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Wang Center

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Thomas Allison, 2017 Discovery Prize winner, with James H. Simons, chairman of the Simons Foundation and Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of Stony Brook University. Photo from Stony Brook University

Once a year, Stony Brook University takes science to the competitive level with their Discovery Prize competition.

At the event, which took place April 13, four competitors presented their research to a panel of judges. The competition was established in 2014 with a donation from the Stony Brook Foundation board of trustees. This year at the university’s Charles B. Wang Center Theatre the panel of judges consisted of 2016 Nobel Laureate in physics from Princeton, F. Duncan Haldane, UC Berkeley’s director of the nuclear science division, professor Barbara Jacak, and chairman of the Simons Foundation and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, James H. Simons.

After a tough competition, Thomas Allison, assistant professor in the departments of chemistry and physics, won the $200,000 prize. Allison said all his competitors — Gabor Balazsi, associate professor at the Laufer Center for physical and quantitative biology; Matthew Reuter, assistant professor in the department of applied mathematics and statistics; and Neelima Sehgal, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy — did a great job.

Allison won for his concept called “Molecular Movies.” The technology he is working on will record the movement of molecules, which in turn can lead to the development of better high-tech devices.

“I was honored to be a part of it,” he said. “Obviously the result is great, and in general, it’s a great thing at Stony Brook.”

The competition is produced in collaboration with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is described as a “Shark Tank” meets “TED Talk” type of event. Each contestant presents his or her research in approximately 10 minutes, and they must describe their project from the scientific approach to the potential impact of their research in a way an everyday person would understand it. 

Allison said he has been working on his research for three years and was a bit nervous before his presentation. However, before the event contestants received coaching from communication experts at the Alan Alda Center, which he said was a big help.

“I just tried in the end to be clear, explain my project and what we’re trying to do, so I guess that got me through it,” he said.

When it comes to describing his project to a layperson, Allison said it all depends on how much a person is familiar with electrons.

“Mostly it’s just basic science,” he said. “You can think of it kind of like a microscope, so once you have this tool, then you can use the tool to try to make devices.”

Allison said his tool would be beneficial with any technology that uses molecules with electrons moving around because molecules are “excited” by light. He said the application could help in developing better technology such as solar cells, which are used for light absorption to produce electricity from sunlight, that use organic molecules instead of silicon.

“I’m not going to make a better solar cell,” Allison said. “What I would like to do is make a tool so that people who work on these things can make better solar cells or something. So it’s more about making the tool.”   

After winning the prize, Allison said he will be able to pay for a new electron detector. The detector uses UV lights that make the electrons come out. He said the detector he has right now can only measure the energy of an electron and not its angle. However, a new one will be able to measure both at the same time, providing measurements that are more effective.

He said he has the same goal as those who are working on much larger scale projects, but he can achieve the same results with a less expensive light source as well as instruments.

The prize money will also allow him to hire a post doctorate student to work on the project, and the professor is glad that he now has the funding to spend more time in the lab and less time applying for grants.

“I’m looking forward to doing experiments, and the discovery fund was a big boost,” Allison said.

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International students meet their host families. Director Rhona Goldman is in center of back row. Photo by Dwayne Moore

By Wenhao Ma

One local organization is helping international students adjust to American life.

An evening reception was held at the Wang Center on the Stony Brook campus Aug. 25 to introduce new international students to their host families. For 40 years, the Stony Brook Host Family Program has been providing opportunities for international students to learn about America by having them develop relationships with local volunteer families.

“It’s very difficult when you are not really comfortable with the language,” said Rhona Goldman, director of the program. “This [program] gives students a chance — off campus — to relax and interact with a family.”

Students do not live with the families, but they are invited to join them for meals or to attend events together. Goldman said some families meet with their hosted students two or three times a year, while others see each other on a regular basis.

Goldman and her husband, Dick, are hosting two new international students this year, one from Ghana and the other from China.

“There are so many international students,” Dick said. “They come in not knowing anyone. So they will gravitate to people from their own countries. The dorms, classes, study groups — everything turns out that way.”

He said a lot of international students have a difficult time adjusting to the culture. For example, they don’t know how to get a driver’s license or open a bank account. A family can ease the transition and make finding their way a much more pleasant experience, he said.

“Rhona and her husband Dick are wonderful,” said Jianing Yan, a former hosted student of theirs who graduated in May. “They helped me adapt to the life in America. They took me to shopping malls and grocery stores on the very first day I arrived. Also they helped me learn about the American culture … They really make me feel comfortable here. To me, they are my family.”

Goldman said the students are not the only ones who have benefited from the program. The families benefit, too.

David Altman became a volunteer last year. He hosted three students last semester and will host another two this fall. He said that he has traveled with his daughter to many countries and is interested in different cultures.

“I’ve studied many languages myself,” Altman said. “I know a little Chinese. [The program] helps me also. So it works both ways.”

The host family program works with the university to send out a notification to all international students after they have been admitted. To become enrolled in the program, both students and host families need to submit applications. Goldman said she matches students with families that share similar interests.

On average, about 120 students a year are assigned to 65 local families. However, according to Goldman, this year many students could not be placed simply because there are not enough hosts. She encourages families to learn more about the program and consider becoming hosts.

“We want to serve as many students as possible,” she said. “It’s a most rewarding program.”

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A scene from ‘The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor.’ Photo from PJDC

The arrival of cooler weather signals the start of a perennial favorite, the Port Jefferson Documentary Series.

Supported by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Suffolk County Film Commission, the PJDS begins its 22nd season on Monday, Sept. 21, at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. The fall series, which will run through Oct. 27, marks the program’s 11th anniversary and the 22nd season of documentaries.

“We are very, very excited,” Lyn Boland, co-director of the film committee that has arranged the documentary series since 2005, said in a recent phone interview. Along with Boland, the committee — nicknamed the Film Ladies — includes co-director Barbara Sverd, Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross and Lorie Rothstein.

Seven award-winning documentaries will be featured this season, each complemented by a guest speaker who will answer questions at the end of the screening. This year’s selections will explore topics such as genocide, drug cartels, the online black market, art, tradition, cartoons and government cover-ups.

The process of choosing the documentaries is labor-intensive.“[The volunteer committee] gathers the movies from several different sources,” Boland explained. The members go to film festivals like the Hamptons International Film Festival and “try to personally grab one of the directors from one of those films. … We did that with ‘Meet the Patels,’ which was at the Hamptons last fall, and we showed it in the spring and it’s opening in theaters in September. So that’s like the dream sequence.”

‘Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,’ Photo from PJDC
‘Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,’ Photo from PJDC

Other festivals they regularly attend include the Tribeca Film Festival, the Stony Brook Film Festival and the American Film Institute’s festival in Washington, D.C. “So we try to go to festivals, we keep an eye on what’s going on in the news and we keep an eye long distance on the big festivals like Toronto, Sundance,” Boland added. “We also get a lot of emails from documentary organizations.”

The committee aims to screen films that people could not easily find elsewhere, so they avoid films that are streaming on services like Amazon or on television, for example.

When selecting the films, “We look for a great story that needs to be told,” Boland said. “We look for a film that’s well made because we really want to keep the standards up. We look for a subject that we haven’t shown too much of; something that’s new. We look for balance in the season. We also have to worry about our budget, being sure that we can afford the speaker and afford the distribution fee.”

Boland is most excited about the screening of the action-drama “Cartel Land.” She called the film — whose credits include executive producer Kathryn Bigelow, who directed “The Hurt Locker” and “Point Break”  — “an amazing story.”

“For a documentary to come out and be picked up by somebody who is as famous as she is and who is a feature director, it’s just an additional testament to how amazing this film is.”

The first five documentaries will be screened on Mondays at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, at 7 p.m. The last two will be screened at the Charles B. Wang Center on the Stony Brook University campus at 6 p.m., also on Mondays. Doors open one half-hour before showtime. Tickets for all films are $7 and will be sold at the door. Admission is free for undergraduate students at the Stony Brook screenings.

The group is always looking for volunteers of all ages to help out at the event.

“We want this to go on beyond us and it would be great to have enough volunteers to have a continuing staff that keeps renewing itself,” Boland said.

For more information or to volunteer, call 631-473-5220 or visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

Film schedule
• The fall season will kick off at Theatre Three with “Deep Web” on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. The documentary reveals the inside story of Ross William Ulbricht, the convicted 30-year-old entrepreneur accused of being the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” creator and operator of the online black market Silk Road. Winner of Best International Feature at the Global Visions Festival, the film explores “how the brightest minds and thought leaders behind the deep web are now caught in the crosshairs of the battle for control of a future inextricably linked to technology, with our digital rights hanging in the balance.” Narrated by Keanu Reeves, the guest speaker will be director Alex Winter, who played Bill S. Preston, Esq. alongside Reeves in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

An image from ‘Love Marriage in Kabul.’ Photo from PJDC
An image from ‘Love Marriage in Kabul.’ Photo from PJDC

• The second film in the series, “Very Semi-Serious” by Leah Wolchock, to be screened on Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. at Theatre Three, delves into the history of The New Yorker magazine’s cartoons and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the cartoon department. Cartoon editor Bob Mankoff provides “revealing access to his weekly pitch meetings where aspiring and established cartoonists present their work, and where pride is left behind, as hundreds of submitted cartoons get rejected.” It is the winner of the best Bay Area documentary feature at the Golden Gate Awards following the San Francisco International Film Festival. Guest speaker will be New Yorker cartoonist and former Stony Brook resident George Booth, who is featured in the film.

“Cartel Land,” to be screened on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at Theatre Three, focues on the Mexican drug war, especially vigilante groups fighting Mexican drug cartels. The film focuses on Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of volunteer border patrol group Arizona Border Recon, and Dr. José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who leads the Autodefensas, one of the vigilante groups. Matthew Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography for the film in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The guest speaker will be producer Tom Yellin.

The fourth film, titled “The Russian Woodpecker,” will be screened at Theatre Three on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. The documentary follows Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, who believes the catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 was an elaborate government cover-up designed to mask a failed 8-billion-ruble antenna, known as the “Russian Woodpecker,” intended to interfere with Western radio frequencies and located near the radioactive site. Rich with Soviet history and the stories of the area’s former residents, this documentary chronicles the history of one of the most chilling events of our time as well as Alexandrovich’s attempts to spread the word of his theory. Winner of the World Documentary Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Chad Gracia will be the guest speaker of the evening.

• The series continues on Oct. 19 with a screening of “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” at Theatre Three at 7 p.m. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland uses recently unearthed audio recordings from 1978-79 of the art collector’s last interviews and archival photos to create a portrait of one of the most powerful women in the history of the art world. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring. Guest speakers will be producers Dan Braun and David Koh. Gallery North in Setauket is co-sponsoring the event.

“The Killing Fields of  Dr. Haing S. Ngor,” to be screened at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University on Oct. 26 at 6 p.m., is seen through the eyes of one of the most well-known survivors of the Cambodian genocide, Dr. Haing S. Ngor. The film recently won the Best Documentary Audience Award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The guest speaker will be Dr. Ngor’s niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri, who escaped from Cambodia with Dr. Ngor and appears in the film, and his nephew, Wayne Ngor, who narrates the film.

• The final film in the series, “Love Marriage in Kabul,” will be screened at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University on Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. The film follows the quest of an Afghan-Australian woman, Mahboba Rawi, as she “passionately negotiates and challenges old traditions” to make a love marriage happen in Kabul. The film provides a rare glimpse into the courtship and marriage customs of Afghanistan. In English and Persian with English subtitles, this film was the winner of the Audience Choice Award at the Sydney Film Festival. The guest speaker, via Skype, will be producer Pat Fiske.