.

“Mars and Earth fluid conditions are very different,” Mitra said. “What I showed in my experiments is that oxygen in acidic fluids will not be able to oxidize manganese.”

Mitra conducted research that were part of his PhD work in Jeffrey Catalano’s lab at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. 

Taking oxygen out of the picture, Mitra also detailed previous efforts that might explain the presence of manganese oxide, such as ultraviolet light. The manganese oxides formed in sub surface fractures, which this light couldn’t reach.

So, what happened?

“If the originally proposed (and plausible) oxidants were not the cause, there had to be some culprit,” Mitra explained in an email. “So there had to be some other oxidant.”

Bromine and chlorine

Enter chlorine and bromine, which are both halogens, or reactive non-metallic elements.

No one had looked into the potential of oxyhalogen compounds to produce manganese oxides in Mars-like conditions.

Bromate, which is a bromine atom attached to three oxygen atoms, can oxidize manganese in orders of magnitude faster than other oxidants, particularly in acidic conditions. Chlorate, which is also a chlorine atom attached to three oxygen atoms, alone can’t do it, but, with a small quantity of bromate, can create quantities of manganese oxide.

The oxygen attached to chlorine and bromine can come from water or any other ingredient, and doesn’t need oxygen gas to form.

“People didn’t really appreciate until [Mitra’s] paper came along that [manganese] is highly reactive towards these oxyhalogen compounds that he has been working with, so it gives us a whole new way to think about how [manganese-oxides] might form on Mars,” Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in Geosciences at Stony Brook University, explained in an email. Mitra has been working as a postdoctoral researcher in Hurowitz’s lab since November of 2021.

While oxygen may not have caused the change in manganese, the search for Martian life doesn’t end here. Some organisms, including on Earth, don’t need oxygen to survive.

Extremophiles, which can survive in the Great Salt Lake, the Dead Sea, and around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, do not need oxygen.

Mitra’s research “teaches us to be cautious in our astrobiology strategy and consider all the alternative possibilities,” Hurowitz explained. “It is entirely possible that Martian life did not depend on [oxygen] or produce [oxygen] as a by-product of its metabolism.”

For the first two billion years of life on Earth, high concentrations of oxygen would have been toxic to microbial life, Hurowitz added.

To be sure, just because halogens like chlorine and bromine can explain the presence of manganese oxide instead of oxygen doesn’t rule out the possibility that Mars had oxygen.

Paradigm shift

Mitra has continued his exploration of the importance of oxyhalogen species in Hurowitz’s lab to improve the understanding of how they interact with various mineral phases that are considered key records of paleoenvironmental conditions on Mars.

On a more immediate scale, Mitra’s approach to his work has created something of a paradigm shift in Hurowtiz’s lab. When the postdoctoral researcher arrived at Stony Brook, he immediately started between 30 and 40 separate experiments within the span of a month. 

This effort contrasts with the attempt to create one perfect, completely controlled experiment that can take months of time that might be lost if something went wrong.

“It has actually changed the way that I think about experimental project methods,” Hurowitz wrote. “It’s a great new way to explore geochemistry and my students are adopting many of the approaches he’s brought into the lab.”

Hurowitz described Mitra as a “great addition” to the group.

A passion for science

A native of Bhagalpur, India, which is in the state of Bihar, Mitra had a strong interest in chemistry during his youth.

He attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, where he earned an integrated Bachelors and Masters of Science Degree in Applied Geology.

Mitra, who currently lives in Centereach, is fluent in English, Hindi and Bengali and is learning Nepali, the native language of his spouse Priyanka Sharma who is from Nepal.

Sharma, who is an Indian Nepali, is applying for graduate school in English Literature and Comparative Literature.

An avid reader whose favorite genre is philosophy, Mitra is currently reading Fyodor Dostoesky and Friedrich Nietzsche.

A long distance runner, Mitra ran a 10K in Queens last year and would like to run a half marathon in the spring.

He will likely finish his postdoctoral research by next year, at the latest, at which point he will apply for a faculty job.

Passionate about teaching, Mitra has been a committed mentor to other students at Stony Brook, Hurowitz said.

Mitra created a YouTube channel for geology and geochemistry undergraduates and graduates in which he shares lessons about geoscience and chemistry in English and Hindi, which is available at https://www.youtube.com/@kmicalmindset6322.

“I am trying to inspire more people to come into planetary geoscience,” he said, especially undergraduates.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis, pictured above, during her State of the University address on Oct. 12. In a statement, she said the state’s support ‘will help to propel Stony Brook to even greater heights.’ Photo from Stony Brook University

As a part of her State of the State address last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) proposed providing additional financial support to Stony Brook University’s research effort.

The governor proposed adding $200 million in capital funding for research labs at SBU and the University of Buffalo to invest in new and renovated research buildings, labs, and state-of-the art instrumentation.

In the proposal, the state would also match up to $500 million in state funds for SBU and three other university centers.

In the technical arena, the state would also provide $200 million in digital transformation and IT infrastructure across the State University of New York system, including SBU.

In a statement, Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis said “Governor Hochul’s announcement providing support for an endowment match, research labs, and innovative programs will help to propel Stony Brook to even greater heights.”

The SBU president added that the match would inspire “our philanthropic supporters to secure our long-term future while supporting current research and student scholarships. We are grateful to Governor Hochul for her visionary leadership and for providing the flexibility and mission-specific resources needed to advance our transformational goals of doubling research expenditures and moving into the top 25-ranked public research universities nationally.”

SBU officials added that the additional research funding will allow the university to grow its technology-transfer and business-incubation programs, which foster New York’s entrepreneurs.

“More robust research and entrepreneurship infrastructure will allow us to accelerate the commercialization of medical, engineering and other technologies generated from our faculty to start and grow companies across the state,” SBU officials explained in an email.

The university appreciates the governor’s support and officials look forward to seeing the final executive budget proposal with related details and working with the legislature to enact these proposals.

Previous recognition

The proposed funds come a year after the governor designated SBU and The University of Buffalo as New York State’s flagship universities as part of her plan for “A New Era for New York.”

The governor proposed additional funding for several efforts. The funds would help construct a multidisciplinary engineering building on campus. She also supported a partnership between SBU and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for NeuroAI, an initiative that combines neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

She suggested expanding the Stony Brook Center for Clean Water Technology research to include wastewater treatment technology and creation of the Suffolk County Wastewater Management District, both with the goal of protecting Long Island’s aquifer system.

The state could also support the modernization and repair of scientific labs and could fund “Grand Challenges” that will encourage cross-disciplinary research.

With additional funds, these universities would also have the ability to continue to hire top-rated faculty and researchers.

SBU and Buffalo are members of the Association of American Universities.

Annual research expenditures at the two universities are also a combined $663 million, including affiliated institutions.

A scene from last Saturday's game. Photo by Troy Herring/Stony Brook Athletics

The Stony Brook men’s basketball team (7-11, 3-2 CAA) led for over 32 minutes on Jan. 14 against the North Carolina A&T Aggies (8-11, 3-3 CAA), but ultimately fell, 61-59, at Corbett Sports Centerin Greensboro, NC.

The Seawolves had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but just did not finish on their final opportunity.

Senior guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore paced the Seawolves in scoring in the game. He dropped 18 points, dished out four assists, and grabbed three rebounds in 39 minutes. 

Graduate forward Frankie Policelli totaled his seventh double-double of the season and second in as many games. For the second-straight game he scored 16 points and grabbed 14 boards. Policelli helped Stony Brook get out to a 10-point lead in the first half. He nailed three three pointers in the first frame and had nine points at the break.

The Aggies got off to a great start in the second half. They were led by sophomore guard Kam Woods, who came into the game as the third leading scorer in the CAA. He scored 19 points in 39 minutes. North Carolina A&T also received a 15-point second half effort from redshirt junior forward Marcus Watson.

Then with just over four minutes remaining, Policelli grabbed an offensive rebound and got fouled on his way back up, scoring through contact for the and-one. This extended Stony Brook’s lead, but the Aggies went on a late run. 

Stony Brook led 30-26 at halftime but was outscored 35-29 in the second frame. 

“Tough one because we led for over 30 minutes. We couldn’t make any big offensive plays down the stretch. We had wide open threes, some post isolations and free throws that we couldn’t convert. It goes without saying that I’m sure the long travel and short rest didn’t help us today. We need a good week of practice as we turn to a Northeastern team that will come in with a chip on their shoulder Thursday night,” said head coach Geno Ford.

The team will return home to face Northeastern, for the second time this season, tonight, Jan. 19. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on FloHoops. Call 631-632-WOLF for tickets.

Anastasia Warren during last Friday's game. Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

The Stony Brook women’s basketball team (10-6, 4-1 CAA) returned to Island Federal Arena on Jan. 13 with a victory against Monmouth (8-8, 3-2 CAA), 69-59. After leading, 47-45, heading into the final frame, the Seawolves went on a 13-3 run to end the game and did not allow a basket for the final 4:50 of the game to secure the victory.

Senior guard Gigi Gonzalez led the Seawolves’ offense with 23 points on 8-of-21 shooting and 7-of-7 from the line. The Floridan captured a career-best eight boards and tallied two assists.

Following a defensive affair in the first quarter by both teams allowing a combined 18 points, Stony Brook found its rhythm as it outscored Monmouth, 17-8, in the second frame to take a 26-18 lead into the break. Gonzalez and junior guard Shamarla King each tallied five points in the final 5:22 of the second quarter and the defense did not allow a point over the stretch to give the Seawolves a 10-0 run heading into the break.

The Hawks did not let up after the break, as they outscored the Seawolves 27-21 in the third quarter.

With Stony Brook holding a 47-45 advantage heading into the final quarter, the Seawolves started to cause havoc on both sides of the floor. After the Hawks cashed in on a three-pointer to give themselves a 51-49 lead, Stony Brook surrender the lead for the remainder of the game following a made jumper by graduate guard Anastasia Warren.  

Later in the quarter, Warren knocked down a clutch three-pointer to give the Seawolves a 59-56 lead with 3:14 left to play in the game. On the defensive side of the ball, Stony Brook held the Hawks without a field goal for the final 4:50 and went on to win by the final score of 69-59. Warren and Gonzalez combined for 11 of the team’s final 13 points of the evening to secure the win.   

The team returns to the court Jan. 20, as they head to East Greensboro, N.C. to take on North Carolina A&T. 

Nandita Kumari at the 53rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Woodlands, Texas in March of 2022. Photo by Delia Enriquez Draper from the Lunar and Planetary Institute

By Daniel Dunaief

Some day in the not too distant future, an astronaut may approach rocks on the moon and, with a handheld instrument, determine within minutes whether the rock might have value as a natural resource or as a source of historical information.

That’s the vision Nandita Kumari, a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, has.

In the meantime, Kumari was part of a multi-institutional team that recommended two landing sites in the moon’s south polar region for future Artemis missions. 

Nandita Kumari at a San Francisco Volcanic Field, where she was doing stress and strain measurements of cinders. Photo by Saurabh Subham.

The group, which included students from the University of Arizona, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Buffalo, used several criteria to recommend these two sites.

They looked at the resources that might be available, such as water and rocks, at how long the areas are in sunlight and at how the features of the land, from the slope of hills to the size of boulders, affects the sites accessibility.

“These two sites ended up fulfilling all these criteria,” Kumari said. Models suggest water might be present and the regions are in sunlight more than 80 percent of the time, which is critical for solar-powered devices.

The group used high-resolution data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to create a map of all the rocks and to model the geological diversity of the site. They used infrared images to gather data from areas when they were dark. They also added temperature readings.

To the delight of the team, NASA selected both of the sites as part of a total of 13 potential landing locations.

Planetary scientist David Kring advised the group during the process. Kring has trained astronauts and worked on samples brought back from the Apollo missions.

At the end of the first year of her PhD, Kumari received encouragement to apply for the virtual internship with Kring from Stony Brook Geosciences Professor Tim Glotch, who runs the lab where she has conducted her PhD work.

Putting a number on it

Kumari said her thesis is about using machine learning to understand the composition of resources on the moon. She would like to use artificial intelligence to delve deeply into the wealth of data moon missions and observations have been collecting to use local geology as a future resource.

“Instead of saying something has a ‘little’ or a ‘lot’” of a particular type of rock that might have specific properties, she would like to put a specific numerical value on it.

An engineer by training, Kumari said she is a “very big fan of crunching numbers.”

Since joining the lab, Kumari has become “our go-to source for any type of statistical analysis me or one of my other students might want to conduct,” Glotch explained.

The work Kumari has done provides “large improvements over traditional spectroscopic analysis techniques,” Glotch added.

In examining rocks for silicic properties, meaning those that contain silicon, most scientists describe a rock as being less or more silicic, Kumari said.

“It’s difficult to know whether 60 percent is high or 90 percent is high,” she added. Such a range can make an important difference, and provides information about history, formation and thermal state of the planet and about potential resources.

With machine learning that trains on data collected in the lab, the model is deployed on orbiter data.

The machine learning doesn’t stop with silica. It can also be extended to search for helium 3 and other atoms.

Understanding and using the available natural resources reduces the need to send similar raw materials to the moon from Earth.

“There has to be a point where we stop” transporting materials to the moon, said Kumari. “It’s high time we use modern practices and methods so we can go through really large chunks of data with limited error.”

The machine learning starts with a set of inputs and outputs, along with an algorithm to explain the connection. As it sorts through data, it compares the outputs against what it expects. When the data doesn’t match the algorithm, it adjusts the algorithm and compares that to additional data, refining and improving the model’s accuracy.

A love for puzzles

Kumari, who grew up in Biharsharif, India, a small town in the northern state of Bihar, said this work appeals to her because she “loves puzzles that are difficult to solve.” She also tries to find solutions in the “fastest way possible.”

Kumari was recently part of a field exploration team in Utah that was processing data. The team brought back data and manually compared the measurements to the library to see what rocks they had.

She wrote an algorithm that provided the top five matches to the spectroscopic measurements the researchers found. Her work suggested the presence of minerals the field team didn’t anticipate. What’s more, the machine provided the analysis in five minutes.

The same kind of analysis can be used on site to study lunar rocks.

“When astronauts go to the moon, we shouldn’t require geology experts to be there to find the best rocks” she said. While having a geologist is the best-case scenario, that is not always possible. “Anyone with a code in their instruments should be able to decide whether it is what they’re looking for.”

As for her interest in space travel, Kumari isn’t interested in trekking to the moon or Mars.

While she believes the moon and Mars should be a base for scientific experiments, she doesn’t think people should focus on colonizing either place.

Such colonization ideas may reduce the importance of working on the challenges humans have created on Earth, including climate change.

“You can’t move to Mars,” Kumari said. The litmus test for that occurred during Covid, when people had to isolate.

“If we couldn’t stay in our homes with all the comfort and everything, I do not see a future where this would be possible with stringent constraints on Mars,” she added.

An advocate for women in STEM fields, Kumari said women should pursue scientific careers even if someone else focuses on their mistakes or tries to break their confidence.

“The only way to stop this from happening is to have women in higher places,” she explained. “We should also be supportive of each other and grow together.”