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Stony Brook University

Jim Malatras visits Stony Brook University Sept. 24 to applaud the school's COVID-19 prevention practices. Photo by Rita J. Egan

State University of New York’s new Chancellor Jim Malatras visited Long Island Thursday to check in with Stony Brook University’s and Farmingdale State College’s presidents and see how they were containing the COVID-19 virus.

Maurie McInnis at the Sept. 24 press conference. Photo by Rita J. Egan

During the Sept. 24 press conference, Malatras said he especially wanted to visit SBU and praised how well university President Maurie McInnis and the campus community have handled both the pandemic and the school’s reopening. He added that the university continues to remain open while other schools in the state just a few weeks into the semester have had to send students home and switch to fully remote schedules, such as SUNY Oneonta.

“I want to highlight shining examples of campuses that are doing it well,” he said.

The chancellor credited SBU’s success to requiring students to submit a negative COVID test before moving on campus, its regular testing of students and the school’s transparency with a COVID-19 tracker dashboard on its website since the beginning of the semester. The SUNY website now also offers a COVID-19 dashboard tracking all of its 64 colleges and universities.

He also praised faculty, staff and students for their compliance with public health guidelines such as wearing masks, social distancing. He said the administration hasn’t found problems with students throwing parties like other schools seem to have.

McInnis also complimented the campus community’s commitment to following health and safety guidelines.

“Our students really want to be here, and they understand what they do has a direct, positive impact on their peers and all of us at Stony Brook,” she said. “We know especially right now personal responsibility is a social act.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was also in attendance. Malatras credited Bellone for working with SBU and other SUNY campuses in the county to ensure a robust reopening plan where the community could feel confident in moving forward.

Malatras said while declining enrollment during the pandemic has exacerbated financial difficulties, it was important to quickly set up protocols to contain the virus and ensure the campus community’s confidence.

The chancellor complimented what the SBU community has been doing during the pandemic from lifesaving treatments to “heroes” coming in every day to participating in clinical trials for a vaccine.

McInnis also praised the hospital and said the campus community did “a terrific job of planning to come back safe and strong.”

“SBU and Long Island were hit hard by the virus in the early days,“ she said. “But our hospital was in the lead in responding to the worst of the pandemic. We knew our plans had to be informed by science and implemented with the resources to succeed.”

At the press conference, Malatras also announced that SBU will be expanding its testing protocol by joining with SUNY Upstate Medical University for pool testing, which uses a patient’s saliva to detect the virus instead of a nasal swab. According to the chancellor, the test is easier to administer than the nasal swabs and there is a quicker turnaround for results as numerous samples can be tested at one time.

Stony Brook has set up a fund that helps students attend while dealing with small financial hurdles. File photo by Kyle Barr

Like so many other plans this year, the goal for Stony Brook University’s Student Emergency Support Fund has changed.

SBU students like Rijuta Mukim have relied on funds from the university’s emergency fund for their studies at home. Photo by Mukim

The fund, which SBU’s Dean of Students Richard Gatteau launched in January, was originally planned as an endowed source of funds that would help students in need. Amid the ongoing financial dislocation caused by the pandemic, the fund has now provided everything from money for car repairs, which some students need to get to campus, to books, iPads, or even rent.

Through July, the emergency fund provided about $935,000 in support to 1,194 students, according to the dean of students.

“Once COVID hit, we realized in March and April, the need was overwhelming,” he said. The school put in a new strategy to raise more money to expand the focus to include basic life essentials, like paying the electric bill or groceries. The university “didn’t want this circumstance to force someone to drop out.”

For some students, the financial need, especially in the current economic environment amid job losses and higher unemployment, exceeds the resources that financial aid, grants and loans can offer.

“We’re working with students on the margin,” Gatteau said. The parents of many students don’t have the financial ability to support them, either.

Many of the students who initially received money from the emergency fund  were remote learners who needed internet access or other remote support.

That included SBU junior Rijuta Mukim, who was working from her home in southern India when her computer broke down and her internet connection was unstable.

Taking classes and studying during the night and sleeping during the day to continue her education amid the time difference, Mukim was kicked off her Zoom calls for her classes within five minutes.

“I had a lot of trouble attending class,” Mukim said.

Without a fix for her computer and a better connection, Mukim, who is majoring in biology and psychology and hopes to attend medical school after she graduates, would have had to withdraw during the spring.

After she heard about the emergency fund on Reddit, she applied. Within a few hours, she received an email indicating that the school was trying to reach her by phone to make sure she was all right. She revealed her needs and received $1,000 within a week.

In the meantime, the support team explained her situation to her professors, who gave her extra time to complete her assignments.

Mukim had originally planned to work this summer at the Staller Center, but she was appreciative of the university and the donors who contributed to the fund for financial assistance, even as she worked from home several continents away.

“A thousand dollars might sound like a small amount but it helped me to ride through the spring and summer classes,” Mukim said. Having this kind of support “during a crisis is wonderful. It is satisfying to know there is a community helping you and looking out for you.”

Gatteau said other students also appreciated the calls soon after they made their requests.

Students “want an opportunity to tell their story, [to hear] a friendly voice on the other end of the call, to hear what’s going on,” he said. “Many students have faced challenging situations, with job losses and deaths related to COVID.”

A call from the emergency fund team can be as much about financial support as it is a counseling session with a student that helps them know how much the university cares about them.

As the fall semester started, the fund recently relaunched and has received between 130 and 150 applications for economic support.

The fund, which received a $75,000 donation from SBU President Maurie McInnis and is soliciting additional donations, is trying to rebuild after the earlier disbursements. 

The call for donations has just gone out to community members, prior donors, alumni, parents, faculty and staff.

“We’ve done a full marketing campaign across all of the stakeholders who donated [previously] and then we try to reach out to new people,” Gatteau said.

The dean of students said the school is collecting donations of any size.

“Small amounts have made a big difference collectively,” he said.

The school estimates that $100 supports Wi-Fi access and other online learning costs; $200 contributes to lab fees and books; and $500 helps with groceries and rent.

The fund doesn’t currently allow donors to earmark their contributions for any specific purpose. Gatteau said the top priority with any student is for academic needs.

Despite the financial hardship caused by COVID and higher unemployment, officials said Stony Brook has not had many students drop out for financial reasons.

Amid concerns nationally about students ignoring social distancing or mask-wearing rules, Gatteau endorsed the way students have complied with rules. 

“We’re very lucky,” he said. Students are motivated to prevent closures. “They want [the school] to stay open,”

Students whose financial need exceeds whatever the emergency fund can provide may be able to update their Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — forms, to see if they are eligible for additional financial assistance.

Meanwhile, students can apply to the Student Support Team at www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/studentaffairs/studentsupport. Students provide basic information and discuss their specific issues and challenges on a call.

The film festival kicks off tonight with a screening of 'Dreamfactory.'

If the pandemic of 2020 has done anything, it has made us realize how small the world truly is – and how alike we all are in our hopes, dreams, fears and failings. This year, more than ever, thought-provoking and innovative films introduce us to inspiring characters and transport us to new worlds, all from the comfort and safety of our homes.

For the first time in its 25-year history, the Stony Brook Film Festival, presented by Island Federal, moves from a 10-day live event to a 12-week virtual festival starting tonight, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. and closing with a live Awards Ceremony on Dec. 15.

The films, which can be watched on all platforms and devices in your home including FireTV, AndroidTV, AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast and GooglePlay, feature 24 new and independent premieres from a dozen countries including the United States, Israel, Germany, Hungary, Poland, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. Each feature is preceded by a short film.

The exciting lineup offers stories of every genre: comedy, coming of age, romance, drama and documentaries with many of the films sharing a theme of life interrupted, a universal topic many can relate to as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In these very uncertain and precarious times we find ourselves in we hope the mix of these socially conscience films balanced with uplifting, often fun and joyous stories, with spectacular performances, will provide the stimulation and entertainment we are all so desperately craving,” said festival director Alan Inkles.

The Festival kicks off tonight with the American premiere of Dreamfactory, the romantic story between two movie extras who are torn apart when East Germany closes its border and erects the Berlin Wall. An epic tale told against the backdrop of history, this film is part comedy, part musical, part romance, and a pure joy from beginning to end.

Tickets are available as an all-access, 12-week pass for $60 or may be purchased as a single ticket for each film for $6. The pass for 24 films allows 72 hours each week for viewers to watch and re-watch the weekly line-up. It also includes exclusive filmmaker interviews and Q&As with directors, cast and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage and back stories. For more information, visit stonybrookfilmfestival.com or call 631-632-ARTS [2787].

Film schedule:

September 10

FEATURE: Dreamfactory (Germany)

SHORT: Extra Innings (United States)

September 17

FEATURE: The Subject (United States)

SHORT: Corners (United States)

September 24

FEATURE: Those Who Remained (Hungary)

SHORT: Sticker (Macedonia)

October 1

FEATURE: Of Love and Lies (France/Belgium)

SHORT: Generation Lockdown (United States)

October 8

FEATURE: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

(Germany/Switzerland)

SHORT: Walk a Mile (New Zealand)

October 15

FEATURE: The Art of Waiting (Israel)

SHORT: Waterproof (United States)

October 22

FEATURE: Higher Love (United States)

SHORT: A Simple F*cking Gesture (Canada)

November 5

FEATURE: Long Time No See (France)

SHORT: Touch (Israel)

November 12

FEATURE: Submission (Portugal)

SHORT: They Won’t Last (United States)

November 19

FEATURE: Relativity (Germany)

SHORT: Forêt Noire (France/Canada)

December 3

FEATURE: On the Quiet (Hungary)

SHORT: Jane (United States)

December 10

FEATURE: My Name is Sara (United States)

SHORT: Maradona’s Legs (Germany/Palestine)

December 15

CLOSING NIGHT AWARDS CEREMONY LIVE 7 p.m.

* Please note: All films in the Stony Brook Film Festival are premiere screenings and have not been rated. Viewer discretion is advised. Films are available to begin streaming at 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

Stony Brook University said the 17 students who were positive with COVID-19 were spread across campus with limited possibility of contact. File photo by Kyle Barr

Stony Brook University unveiled it is currently tracking 17 positive cases of COVID-19, with officials saying all are asymptomatic and have been quarantined.

In a release on the university’s website published Sept. 2, SBU said the 17 cases were as a result of testing of more than 3,000 students on West Campus since Aug. 11 by Student Health Services. The new confirmed cases, as of Wednesday, were in addition to the one other confirmed case officials identified Aug. 28.

All 18 positives are being retested to identify any false positives. The students have been asked to go into quarantine, along with any close associates who were asked to self-isolate.

The fall 2020 semester started Aug. 24 for undergrads.

On Aug. 27 Gov. Andrew Cuomo updated the state’s guidelines for universities and colleges reopening. If colleges have 100 cases or if the number of cases equal 5% of their population or more, they must go to remote learning for two weeks. After that time if things do not improve, the school could potentially be closed to in-person learning for the rest of the semester.

On Thursday, Sept. 3, SUNY Oneonta announced they were cancelling in-person classes for the rest of the Fall after close to 390 students were tested positive for COVID-19.

Stony Brook said the 17 positive cases were spread all throughout the campus, and that none were roommates and there was at least one positive case in each resident hall. Six of the students who tested positive for COVID-19 are taking only online classes and of the 12 students who tested positive and were attending in-person classes, the university said none were in the same classroom environment. According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, only 19% of students are registered for in-person classes.

The university said in the news statement it was continuing to test. 

“If there is a need to shift to an operating status of fully online instruction for a 14-day period or longer, we will communicate with the community directly and promptly,” the statement read.

 

COVID-era Human Language Analysis Lab Meeting in July, top row from left, MZ Zamani, Matthew Matero, Nikita Soni ; bottom row from left, Adithya Ganesan, Oscjar Kjell, Linh Pham and H. Andrew Schwartz in the middle. Photos taken July, 2020

By Daniel Dunaief

Computers might not be able to tell you how they are doing, unless they run a diagnostic test, but they might be able to tell you how you are doing.

Using artificial intelligence, a team of scientists at Stony Brook University recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how social media posts and mobile phone data may be able to predict excess drinking among restaurant workers.

By using data from texting, social media and mobile phone apps, these researchers, led by Andrew Schwartz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, are hoping to use artificial intelligence to predict excessive drinking.

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, unhealthy drinking involves seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men.

Schwartz said the study hopes to be able to address whether the researchers, including Richard Rosenthal, the Director of Addiction Psychiatry at Stony Brook Medicine and Christine DeLorenzo, Associate Professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Psychiatry, could “say what the mood predicts how much participants will be drinking in the future.”

By analyzing the content of texts and social media posts, Schwartz and a team that also involves scientists from the University of Pennsylvania will explore whether an increase in stress is more likely to happen before an increase in drinking.

The researchers will study the effect of empathy, which can be health promoting and health threatening. “We believe AI-behavior-based measures will work better than questionnaires for detecting an unhealthy style of empathy,” Schwartz explained in an email. The AI will search for non-obvious patterns of social media posts and texts to determine which type of empathy a person might demonstrate and whether that empathy could lead to a drinking spiral.

Empathy theoretically may add to stress for bartenders and restaurant workers as they often listen to customers who share their tale of woe with food service professionals and are also in a social job.

Indeed, amid the pandemic, where levels of stress are higher during periods of uncertainty about public health and in which restaurant workers might be more likely concerned about their employment, this study could provide a way to understand how increases in alcohol consumption develop potentially to inform new ways to interrupt a negative spiral. “The extra stress of job security is heightened right now” for restaurant workers, among others, Schwartz said.

By validating AI against accepted tools, the researchers hope to gauge the AI-decoded link between emotion and unhealthy drinking behavior by aligning what an individual is expressing in social media with indicators of their emotional state and drinking.

Participants in the study are filling out brief surveys several times a day.

In the long run, the scientists hope this kind of understanding will allow future public health professionals to offer support services to people without the cost of having to administer numerous questionnaires.

The researchers had received word that their proposal had received the kind of score from the NIH that suggested they would likely get funded last July. They could have received positive funding news any time from November through May, which was when they learned that they had secured the financial support to pursue their research.

The topic of study is “extremely relevant,” he added, amid the current uncertainty and the potential for a second wave in the fall or winter.

“We’re interested in studying how unhealthy drinking develops and how it plays out in people’s daily lives,” Schwartz said.

Social media provides a window into the emotional state of the participants in the research.

To be sure, the researchers aren’t looking at how people post about drinking, per se, online. Instead, the scientists are looking at how people in the study answer questions about their drinking in the regular questionnaires.

The researchers came together for this effort through the World Well Being Project, which is a research consortium in collaboration with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Stony Brook University and Stanford.

The project involves groups of computer scientists, psychologists and statisticians to develop new ways to measure psychological and medical well-being based on language in social media, according to the group’s web site, which describes “Authentic Happiness.”

In a recent study, 75,000 people voluntarily completed a personality questionnaire through Facebook and made their status updates available. Using these posts, the researchers were able to predict a user’s gender 92 percent of the time just by studying the language of their status updates.

Researchers in substance use approached the World Well Being Project, which Schwartz is a part of, about the topic of unhealthy alcohol use.

The Artificial Intelligence methods Schwartz is developing and that the scientists are testing through this grant are aimed at understanding how a person is changing their language over time through their digital footprint.

In the future, Schwartz believes this approach could contribute to personalized medicine.

“When someone is most at risk, apps that are validated [may be able to] detect these sorts of patterns,” he said. While this study doesn’t provide a personalized patient app, it should provide the tools for it, he explained.

Optimizing this work for false positive and false negatives is a part of this study. The researchers need to create the tools that can make predictions with minimal false positives and false negatives first and then hope it will be used to interact with patients.

In this type of artificial-intelligence driven work, researchers typically need about 500 words to come up with a conclusion about a person’s emotional state. A goal of this work is to get that number even lower.

Fotis Sotiropoulos, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, offered his enthusiastic support for this effort.

Schwartz is blazing a trail in advancing AI tools for tackling major health challenges,” Sotiropoulos said in a statement. “His work is an ingenious approach using data-science tools, smart-phones and social media postings to identify early signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism and guide interventions.”

University Says Students Who Violated Housing Health Policy Given Housing Suspension Pending Review

Maurie McInnis was named SBU's sixth president. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook University will not let the actions of some students derail the on-campus living and learning experience for the majority.

This past weekend, days before the start of an unusual fall semester Aug. 24 amid ongoing concerns about the pandemic, the university found a “small number of violations” of the university’s COVID-19 health policy. Several students have been put on interim housing suspension for violations pending the conclusion of a conduct case, Maurie McInnis, who became the sixth president of SBU in July, said in an interview. The students in question have not been suspended from their academic studies.

McInnis said the school would suspend other students “if that is necessary.” She added that it is “very important that we give the students who are acting responsibly the opportunity for the in-person residential experience that they are working hard to protect.”

The school’s disciplinary actions follow similar measures taken by other universities such as Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut, which are trying to provide students with an opportunity to benefit from an on-campus experience while protecting faculty, staff and students from the spread of COVID-19.

McInnis added she appreciated the chance to be a part of the excitement that comes from the first day of what is likely to be one of the most challenging in the school’s 63-year history.

“It feels so great to have students back on our campus,” she said. “While, yes, it is under circumstances that are different than we’re used to, the same energy and excitement is there.”

The new university president said she enjoyed meeting students and their families as they moved onto the campus prior to the first day of classes.

The new president, who is a cultural historian and author of “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade,” said she feels confident in the school’s ability to navigate through the challenges of on-campus living and learning.

Students “understand that the way we are all going to have a great semester” is to act “personally responsible, wearing our masks and being socially distant,” she said.

SBU has created a dashboard that will track the number of tests the school is conducting on campus and the number of positive cases, if there are any. So far, the school has only had negative tests.

The dashboard is available at: www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/irpe/covid-19.phpleadership. It shows that the hour in the week in which the number of students registered for in-person classes is the highest is Tuesday, between 11 a.m. and noon, when 2,721 students were registered for in-person classes. In that same hour in the fall of 2019, 13,836 students took in-person classes.

The university will monitor its dashboard closely and will alter its policies as necessary to protect the campus community.

McInnis said the school was preparing for a possible second wave of the pandemic in the fall, as well as the possibility of the coincident timing of an outbreak of the flu.

“We are watching and monitoring all that carefully,” she said, which includes having enough personal protective equipment and a plan in place for health care personnel, among other measures.

McInnis said it is “too soon to speculate on” what the university policy might be if and when researchers develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

“As a part of SUNY and a public institution, we would be working with state partners and the [New York] Department of Health in making any sort of decision” about a vaccination for students or faculty, she said.

McInnis, who shared a detailed and open letter with the community and the public about the university’s difficult financial condition, said the budget remains a “fluid situation.” She added that the university “needs to get to work straight away as a community” in an “open and collaborative fashion to bring the best ideas for collaborating and working together better for leveraging opportunities, for efficiencies on our campus” and to develop ways to generate new revenue.

Meanwhile, the university has spent the summer “significantly improving” the quality of the remote and distance learning for students engaged with the online platform, she said.

In addition to being the new university president, McInnis is also a parent of a college-age son. Her son’s school was going entirely nonresidential and remote, so he decided to take a gap year.

At Stony Brook, the total number of students registered is 26,130, which is about 200 fewer than last year, suggesting that deferrals haven’t affected the matriculation rate much this fall.

McInnis said she appreciated the ongoing support of the university and surrounding communities.

“What we have been hearing, again and again, is, ‘How can we help?’” she said. “It is so great as president to be part of the community that clearly has the devotion of so many people.”

This article has been updated Aug. 25 to give more info on the nature of students violations and their interim suspension. 

Joel Hurowitz before the PIXL launch at the end of July. Photo by Tanya Hurowitz

By Daniel Dunaief

For six years, Joel Hurowitz worked as Deputy Principal Investigator on a team to build an instrument they would send to another planet.

Joel Hurowitz

An Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, Hurowitz and the team led by Abigail Allwood at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory created an instrument that would search for evidence of life that is likely long ago extinct on Mars.

The team designed a 10-pound machine (which will weigh less than four pounds in Mars’s lower gravity environment) that is about the size of a square lunchbox and houses x-ray equipment that can search along the surface of rocks for life that may have existed as long as three to four billion years ago.

Mars’s surface environment became less hospitable to life starting around three billion years ago, when the planet lost most of its atmosphere, causing the surface to dry out and become extremely cold. Surface life at this point likely became extinct.

Called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, the instrument was one of seven that lifted off at the end of July as part of a Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance rover will land at the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on February 18th, 2021.

After all that work, Hurowitz had planned to watch the launch with his family in Florida, but the pandemic derailed that plan.

“I got to watch the launch with my family,” Hurowitz said. He was on two zoom conferences, one with the Mars 2020 team and the other with members of the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook. “It was a really special experience” and was the “best teleconference of the last six months,” he said.

As the rocket makes its 35.8 million mile journey to Mars, the JPL team will turn on the PIXL to monitor it, run health checks and do routine heating of the components to make sure it is operating. After the rocket lands, the rover will go through a commissioning period. Numerous subsystems need to be checked out, explained Hurowitz.

The first test for the PIXL will be to analyze a calibration target the researchers sent to Mars, to make sure the measurements coincide with the same data they collected numerous times on Earth. This ensures that the instrument is “working the way we want it to. That’ll happen in the first 40 sols.”

A sol is a day on Mars, which is slightly longer by about 40 minutes than a day on Earth.

Once it passes its calibration test, the PIXL can start collecting data. Hurowitz described the instrument as “incredibly autonomous.” It sits at the end of the rover’s arm. When the scientists find a rock they want to explore, the PIXL moves an inch away from the surface of the rock and opens its dust cover. The scientists take pictures with a camera and a set of laser beams. These beams help determine whether the PIXL is an optimal distance from the rock. If it isn’t, the instrument manipulates itself, using struts that allow it to extend or retract away from the rock.

Once PIXL gets in the right position, it fires an X-ray beam into the rock. The beam is about the diameter of a human hair. The x-ray that hits the rock is like wind going through chimes. Rather than make a familiar sound, the elements in the rock emit a specific x-ray signal as the atoms return to their ground state. Putting together the signals from the rock enables Hurowitz and the PIXL crew to determine its chemistry.

Even though the rocks are likely a combination of numerous elements, they “separate themselves cleanly in our spectra,” Hurowitz said. The SBU Geosciences expert expects the elements in the rocks to have different proportions than on Earth. Mars, for example, has more iron than sodium. A granite rock on Earth would likely have considerable sodium and some potassium, with a little iron.

Hurowitz and the PIXL team will be looking for rocks that may have evidence of prokaryotic organisms that are Mars’s versions of similar species found in undisturbed areas of Western Australia, where researchers discovered ancient fossilized life.

The rocks in Australia contain the oldest accepted fossilized forms of life, which are about 3.5 billion years old and are considered the best analogues for what the PIXL team might find on Mars.

In Australia, which is where Allwood grew up, scientists discovered microbial mats, which are single-celled organisms that build up, one layer after another, into a colony. These mats worked together to build up towards the sunlight, which fuels their metabolism. They use raw chemicals in the environment like dissolved sulfur, iron and manganese.

The Martian mats, if they find them, likely had to adapt to considerably different conditions than on Earth. The Martian environment may not have had large oceans or river systems and craters filled with lakes.

The scientists won’t be able to look for an individual microbe, but rather for indirect signals, such as laminated structures that formed in ways that are unique to microbial communities.

Hurowitz, Allwood and the PIXL team are looking for clues from an unusual lamination in the rock that they would likely associate with a microbial mat. By looking closely at the lamination, they may be able to develop hypotheses about whether a mat was taking chemicals out and depositing it to make a mineralized home for itself.

If they find rocks of interest, the rover’s drill will collect a sample and hermetically seal it in a tube.

A future mission to Mars, planned for 2026, could retrieve some of these samples, which, when they return, could confirm the presence of life on Mars. PIXL will continue to operate as long as the filament in the x-ray tube lasts, which should be between 1,300 and 1,400 uses.

Allwood, who shared an office with Hurowitz when they worked together at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she approached him when she started assembling a team.

Finding life on Mars would answer a question that has intrigued those on Earth for thousands of years, Allwood said. Such Martian life would indicate that “we’re not alone. There was life and it was next door,” she said.

As University Stares Down Barrel of $109 Million Financial Hole, Local Community and Businesses Could See Economic Hurt

Stony Brook University is facing a huge financial hole in 2020, including a loss of students and likely faculty. This could mean many challenges for local industries and businesses who rely on that influx of people. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr, Rita J. Egan and Liam Cooper

Stony Brook University is one of the biggest driving economic engines of the North Shore. Not only does it offer a major learning institution for students all over Long Island, but it has facilitated a large number of housing possibilities for both faculty and students. Those students, meanwhile, are a live force generating sales for local restaurants, bars and shops. 

When SBU students left in campus in March, many didn’t know what would happen in the future. Now that the campus nears the start of the semester, many students have decided they will not be returning. Photo by Kyle Barr

SBU’s announcement that it is facing at least a $109 million hole has sent a shudder through the residential and business side of the surrounding community. It has put yet another stake through the heart of so many economic centers that are already struggling from their own pandemic-related hurt.

Three Village Expects Hardship

Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, recognized the effect Stony Brook University’s financial woes would have not only on Stony Brook Village Center, which WMHO oversees, but also a broader region extending beyond the Three Village area. The shops in Stony Brook are less than five miles from the university.

SBU “is the largest employer on Long Island and that needs to be addressed,” she said. “The fact is the impact is not only going to affect the local community but the Long Island community. The ripple effect will be extraordinary.” 

George Hoffman, 1st vice president of the Three Village Civic Association, echoed Rocchio’s sentiments.  

“Unfortunately, I do think we will see some painful impacts in the community from the university’s dire fiscal situation,” he said. “The hiring freeze will reduce the pool of people buying homes in the area. Canceling the athletic season will hurt the restaurants and pubs. And having three-quarters of the students take courses online instead of on campus, will hurt restaurants and local shops that count on student customers. Stony Brook University has such a regional multiplier effect that their cuts and loss of revenue will reverberate through our area and through the entire Long Island community.”

Jane Taylor, executive director of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said the hope is that any effect on the community would be short lived.

“We’re grateful for the faculty and staff who support our local businesses,” she said. “This is definitely going to have an impact.” 

Impact on Port Jefferson Village

It’s hard to gauge how much business Port Jefferson generates from Stony Brook, though recent efforts to increase the number of students and staff into the village has already been squashed due to COVID-19. The village has been funding everything but the campus-side advertising for the PJ-SBU Shuttle for the past two years. The village was putting up around $20,000 of its funds for the project, while the Port Jeff Business Improvement District also put up $10,000 of its funds to help support the shuttle program.

The shuttle program was canceled due to COVID-19 March 15. Kevin Wood, the village’s parking and mobility administrator, said the shuttle was averaging about 150 riders a weekend before being canceled.

The Port Jefferson, Stony Brook University Shuttle was cancelled this March, though the village hopes to start it up again next year. Photo from Kevin Wood

“We will look to restart it for the spring 2021 semester depending on the state of the COVID-19 and restrictions,” he said in an email. “We will also look to share the expense equally between the village, the BID and SBU.” 

Barbara Ransome, Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce director of operations, said the pandemic has already done such a number on local businesses. She said village businesses are open and are being “respectful and careful” in compliance with New York State regulations, and she hopes those shops that stayed strong will survive, barring another shutdown.

“My gut would say sure, it’s going to affect us,” she said. “The Port Jefferson Village is going to have a deficit — everyone is going to have a deficit. Everything’s going to have a trickle-down effect.”

Impact on Real Estate

Multiple local realtors in the surrounding community said the effect on the housing market surrounding the university is still uncertain, though a loss of students and faculty because of enrollment declines and a hiring freeze could put a damper on the industry.

“The surrounding real estate is yet to be determined,” Port Jefferson-based American Way Real Estate’s David Guzzetta said. 

The number of campus residents has declined by 40%, which could potentially tank the market, he added.

“If demand went down 40%, it would affect local housing by 5 to 10%, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is,” he said. “Anything more than that would be devastating. It sounds like a recession.”

Though there is still time before the school year starts, the Port Jefferson realtor said the deficit could actually be good for the real estate market. 

“It could be the complete opposite,” Guzzetta said. “We won’t know until the semester starts, but students may not feel safe staying in a dorm and therefore want to live in off-campus housing by themselves to feel safer, which would actually boost the local real estate market.”

Frank Edwards, a realtor from Douglas Elliman Real Estate located in East Setauket, said he believes that students will choose to stay on campus.

“These kids aren’t going to be renting homes,” he said.

Whether it be positive or negative, the East Setauket realtor said students will be the main driver in the market.

“I don’t think it’s going to really affect staff as much,” Edwards said. “It’s really going to be driven by the college students. They’re going to take up the on-housing campus too, but COVID may change that.”

Edwards said he believes the market will continue to be sustainable.

“I don’t think it’s going to really affect the real estate market,” he said. “I believe the market will be fine, when houses come up they go quickly in this area. I think we’re in a strong area. I think Three Village is a strong area.”

The uncertainty surrounding the market may come as a result of COVID-19. When the pandemic began, it seemed that the market was going to decline on Long Island, but realtors in the area have actually seen the pandemic being a positive force in the market.

“If you asked me four months ago, I would say we were going into a housing crisis but, believe it or not, Long Island is in a little spike because everyone from Manhattan with income is coming out to Long Island.” Guzzetta said. 

SBU Uses Up Half of Rainy Day Fund to Balance Budget

Stony Brook University is facing a huge financial hole in 2020. File photo from Stony Brook University

The COVID-19 crisis has exacted a heavy toll on Stony Brook University’s finances, creating a $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side.

Maurie McInnis was named SBU’s sixth president. In a stunning letter made public on her president’s web page, she details the huge financial hole the school will have to navigate in the near future. Photo from SBU

The pandemic cost the hospital and clinic an estimated $58 million, while it also cost the academic and research campus over $74.6 million in the past financial year, which includes $35 million in refunded fees, $12 million in lost revenue from cultural programs and facilities rentals, and $8.5 million in extra expenses, including cleaning and supplies, student quarantine costs and technology costs, according to message from new Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis published on her SBU president web page Aug. 12.

Through a number of steps, including hiring freezes, the university has attempted to offset these costs, but that won’t be enough. The school is tapping into its central reserve fund, essentially the university’s rainy day pool, reducing it by over 50% in one year. McInnis, in an open letter on her web page, said this “is completely unsustainable.”

Starting today, McInnis will hold a series of virtual campus conversations to provide more details and address questions, while she and university leaders search for long-term solutions to address a host of challenges that have presented a serious headwind to the school’s future budget.

In disclosing detailed information, McInnis wrote that she believes such disclosures will help the campus work together towards solutions.

“I believe that it is only by being open and candid and providing clear information that we can come together as a community to tackle our shared challenges,” she wrote in her letter.

In her letter to the campus, McInnis detailed specific costs, while she also outlined the steps Stony Brook has taken to offset some of these financial challenges.

For starters, she wrote that the university has been “told to expect a 20-30% cut in state funding this year, or $25 million.” The school also had its allocation for last year retroactively cut by $19 million.

“It is unclear when, if ever, our funding will return to current levels, let alone the levels of support we ideally receive as a top research institution in the region,” she wrote in her letter.

Federal government restrictions on travel and visas, along with COVID impacts, have created a 17.5 percent drop in out-of-state and international students, which not only reduces diversity but also creates a $20 million drop in revenue.

The number of campus residents will also decline by 40% for next semester, from 10,000 to 6,000, creating an estimated $38.9 million revenue loss.

The bottom line, she explained, is that the $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side. This she predicts, could become significantly worse.

The measures the university has taken offset some of that decline, saving the school an estimated $55 million, but the measures still do not close the budget gap and are not sustainable.

A hiring freeze for new positions and for those that become open from staff and faculty attrition will save $20 million.

Student housing refinancing will save $31.1 million in fiscal year 2021.

An ongoing freeze on expenses covering costs for service contracts, supplies and equipment and travel will save about $2.3 million

A cut to the athletic budget will save $2 million.

Senior campus leadership, meanwhile, has voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut along with a permanent hold back of any 2% raise for all Management Confidential employees.

At the same time, the university faces longer-term financial challenges.

State support has declined since 2008, from $190.4 million to $147.7 million last year. That will be even lower this year. On a per-student basis, state support in 2020 was $6,995, compared with $9,570.

This year’s expected increase in tuition and the Academic Excellence fee have not been approved by the SUNY Board.

The multi-year contracts that govern faculty and staff pay have not been fully funded, McInnis wrote in her president’s message. That has created an additional cost of $10 million for the 2020 fiscal year. Over the next five years, that compounds to $54 million.

The rainy day fund is picking up $9.7 million of that scheduled contractual salary increase raise.

The Tuition Assistance Program has been set at 2010 tuition levels, which creates a $9 million financial gap in fiscal year 2020. That is expected to rise in 2021. Stony Brook also recently learned, according to McInnis’s letter, that TAP will be funded at 80 percent of what the school awards to New York State students who rely on the program to access higher education.

At the same time, the Excelsior Program, which began in the fall of 2017 and allows students from families making up to $125,000 to attend school tuition free, may not accept new students this year.

McInnis concluded with her hope that the university will come together in the same way it did during the worst of the pandemic in New York to address these financial challenges.

“I fully recognize that you are operating in one of the most difficult environments any of us has experienced,” she wrote. “And, we are going to have to bring the same level of collaboration and innovation that you brought at the height of the COVID-19 response to our systemic budget challenges.”

McInnis urged the staff to “work together, share the best ideas, challenge assumptions, and build on the excellence of Stony Brook University in order to continue to move this great institution forward.”

Klaus Mueller (third from left) with Akai Kaeru co-founder Eric Papenhausen (right) and interns Shenghui Cheng (second from left), on whose PhD thesis the software was based and Darius Coelho, who earned his PhD in Mueller’s lab. Photo courtesy of Akai Kaeru

By Daniel Dunaief

About 40 percent of the counties in the United States are at high risk for COVID-19 and related death rates, according to a new computer program created by Stony Brook University Computer Science Professor Klaus Mueller.

Putting together data from the over 3,000 counties throughout the United States, Mueller used a computer program he created with a start up company he co-founded, called Akai Kaeru LLC, to search for counties that present factors that would put them at greater risk for an increase in COVID-19 deaths.

Analyzing data from 500 factors, the scientists found that death rates increased in communities with a combination of traits that are catalytic for the spread and fatality rate of the virus. These include sparsely populated counties with a poor and aging population; counties with sleep-deprived, low-educated, low-insured residents; and wealthy counties with high home ownership and increasing housing debt, among other factors.

Many of the counties are in the southern United States. In June, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia had the highest density of high-risk counties at a coverage of 80 to 90 percent.

Mueller said he considered this approach in late April. When the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came online, the group did its first test run on May 10th, which ended on June 10th.

When he looked at the June 10th mortality rates throughout the country, he was amazed at how effectively the patterns based on the conditions from the computer algorithm predicted increases.

To be sure, not all of the counties that fit one or more of these sets of conditions had high death rates in May, but others that were similar had. The preconditions existed, but the spark to cause those deaths hadn’t occurred, Mueller said.

“In June, some of these so far untouched counties caught the virus and they flared up like a tinderbox,” Mueller explained in an email. “This phenomenon continued in July for other counties that had escaped it so far but had the critical condition sets.”

In June, some of the counties that had characteristics that made them vulnerable caught the virus, Mueller explained.

Mueller anticipates a rapid increase in August in counties in Florida and Texas, in which the virus has spread and the conditions for increased mortality are prevalent.

“There are counties in these states that from the socio-economic perspective look a lot like those that already experienced great tragedy,” he wrote.

Mueller explained that people in many counties think they’re not at risk even if their neighbors are. The danger, however, comes from a spark, such as a visit by someone carrying the virus, that increases the infection, hospital and mortality rates.

Indeed, in wealthy counties where residents are stretched thin by the costs needed to maintain their homes, the incidence of illness and death is also higher. In part, that reflects how some of the people in these communities cut corners in terms of health insurance.

Mueller said Akai Kaeru, which means “red frog” in Japanese, is working on a dashboard that will be accessible from a web browser where users can click on a map of counties and see the risk and the patterns that define it. The staff at Akai Kaeru, which includes three principals and four interns, have virtual team meetings each weekday at 11 am. The dashboard they create can help residents see the other counties that share similar characteristics. Users can also compare the death rate in these counties to the average death rate in the United States.

While the observations of trends linking characteristics of a county with COVID-related health challenges could be useful for county and state planners, Mueller acknowledged that these observations are “just a start. Now, you know where to look, which is way better than before.”

The data could be useful for policy and law makers as well as for actuaries at life insurance companies.

Mueller believes this artificial intelligence tool acts like a magnet that pulls out the proverbial needle from the data haystack.  Local leaders can use the dashboard to see the critical conditions for their counties. They can try to find solutions to remove those conditions.

Demonstrating how the health care system in similar areas became overwhelmed can increase compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

Mueller added that the predictions from the model are only as good as the data he used to analyze trends across the country. He and his team aren’t making these observations or collecting this information themselves.

He said some counties have a lower likelihood than the average of developing a wider contagion. While the entire state doesn’t have the same lower probability of the disease spreading, areas like Montana and Indiana have fewer of the variables that typically combine to create conditions that favor the spread of the virus.

Mueller suggests that the risks from COVID-19 are tied to compliance with policies that reduce the spread of the disease and to the development of a vaccine.

Despite the high infection rate through April and May and the deaths during those unprecedented months, Suffolk County isn’t at the same level of risk as some regions in the south. “Suffolk is much better than those counties in the South and even Westchester, Rockland and adjacent counties in Connecticut and New Jersey,” Mueller said. “But it is not without risk.”

Prior to developing a program to analyze epidemiological trends with COVID, Mueller worked with medical visualization, which included the three-dimensional data of human parts that were generated through computed tomography, or CT.

In his work, the Computer Science professor seeks to find ways to communicate high-dimensional data to the lay population. He has routinely worked on clustering and has partnered with Pacific Northwest, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and health care companies.

Mueller has been at Stony Brook University since 1999. He earned his PhD from Ohio State University. Originally from Germany, he has done considerable work online, including teaching.

He and his wife Akiko, who works on marketing for his company, have an eight-year-old daughter named Nico.

Readers interested in learning more about his research with COVID can find information at the following link: https://akaikaeru.com/covid-19-1.