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Provost’s Lectures Highlight ‘Intellectual Fearlessness’ of Stony Brook

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Stony Brook University’s Provost’s Lecture Series debuted a new format this year, featuring SUNY Distinguished Academy faculty members. Each event featured two lectures by Stony Brook experts representing different disciplines.

On April 4, the ‘23-‘24 program concluded in the Charles B. Wang Center theater with lectures by Christopher Gobler, Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation and Distinguished Professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), and Sharon Nachman, MD, Distinguished Professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine (RSOM) Department of Pediatrics and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

“The Provost’s Lecture Series is a wonderful opportunity to put a spotlight on our SUNY Distinguished Professors at Stony Brook,” said Carl Lejuez, executive vice president and provost. “In each instance, I was struck by the connections that could be found across their talks. It was a fascinating showcase of the incredibly impactful and innovative research and scholarship led by our Stony Brook faculty.”

Gobler presented the first lecture, “Unraveling the Complexities of Aquatic Ecosystems and Land-Sea Interactions to Foster Sustainable Coastal Communities in the Anthropocene.” Gobler, a native Long Islander, recalled how much things have changed on Long Island, particularly the clamming industry.

“Long Island had the largest hard clam fishery in the United States,” he said. “Two out of every three hard clams eaten in the United States came out of Great South Bay. It was a way of life on the South Shore. Many of us had family members who were clammers.”

But things changed drastically when brown tides decimated the fishery. Brown tides, which are a microalgal bloom caused by the exceptionally small species Aureococcus anophagefferens, have a direct negative effect on eelgrass beds and shellfish, including bay scallops.

Christopher gobler head
Christopher Gobler

Gobler was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Delaware and wanted to know why these brown tides were happening. He said, “It turned out there was only one institution that was actually looking into it, and that was Stony Brook.”

Gobler earned his master’s degree in marine environmental science and a PhD in coastal oceanography at Stony Brook and later became director of academic programs for SoMAS in 2005, associate dean of research in 2014, and co-director for the Center for Clean Water Technology in 2015. He has conducted research on plankton ecology, with a primary focus on the study of harmful algal blooms. Gobler and his team have investigated blooms of brown tide both locally and around the U.S.

The major research focus within his group is investigating how anthropogenic activities such as climate change, eutrophication, and the over-harvesting of fisheries alters the natural biogeochemical and/or ecological functioning of coastal ecosystems.

Gobler mentioned the importance of upgrading Long Island’s septic tanks to protect coastal ecosystems. He noted that groundwater takes a long time to travel before it’s discharged — in some cases, decades.

“There needs to be in parallel other approaches for protecting surface waters,” he said. “One thing that we’ve done on that front is using filter feeding bivalves. One oyster can filter 250 liters of water a day.”

In 2012, Gobler led the Shinnecock Bay Restoration program, an ambitious effort with a goal to restore the water quality, shellfish, habitat, and fisheries through a multi-faceted and evidence-based approach. The heart of the strategy was to repopulate shellfish in the bay and replace lost filtration capacity, with supplemental action to build oyster reefs and seed new acres of eelgrass habitat.

“We planted five million of these clams with the hopes that they would create dozens and dozens of millions more,” he said. “And we had great success with this. Over time we saw the population grow by more than 20-fold.”

It also changed the trajectory of the Long Island fishery.

“Now there are more clams being pulled out of Shinnecock Bay than Great South Bay despite it being tenfold smaller,” he said. “All these clams are filtering the water at a faster pace, and it actually led to the end of brown tides in Shinnecock Bay. The motivation for my work was to get into figuring out brown tides and the impacts they had on clams. And maybe we’ve finally landed in a place where we’re starting to reverse those trends.”

Nachman delivered the second lecture, “HIV Then and Now.” Nachman, an international leader in the area of pediatric infectious disease and the treatment of children with AIDS, flu and measles, spoke about beginning her career just as the HIV epidemic was taking root in the early 1980s.

In June 1981, there was a report of five cases of homosexual men who had Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia, a pathogen found only in severely immunocompromised patients. And in May of 1983, a groundbreaking paper describing the first case of pediatric HIV was published.

“That was exactly when I started my internship,” said Nachman. “I realized then that HIV was going to be my problem, too.”

By 1991 there were a million Americans that were infected. Nachman – a Stony Brook alum – found herself back at Stony Brook.

“There was a new chair of pediatrics and I showed up and said, ‘You don’t have a division of pediatric infectious disease. I’ll build one.’ That was somewhat naïve as I had just finished my fellowship and I had no contacts with anybody. But I said, not only am I going to build a division, I’m going to build a fellowship program and I’m going to start a research program.”

Sharon nachman
Sharon Nachman, MD

Nachman, who is also the vice dean for research at RSOM and director of its Office of Clinical Trials, described a situation early in her career in which she was treating an HIV-infected baby.

“The first clinical trial was taking place trying to figure out a way to prevent pregnant women who have HIV from transmitting infection to their children,” she said. “At that point, at least 25 percent of all pregnant women with HIV were likely to transmit their infection. If the infection was transmitted from mother to child, that was a death sentence for that child. The idea that we could stop transmission from mother to baby was an absolutely out-of-the-box thought.”

Nachman led the Stony Brook unit for a national study on AZT, a drug made by GlaxoSmithKline for prevention of HIV transmission.

“They had looked at it, didn’t see any value in it, and shelved it,” said Nachman. “The newly formed NIH-funded Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trial Network came up with the idea to try the antiviral drug on HIV. Surprisingly, the company said, ‘Sure. We’ll give it to you for free. You can do whatever you want with it.’”

The study was a success — the number of new perinatal infections plummeted, with a 68 percent reduction in transmission from mother to baby. “We went from having 25 percent of all women transmitting HIV to less than 8 percent,” Nachman said. “The fact that we were able to do this study across the country, and more importantly, at Stony Brook, was incredible.”

The important takeaway, said Nachman, is to keep pushing the envelope. “If you don’t push, you won’t get anywhere,” she said.

“I am struck by the intellectual fearlessness of both of these distinguished professors for things that they believed in,” said Lejuez. “They started centers that have huge impacts. They found solutions that didn’t exist, that weren’t the direct answer. But they were creative and fearless. They put in the work, they took risks, and they made great things happen.”

Robert Emproto

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