September 2016

Deforestation Isn’t Caused by Coca Cultivation, Research Shows

Most of the world’s coca—the plant source of cocaine—grows in the Amazon forests of the Andean countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, where many think this illicit crop causes deforestation. However, a team led by Stony Brook University Professor of Ecology and Evolution Liliana M. Dávalos, shows most deforestation isn’t caused by coca cultivation. In fact, the study, published in Bioscience, found that deforestation and coca both share a common origin in the implementation of an infrastructure plan from the 1960s to open the Amazon frontier through road construction and development projects.

Liliana M. Dávalos, Professor of Ecology and Evolution

For over 40 years, the War on Drugs has fought coca by uprooting plants, providing farmers with incentives to grow other crops, and even spraying herbicide from airplanes over Colombian fields. But despite massive international and domestic investment, and economic and security improvements in the region, none of the countries has been able to completely eliminate illegal coca cultivation. Neither forcibly uprooting the plants, nor transient support for growing legal crops has worked as expected.

The starting point of Professor Dávalos’ research was a seemingly straightforward question: Why do deforestation and coca overlap in the western Amazon? Professor Dávalos explains: “In a previous study, we found the location of coca plots helped explain deforestation, but only in the Amazon. This seemed odd, as coca crops were generally thought to cause deforestation because they were so attractive. For example, coca might be so profitable people would move to grow it.”

However, this was not the case. When the researchers looked at deforestation analyses that included social factors, such as poverty or armed conflict, coca seemed to have no influence on deforestation rates.

These puzzling results led them to explore the history of the Andean countries to pinpoint when and where coca cultivation for the global illegal drug market started, and how it related to the growing pace of deforestation in the late 20th-century. The maps, published in the 1970s, looked like coca cultivation and deforestation maps today but they were maps of locations where governments had implemented their infrastructure projects in the 1960s.

Both coca and deforestation share a common origin linked to development projects, so what to make of the often-reported role of coca cultivation as a cause of forest loss in the Amazon? By examining every publication over the last decade to measure deforestation in the Amazon frontier from coca crops and from other causes, the researchers found two patterns. First, legal crops and pastures directly cause most deforestation, not coca cultivation. Second, coca cultivation was not associated with higher deforestation rates in almost every study. The single exception was a study that found coca cultivation was linked to more deforestation when armed groups forced farmers from their land.

“Deforestation and coca cluster together in the Amazon frontier, but frontier dynamics is not a consequence of coca cultivation by itself. Instead, the dynamics sprung from efforts to develop western Amazonia,” emphasized Professor Dávalos.

These analyses are particularly relevant today, as nations and international agencies commit to new development projects, this time aiming to eliminate coca cultivation from the western Amazon.

“Explaining where, how, and why farmers continue to plant coca requires an integrated understanding of the history, geography, and environment of the region,” says Paul Gootenberg, SUNY Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at Stony Brook University, and a leading historian of cocaine who was not involved in the study. He is directing a parallel study based on archival case studies in the coca valleys of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia commented on the crucial timing of this study: “Dávalos and her team have applied an innovative set of methods which have produced powerful and lucid findings for historians and drug.”

The central finding of the study is finding a statistical relationship between government infrastructure and development projects and coca cultivation today. This points to a history of development plans that failed to deliver: “The grand plan since the early 1960s was to build a highway from Bolivia in the south to Venezuela in the north, and encourage migration and agricultural expansion to open up the Amazon. This plan also needed new or improved connector roads between Andean cities and the lowlands,” highlighted Dávalos. The development plans, with their promise of securing land and food for millions of Andean farmers, had the financial support of both national governments and international development agencies and organizations.

However, challenging conditions in the Amazon thwarted the plans from the beginning. As investment dwindled and commitments to the farmers who had moved to the Amazon slopes and lowlands faltered through the 1970s and 1980s, a new form of agriculture emerged in response to international demand. Gootenberg explains: “cocaine consumption just exploded during the 1970s, it is unsurprising to find farmers adopting coca as a cash crop around that time, as other options diminished.”

Once the sites with historical development projects had been identified, the team tested the relationship between location of coca cultivation in 2014 and 20th-century the development projects. “The results are compelling. In the Amazon, coca cultivation increases sharply close to the sites of those development projects. These projects began more than 30 years but their landscape footprint endures in the form of coca cultivation and deforestation,” added Dávalos.

The authors add, “We hope our analyses help us learn from the past, and avoid repeating mistakes. Development projects must work with Amazonian farmers to set explicit forest conservation goals and plan for decades, and not just years of investment.”

The research was supported in part by a commission from the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to Dávalos. All views are exclusively the authors.

Research Led by SBU’s Erik Muller is Finalist in R&D 100 Awards

Often referred to as the “Oscars of Invention,” the R&D 100 Awards honor the top 100 proven technological advances of the past year as determined by a panel selected by R&D Magazine.Erik Muller, Principal Investigator in the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, leads a collaborative project, “Ultra-compact Diamond X-Ray Monitors,” that has been selected as a finalist for the 2016 R&D 100 Awards.

In addition to Muller and his team, the project also includes scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Case Western Reserve University who have developed x-ray detectors based on synthetic diamond that provide extraordinarily accurate measurements of x-ray flux, position and shape. The diamond x-ray beam position monitors developed by the team, led at Brookhaven Lab by the Instrumentation Division’s John Smedley, have already begun to play a vital role in x-ray beam diagnostics and have been installed in synchrotrons worldwide.

Significant advances in sensor and electronics readout design have resulted in many innovative applications not possible using previously available detectors. Not only have these innovations made a huge impact in enhancing scientific research conducted at synchrotrons, the capabilities of these detectors have extended their application to the medical dosimetry community. The radiation hardness, dynamic range and speed of diamond make it ideal for monitoring gamma ray, proton and carbon ion beams for use in cancer radiotherapy.

“I’d like to acknowledge two of my PhD students, Tianyi Zhou and Mengnan Zou, from the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering, whose work has been crucial to the recent development of this research built upon the efforts of Dr. Mengjia Gaowei who graduated from the same department in 2014,” said Muller.

The Ultra-compact Diamond X-Ray Monitors project was supported by the Office of Science, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Read more about diamond detectors.

Winners of the 54th annual R&D 100 Awards will be announced on November 3 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland, near Washington, DC.

$3M NSF Grant Will Fund PhD Student Training in Data Analytics, Visualization and Science Communication

The Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS) has been awarded a five-year $3M National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) grant to support graduate students from the departments of Applied Mathematics and StatisticsBiomedical InformaticsComputer ScienceEcology and Evolution, and the schools ofJournalism and Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. This unique and interdisciplinary grant is for Science Training & Research to Inform DEcisions (STRIDE). The award will prepare the next generation of scientists working with big data to support complex decision-making.


STRIDE is an innovative training program that will provide STEM graduate students with unique interdisciplinary skills to assist, create and eventually lead the translation of complex data-enabled research into informed decisions and sound policies. These include skills traditionally taught to science students such as data analytics and visualization. The unique contribution of STRIDE is also to prepare scientists by building skills in decision support that are often not explicitly taught, such as understanding the perspectives of various stakeholders, science communication, and translating scientific uncertainty.

IACS Director Robert Harrison is the PI for this project: “Decision support and all of the skills it entails are essential for high-impact science, and this need cuts across many disciplines. Our team is really excited about how this project will transform both our University and especially the careers and leadership opportunities for our students.”

The training program encompasses spatial data, advanced visual data analytics, and high-performance and data-centric computing. Uniquely, the program also incorporates a domain discipline, science communication, including interpersonal skills and modern media (at the Alda Center for Communicating Science), as well as decision-making. It also offers relevant internships at Department of Energy laboratories, IBM and NOAA.

The interdisciplinary nature of STRIDE is reflected in the faculty involved. The Co-PIs are: Liliana Davalos, associate professor, Ecology and Evolution; Arie Kaufman, distinguished professor and chair, Computer Science; Heather Lynch, associate professor, Ecology and Evolution; Janet Nye, assistant professor, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences; Christine O’Connell, associate director, Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and assistant professor, School of Journalism; Joel Saltz, Cherith professor and founding chair, Biomedical Informatics; Erez Zadok, professor, Computer Science; and Minghua Zhang, professor, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

“We are thrilled to be part of this exciting collaboration and work with fellows to help them communicate complex data science to decision makers, especially on health and environmental issues where it is crucial that policy and management decisions be based on sound science,”  said Alda Center Associate Director Christine O’Connell.

Empathic Joy and Positively Diverse Communities

There’s a lot of talk about empathy — but what does it mean to empathize with someone? In common usage, “empathy” means “sympathy” — feeling sadness or sorry for someone. That’s usually what it means in social science research, too. But it shouldn’t. Empathy is a sharing of someone else’s feelings and those can just as well be feelings of pleasure, joy and success. That’s called “empathic joy,” but it’s rarely recognized, let alone researched, in the social sciences.

Professor Todd L. Pittinsky of Stony Brook’s Department of Technology & Society and his colleague, R. Matthew Montoya, of the University of Dayton, have taken the plunge in their new empirical research, published in theJournal of Social Issues. They find that empathic joy can make a difference in creating positively diverse communities. Researching white teachers working with predominantly ethnic minority students in under resourced districts, they found that those who took pleasure in their students’ joys and successes were more likely to have an attitude of allophilia and thus to engage more positively with the students. This led to better student outcomes on test scores.

“Education has always been seen as a key to what is best about American society,” Pittinsky and Montoya conclude. “We need teachers who empathize with their students fully — that is, who experience empathic joy as well as empathic sorrow for them.”

Professor Pittinsky is the author of Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference, editor of Crossing the Divide: Intergroup Leadership in a World of Difference and coeditor of Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders: Enduring Challenges and Emerging Answers (Oxford University Press).

SBU Research Finds Muscular Dystrophy-Causing Receptor Has Broader Role in Brain Development

Researchers at Stony Brook University have discovered that dystroglycan, a muscle cell receptor whose dysfunction causes muscular dystrophy, actually has a critical role in brain development. The finding, published in the journal Developmental Cell, may help to explain why a subset of children born with a dysfunction of this muscle receptor, also have neurological problems that can include seizures, intellectual disability, autism and severe learning disabilities.

Associate Professor Holly Colognato and graduate student Himanshu Sharma view stem cell niche cells that are affected when brains lack the muscle cell receptor dystroglycan.

In the newborn brain, one of the critical changes that occurs is that specialized pockets form that serve to house and nurture neural stem cells throughout life in discrete regions termed stem cell niches. Lead author Holly Colognato, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at Stony Brook, and her team found that dystroglycan is needed to help build one of the major neural stem cell niches of the adult brain. They detailed their findings in the paper, “Dystroglycan suppresses Notch to regulate stem cell niche structure and function in the developing postnatal subventricular zone.”

“We found that without dystroglycan, the support cells that normally surround the stem cells in this niche fail to develop appropriately,” said Colognato. “In this ‘dysfunctional niche,’ the stem cells overproduce oligodendroglia, a neural cell type that establishes rapid communication pathways in the brain. But overproduction of oligodendroglia can cause major abnormalities in brain wiring, thus resulting in a multitude of cognitive abnormalities,” she explained.

In light of their findings, Colognato and Himanshu Sharma, a Stony Brook MD/PhD student, are conducting laboratory experiments to test and alter dystroglycan interactions in the injured adult brain or in aging brains, where extra brain cells could be beneficial for repair or replacement.

President Stanley Discusses Importance of Research Funding in Video

Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, is featured in a newly released video from The Science Coalition, an organization supporting federal funding for research institutions.

Dr. Stanley is a strong advocate for federal funding of basic research and the role of university research in innovation and discovery. In the video he discusses the critical importance of young researchers, their role in discovery and ensuring that they opportunities to participate in America’s research enterprise. He previously penned an op-ed on this topic for Scientific American.

The Science Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of the nation’s leading public and private research universities dedicated to sustaining the federal government’s investment in basic scientific research as a means to stimulate the economy, spur innovation and drive America’s global competitiveness.

Electronic Requests for Withdrawal of Applications Now Available Through eRA Commons as of 9/8/2016

Electronic Requests for Withdrawal of Applications Now Available Through eRA Commons

A new feature was added to eRA Commons as of Thursday, September 8, 2016. This feature provides Signing Officials, Grant Administrator, the capability to electronically submit a request to withdraw an application.

After the successful submission of an error free application, the Signing Official (SO) has two business days to reject an application. After those two days, in the past the SO had to contact the Division of Receipt and Referral (DRR) to request to withdraw the application. This can now be accomplished electronically through eRA Commons.

The submission of an electronic request for withdrawal is available as long as the application has not gone to review and the summary statement posted. At that point the application cannot be withdrawn.

• The Initiation of a Withdrawal Request Can Be Done by the SO or PI
The SO is the only person who can request that NIH withdraw an application.
o The PI can request that the SO do so by initiating the withdrawal request through Commons, providing justification (required) and relevant supporting documentation (a maximum of 10 pdfs of up to 5 MB each can be uploaded).
o The PI must then route the request to an SO at their institution for review and submission to NIH.
o The SO may make the withdrawal request even if the PI has not initiated the request.
o The SO may check the status of the withdrawal request by contacting DRR.

• A New Navigation Tab, Prior Approval, Added to Commons
The Prior Approval tab opens a new screen that allows both PIs and SOs to initiate requests or review for existing requests.
o To initiate a Withdrawal Request, from the Initiate a Prior Approval Request drop down, select Withdrawal. The system will display grants eligible to be withdrawn.
o The List My Requests screen will display:
 The request ID (system generated ID number)
 Request Type
 Prior Approval Status (In Progress PI, In Progress SO, Submitted to Agency)
 Application ID
 Project Title
 Action (Modify or View depending on status)

• Automated Notifications
o Upon submission, both the submitting SO and PI will receive notification.
o Upon approval of withdrawal by DRR, the PI will receive a notification. The SO will see the application status has changed to Withdrawn, and will see the withdrawal confirmation in the Correspondence section of the Status Information screen in eRA Commons.

NOTE: Applications with a status of “To be Paid” or “Awarded” cannot be withdrawn in this manner.

For more information concerning Prior Approval for Withdrawals, please see Guide Notice NOT-OD-16-143 and the Prior Approval section in the eRA Commons online help.


NSF Changes effective 9/26/2016

Effective September 26, 2016, FastLane will now check to ensure that the combined text of the Project Summary text boxes (or uploaded PDF if the Project Summary contains special characters) does not exceed one page prior to submission, rather than the current check of 4,600 characters. See the Proposal & Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), Chapter II.C.2b for further information.

The compliance checks will trigger an error message in the following circumstances:
o Project Summary text exceeds the one-page limit;
o Project Summary text is entered and the user also uploads a “Project Summary with Special Characters” supplementary document.
Note About Proposal File Update (PFU):

Proposers should be aware that if a proposal was received by NSF prior to September 26, 2016, containing a Project Summary that complies with the previous 4,600-character limit but exceeds the one-page limit, a PFU addressing any section of the proposal will result in the proposal not being accepted if it does not comply with these compliance checks. The checks will be run on all sections of the proposal, regardless of which section was updated during the PFU.

Note About

Proposers should also be aware that will allow a proposal to be submitted, even if it does not comply with these proposal preparation requirements. Should NSF receive a proposal via that is not compliant, it will be returned without review.

Please contact the NSF Help Desk at 1-800-381-1532 or with questions regarding this change. Policy-related questions should be directed to


NIH/AHRQ/NIOSH Changes as of 1/24/2017

NIH has started to release changes that will take effect with all submission on or after 1/25/2017. The first two are “New Policy Eliminates Most Appendix Material” (NOT-OD-16-129) and “Changes to the Policy on Post-Submission Materials for Applications Submitted” (Not-OD-16-130) Both of these changes will be applied to all submissions to NIH/AHRQ/NIOSH unless otherwise noted in the funding announcement. Note: this is the first time changes will be applied to NIOSH proposals as well.

As new updates are released they will be posted here, with one comprehensive list being distributed closer to the 1/25/2017 submission date.


NSF has Reissued their SBIR and STTR funding announcements

NSF has Reissued their SBIR and STTR funding announcements:

They are both due to the sponsor NSF no later than 5 pm December 6, 2016.


SBU Researchers Receive Funding to Study Effects of Ocean Changes on Marine Life

Stony Brook researchers Dianna Padilla and Bassem Allam have been awarded funding fromNOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and the Northeast Sea Grant Programs to study the effects of ocean acidification on marine life in the Northeast.

These studies will will help investigators gain a better understanding of effects of ocean changes on the region’s marine life, helping to preserve endangered species.

Burning fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, a part of which is absorbed by the ocean. This increase in carbon dioxide is causing a change in ocean chemistry called ocean acidification. Learning how these changes affect seafood is important to fishermen and all those whose enjoyment and culture is connected to the sea.

Dianna Padilla, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook, has been awarded $185,435 to explore whether blue mussels can adapt to changes in ocean chemistry. Her team will examine mussels throughout their life cycles, across multiple generations, to assess their ability to adapt and determine if mussels from certain areas of Long Island Sound are better able to cope with varying acidification conditions. This information can then be used to help shellfish growers determine where to collect mussels to spawn for seed and improve stocks of mussels for aquaculture in the long run.

Histological sections of hard clam juveniles under the microscope (photo courtesy of Bassem Allam)

Bassem Allam, Marinetics Endowed Professor in Marine Sciences at Stony Brook University, has received $199,927 to compare how different bivalves respond to acidification. Bivalves such as oysters and clams represent the most important marine resource in several Northeast states and production of bivalve seed has suffered significant losses due to ocean acidification in some of the largest hatcheries in the nation. His team will identify genetic features associated with resilience in an aim to provide the aquaculture industry with tools to select resilient shellfish stocks.

“Global warming will increase CO2 levels in the ocean and make the ocean more acidic,” said William Wise, director of New York Sea Grant. “These effects will probably be accentuated in coastal waters as compared to the open ocean. This work by Padilla and Allam will identify the vulnerabilities to OA of ecologically and economically important local shellfish species in New York, and assess their relative ability to adapt to these impending environmental changes. New York Sea Grant is pleased to help support this important research.

Professor Leonardo Rastelli to Lead $10M Simons Collaboration

As director of a groundbreaking Simons Foundation grant, Leonardo Rastelli, a professor in the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics and Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University, will lead the “Collaboration on the Non-Perturbative Bootstrap,” a four-year, $10M project that includes 14 principal investigators at institutions in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Quantum field theory (QFT) is a universal language for theoretical physics, describing phenomena ranging from the Standard Model of particle physics and early universe inflation to phase transitions and superconductivity in terrestrial materials. Physicists understand weakly coupled QFTs, but the challenge for the future — and the main goal of the Simons collaboration — is to map and understand the whole space of QFTs, including strongly coupled models.

Meeting this challenge requires new physical insight, new mathematics and new computational tools. The starting point is the discovery that the space of QFTs can be determined by using only general principles of symmetry and quantum mechanics. By analyzing the full implications of these general principles, physicists can make accurate predictions for many physical observables without resorting to approximations. This strategy is called the bootstrap.

The Simons collaboration is motivated by the recent discovery of new bootstrap techniques that apply to general classes of QFTs and have been applied to a wide variety of seemingly unrelated problems: to perform the world’s most precise analysis of the 3-D Ising model (which describes the water-vapor critical point), to constrain strongly coupled theories of physics beyond the Standard Model, to aid in classifying superconformal field theories, to derive locality and black hole thermality in models of quantum gravity, and to prove irreversibility of renormalization group flows.

This collaboration is the beginning of a much larger enterprise, crossing traditional boundaries between string theory, condensed matter physics, and phenomenology, and making strong connections to modern mathematics and computer science.

More information about the collaboration can be found here.

About Leonardo Rastelli
Professor Rastelli received his Laurea from the University of Pisa, Italy, as a student of the Scuola Normale Superiore in 1996 and his PhD from MIT in 2000. He was a Dicke Fellow and then an assistant professor at Princeton University before joining Stony Brook in 2006.

Rastelli received an Outstanding Junior Investigator Award from the Department of Energy, a Guggenheim Fellowship for his research on The Superconformal Bootstrap Program and has been a Blavatnik national finalist. His research interests lie at the intersection of string theory and quantum field theory, ranging from foundational and mathematical aspects of string theory to purely field theoretic problems.

About the Simons Foundation
Cofounded in New York City by Jim and Marilyn Simons, the Simons Foundation’s mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences, supporting basic or discovery-driven scientific research undertaken in pursuit of understanding the phenomena of our world. The foundation’s support of scientists generally takes the form of direct grants to individual investigators and projects through their academic institutions. Grants are given in four areas: Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Autism Research (SFARI) and Education & Outreach. In 2013 the foundation also launched an internal research division, the Simons Center for Data Analysis.


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