At SBU, snow slows – but can’t stop – the future

Let's chat: Communication is key for the Discovery Prize and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

“Shark Tank” would have met “TED Talk” Thursday at Stony Brook University, if not for Niko.

Instead, the blizzard busted up the final round of the 2017 Discovery Prize competition, wherein four finalists – all “early-career researchers at SBU,” according to the university – were to throw down at the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre with 10-minute pitches explaining the science and societal significance of their work, and distinguished judges were to award one a $200,000 grant.

Thomas Allison: Laser show.

Now the judges, audience members, possibly Charles Wang and certainly Alan Alda – the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science produced the event, along with the Stony Brook Foundation – will have to wait to hear from the finalists. Citing conflicting schedules for the event judges, a university spokesman said Thursday a makeup date will be announced soon.

Snow might have slowed the four finalists but doesn’t appear capable of stopping them. The Discovery Prize, established in 2013 with funding from the Stony Brook Foundation, is designed to bankroll ambitious risk-takers whose research “embraces innovation and has the potential to transform a groundbreaking idea,” according to the university, and the 2017 finalists – all PhDs, selected by a panel of SUNY Distinguished Professors from 19 submissions – don’t disappoint.

Thomas Allison, an assistant professor in SBU’s Chemistry and Physics departments, studies the dynamics of molecules and lasers, but turned filmmaker for his Discovery Prize entry. Lasers are critical to the development of new technologies and equipment across virtually all industries, according to Allison, who is expected to dive deep into his laser-focused findings in his presentation, “Recording Movies of Molecular Orbitals with Angstrom and Attosecond Resolution.”

Gabor Balázski: Opening windows.

Among other scientific methods, drug-resistance investigator Gábor Balázski, an associate professor in the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, uses synthetic gene circuits to control genes in human cells, hoping to better understand how genes influence fundamental drug-resistance biological processes. This has big-league potential regarding fungal infections and cancers, a theme Balázski – also a finalist for the 2014 Discovery Prize – will discuss in his presentation, “A New Window to Antibiotic Resistance.”

Science doesn’t fully understand, yet, how electrons actually move from point A to point B, but Matthew Reuter, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, is closing in. Understanding the electron transit system casts new light on many scientific processes and implications, according to the nanometer-scale researcher, whose “Characterizing Non-Equilibrium Dynamics in Quantum Mechanical Systems” gets into chemical physics, applies mathematics, computational science and more.

Matthew Reuter: Mano-a-nano.

Neelima Sehgal, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is spaced out. Keen on writing the universal origin story, the cosmological detective shines the oldest light in the universe – cosmic microwave background – on the infancy of existence, seeking to understand the properties of dark matter, the realities of dark energy and other cosmic coolness. Her literally titled presentation, “Unveiling the First Moments of the Universe’s Creation with CMB Delensing and the Simons Observatory,” summarizes her efforts to determine what happened in the fraction of a second following the Big Bang.

What the finalists lack in title-writing skills, they more than make up in next-level conceptualizing. And encouraging such imaginative solutions to scientific phenomena and problems is what the Discovery Prize is all about – especially important, according to the university, “at a time when the federal government’s support for basic research is dwindling.”

Alda, founder of and visiting professor at his namesake Center for Communicating Science, agreed that government funding often overlooks researchers with big-picture ambitions.

“Basic science, which gives us the deepest, most fundamental understanding of nature, is often neglected by funders because its insights don’t seem to add anything useful to our everyday life,” Alda said in a statement. “And yet, time after time, that deep but seemingly impractical knowledge has been the foundation of inventions that change our world.

Neelima Sehgal: Space, the initial frontier.

“We wouldn’t be walking around with GPS in our cellphones if Einstein hadn’t figured out General Relativity,” the actor and longtime activist added. “It makes me wonder what amazing things will come from the basic science of researchers vying for the Discovery Prize.

“Meanwhile, we get to stand in awe as they lift back the curtain and show us nature’s secrets.”

Less in awe, and more nuts-and-bolts, during the competition will be the scheduled judges, who will now juggle schedules so the university can set a new competition date. It’s a panel worth waiting for: Slated to rule on the four presentations are Princeton University physics professor F. Duncan Haldane, the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Physics; U.C. Berkeley physics professor Barbara Jacak, director of the university’s Nuclear Science Division and a member of the National Academy of Sciences; and Renaissance Technologies founder James Simons, chairman of the Simons Foundation, NAS member and former chairman of the SBU Department of Mathematics.

Each of the finalists will face that imposing trio with a polished presentation, thanks to coaching from the communications experts at the Alda Center, with particular focus on effectively presenting scientific research to laymen audiences. The resulting 10-minute pitches are reminiscent of TED Talks – referencing the national nonprofit, idea-sharing media company and its slate of informative presentations – with a dash of the ABC Network business-competition show “Shark Tank.”

Associate SBU professor Laurie Krug, the first Discovery Prize winner back in 2014, said her $200,000 award went a long way with her work in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, where she’s trying to discover new genes the gamma herpesviruses need to infect specific cells – key to unlocking potential molecular targets in the fight against cancer.

“Along with colleagues and my bioengineering collaborator Dr. Balaji Sitharaman, we are moving forward on many fronts with the research,” Krug said. “We are nearing our goals to target both host genes and viral genes in the context of infection.

“The Discovery Prize has provided a tremendous boost to my lab’s research.”