When Michael Bernstein sat down for his first interview in July 2019 after being named interim president of Stony Brook University, he trumpeted what he believed were some of the University’s greatest strengths — its diversity, world-class faculty, inquisitive students and its volume of research triumphs and partnerships. These strengths, he stressed, were heavily influenced by one key element, the University’s geographic location, a concept he calls “place-based identity.”
He was talking about Stony Brook’s ideal location in the heart of Long Island’s growing technology corridor, near the water on the North Shore, and close to the diversity and vibrancy of New York City — all of which have been essential to the University becoming the area’s leading research academic institution and an economic engine for the New York region.
“Given our expertise in energy research, the health sciences and engineering, we have taken opportunities to form close alliances with nationally renowned laboratories in our area,” President Bernstein said. “Our coastal location allows us to operate a marine and atmospheric sciences school that works on local and global problems of the day — a school that is unique in the SUNY system. In addition, our proximity to the five boroughs, an epicenter of culture and ingenuity with its many museums, archival collections and exhibitions, enables us to be at the forefront of rapid innovation in the fine arts. Those are just some of the ways in which our location enables us to do extraordinary work in an array of fields, and our opportunities within these areas are boundless.”
All of this is a recipe for success that began with a generous gift that continues to make an impact on Long Island.
In 1956, Ward Melville donated a 480-acre tract of land near the village of Stony Brook to the State University of New York for a new campus, housing a college to educate science and math teachers. Little could he have imagined how perfect the location would be to sprout a burgeoning research university, situated only 21 miles west of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and 25 miles east of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), two of the most prestigious research institutions in the country. The long-standing partnerships SBU has had with these labs have produced extraordinary discoveries and empowered the University to recruit talented faculty and students, changing many lives in the process.
One of these people is F. Marc Michel, who as an undergraduate at Colgate University in the late 1990s studying geology, was convinced he wanted to start an environmental consulting firm. But when he was accepted into the PhD program at SBU, he entered a new world, one that placed him under the mentorship of SUNY Distinguished Professor John B. Parise and Professor Martin Schoonen in the Department of Geosciences, both joint appointees of BNL and SBU.
“[Parise] introduced me to the national lab system,” Michel said. “Brookhaven National Lab was the first one we went to. That visit was life-changing. I dropped the idea of opening a company. I became passionate about basic scientific research.”
Michel said he became so enamored of SBU and BNL that he bought a house nearby. As Stony Brook is part of the management team of BNL, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory, its students and faculty have unique access to the lab’s phenomenal facilities. BNL is home to the world-famous National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), which was recently replaced by the more powerful NSLS-II. These facilities allow users to study materials with nanoscale resolution. Michel spent his time working with NSLS, studying how small minerals are formed. He went on to earn his doctorate in geosciences at SBU in 2007, and is now an associate professor of geosciences and nanoscience at Virginia Tech.
Parise said he recalls his student very well and what drew him to Stony Brook.
“Being so close to Brookhaven Lab is the best way to attract the best and brightest students,” said Parise, who is also director of GENESIS (A Next Generation Synthesis Center, DOE-EFRC). “We have made the close proximity to the Lab one of our recruitment tools.”
Parise is one of more than 100 SBU faculty members currently spending time researching at BNL. Their work involves physics, the study of nanomaterials, the states of matter in the universe and ways of creating sustainable energy. For GENESIS, Parise is harnessing the power of modern radiation sources, such as NSLS-II, to map the pathways taken by solid-state reactions.
“Our ability to solve energy problems — such as the production, conversion and storage of energy — depends wholly on our ability to synthesize a new generation of materials that surpass those currently in use,” Parise said.
Parise also directs the Joint Photon Sciences Institute (JPSI), which facilitates the University’s access to NSLS-II. A current project explores the use of opposed anvils made from two diamonds to simulate the high pressures that cause changes in the atomic arrangements in materials.
“The close relationship that we have with BNL, especially our close physical proximity, allows our faculty and students to perform experiments that can’t be done anywhere else,” said Richard J. Reeder, SBU’s associate vice president for Brookhaven affairs. “It’s experiments like those performed at the NSLS-II that lead to breakthroughs in biomedical fields or in energy storage.”
Students in the health and biological sciences also have access to the resources of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It is a research institution internationally recognized for its strengths in the areas of bioinformatics; cancer; genetics; molecular, cellular and structural biology; neuroscience and plant biology. For more than 40 years, CSHL faculty have advised Stony Brook doctoral students involved in the genetics, molecular and cellular biology, molecular genetics and microbiology and neuroscience graduate programs. Because of shared resources, students use the facilities for DNA sequencing, gene targeting, bioinformatics services and protein identification using mass spectrometry. Through this collaborative work at CSHL, Stony Brook researchers are pushing the boundaries of biomedical research.
Upgrading Long Island’s Coastal Ecosystem
Nature provides the SBU community with yet another essential laboratory: the nearby waterways of Long Island, which are paramount to Stony Brook’s research addressing increasingly alarming conditions impacting the wider Long Island community. The University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) — with two coastal marine research stations (one in Southampton and one on the Sound in Old Field), both situated near bays, harbors and estuaries — is at the forefront of marine research, currently playing a key role in contributing to the health of our coastal environments and helping to purify Long Island’s drinking water.
Christopher Gobler, the inaugural holder of the Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation in SoMAS, was asked by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in October 2015 to establish the Center for Clean Water Technology. He and his student and faculty researcher collaborators have found there are roughly 350,000 properties in Suffolk County with on-site septic tanks and cesspools that are polluting Long Island’s groundwater with nitrate and other contaminants. The groundwater pollution is negatively impacting the billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries on Long Island because it can contribute to coastal bay problems such as harmful algae blooms. SBU’s Center for Clean Water Technology is coming up with ways to eliminate the nitrate before it reaches the groundwater, which is also Long Island’s source of drinking water.
Gobler emphasized that this work is essential for the health of Long Islanders. “Would you want to flush your toilet water into your drinking water? That’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Additional research being conducted at SoMAS includes monitoring local fish and shellfish communities and studying how global warming is impacting the health of our oceans. The school recently acquired the Hudson River Collection, a compendium of millions of Hudson River fish specimens and water-quality data — an unequaled database that will now be used to study changes in aquatic life. The work that researchers at SoMAS are doing has the potential to have a lasting impact on the quality of life of Long Islanders and communities across the globe.
“Human activities are impacting groundwater, coastal ecosystems and the global oceans in unprecedented ways, through the discharge of nitrogen and other pollutants into rivers, streams and groundwater, through over-fishing, and through the combustion of fossil fuels,” said Paul Shepson, dean of SoMAS. “Our researchers are studying how this multitude of eco-stressors impacts marine biodiversity and the productivity of our coastal fisheries, and more important, they work with students and other partners in New York State and elsewhere to identify and help implement solutions.”
These challenges are daunting, but Shepson is optimistic. “We have the technologies to solve these problems; it is a matter of willpower, passion and a commitment to turning over a healthier world to our descendants. With our faculty and students, we can and will do it.”
A Convergence of Scientific Talent
Another benefit of Stony Brook’s location that was understood early in the school’s history stems from the fact that Long Island has long been a leader in engineering, as evidenced by Grumman Corporation (now Northrop Grumman), known for the development of the Apollo Lunar Module. Grumman set the stage for a wave of engineering and technology businesses to flourish on Long Island. And SBU’s North Shore location puts it in a prime spot to serve as a feeder for those companies, said Fotis Sotiropoulos, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS).
“At Stony Brook we are educating the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs for the AI-driven economy of the future,” he said. “We are a major contributor to New York State’s workforce trained in engineering and applied sciences, as the number one producer of undergraduate degrees in the state, and number 19 nationally. In fact, last year, it was more difficult to be admitted to the Stony Brook College of Engineering and Applied Sciences than to some of the best engineering schools in the country.”
Sotiropoulos added that the College has increased enrollment by about 60 percent in the past six years, putting the population at 5,500 students, including 1,600 graduate students. Many of those students are already out in the field, working as interns for such companies as National Grid and PSEG. The support and engagement of alumni and industry partners gives Stony Brook students access to exceptional opportunities. For example, recently opened new student-oriented labs have fostered connections with Long Island-based industry partners such as Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc. and North Atlantic Industries.
“A big focus now is to make sure we have a new generation of engineers,” Sotiropoulos said. “These days, they need to be problem solvers.”
To best prepare its future engineers for the challenges that await them, CEAS has created new programs over the past several years, such as the National Security Institute, launched in 2014, to concentrate on cybersecurity; the recently opened Institute for AI-Driven Discovery and Innovation, which focuses on research relating to human-machine symbiosis; and Vertically Integrated Projects, a program that brings together undergrad and graduate students with faculty across the University in multidisciplinary teams to work together on long-term, societally relevant projects.
Place-based identity exemplifies our unwavering commitment to the region that we serve. By striving to be the best institution for our community, we inspire a lasting impact not only on Long Island, but also the world.
In addition to enhancing the workforce on Long Island, CEAS has formed engineering partnerships to solve the energy issues that both the region and the world face today.
One such partnership is between National Grid and SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, which together opened the Institute of Gas Innovation and Technology on campus in 2018. Through this initiative, National Grid is collaborating with Stony Brook faculty to address key issues in gas research and implement innovative ideas that will enable the development of the world’s next generation of clean energy resources.
Connections like these are what make Stony Brook University a beacon on Long Island. The University stands tall beside the national labs and the technology and aviation companies that dot the Island. Its name is as much a part of the Long Island lexicon as Jones Beach, the Montauk Lighthouse and the Nassau Coliseum. But Stony Brook has something the others lack: As an educator of tomorrow’s innovators, it holds the keys to the future.
“Place-based identity exemplifies our unwavering commitment to the region that we serve,” said President Bernstein. “By striving to be the best institution for our community, we inspire a lasting impact not only on Long Island, but also the world.”
James Bernstein is a former business writer and columnist for Newsday who frequently writes about financial, corporate and technology issues for publications on and off Long Island.