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Stony Brook University

Photo from Pixabay

Looking out the window on a sunny day, one might notice a not-so-subtle haziness in the sky. However, that haze isn’t harmless clouds or fog, it’s smoke that’s traveled a far distance across the nation from raging wildfires in California and Canada.

As concerns grow over the impact of these wildfires stretching their way over to the East Coast, Long Islanders are beginning to become uneasy about the repercussions the hazy smoke might have among residents. 

With multiple reports of poor air quality in the past few weeks, people who have vulnerable conditions such as asthma, emphysema, or heart disease need to be wary and avoid going outside or doing strenuous activity. 

“There is something called fine particulate matter, which is very small ash,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “The cause of concern is that this is the type of material that causes respiratory ailments. It irritates the throat and respiratory system, but most importantly fine particulate matter can lodge in your lungs and make microscopic perforations, much like asbestos.”

According to Esposito, It is highly likely the ash will also be deposited into Long Island’s estuary and could affect the marine environment. However, it is uncertain exactly how much will accumulate due to the variables of wind speed and the amount of ash that will be pushed toward the Island. 

“The East Coast should absolutely have an increased concern of weather events associated with climate change,” she added. “What we are having right now is an increase of torrential rain, and an increase in intensification of storms which means that hurricanes that might normally be a Category 1 [the lowest] now have the ability to reach 2, 3, or 4.” Esposito said. 

Kevin Reed. Photo from Stony Brook University

Although air pollution issues are nothing new to New York, there are always certain times of the year, particularly in the summertime, that fine particulate matter can get trapped. The question of the future frequency of surrounding wildfires still stands.

While Long Island is experiencing a rainy season, California is currently facing one of the worst droughts in history. Within a two-year period, rain and snow totals in parts of the West have been 50 percent less than average.  

“Just because Long Island is having a really wet season right now doesn’t mean it couldn’t shift later this year,” said Kevin Reed, a Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences researcher. 

According to Reed, the winds that blow from out West don’t always streamline toward the East Coast. Direction in wind patterns could cause the air flow to “wobble,” so it is uncertain whether or not Long Island may face more smoke pollution in the future. 

“Drought is certainly becoming more severe, potentially longer lasting, and at a larger extent, which means larger parts of land will be susceptible to wildfire,” Reed said.

Adding that wildfires are typically a natural occurrence and benefits land by replenishing it, Reed said the extent of the current wildfires is most likely a result of climate change and has potential to harm people and the environment.

“Air pollution could really affect our human health, especially to certain groups that are more susceptible to issues with air quality,” he said. “Even if it’s here for one day it could have an impact and of course the impact is going to be multiplied if it’s a longer-term event.” 

H. Reşit Akçakaya during a recent bird watching expedition. Photo by T. Lybvig

By Daniel Dunaief

In the world of conservation, scientists and policy makers have relied on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species to understand just how likely species are to go extinct, often as a result of human actions.

When a species moves from one threat level to another, conservationists typically spring into action, taking steps to protect individuals within a species and the habitat in which that species lives.

A team of over 200 scientists in 171 institutions tested a new measure, called the Green Status, that is designed to measure how effective those conservation efforts have been.

“There are always stories about conservation successes,” said H. Reşit Akçakaya, one of the leaders of the effort who helped develop the methodology for this new metric. The scientists wanted to “create a standard, objective way of recognizing the success and effectiveness of conservation measures. That is very important. We need optimism. People don’t act unless there is hope.”

The Green Status monitors a species recovery, measuring the impact of past and future conservation efforts. Researchers including Akçakaya, who is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, came up with a formula to determine Green Status. 

The formula includes elements conservations consider important: it should be safe from extinction, it should have a large enough population to have all its natural interactions with the other parts of the ecosystem, and it should be represented in every ecosystem in which it naturally exists and has existed.

The scientists considered the trade-offs between practicality in aiming for a system that is feasible to apply to many species and comprehensiveness, which incorporates relevant aspects of, and factors involved in, species recovery, Akçakaya explained in an email.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Green Status of Species will join the IUCN Red List to provide a more complete update on a species’ conservation condition, which includes their extinction risk and recovery process.

In a new paper, published in Conservation Biology, scientists from around the world contributed to creating preliminary Green Status for 181 species.

It took seven years from the time the scientists came up with the method, developed it further to make it applicable to all species, published papers, organized workshops and other consultations to get feedback and tested the method.

Akçakaya, who has been involved with the Red List since 1999, said the new system provides information about the status of the species that goes beyond the risk of extinction.

“It’s not sufficient to prevent extinction,” Akçakaya said. “We want them to recover as well.”

One of the challenges in developing this method was in deriving definitions that apply across all species and that are not specific to the conditions and threats any one species faces.

Extinction is difficult to measure but easy to conceptualize, he explained. Recovery, on the other hand, is “not as clear cut.”

The first goal of this enterprise was to come up with ways of standardizing how to measure the recovery of a species that would reflect whether conservation efforts were working.

A species on the Red List might have been critically endangered over a decade earlier. After considerable conservation effort, that species may still be critically endangered, according to the same Red List.

That, however, does not indicate anything specific about whether the conservation efforts are working.

The Red List “doesn’t tell us how much more we need to work to get to a level that we can call recovered,” Akçakaya explained.

The Green Status is not currently a part of conservation policy decisions, particularly because it has only been applied to 181 species. The IUCN, however, which is the world’s largest network of conservationists and conservation scientists, has approved it.

Getting from 181 to tens of thousands will take several years, although Akçakaya said he “has a good start” and he has interest from different people who are involved in conservation.

“We are on our way” towards creating a metric that affects conservation policy, he said. “It will take several years to be used” to affect conservation policies for threatened species.

When the Green Status is more broadly available for a wider collection of species, Akçakaya believes it will provide a way for government officials to make informed decisions.

The IUCN, however, does not tell local and national officials what to do with the information provided with the Red List or with the Green Status.

In developing the Green Status, Akçakaya worked with numerous scientists and conservationists. For this methodology, the researchers received hundreds of comments from people who  shared insights online. They also announced the work within the IUCN network, through which they received feedback.

Part of the larger advances in the context of the Green Status came from looking not only at the resilience of the species, but also at what the species is doing in the ecosystem. “Is it fulfilling its ecological role and its function in the ecosystem?” Akçakaya asked.

The Stony Brook scientist is pleased with the Green Status work. The intelligence of the group is larger than the intelligence of any one person, he said.

The group “had the same goal,” he added. “It was a really satisfying experience in terms of how we came up with a system.”

The Green Status can help balance the conservation news. While conserving biodiversity is urgent, one of the things this measure can achieve is to formalize the successes.

Stony Brook, NY; Stony Brook University: Entrance sign
Matthew Lerner, PhD, LEND Center Co-Director. Photo courtesy of SBU

Stony Brook University is the first institution on Long Island to receive a federal grant designed specifically to train students, professionals, families and self-advocates for the purpose of improving the lives of children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and neurodevelopmental disabilities (ND). Called Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and other related Disabilities (LEND), the program at Stony Brook will involve graduate level training through the School of Social Welfare, Department of Psychology, and other Health Sciences programs.

The LEND grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau, and provided to the SUNY Research Foundation, is a five-year $2.2 million grant that is effective through June 2026. It is designed to provide training and resources to individuals with ASD and NDs, their families and clinicians, as well as researchers and policymakers through the establishment of a regional Center.

The leading goals of Stony Brook LEND are: to increase the number and expertise of clinicians and leaders who are well-prepared to deliver high-quality, interdisciplinary, family-centered and culturally responsive care to those with ASD/ND and their families; through Stony Brook Medicine clinics affiliated with Stony Brook’s Autism Initiative, provide additional services to benefit children in the region; through outreach initiatives and regional collaborations, establish a base of better-informed and trained professionals for the ASD/ND community; and advance research and scientific knowledge about the challenges, needs, strengths, and opportunities of children and adults with ASD/ND and their families.

LEND will target interdisciplinary, evidence-based clinical training for healthcare professionals and students, alongside the experts themselves, people with disabilities and their families,” explains Michelle Ballan, PhD, Stony Brook’s LEND Program and Center Director, Professor, and Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Welfare and Professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine. “Cultivating a cohort of trained leaders will ultimately advance systems of care across the lifespan, and thereby help to reduce numerous health inequalities children and adults with ASD/ND face.”

Stony Brook LEND will involve faculty representation from 11 disciplines, with more than 65 additional supporting faculty representing several medical sub-specialties and arts and science disciplines. The program will also collaborate with 55 affiliated programs across the region and multiple states, including community agencies, academic medical and research programs, and school districts. There will also be participation by cultural consultants from traditionally underserved communities throughout Long Island.

Michelle Ballan, PhD, LEND Program and Center Director. Photo courtesy of SBU

LEND is a game-changer whose impact for individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities and their families will ripple across Long Island and beyond,” says Matthew Lerner, PhD, LEND Center Co-Director, Research Director of the Autism Initiative, and Associate Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Pediatrics. “With the LEND Center, whole generations of families, self-advocates, clinicians, and academics will develop a deeper understanding of the complex network of services and supports available to those with autism and other developmental disabilities, and will learn how best to work together to navigate this network to produce the best quality of life and care.”

Training will begin at the start of the 2021-22 academic year. Each year approximately 300 trainees will take part in the Stony Brook LEND program. Some will be long-term trainees gaining education and clinical training (300 or more hours), medium-term (40-299 hours) and short-term trainees (39 hours or less). All trainees will have access to didactic coursework, clinical workshops, and community-based training. The LEND Center will also work with community partners to provide consultation and continuing education.

The first round of LEND long-term trainee applications are due August 13th, with rolling deadlines throughout the year for medium- and short-term trainees.

For more information, and to apply, please see this School of Social Welfare webpage.

 

A group of gelada monkeys in Ethiopia. Photo from Jacob Feder

By Daniel Dunaief

Timing can mean the difference between life and death for young geladas (an Old World monkey species). Geladas whose fathers remain leaders of a social group for as much as a year or more have a better chance of survival than those whose fathers are displaced by new males under a year after they’re born. 

New males who enter a social group can, and often do, kill the young of other males, giving the new male leaders a chance to impregnate the female members of their social group who might otherwise be unable to conceive.

Jacob Feder

 

The odds of a new male leader killing a young gelada are about 60 percent at birth, compared to closer to 15 percent at around a year of age, according to researchers at Stony Brook University (SBU).

Additionally, pregnant gelada monkeys often spontaneously abort their unborn fetuses once a new male enters the group, as the mother’s hormones cause a miscarriage that enables them to dedicate their resources to the future progeny of the next dominant male.

At the same time, the survival of females depends on becoming a part of a group that is just the right size.

Jacob Feder, a graduate student at SBU, and Amy Lu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook, recently published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that explores the ideal group size that optimizes the longevity of females and the number of their offspring.

The researchers discovered a Goldilocks effect. By studying the behavioral and group data for over 200 wild geladas over the course of 14 years, they determined that a mid-size group with five to seven females has the greatest benefit for their own fitness and for the survival of their offspring.

“There tends to be a trade off” in the dynamics that affect female geladas in different groups, Feder said. Females in the biggest groups face a higher risk of takeovers and takeover-related infanticide, since males are more likely to try to dominate a part of larger social groups where they have greater reproductive opportunities.

By contrast, individuals in the smaller groups may live on the periphery of a multi-group dynamic. These females are less protected against predators.

In their native Ethiopia, geladas are vulnerable to leopards, hyenas, and jackals, among others.

For the females, the survival of their offspring depends on the ability of males to remain in the group long enough.

“The male turnover is one of the major drivers of their reproductive success,” explained Feder.

Researchers have seen new males enter a group and kill infants born from another father. The infants, for their part, don’t often recognize the need to avoid new males, Lu said.

When males enter big groups, females often have to reset their reproduction.

Groups with about nine to 11 females often split into units of four to seven, Feder said. A new male might become the leader for half of the females, leaving the remaining male with the other half. Alternatively, new males may take over each group.

The pregnant females who are part of a group with a new male will spontaneously abort their offspring about 80 percent of the time, as females “cut their losses,” Feder said

About 38 percent of females live in a mid-sized group that is close to optimum size.

Gelada charm

According to Feder and Wu, geladas are a compelling species to research, Feder and Wu said.

Feder found his visits to the East African nation rewarding, especially when he had the opportunity to watch a small female named Crimson.

An important part of daily life for these primates involves grooming, where primates comb through each other’s hair, remove insects and, in many cases, eat them.

Crimson, who was a younger member of the group when Feder started observing geladas, didn’t have much grooming experience with this activity. Instead of running her hands over the body of her grooming partner, she focused on her mouth. Her partner’s wide eyes reflected surprise at the unusual grooming choice.

One of the favorites for Lu was a monkey who has since passed away named Vampire. A part of the V group, Vampire was taller and bigger than most adult females. She displaced male geladas, some of whom were larger than she, almost as often as they displaced her.

“If you go out in the field enough, you know the individuals pretty well,” Lu said. “They all have their own personalities. Some of them walk in a different way and react to situations differently.”

A resident of Centereach, Feder grew up in northern Connecticut, attending Wesleyan University as an undergraduate, where he majored in music and biology. A bass guitar player, Feder said he “dabbles in anything with strings.”

In fourth grade, Feder read a biography of Dian Fossey, which sparked his interest in biology.

While he has yet to combine his musical and science interests with geladas, Feder said these monkeys have a large vocabulary that is almost as big as chimpanzees.

Lu, meanwhile, started studying geladas as a postdoctoral researcher. They’re a great study species that allow scientists to ask compelling questions about reproductive strategies. “At any point, you can follow 20 social groups,” Lu said.

Lu, whose two children are four years old and 16 months old, said she has observed the similarities between human and non-human primate young.

“Babies throw tantrums, whether it is my child or a gelada infant protesting being put on the ground,” she described in an email. Gelada infants use a sad “cooing” sound. Sometimes, the sad cooing sound is real and sometimes “they just get what they want.”

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India Pagan playing basketball for Stony Brook University. Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

India Pagan has a tattoo of the outline of Puerto Rico on her right arm. The image has two stars on it, where Hatillo and Mayagüez are located.

India Pagan practices with Puerto Rico’s Olympic team. Photo from the Pagan family

The connection to Puerto Rico for Pagan, a graduate of Stony Brook University who is now in a master’s program, runs much more than skin deep.

The 6-foot, 1-inch basketball star, who helped Stony Brook win back-to-back America East conference championships, is representing the island at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, joining the first women’s basketball team from Puerto Rico to compete at the games.

A talented forward who plays in the low post area near the basket, Pagan, who became one of only 18 Seawolves to score over 1,000 points in her career and set a school record last year for the highest shooting percentage for a season, is the second-youngest member on a team Puerto Ricans are calling “the 12 warriors.”

When she saw pictures of herself on the main Puerto Rican Olympic pages on Instagram and Facebook confirming she’d made the team, Pagan took screenshots and called her parents Moises, who was born in Mayagüez, and Carmen, born in Hatillo.

The excitement was palpable over the phone, as her parents “were both yelling” with delight, she said.

“I’m so thankful to be Puerto Rican,” Pagan said. “I say that every day.”

Indeed, Pagan, who spoke Spanish in her house growing up, traveled regularly to Puerto Rico to see her large and supportive extended family.

Her mother Carmen, who was a competitive runner when she was younger, wanted to give her daughter an opportunity to compete on a larger stage she herself didn’t have growing up as the 17th of 18 children.

A runner whose floor-length braided hair was so long that she had to pin it inside her shirt to prevent false starts, Carmen Pagan didn’t have the chance to compete against other athletes from around the world in her specialty, the 400- and 800-meter races.

“That’s why we went the extra mile with India,” mother said.

India Pagan playing for SBU. Photo from Stony Brook Athletics

“We are accomplishing our dreams through her,” Moises Pagan added. “She exceeded our expectations when it came to basketball.”

Soon after learning of her opportunity to represent Puerto Rico, India Pagan found out that the athletes would attend the Olympics under strict restrictions and would play in empty stadiums, to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Her family, who has already seen Pagan play in Italy among other places, canceled their travel plans.

India Pagan still feels fortunate to be at the games and to have the long-distance support of people she considers family in Puerto Rico; New London, Connecticut, where she was born and raised; and on Long Island.

Stony Brook “is my family and the girls are my sisters,” she said. That includes two of her close friends on the Stony Brook team, Courtney Furr and Leighah-Amori Wool, who cried when Pagan left and are staying in touch across the world.

Moises Pagan, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and played one year of semiprofessional basketball in Puerto Rico, recalls how his daughter kept his size-15-feet shoebox filled with acceptances from colleges. India Pagan visited Stony Brook last and decided within moments of her arrival that she wanted to be a Seawolf.

Her parents made her wait a day to decide. A day later, she took the final women’s basketball scholarship.

Her parents felt the same connection to the team, often traveling with home-cooked food for the players, who called them “Ma” and “Pa.”

Moises cooked around 40 empanadas for the team, while Carmen contributed a chicken-and-rice dish and meatballs.

“We like to give back to the team and the coaching staff,” Moises Pagan said. “They’re our extended family.”

Despite the connection India Pagan felt at Stony Brook, she wasn’t initially prepared to stay for the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes amid the pandemic.

Speaking to her new coach Ashley Langford, Pagan changed her mind.

Langford is thrilled for the experience Pagan will have at the Olympics. She told her new coach how much more physical the Olympic players are than the collegiate competitors.

For Pagan, various women have served as inspirations and role models.

She admires plus-size model Ashley Graham’s confidence and appreciates her ability to represent a group of women often excluded in modeling.

India Pagan at 13 years old. Photo from the Pagan family

Pagan also literally and physically looks up to American basketball star Brittney Griner. At 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Griner is also not the typical woman in society.

While Pagan said COVID remains in the back of her mind, she expressed confidence in the health protocols designed to protect athletes and area residents.

Even before reaching the Olympic Village, Pagan described how each floor has security. The team isn’t allowed to leave the hotel unless they are attending practice.

“We wake up, eat breakfast, go to practice and come back,” she said. “The protocols are extreme. They want to protect the athletes.”

Pagan’s parents said they remain concerned for their daughter’s health, although they feel reassured by safety measures that include seeing the sights of Tokyo without getting off the bus.

While the flights to Tokyo took over 23 hours, which makes the limited travel and other opportunities disappointing, Carmen Pagan said her daughter and the rest of the team are focused on making the most of their Olympic opportunity. The team “is there to play their hearts out for Puerto Rico,” the mother said.

Langford sees India Pagan as a winner, as she is “representing our university and women’s basketball. Regardless of the outcome, she’s already won. This is an amazing accomplishment.”

In addition to the memories from her Olympic experience, Pagan is looking forward to getting a tattoo of the five Olympic rings on her body.

The historic Puerto Rico opener is against China July 27.

While the Pagans won’t be able to watch their daughter compete in Tokyo in person, they are likely to gather with extended family, where everyone will “bring a dish,” Moises Pagan said. “Let the games begin!”

Ashley Langford. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

She hasn’t scored a point or dished out an assist in a college basketball game since 2009. That hasn’t stopped Ashley Langford, Stony Brook University’s first-year women’s basketball coach, from mixing it up with the players.

A point guard who graduated from Tulane University and who holds the school record for the most assists, scored over 1,000 points, and, despite being five feet, five inches tall, brought down 403 rebounds for 25th in school history, Langford plans to tap into her playing experience at Stony Brook.

“I’m a hands-on head coach,” said Langford, who most recently was associate head coach at James Madison University in Virginia. “I’m a demonstrator.”

Langford, who took over for Caroline McCombs this year when the former coach joined George Washington University, believes she can help a team that won back-to-back America East Championships by stepping onto the floor during practices and drills.

When she’s guarding them, she wants to “see them do a move,” she said. “At a certain point, they get too good” for her skills, which is when she pats herself on the back, especially after she sees her players exuding increased confidence.

Langford is pleased with the start of her time at Stony Brook, where she has felt welcomed and supported by Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron and President Maurie McInnis.

“This is a big reason why I chose to come here,” Langford said. “The administration is great and the president has been awesome.”

Langford appreciates how Heilbron knows the names of so many student-athletes, which is consistent with her approach to coaching.

Langford believes her players and the coach should have similar expectations.

“I need to be connected to my players, and I want them to be connected to me,” Langford said. “I want players to come into my office and talk. I want that relationship.”

Langford has been working within the limitations of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules during the summer. She hopes to use this time to build a rapport with her team and help them learn her terminology and the drills she runs.

“I want to give them a preview” about her and the program, Langford said.

In making the transition from playing to coaching, Langford said she has tried to improve and grow. She believes she and her team should constantly strive to improve.

Coaching is “less about basketball and more about how you connect with your players,” Langford said.

To be sure, that connection doesn’t mean she coddles the team. She strives to be honest without sugarcoating the message. 

“When they’re doing well, I’m going to tell them,” she said. “When we need to be better, I’m going to tell them that, too.”

Langford explained that basketball has changed considerably since her playing days, as players have more resources available to them. She sang the praises of Elizabeth Zanolli, assistant athletic director for Sports Medicine, who supports the basketball and other teams.

Players also have nutritionists, dietitians, and strength and conditioning support, which improve the overall health and endurance of the athletes.

On the court, the men’s and women’s games have increasingly emphasized the value of the three-point shot, which means that most of the points in a game come from in the paint close to the basket or outside the three-point line, where long-range shooters can rack up points quickly.

Langford doesn’t see much of a difference between the men’s and women’s games.

“I want players to pass, dribble and shoot,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

Organizer Cait Corrigan speaks at the July 19 rally in Stony Brook.

It may be weeks before colleges open again, but students and friends are already rallying against the potential of a requirement coming this fall semester.

Cait Corrigan and a protester in Stony Brook July 19. Photo from Cait Corrigan

On Monday, July 19, more than 200 people showed up across from the Stony Brook Long Island Rail Road train station on Route 25A to protest mandated COVID-19 vaccines for State University of New York and City University of New York students.

The Students Against Mandates rally took place less than a mile from Stony Brook University which is a SUNY school. In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said the students in the state university system would be required to be vaccinated once the vaccines get full FDA approval, which is still pending.

On the SUNY website, Chancellor Jim Malatras in a May 10 statement talked about the educational system’s success in curbing infections and the possibility of a vaccination requirement.

“We thank the governor for providing resources to our many campuses offering vaccines to SUNY and the broader community,” Malatras said. “The state’s new vaccination requirement — contingent on full FDA approval — will be another step in restoring normal campus activity this fall.”

Cait Corrigan, who will attend Boston University in the fall for her second master’s and describes herself as a religious and medical rights advocate and defender of the Constitution on her social media pages, organized the event. She said in an email while SUNY and CUNY have not taken official action yet, “many private schools such as Hofstra and Fordham universities have told students they must get the experimental COVID-19 vaccine to attend in the fall.”

The recent graduate of Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, said she “overturned my school’s policy for requiring proof of COVID vaccination and proof of a negative COVID test for graduation.”

She is now helping others do the same. At the July 19 rally, protesters held up signs with messages such “SUNY! No forced vax!” and “Vaccine makers are exempt from liability.”

Among the elected officials in attendance were state Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead) and Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). Civil rights attorney Tricia Lindsay also joined the students.

Trotta said in a phone interview it would be hypocritical to ask students to be vaccinated when unvaccinated people are going to stores and bars maskless. The county legislator said students can most likely socially distance themselves in a classroom more than they can in a store or restaurant. He added that young people are more likely to die in a car accident or from an opioid overdose than from COVID-19.

Students speak out on why they believe COVID-19 vaccines should not be mandatory for college students in Stony Brook on July 19.

Trotta said he is not against vaccinations, and he got his as soon as he could.

“I think people should get vaccinated, but I’m not going to tell people to get vaccinated,” he said, adding that he feels the same way about wearing masks, that while he’s not against them he doesn’t believe people should be forced to do so.

SBU will follow “the state’s and SUNY chancellor’s public health guidance for students and employees,” according to a statement from the university. SBU surveyed students and employees earlier this summer and found high rates of vaccinations among the school’s population.

“As a public research institution, Stony Brook affirms and strongly supports freedom of expression and the use of science and data to make informed decisions,” the statement read. “The safety and efficacy of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA were demonstrated by many carefully monitored clinical trials, including some that Stony Brook helped to lead. As with other immunizations that are required to enroll at Stony Brook, the COVID vaccines are important tools to protect our community’s public health and ensure student’s optimal learning experience. We maintain the same process as for other required immunizations, to consider exceptions for religious or health reasons.”

In the fall, SBU and SUNY students who are not fully vaccinated will be required to wear masks on campus and maintain social distancing in indoor settings.

Rebecca Smith at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland, where the scientist did field work during the 2015 Astrobiology Summer School. Photo from Rebecca Smith

By Daniel Dunaief

Rocks may not speak, move or eat, but they can and do tell stories.

Recognizing the value and importance of the ancient narrative rocks on Earth and on other planets provide, NASA sent vehicles to Mars, including the rover Perseverance, which landed on February 18 of this year.

Perseverance brought seven instruments, most of them identified by the acronym-loving teams at NASA, that carry out various investigations, such as searching for clues about a water-rich environment that may have sustained life about 3.5 billion years ago.

Several instrument teams developed and monitor these pieces of equipment, including Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University and Deputy Principal Investigator on the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PiXL.

In addition to the instrument leads, NASA chose participating scientists who can contribute to several teams, providing scientific support for a host of questions that might arise as the rover explores the terrain of the Red Planet 128 million miles from Earth.

Rebecca Smith, a post-doctoral researcher at Stony Brook in Geosciences Professor Scott McLennan’s lab, is one such participating scientist.

“I get to move around between all these different groups, which is fun,” said Smith, whose appointment will last for three years. While the Mars2020 program takes up about 20 percent of Smith’s time, the remainder is focused on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Smith is likely to spend almost all of her time on Mars2020 starting this September.

Smith has helped make the science plans for the rover. The scientist and other researchers help select targets for the instruments that will help answer specific science questions. For this work, they collaborate with different science teams. Smith plans to get more involved with specific instrument teams soon, including SuperCam, PiXL and Sherloc.

For Smith’s own research, the scientist has a suite of rock samples that include lacustrine carbonates and hydrothermally altered volcanic rocks. The volcanic rocks formed under conditions that might be analogous to those once present in Jezero crater, where the rover landed and is currently maneuvering. The crater is just north of the Martian equator and has a delta that once long ago contained water and, potentially, life.

On Earth, Smith is using versions of the SuperCam, PiXL, and Sherloc to understand how these rocks would look to different instruments and determine what baseline measurements they need to tell the different types of rocks apart using the instruments aboard the rover.

Smith has studied rocks on Earth located in Hawaii, Iceland and the glaciers in the Three Sisters Volcanic Complex in Oregon.

Many planetary geologists use Earth as an analog to understand geologic processes on other planets. It is still uncertain if the climate of early Mars was warn and wet or cold and icy and wet, Smith explained in an email, adding, “It is possible the minerals we see with the rovers and from orbit can help us answer this question.” 

Most of the work the scientist been involved with is trying to understand how Mars-like volcanic rocks chemically weather under different climates.

Through previous research on Mars, scientists discovered that large regions had poorly crystalline materials. The poorly crystalline nature of the materials makes them difficult to identify using rover-based or orbiter-based instruments.

“The fact that they could have formed in the presence of water makes them important to understand,” Smith explained.

Part of the work Smith is doing is to understand if poorly crystalline material formed by water have specific properties that relate to the environment or climate in which they formed.

Smith said the bigger picture question of the work the teams are doing is, “was there life on Mars? If not, why not? We think that Mars, for the first billion years or so, was pretty similar to Earth around the same time and Earth developed life.”

Indeed, Earth had liquid water on its surface, which provided a habitat for microbial life about 3.5 billion years ago.

The ancient rock record on Mars provides a better-preserved history because the Red Planet doesn’t have plate tectonics.

“Based on what we know about Earth, if life ever developed on early Mars, it would likely have been microbial,” Smith wrote.

Other goals of Mars2020 include characterizing the climate and the geology. Both goals focus on looking for evidence of ancient habitable environments and characterizing those to understand a host of details, such as the pH of the water, the temperature and details about how long the water was on the surface.

Part of the reason NASA put out a call for participating scientists is to “bridge instrument data” from different pieces of equipment, Smith explained.

“I love the collaborative nature of working on a team like this,” Smith offered. “Everybody is interested in getting the most important information and doing the best job that we can.”

Smith enjoys the opportunity to study potentially conflicting signals in rocks to determine what they indicate about the past.“Geology is just so complex. It’s a big puzzle. Forces have been acting over a very long period of time and forces change over time. We are trying to tease apart what happened and when.”

While Smith works at Stony Brook, the post-doctoral scientist returned to California during the pandemic to live closer to her family. After finishing the current research program, Smith plans to remain open to various options, including teaching.

Smith appreciates the opportunity to work on the Mars 2020 mission, adding, “I’m really grateful for that during this past year in particular.”

A scene from Willow. Photo courtesy of Banana Films
Watch in-person or virtually this year!

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts turns into a movie lover’s mecca when new independent films screen at the Stony Brook Film Festival on evenings and weekends from Thursday, July 22 to Saturday, July 31. The popular festival, now in its 26th year, pairs memorable short films with an array of features you won’t see anywhere else, making it a favorite of moviegoers and filmmakers alike.

The live, in-person screening of the film festival, presented by Island Federal, will be followed up by a virtual festival from Aug. 5 to 30 on the IndieFlix Festivals app. 

Presented by Island Federal, the 2021 Festival lineup boasts 35 films from over 15 countries and includes never-before-seen features from around the globe. The Festival kicks off with the world premiere of The 5th Man, a documentary on Paul Limmer, a former track coach at Bellmore’s Mepham High School. During his 50-year career there, Limmer racked up hundreds of wins, though director Trey Nelson focuses on the story of all the other kids – the ones who never felt “seen” – until Paul Limmer came into their lives. 

The film will be preceded by Feeling Through, an Oscar-nominated short featuring deaf-blind actor Robert Tarango of Selden. Other must-see features include Yamina Benguigui’s Sisters, starring Isabelle Adjani and Maïwenn, a finely crafted reflection on memory and belonging to two worlds and As Far As I Know, an uncompromising film that wrestles with questions of perspective and victimhood. Milcho Manchevski’s newest masterpiece Willow is resplendent in unforgettable images and unconventional narrative. Closing out the 2021 Festival is the intense and complexly drawn sports drama Final Set.

FILM SCHEDULE

OPENING NIGHT

Thursday, July 22 at 8 p.m.

Feature: The 5th Man, United States

Short: Feeling Through, United States

 

Friday, July 23 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Risks & Side Effects, Germany

Short: David, United States

Friday, July 23 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Red River Road, United States

Short: The Following Year, Spain

 

Saturday, July 24 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Sisters, France

Short: Girls Are Strong Here, U.S.

Saturday, July 24 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Games People Play, Finland

Short: Off Duty, United States

 

Sunday, July 25 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Persona Non Grata, Denmark

Short: On the Sidewalk, at Night, U.S.

Sunday, July 25 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Anchorage, United States

Short: The Saverini Widow, France

 

Monday, July 26 at 7 p.m.

Feature: As Far As I Know, Hungary

Short: DA YIE, Ghana

Monday, July 26 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Willow, Republic of Northern Macedonia, Hungary, Belgium

Short: The Night I Left America, U.S.

 

Tuesday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Fire in the Mountains, India

Short: The Music Video, Canada

Tuesday, July 27 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Everything in the End, U.S.

Short: Max is Bleeding, U.S.

 

Wednesday, July 28 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Sun Children, Iran

Short: Noisy, United States

Wednesday, July 28 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: The Castle, Lithuania, Ireland

Short: Inverno (Timo’s Winter), Italy

 

Thursday, July 29 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Murder at Cinema North, Israel

Short: Devek, Israel

Thursday, July 29 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: How to Stop a Recurring Dream, United Kingdom

Short: This Uncertain Moment, U.S.

 

Friday, July 30 at 7 p.m.

Feature: Lorelei, United States

Short: Swipe, United States

Friday, July 30 at 9:15 p.m.

Feature: Perfumes, France

Short: Ganef, United Kingdom

 

CLOSING NIGHT

Saturday, July 31 at 8 p.m.

Feature: Final Set, France

CLOSING NIGHT AWARDS

10:30 p.m.

Ticket information

All live screenings are held at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook in the 1,000-seat Main Stage theater. Festival passes are on sale for $125, which guarantees entry to all live films at the Staller Center in July. Virtual passes are $85 with guaranteed access to all virtual films. For $250 you can purchase a Gold Pass, which guarantees entry and preferred seating for all live films at the Staller Center in July and full access to the Virtual Festival. Student passes are also available. For more information or to order, call the Staller Center Box Office at 631-632-2787 or visit stonybrookfilmfestival.com.

*This article first appeared in TBR News Media’s Summer Times supplement on June 24, 2021.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

An electroencephalogram (EEG) study of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) identified a neural signal that may help explain the variation of how those with ASD perceive or understand the mental states of others (called “Theory of Mind”). Led by Matthew Lerner, PhD, of Stony Brook University, the study is published in Clinical Psychological Science.

While challenges with Theory of Mind have long been associated with ASD, it is now known that many people with ASD do not struggle with his sort of perspective-taking. For example, those with increased autism symptoms do not necessarily exhibit increased deficits in the understanding others socially, and vice versa. However, this variability in Theory of Mind is not well understood.

A total of 78 adolescents ages 11 to 17 participated in the study, most with ASD. With the EEG in place, the participants viewed Theory of Mind vignettes of social scenes and made mental state inferences on the characters’ behavior as their brain activity was recorded.

“We know the brains of those with ASD process social experiences differently, yet little work has linked these differences directly to Theory of Mind,” says Lerner, Associate Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook. “In our study, we first identified an electrical brain-based marker that relates to Theory of Mind ability in typically-developing teens, and found that it does so in ASD, too. This marker, called the Late Positive Complex (LPC), seems to reflect one’s ability to hold and reflect an idea or situation in one’s mind.”

Lerner and his team found that LPC scores in ASD adolescents related to better Theory of Mind accuracy and fewer ASD symptoms. More importantly, The LPC statistically explained the relationship between ASD symptoms and Theory of Mind accuracy, suggesting that this EEG signal may explain why some individuals with ASD struggle with Theory of Mind.

“Essentially, if this marker is present in someone with ASD, they do not seem to have trouble with Theory of Mind, but if it is absent they do.”

The authors point out that evidence from the EEG study suggests that deficits in Theory of Mind reasoning in those with ASD occur relatively early in the brain process of perception, and stem from difficulties holding an idea or image in mind when it is no longer visible.

They conclude that “the current findings increase understanding of the neural mechanisms implicated in social-cognitive functioning in ASD and further inform clinical practice, research and theory involving social cognition in ASD.”