Dear Readers


Picture courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

These are unprecedented times.

Across the globe, communities, cities, and countries are taking measures to scale down the dynamic social interactions that defined our modern world. Social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine have become imperative.

Many research institutions in the United States have entered a shutdown, ceasing lab operations for all work except that which is directly related to SARS-CoV2, in an attempt to stymie the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 18th, The Rockefeller University joined this effort.

While the changes in our daily lives may be unsettling, we are strong as a community. We have already seen lab donations to supply our local hospitals with personal protective equipment, community volunteerism to provide support services to Rockefeller community members, and guidance from our university leadership.

No one struggles alone. We are all in this together. And we will persevere.

 –Natural Selections Editorial Board


Available Resources:

Rockefeller University COVID-19 Updates (contact:

March 15th University Communication

Occupational Health Services and psychiatrist Dr. Nisha Mehta-Naik (contact:; (212) 327-8414)

COVID-19 Support Request (contact:

Anyone who has recovered from the novel coronavirus infection can participate in a study conducted at Rockefeller to better understand ways to block coronavirus infection.


Struggling with social distancing? Here are some ideas to keep you stimulated, active, and engaged with your community:

  •         Stay engaged in science

o   Write a review article. Preparing a review article is a great way to get a lot of reading done and also gain ideas for next steps for a project.

o   Host a journal club. Use Zoom to connect with your lab and discuss up-to-date literature.

o   Focus on an old project. Do you have an old project that you collected data for, but it fell by the wayside? Reconsider writing up your data and determining if it is publishable.

o   Apply for funding. Consider applying for both governmental funding and smaller private grants.

o   Think about career plans. MyIDP is a great platform for scientists to determine their strengths and weaknesses and explore potential career choices.

o   Promote your scientific work. Update your LinkedIn and ResearchGate profiles. Tweet about your work. Make sure your CV is up to date.

  •         Stay active

o   Hold a remote fitness challenge. Encourage your family, friends, and colleagues to get 30 minutes of activity a day.

o   Work on your push-up game. Stay strong by working on those exercises that require minimal equipment—think push-ups, planks, wall-sits, squats, and crunches.

o   Take online yoga classes. There are many platforms online and you can join Rockefeller’s listserv by contacting You can also join Rockefeller’s yoga group on Facebook and get access to regular videos of yoga classes.

o   Go for a walk. If you are feeling healthy, it’s ok to get outside and take a walk. Just make sure to social distance–stay at least 6 feet from others and wash your hands regularly.

  •         Stay connected

o   Video chat with your friends and family. Now is the time to connect with your favorite people that you are normally too busy to sit down and have a long conversation with. Try cooking a meal or sitting down for a cup of tea together.

o   Pick up a new hobby. Now is the time to focus on your knitting, instrumental, and baking skills. YouTube has tutorials on everything!

o   Play games remotely. Steam is an online gaming platform that has a play with friends function.

o   Watch a movie together. Use the Netflix Party extension for Google Chrome to watch a movie with a friend. The extension will synchronize playback and includes a chat function while you watch.

o   Blog. Write about your experiences, your science, or anything else you care about and share it on the web.

And above all, give yourself a break. It’s normal to feel anxious, and stress can make it difficult to concentrate. Don’t expect to be as productive as you would be in the lab. Do what you can and leave the rest.

A Different Kind of Outbreak

Anna Amelianchik

Before the novel coronavirus resulted in travel restrictions, event cancellations, and toilet paper shortages, The Rockefeller University community faced a different kind of outbreak: The Outbreak challenge. The Outbreak is a team-based six-week step and fitness challenge that syncs real-life steps and physical activity data recorded by a fitness tracker and translates them into virtual actions that you can take to survive a zombie outbreak. The app-based game tells an immersive story and offers six scenarios in which players have to reach safehouses to escape the zombie horde and progress through the challenge. Like many other workplace fitness challenges, The Outbreak helps employees build a community around a healthy lifestyle and foster behaviors that improve one’s health and reduce healthcare costs. The Rockefeller University’s leading team—“No Shorz Too Short”—is a great example of what the challenge was set to achieve with the average of 15,176 of team steps per day and the total of 637,395 steps over the six-week period. In addition, No Shorz Too Short put their steps to good use killing 1,055 zombies and reached all six safehouses in time. I had a conversation with the team leader, Zina, a Unit Clerk in The Rockefeller University’s Hospital, about The Outbreak challenge and its impact on her fitness and overall health. 

Can you describe your fitness regimen during the challenge?

My regimen was nothing too crazy to me, just had to go back to my old habits. I used to walk all the time anywhere and everywhere until I started working here. I have been taking transportation anywhere and everywhere and would cry about how thirty minutes was too far of a walk.

On day one of the challenge, I walked to work, then come week three, I walked to AND from work every day. If I had any errands to run, whether it was to return an item to a store, food shopping, pay bills etc., I made sure to walk there rather than hop on a bus or train.

Yeah it’s cold outside but once you get moving, trust me you will be stripping in the middle of the street when it gets hot. Playing Pokémon GO helped me a lot when I needed to get steps in. There were Pokémon I needed, and I would walk all over the city to get them before I headed home.

I went to the gym every day during my lunch break or went for a walk outside, depending on how my body felt that day. Hop on the bike for a few minutes then lift some weights. 

Did you notice any changes in your mood, energy levels, or general health while you were completing the challenge?

I will say after week three, I was exhausted physically, but alert and happy. I had trouble sleeping before. During the challenge I was knocked out at night and had a restful sleep. 

I was pushing my body to the limit every day but I wanted to keep going. So I made some adjustments to still reach my goal but not tire out (lift weights less and less cardio during the week). I felt stronger each day nonetheless and was happy to see the numbers on the scale go down each week, too. My mood improved. I was able to focus on the challenge and I became very competitive. I felt the need to outdo the other team. My team (“No Shorz Too Short”) and I would encourage one another to lead the race. Normally I am very lackadaisical. 

Are you able to keep it up now that the challenge is over?

When the challenge started, I had to tell myself every day, “Got to go to the gym or I got to work out.” Now that the challenge is over I wanted to take a break for a week and start again (don’t recommend it, you get lazy fast).

This challenge created a good habit that I will say I still keep to this day. I am still active and maintain the minimum step goal of 30,000 and daily walks/gym visits. I am going to wear my “short shorz”…eventually. HA!

Natural Expressions


On Sunday, April 12th, Guadalupe Astorga of The Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Neurobiology was scheduled to play with her band SugaGold (previously featured in Natural Selections, A New Encounter on Stage: SugaGold by Alice Marino) at the New York Beer Company. Although this event will likely be cancelled, you can support her and SugaGold by checking out their music on YouTube and visiting their website.

Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!

Culture Corner

Best of the Boston Music Scene, 1979-1981: The Neighborhoods

Bernie Langs

The Neighborhoods in 1979, left to right, “Careful Mike” Quaglia, John Hartcorn, and David Minehan (image courtesy of Boston Groupie News)

I lived in Boston from 1979 to 1981, spending time as an active participant in the local rock music scene as a musician and songwriter playing in a short-lived band. The time period is now considered a ”golden age” of local New England music talent. I can attest to the truth of that label. My bandmates and I would frequent club performances displaying astonishing musicianship and singing, powered by a brutal adrenaline rush of energy that I believe has vanished from current popular music. 

Several Boston clubs boasted an extraordinary vitality, walled in ragged punk decor, including some of the venues we performed at—Cantones, The Club, Jonathan Swifts (in Cambridge), The Channel (more upscale), and especially the center and hub at the time of the local music scene, the Rathskeller, nicknamed “The Rat” and known as “Boston’s CBGB’s.”

One of my favorite acts was the group The City Thrills, and I enjoyed speaking and joking with their lead guitarist, Johnny Angel. Their dynamic lead singer, Barb Kitson, dated the soundboard tech at The Rat, “Granny,” whom we were all in awe of. Another of my favorite groups was The Lyres, led by the golden-haired, powerhouse performer known as “Mono Man” for his style of playing a vintage organ using one finger at strategic moments to hold a long, solitary high note for dramatic effect. The Lyres did a version of the sixties hit 96 Tears that was sublime, and my band was graced with a request to open for them for a show at a small club. A band called Robin Lane and the Chartbusters was tight and precise in their sound and often played the larger venues to sold out crowds. 

There was one undisputed leader of the pack during this period of fabulous live music, a trio named The Neighborhoods. They are still active as a band, with only their leader, David Minehan, remaining from the time I was a devoted fan. Through mutual friends, my band got to know the drummer, Mike Quaglia, an amiable fellow known as “Careful Mike” for the way he maintained a steady beat as his bassist and guitarist inflicted their wall of sound on the audience. His tenure with The Neighborhoods was from 1978 to 1990. We’d also chat at the clubs with bass player John Hartcorn who was with the band from 1979 to 1981. But I would never have presumed to approach the lead singer, guitarist, and composer, David Minehan. There was no musician or personality like him in Boston, not one player/composer/singer in his league. He would have been a presence in any music scene from New York to London. I’d venture to say that most of the band members from the Boston area that had made it on the national charts didn’t have Minehan’s natural star power, not only as a performer, but as a personality offstage (the one notable exception being Aerosmith’s front man, Stephen Tyler).

Everything about The Neighborhoods was unique. Their songs were centered around basic rock compositional form, but had great twists in their complex melodies and chord structures. The lyrics were poetic, minimal and displayed the rare sweet spot of intellectual, yet approachable subjects and expressiveness. Minehan played his blue Stratocaster hard and with sustain, but never overly distorted. You could hear each power chord and lead note ringing out from floor to ceiling at the clubs where they played, but not at a blistering volume at the threshold of pain. His guitarwork was not an attack on the ears but more like the comfort of a demonstrative cathedral bell ringing out in majesty. Minehan moved about the stage in a trance-like, troubled dance of tough emotions, and his demeanor was otherworldly, as if he existed in his own parallel universe of sound and vision. His hair was colored red rooster crimson in the style of early David Bowie, and piled up high in the manner of members of the English band, The Faces. 

Minehan’s act was no act at all, it was completely honest and unassuming. There was also no self-consciousness in any of the other band members as they created their joyful music. All serious rock enthusiasts long for a pure experience of music, something untainted by commercialism, consumerism, and a compromise of values for the sake of monetary success. The greatest bands never change their core sound or message to increase their audience, thereby polluting artistic vision. The Clash is the only other band I know of in a brotherhood with The Neighborhoods in terms of unwillingness to be anything other than true to music and the intellectual values held precious in the hearts of its members. 

There were times in my own band that we’d kick off our rehearsals by playing a rocking version of The Neighborhoods song, No Place Like Home. Our guitarist Dave would rip into the guitar and vocals and our virtuoso bassist Bill duplicated Careful Mike’s high harmonies. Our magnificently talented Keith Moon-style drummer, Dermot, brought a power and danger to the song that Careful Mike would never have attempted. No Place Like Home is a tale of a teenager’s withdrawal into a private world of music, with the reassuring tagline chorus shouted to the listener, “Little boy I know what you are going THROUGH!” The song kicks off with an amusing description of the youth’s family scene: “Mom and dad are so frightening/Every day is a crisis/Dad gets home and he’s NERVOUS!/The air’s so thick you can’t breathe!/Don’t let them get to you/there’s not much you can do/ and little boy I know what you’re going through…” Much of what Green Day would go on to write about in the 1990’s with their massively successful song output was anticipated by The Neighborhoods.

My other favorite songs by The Neighborhoods included an ode to the wondering eye of a young man, Flavors, featuring the cool chorus, “I love flavors – I love to try them ALL!”, and Prettiest Girl, which Elton John could have fit in nicely on his masterpiece album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of their most complex lyrical expressions was the power ballad, Mr. Reeves, a thoughtful meditation (and more) on the suicide of the original television Superman actor, George Reeves, whose bizarre leap off of a building haunted many a child watching the show during the 1960s.

 My band opened for The Neighborhoods in May 1980 at an intimate club in Providence, Rhode Island. It was an honor and a privilege to have done so. About five years ago I recorded a cover version of No Place Like Home as a birthday surprise for our former band’s guitarist Dave who remains a close friend with me and other members of the ‘Tones. We still bask in the memory of having witnessed the peak of The Neighborhoods forty years ago. The Neighborhoods would go on to open for David Bowie in 1987 at a stadium show in Foxborough, MA, and tour with major acts such as The Ramones, Cheap Trick, and Bowie’s art band, Tin Machine. David Minehan also played a stint as a guitarist with the alt-rock sensation, The Replacements. He currently runs a recording studio, Woolly Mammoth Sound, in the town of Waltham outside of Boston, and The Neighborhoods’ new set of songs, Last Known Address, can be streamed on Amazon Music and other services. I consider myself so fortunate to have been a witness to one of rock’s under-appreciated moments of glory, an exceptional, brief window of time in the genre that was honest and true with brilliant and pure sincerity in every performance. Everyone should be so lucky to be in the presence of genius in the artistic genre they hold closest to their soul. Link: The Neighborhoods perform Prettiest Girl and No Place Like Home in 1979 on Boston television:

Pets of Tri-I

Pooja Viswanathan

For this issue, I interview Rudy, the dog who lives with Riccardo De Santis (Postdoc, Brivanlou lab, The Rockefeller University) and his wife, Dacia (Columbia University). 

Pooja Viswanathan: How old are you? In human years?

Rudy: I have 5 human years. 

PV: Is there a story behind your name?

R: My parents wanted to name me after a scientist, but not a pretentious one. The story goes that one day, one of my humans (the tall and hairy one) was in what you humans call a “meeting” and he met this very important scientist from Harvard. They were having a very formal discussion until a young Ph.D. student stopped by and interrupted the conversation, saying to his important supervisor in front of everyone “Hey Rudy, are you missing again your own talk?” I don’t really see the connection, but this is the reason why I am named Rudy.  

PV: How did you first meet your humans?

R: I arrived in New York from Puerto Rico and I was staying in small dog resort on 38th Street and First Avenue called “Bidawee.” The food was good and my room had a lot of toys (I love toys). Many humans were going around visiting and meeting dogs. The day after my arrival my humans stopped by, and we started to hang out over some treats and some new toys (have I mentioned that I love toys?). They convinced me to go with them to stay in their apartment, where I took the bigger room and I left them the small one.

Photo courtesy of Riccardo and Dacia

PV: Where do you live?

R: I live in Faculty House, close to my favorite dog park just across the street by the river and my small private backyard that by coincidence is the Rockefeller campus.

PV: What are your favorite neighborhoods in NYC?

R: My favorite neighborhood is Central Park. It is perfect to spend my Sunday walk where I have the chance to meet many friends from all over the New York canine world.

PV: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?

R: I would live where it is always sunny and warm—someone told me that a place like that exists and it is called Sicily. I will go there at some point, just for a quick check, and I will let you know.

PV: What are your favorite foods?

R: Carrots and treats, of any kind, shape or flavor! 

PV: What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

R: I like to hang out with my humans and walk around to say “hello” to every dog I come across. I like to have humans around when I meet my fellow dogs. 

PV: Besides your human roomies, who is your favorite human in the Tri-I community?

R: I like everybody, but I like those humans more who have treats. 

PV: Do you have a funny story to share with us?

R: The first time I went to Brooklyn, my humans decided to go on this strange car that goes on water that they call a ferry. In the beginning I was super scared of the weird noise and the rocking, but at some point I met a beautiful human puppy…her name is Marina. She petted me and I gave her a huge kiss. Suddenly, I was not scared anymore and I enjoyed my sniffing around in this island called Brooklyn.  

PV: Is there some way we can see more pictures of you on the interwebs?

R: I don’t have an Instagram profile yet. My parents said that I am too young, but they promised me that I can have one when I turn seven human years. 

PV: If you could have any human ability, what would it be?

R: I would like to have the human ability to open the fridge. I am sure something good is hidden there. My humans always go there and don’t let me look or sniff inside.

Life on a Roll

“Carrelet” fishing in the Aiguillon Bay, France

Elodie Pauwels

Fishing huts overhanging the Atlantic Ocean

Fishing hut and “carrelet” net

You might be surprised by these strange little wooden shacks on stilts overhanging the ocean in some places on the French Atlantic coast, like in Esnandes in the Aiguillon Bay. These huts are called “carrelets,” named after the square nets used to fish (“carré” meaning square in French). A winch allows the net to be immersed and pulled up. Well found, don’t you think?

Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City

Gretchen M. Michelfeld

Photo Credit: the Tenement Museum

The New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is one of the oldest, largest, and most famous Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in the world. It began when a group of homesick Irish expats and military members stationed with the British Army in the colony of New York decided to march through lower Manhattan to honor the fifth-century missionary who became the patron saint of Ireland. On March 17th, 1762, fourteen years before the start of the American Revolutionary War, people proudly wore green (a symbol of Irish pride that was banned by the British in Ireland), played Irish pipes, sang Irish songs, and gloried in speaking their native language.

More than 250 years later, today’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade boasts over 200,000 participants and millions of spectators who line the streets or watch the festivities on television. If you’re planning to attend, the parade starts at 11:00 a.m. and travels up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 79th Street. Everyone should experience this New York tradition at least once in their lives, but if you’re looking for a quieter, more intimate way to honor the day, here are a few suggestions:

  • Take the Irish Outsiders tour at the Tenement Museum. Learn about Irish culture, traditions, and faith on this daily guided tour of an apartment at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Immerse yourself in the lives of the Moore family. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Moores were one of only two Irish Catholic immigrant families who lived at 97 Orchard. They struggled through poverty and disease and faced rampant anti-Irish prejudice. Tour their home as it stood in 1869.
  • Check out the weekly Irish Music and Dance Session at Paddy Reilly’s. Located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Paddy Reilly’s has been presenting live Irish music sessions since 1986. On Thursday nights, Niall O’Leary, the acclaimed founder of the School of Irish Dance, hosts musicians and Irish step-dancers from around the world.
  • Join the Irish Arts Center at Symphony Space for the 8th Annual Celtic Appalachian Celebration. On Friday March 13th at 8 p.m., hear Irish, West African, and Appalachian themes woven through a range of American folk tunes, played by Green Fields of America, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, Nora Brown, Stephanie Coleman, and Megan Downes. Love Bluegrass? Clogging? This celebration is for you.
  • Experience a traditional Irish céilí!  A céilí is an old-fashioned house party or community social. The word is derived from the Old Irish céle meaning “companion.” It later became céilidhe and céilidh, which means “visit” in Gaelic. Later Irish orthography reformed the spelling as céilí. Every year, Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Parish Center hosts a St. Patrick’s Day céilí that is open to the public. On Sunday March 8th, you can purchase your $25 tickets at the door (230 East 90th Street) and enjoy all the corned beef, cabbage, and live Irish music you want from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. There will be a cash bar and dancing.

Many people also choose to celebrate with a cozy day at home and some fun Irish cooking. Local Irish artist Anne Heffernan recently told me about her St. Patrick’s Day traditions: “I always make Catherine Fulvio’s Guinness Casserole served with Irish flag-colored veggies and bake shamrock shaped shortbread,” she said. Anne’s pet peeve? “It is not ‘St. Patty’s Day!’ It’s either St. Patrick’s Day or St. Paddy’s Day!”

Good for Your Waist – Good for the Environment

Anna Amelianchik and Glenis George-Alexander

Veganuary is long over, and you may need a little push to continue to reduce your meat consumption. Sustainability science is here to help. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota considered the health and environmental impacts of fifteen food groups, including chicken, fish, and processed and unprocessed red meat. First, they evaluated the impact of these foods on people with type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and colorectal cancer, and then compared it to the average risk of each of these diseases. In addition, the study looked at the overall risk of mortality associated with different food groups. The researchers also considered environmental impacts of producing one serving of each food group on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and two different forms of nutrient pollution.

Unsurprisingly, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil reduced the risk of one or more diseases and mortality. However, it turns out that good news for your waist means good news for the planet as well: the same foods that improve your health and help you live longer also have a lower average environmental impact. In contrast, processed and unprocessed red meat is associated with an increased risk for all four diseases included in this analysis. An additional serving (about 100 grams, or 3-4 ounces) of red meat per day also increases overall mortality. And if burgers and steaks seem worth it when it comes to your own health, consider the health of the environment. Producing a single serving of unprocessed red meat has nearly double the environmental impact of producing dairy, nuts, olive oil, and even processed red meat (because of the smaller serving size). In fact, the environmental impact of producing a serving of unprocessed or processed red meat is ten to one hundred times larger than that of plant-based foods. This translates to increased land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water acidification and eutrophication (a dream come true for algae, but bad for the rest of us). Overall, foods associated with an increase in disease risk and mortality (unprocessed and processed red meat) also have the highest environmental impact, which adds (vegan) brownie points to a plant-based lifestyle.

Not ready to go full vegan? Good news: scientific research found no negative health outcomes associated with the consumption of dairy, egg, and chicken. The negative effect of these foods on the environment, although highly variable, is also lower than that of red meat. Although it is difficult to estimate how consumption of fish impacts the environment since production methods vary greatly, fish has widely been praised as a health food. Research suggests that in order to avoid further damaging the environment with greenhouse gas emissions, we should avoid consuming fish farmed in bottom trawling fisheries and recirculating aquaculture systems.

Reducing the consumption of red meat and opting for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and olive oil has multiple health and environmental benefits. However, before you cut all animal-based products from your diet, consider the nutritional composition of the foods that you would consume to beat your meat habit. For example, one serving of red meat contains 23-28 grams of protein and one serving of chicken—19 grams of protein. Protein is an important macronutrient needed to build and repair body tissues, muscles, and organs, which also helps combat infections and illnesses. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein varies depending on the age and sex of the person. For example, a female aged 31-51 years needs 46 grams of protein per day, while a male of the same age needs 56 grams. Therefore, about half of the recommended daily protein intake for an average sedentary man or woman can come from a single serving of meat. This means that if you choose to not eat meat, you need to select plant-based foods that can fill the nutritional void left by its absence from your diet.

Fortunately, protein can be obtained from plants as well as animals. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a plant-based diet can be nutritionally adequate and provide healthful benefits for preventing and treating certain diseases. Keep in mind that non-animal sources of protein or plant-based proteins may lack some of the essential amino acids (organic compounds that cannot be made by the body). However, one can get all the essential amino acids by consuming a variety of plant-based protein foods throughout the day. In addition to including a variety of plant-based sources of protein in the diet, one can also consume slightly more protein than the RDA, which would make up for the lack of the essential amino acid lysine in plants.

The guide below will help you identify plant-based foods that can fulfill your nutritional goals while lowering your impact on the environment (and helping you lead a healthier and longer life!). Some of the best plant-based protein sources are:

  • Quinoa: Quinoa is an “ancient grain” that is eaten as a starch but is actually a seed. Quinoa is a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce.

One serving of cooked quinoa (1/4 cup): 6 grams of protein.

  • Soybeans & soy products: Soybean is a legume that originated in East Asia and is now widely consumed throughout the United States. Soy is also an excellent source of complete protein.

One serving of steamed soybeans (1/2 cup): 4 grams of protein.

One serving of tofu (1/2 cup): 6 grams of protein.

One serving of soy milk (1 cup): 7 grams of protein.

One serving of edamame (1cup): 8 grams of protein.

  • Hummus: Hummus is a thick paste or spread that originated in the Middle East and is usually served with bread or vegetables. This dish is a complete protein when made with garbanzo beans and tahini.

One serving of hummus (1 tablespoon): 1.1 grams of protein.

Note: Some other plant-based high protein foods are beans (black, kidney, lima, pinto, snap peas, lentils, split peas, and chickpeas), nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, and pistachios), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, flax, hemp, chia, and amaranth), seaweed, spirulina, potatoes, and spinach.

Culture Corner

Films of Exploration and Adventure: The Lost City of Z and The Lighthouse

Bernie Langs

Photo courtesy of A24.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Spoiler alert below!

In the time of movies featuring a multitude of superhero comic book stories, cliched comedies, and explosive action adventures with mindless plots and throw away dialogue, we can still rejoice knowing that studios will occasionally take chances on more complex and thoughtful cinematic ventures. The box office and critical success of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and the sophisticated comedic murder mystery Knives Out come to mind. There are other genres to be found by audiences among the artistic rubble of the explosions presented in many blockbuster stories. These include thought-provoking tales of adventure and period pieces delving into the psyche of obsessive individuals stretched to the breaking point. Two recent movies are grand examples of this: The Lost City of Z (2016) and The Lighthouse (2019).

The Lost City of Z is a creatively intellectual and extremely entertaining movie. Directed by James Gray, who also wrote the screenplay, the story is based on the book of the same title by David Grann. Z centers on the true events of the life of explorer Percy Fawcett, played with nuance, bravery, and dashing elegance by the English actor Charlie Hunnam. As a British military officer in the early years of the twentieth century, Fawcett is unexpectedly conscripted against his career wishes by the Royal Geographic Society and the British government to lead a surveying expedition and settle a boundary dispute between Bolivia and Brazil that will have important implications for the lucrative rubber trade and industry. Fawcett’s transformation from an unwilling participant in the discoveries of uncharted Amazon into an excited and obsessed groundbreaking explorer is a captivating and endearing tale.

Hunnam’s portrayal of the understated Fawcett is a work of art as he survives the trials and tribulations of disease-ridden jungle and river exploration. Fawcett is at times forced to act quickly and with daring imagination to find life-saving ways to communicate that his team comes in peace to wary native inhabitants. On his return to London, he must deal with resistance from the Royal Geographic Society’s snobbish members about the possibility of a lost city—a previously unknown, sophisticated ancient civilization in the Amazon, which the Society deems “savage.”

In addition, Fawcett has to justify and explain his years of absence to his growing eldest son, and the limits of his enlightenment are tested as he struggles to recognize and fully respect the intellectual equality of his wife. Sienna Miller lights up the screen as Nina Fawcett, who suffers for years worrying for the safety of her husband and bearing the sole responsibility of raising their children. Percy Fawcett eventually manages to learn from and understand Nina, and there are emotional moments in the movie as his son starts to idolize his father’s courageous exploits and even secures funding for further exploration from the likes of U.S. newspapers and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Father and son (the latter now a young man), set out together into the danger-filled Amazon for a final attempt to locate the Lost City, now experienced simultaneously as both an ancient reality and a fragment of a dream within the explorer’s psyche.

Robert Pattinson is fantastic in his role as Fawcett’s second in command, Corporal Henry Costin. He is smart and witty, and the actor hides his Twilight good looks under a beard and a ravaged explorer’s body. Pattison’s Costin is a throwback to the sidekick companion of old-timey movies and we delight in his growing devotion to and friendship with Fawcett.

Quality films set in the past that delve deep into the inner psychology of men and women plagued by labors that take them to the limits of sanity are few and far between. Director John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of the novel Moby Dick (1956), for example, showcases Gregory Peck as the infamously tormented Captain Ahab. Ahab’s rage and quest to kill the white whale not only boils to overt fury and self-destructive action, but also softly simmers during his rational, quiet conversations with officers of his crew.

Melville wrote his sea adventure in 1851 and set the launch of the doomed Pequod from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Robert Eggers’ film The Lighthouse also takes place in the late nineteenth century and is set somewhere in northern New England. Actors Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, and (once again) Robert Pattinson as Thomas Howard/Ephraim Winslow, are paired together to work a stint at a lighthouse on a tiny island, with Wake as the older and more experienced keeper. The backbreaking work amid lonely isolation leads to more and more sarcastic bickering and stinging jabs and arguments, and the two men reach a breaking point when they realize that the team scheduled to relieve them from their duties is not going to appear and allow them to return to the mainland.

With its unrelenting barrage of crazed situations and behaviors, I would not recommend that everyone see The Lighthouse. Prior to viewing the film, I read some superlative reviews touting the incredible acting by Dafoe and Pattinson and I did find their superlative portrayals worthy of Academy Awards. The audience is also treated to a study in black and white cinematography and the unusual horizontal shrinking of the actual film space. This “narrow vintage aspect ratio” gives the movie a more realistic nineteenth century feel and enhances the mood of stress in the claustrophobic living space shared by the duo. As the two main characters become more and more unhinged, the dive into their insanity plays out like a fascinating live theater-like stage rendition of immediate violence. There are mystic hints of a moral and religious reckoning, complete with chilling visions of hallucinatory mermaids and sea gods. The mystery of the blinding white light of the tower lantern of the lighthouse becomes a powerfully charged character on its own, an unknown entity, which may be abstractly fueling the deadly struggle between its two attendants.

As I left the multiplex after The Lighthouse, I was in a state of shock from the continuous horror the pair go through and inflict on each other, and although I didn’t “like” the experience, I (sort of) inexplicably did, and plan to watch it again as a rented movie at home. The interactions between Dafoe and Pattinson bounce around the emotional spectrum and the destruction of their lives and souls unravels and unfurls with a rarely viewed intensity, one without relief or pause for the audience to take a breath in recovery. The movie’s greatest moment, oddly tinted with humor, initiates as a petty argument over the quality of Wake’s cooking and ends up devolving into the fury of a legendary curse invoked by him upon the life and soul of his young worker. Dafoe masterfully delivers a harsh, yet poetic verbal assault, piling up a list of vengeances that draw from the history of sailors’ myths and fears. Dafoe’s character also dives deep into plagues worthy of the Old Testament on the life of his hapless co-worker. That speech alone makes The Lighthouse worth the viewing. The Lighthouse ends with a new take on violently creative punishments, reminiscent of those in ancient Greek mythology. That brand of complex allusion is what draws filmgoers to sit through such a difficult and hard-to-take story.

Natural Expressions


On Friday, March 6th at 8 p.m., Collette Ryder of The Rockefeller University Office of Sponsored Programs Administration will be performing The Hidden Mass at St. Bartholomew’s Church on 51st Street and Park Avenue. Ryder will accompany the New York Choral Society as a soprano, joined by organist David Hayes and conducted by Paolo Bordignon. The Hidden Mass is a concert of works written by twentieth century composers Frank Martin and Zoltán Kodály, and features a pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m. with Hayes and Bordignon. Tickets are $30 through February 26th when purchased through Ryder at, and $40 through the box office. More information can be found at the New York Choral Society Website.

Nick Didkovsky, Bioinformatics Group Supervisor in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Rockefeller, will be performing multiple concerts in Germany this month:

  • On Thursday, March 12th at 8 p.m. at domicil (Hansastraße 7, Dortmund) and Sunday, March 15th at 6:30 p.m. at rock’n’pomuseum (Udo-Lindenberg-Platz 1, Gronau), Didkovsky will perform his band Doctor Nerve’s record “SKIN” in its entirety, live with The Consord Ensemble.
  • On Friday, March 13th, Didkovsky will join Erhard Hirt for an electric guitar duo performance at the Black Box Theatre in Muenster. For tickets or more information visit Black Box.


Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.


Sustainability at Multiple Levels

Audrey Goldfarb

Milo Martinovic and Peter Selestrin, the chief engineer and assistant chief engineer of the power house, stand in front of the new boiler. Photo courtesy of Alex Kogan.

A glove recycling system in the Darnell Lab at The Rockefeller University. Photo courtesy of Audrey Goldfarb.

Individual action to fight climate change and habitat destruction is important. Plastic waste from just one person can have devastating consequences on wildlife, as exemplified by viral footage of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose.

However, when considering the big picture, it is easy to feel powerless. How could the actions of one person influence the rampant and pervasive destruction of our planet? That single straw becomes much less meaningful in the context of the entire ocean. To significantly abate climate change at large, top-down policy changes are exceedingly more effective. Universal guidelines and initiatives incite cultural changes, which in turn demand more significant top-down policies. Both components are essential for progress.

Ainhoa Perez, a Research Associate in the Stellar Lab at The Rockefeller University, is an advocate for sustainability and personally leads a zero-waste lifestyle. She supports both individual and campuswide actions, but believes that neither are on pace with what the Earth is demanding. “There are things that can be done, but we are moving much slower than what we could and what we should,” Perez said. “We need support top-down from the university to provide the opportunity to do the right thing.”

Incentives from the government and from the university have been motivational in the past. The New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability launched the Carbon Challenge to encourage private institutions, including Rockefeller, to reduce their carbon emissions by 30% in ten years. Rockefeller joined the challenge in 2007, the same year the Sustainability Committee was established, and by 2019 the university had reduced emissions per square foot by 32%. “Some of the most impressive changes happened when the University got into a city-wide competition,” Perez said. “We were one of the first institutions to reduce carbon emissions, I think just because we had a challenge and had that as a goal.”

The success is largely attributed to a switch from oil to gas as a fuel source, in addition to the construction of LEED-certified buildings; in the last ten years, 33% of our campus received LEED silver status certification. The university is now committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 40% by 2025. However, Perez advocates for more ambitious goals. “One of the important things is for the university to commit to be zero waste and carbon-free,” she said. “It would make a huge difference just to have that as a goal.”

Alex Kogan, the Associate Vice President of Plant Operations and Housing Departments since 2001, is the driving force behind Rockefeller’s central sustainability initiatives. His efforts are focused on university-wide, quantifiable initiatives that benefit Rockefeller financially in addition to aiding the planet, such as using less fossil fuels and electricity. “Our approach has always been about carbon footprint reduction,” Kogan said. “We try to achieve this systematically campuswide.   We can control the amount of heat content and cooling content we distribute to all buildings on a macro level.”

Rockefeller’s power house, which contains the heating and cooling plants, sits underneath the Rockefeller Research Building and Hospital Building. It provides heating throughout campus from the President’s house to Faculty House and Scholar’s Residence, and cooling to every building except for housing. Touring the massive facility leaves a lasting impression; slight adjustments to central heating and cooling—i.e. lowering the maximum temperature in the winter and raising the minimum in the summer—is a powerful and quantifiable mechanism to reduce emissions.

However, the practices of individual labs are up to the heads of labs and their lab members. “Laboratories are inherently terrible energy hogs because you can’t recirculate the air,” Kogan said. “For obvious safety reasons, laboratories require a certain amount of ‘air-changes’ in order operate. The best thing a scientist can do is to lower the setpoint in the winter and raise the setpoint in the summer.”

Some Rockefeller lab heads prioritize sustainability more than others. Daniel Mucida is a great example of this. “Daniel has been one of our biggest champions,” Kogan said.

The Mucida lab reuses and recycles wherever possible. Ainsley Lockhart, a graduate fellow in the Mucida Lab, notes that these practices have little impact on the lab’s efficiency. “It probably takes me an additional ten minutes total per week,” she said.

Though these practices have been in place in the Mucida lab for ten years, few have followed suit to the same degree. “Not many labs do this,” Mucida said. “You walk around the labs and you want to have a heart attack because it’s so bad.”

Mucida was inspired to take action as a post doc at La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology after attending a meeting in Japan. He saw how efficiently and conscientiously the labs there functioned, and started advocating for his lab in La Jolla to do the same. However, it wasn’t until Mucida started his own lab that he was able to implement meaningful cultural changes. Now, he wants to fight for sustainable practices campuswide.

The use of disposable containers in the cafeteria is a big issue. Though the bottoms of takeaway containers are compostable, the lids are plastic. Neither are reusable, and both are superfluous. “I’ve been trying to change this for ten years,” Mucida said. “I wish there were zero disposable containers. I think people would adapt very easily.”

Habits become second nature quite quickly, and sustainable practices demand significantly less effort than most New Year’s resolutions. For most people, carrying a reusable container for lunch is much less challenging than committing to a workout routine. Central guidelines and regulations would expedite these transitions. Once green practices like proper recycling become part of the culture, it will be effortless to comply. “This is very simple,” Mucida said. “It should be like brushing your teeth.”

“Many people believe that those goals are very hard or impossible to achieve,” Perez said. “But that’s just because we got so used to this wasteful, single-use-based lifestyle. It’s so engrained in our routines that we tend to think that there are no alternatives.”

While reducing carbon emissions and other waste helps the environment and is financially advantageous, it is also personally rewarding. “It has a lot of benefits for the people working at the university,” Perez said. “It brings people together. We are the perfect place to be doing this because we already have a sense of community.”

Having Kogan lead central carbon emission policy has proven to be effective. These initiatives are organized, quantifiable, and growing. “We’re on the cutting edge of HVAC and electrical infrastructure, we have a very good idea what our peers are doing, and we’re well connected in the [academic] facilities community,” Kogan said.

However, there is no department at the university dedicated to reducing waste in the cafeteria, ensuring proper recycling, and educating scientists on sustainable lab practices. “The recycling here is a mess,” Perez said. “Nobody even knows how it works. All the bins look exactly the same. It is very poorly organized and advertised.”

There are a multitude of opportunities to improve, but the organized manpower to fight for them is limited. The students and postdocs that compose the Sustainability Committee move away from Rockefeller after several years, making it difficult to establish long-term plans. These members are also dedicated to their own research, which must take priority over membership to the committee. “It is all dependent on who is coming to the meetings and who is able to invest time and effort on these initiatives, which is not very much because we don’t have much extra time,” Perez said. “People come and go from the university. It’s important to have continuity and permanence of initiatives that are started.”

Another issue that many Rockefeller employees may be unaware of concerns the University’s investment options. “Our pension money is invested through a pension plan in fossil fuels, and there is no way to change that,” Perez said. “This is unbelievable. A research institution forcing their employees to give money to companies that are funding climate change denial?”

Though it will require substantial effort and cultural changes, Kogan, Mucida, and Perez are optimistic that Rockefeller can be a leader of sustainable biomedical research. “We need people to engage and to take action,” Perez said. “We can do it! It would be easy, it would be cheap, it would be better, it would be extremely impactful… and we have the responsibility to do it.”

Mardi Gras, or Let the Good Times Roll

Aileen Marshall

Mardi Gras this year is Tuesday, February 25th. What is Mardi Gras, you ask? Some of you readers may know Mardi Gras as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. While it has religious origins, it has become synonymous with a big party in New Orleans, Louisiana. This holiday has evolved over millennia to become the major tourist attraction that it is today.

Some believe that its origins go back to ancient Rome. Saturnalia was a boisterous festival celebrating the arrival of spring and fertility, dating back to 131 BC. However, most of the rites of Mardi Gras can be traced back to the spread of Christianity around the world. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian church. Lent is a time when followers spend days fasting, abstaining from meat, and practicing other means of personal sacrifice. Therefore, Fat Tuesday is the last day to indulge and have fun before the six weeks of Lent. The early church decided it would be easier to incorporate the tradition of Saturnalia, rather than try to prevent it.

Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French, is a day to eat a lot of rich foods, hence the name. Some places recognize a whole season called “Carnival”. This stretches from the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on January 6th, until Fat Tuesday. The word carnival derives from the Latin carnelevarium meaning to take away meat. The word “shrove” in Shrove Tuesday derives from the word shrive, meaning to absolve.

While these festivities started out as religious practices, Carnival and Mardi Gras were gradually adopted as secular celebrations. They are celebrated in various ways around the world. In some countries in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean it is traditional to eat rich fried pastries and pancakes, so the holiday there is called Pancake Tuesday. In Belgium, people dance throughout the city of Binche all day. This Carnival of Binche is recognized by UNESCO, as are the door-to-door processions in the Czech Republic. Venice, Italy has a big celebration known for its decorative masks, and residents of the Italian city of Ivrea stage the Battle of Oranges.  There is a record of the Carnival celebration in Nice, France going back to 1294. Quebec, Canada has its Winter Carnival, with a host of snow related activities. Brazil has its famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro consisting of a week of parades full of samba dancers in elaborate costumes that attracts millions of tourists from all over the world.

One of the most famous Mardi Gras event takes place in New Orleans. In 1699, the king of France sent two brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, to defend his claim to the Louisiana Territory. They made camp on March 6th of that year at a spot about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today, and named the location after the day, Point du Mardi Gras. Bienville went on to found Mobile, Alabama in 1702, and actually the very first planned U.S. Mardi Gras celebration took place here the following year There is still an annual festival in Mobile today. Iberville founded New Orleans in 1718. A record from 1743 indicates that costume balls were already an annual tradition there. The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was in 1837. Mardi Gras was declared a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875 and is the only state in the country to do so.

New Orleans Mardi Gras maskers, c. 1915, from old postcard. Note, women carry whips to fend off any unwanted attentions. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities are run by social clubs, known as “krewes.” These started out as secret organizations of white businessmen. The oldest, the Mystic Krewe of Comus, was established in 1856. The next year they held a torchlight parade with marching bands and floats. The Rex Krewe was founded in 1872. They started the practice of having parades in the daytime and having a King of the Carnival, or the “Rex”. Some krewes elect someone from their club, whereas others will pick a celebrity. In 1892 the Rex Krewe established the colors of the New Orleans events, green, gold, and purple. They were chosen because the Grand Duke of Russia was visiting that year and those are the colors of the Romanoff family. The Rex Krewe says that green stands for faith, gold for power, and purple for justice.

In 1909, in response to these restricted clubs running the festivities, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was formed by a group of Creole and African American people. They had their own parade with a king in a tin can crown and a banana stalk scepter to mock the Rex. They are known today for the hand painted coconuts they toss to the crowds. Today these clubs are open to anyone who pays membership dues and any members of the clubs are allowed to ride on the floats.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations go on for a week, with balls and parades every day, ending on Fat Tuesday. There are many traditions associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Since the 1870s, “throws” have been used as items that are tossed or handed out to float spectators. Common throws are doubloons, wood or aluminum coins with the name of the krewe or the name of the float. The most famous kind of throw are the strings of beads. Over the years these beads have gone from glass, to metal, to plastic, and now back to glass. Sometimes the beads are in the shapes of animals or people or other objects; some are limited edition. Sometimes stuffed animals, small plastic toys, plastic cups, or individually wrapped moon pies are thrown out. And there are the aforementioned coconuts. These started out as gold painted walnuts from the Zulu Krewe, hence they are often referred to as golden nuggets. By law, these coconuts now must be handed to the crowds rather than thrown because of injuries. The tradition of flambeau, or torch carrying, has evolved into dance performances by the torch bearers. People will tip the flambeau performer with dollar bills. It is common for both parade participants and spectators to wear costumes or masks. These costumes tend to be of animals or mythical creatures, or medieval dress. On the other hand, there is also a tradition of people being in various levels of undress. These costumes can be very revealing, and women are known to flash their breasts for throws or to walk around topless. This practice, documented since 1889, goes with the theme of indulging before Lent. The French phrase Laissez les bons temps rouler, meaning “Let the good times roll,” has become the slogan of these celebrations. King cake, a bundt shaped cake covered with sugar in the three Mardi Gras colors, is served during this season. Some people will hide a plastic baby inside and whoever gets the baby has to host the next party.

Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, 2009. Source: Karen Apricot.

In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, there was some debate as to whether to have the Mardi Gras celebrations that year. But the festivities went on as a morality boost for the residents and for the economic benefit from the tourism. Some floats had been damaged in the floods and several incorporated this into the designs. A number of floats poked fun at the situation by mocking things like the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and the Army Corps of Engineers.

While New York City does not have any official Mardi Gras events, many bars, restaurants, or clubs will have promotions. Or if you happen to be in New Orleans this February 25th, the famous revelries are a must see.

Mardi Gras Fan Gal, 2004, Bywater neighborhood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Health: On Mindful Meditation and The Skill of Being Present

Anna Amelianchik

If you are determined to make 2020 your healthiest year yet, now might be the time to add one more item to your list of New Year’s resolutions. While better nutrition and exercise can bring you closer to your fitness goals, your physical health and emotional well-being will most likely further benefit from mindful meditation. Although the practice of meditation dates back to 5000 B.C., meditation as a secular and therapeutic activity in the past several decades brought renewed attention to the ancient practice. In the traditional context, meditation is a mental practice designed to improve concentration, increase awareness of the present moment, and allow for the spiritual exploration of one’s mind. However, a more contemporary definition of meditation refers to the practice of focused attention, mindfulness, and compassion designed, among other things, to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Meditation has also received a lot of attention in the scientific literature, where its benefits on brain function and cardiovascular health have been extensively studied. Scientific studies focusing on the neuroscience of meditation report both short- and long-term changes in brain electrical activity that occur as a result of dedicated meditation practice. These changes include the activation of the frontal cortex of the brain (associated with meta-awareness), the sensory cortex and the insula (associated with body awareness), the hippocampus (linked to cognitive function and memory), and cortical areas (linked to self- and emotion regulation). Scientific studies have also evaluated the effect of meditation on multiple cardiovascular risk factors, such as physiological response to stress, blood pressure, and smoking and tobacco use. These studies concluded that meditation possibly reduces cardiovascular risk. In fact, in 2017, the American Heart Association stated that meditation is a useful therapeutic tool for cardiovascular risk reduction when used as an adjunct to more traditional medical recommendations.

Although multiple forms of meditation exist, mindful mediation, which originated from Buddhist teachings, has been popularized in Western culture by people like Jon-Kabat Zinn, Ph.D., the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, and Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg is a meditation teacher and a New York Times bestselling author who played a major role in bringing meditation and mindfulness to the West in the 1970s. In December 2019, Salzberg visited The Rockefeller University where she gave a public talk on compassion and guided a short meditation practice. Salzberg described meditation as a skills training which is available to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or worldview. These skills include concentration, mindfulness, and compassion. “Most of us would describe ourselves as fairly scattered or distracted,” said Salzberg, adding that when we let our attention go to the past or the future, the feelings of regret and anxiety cost us energy. This is why the first principle of meditation is gathering—gathering the attention, learning how to settle, and learning how to center. Salzberg defined the second skill acquired through meditation—mindfulness—as a quality of awareness in which our perception is not distorted by biases, like old fears or pain. Finally, the third skill—compassion—is central to mindful meditation, as this form of meditation teaches one to accept all that arises as a consequence of the practice without judgement. Salzberg highlighted the importance of self-compassion and described it as resilience against the pain of not having fulfilled something or having made a mistake.

The foundational technique of mindful meditation taught by Salzberg and other experts involves choosing an object of awareness, resting all of one’s attention on that object, and bringing the attention back when it wanders without self-inflicted judgement. Commonly, the central object of awareness is the feeling of breath. However, many people find it difficult to continuously focus on breathing and eventually fill their mind with thoughts, which causes them to lose their object of awareness. Salzberg teaches that being able to start over is an important part of meditation: “The healing and the empowerment is in being able to come back. Having self-compassion is not the same thing as being lazy—it’s the source of tremendous strength, not a weakness. Self-compassion is the best way to have a sustained effort toward learning something or making a change.”

Whether you are new to meditation or trying to improve your existing practice, consider following these steps to learn concentration, mindfulness, and compassion:

  1. Sit as comfortably as you can.
  2. Close your eyes or keep them open—however you feel most at ease.
  3. See if you can find the place where your breath is strongest and clearest for you: in the nostrils, the chest, or the abdomen.
  4. Unlike in some yoga traditions, in meditation the breath is natural—do not try to make it deeper or different from your normal breath.
  5. When you find the place where the breath is the clearest for you, bring your attention there and rest.
  6. If you like, you can use a quiet mental notation, such as “in-out” or “rise-fall”, to help support the awareness of the breath.
  7. If images, sounds, sensations, or emotions arise, let them flow, unless they cause you to lose the feeling of the breath.
  8. If you lose the feeling of the breath, it is your chance to let go and begin again by bringing your attention back to your object of awareness.

Salzberg recommended finding a formal dedicated time period for meditation practice—ideally about ten minutes a day during which your only goal is to hone your meditation skills. Although some meditation teachers encourage their students to meditate in the morning, Salzberg believes that the best time for meditation should be determined by you. In addition to dedicated practice, the “short moments many times” type of meditation can help you be present when you are under the most pressure and during the most complex times of the day. Consider taking a few mindful breaths before making a phone call, writing an email, or attending an important meeting. However, just like weight training makes your muscles stronger and prevents you from strain-induced injury, dedicated meditation allows you to practice being present to protect your physical and emotional health from the stresses of modern life.

Last March, Ann Campbell, MSN, MPH, an occupational health nurse practitioner at The Rockefeller University and a Nalanda Institute fellow, and the late Dr. Bruce McEwen, the head of Rockefeller’s Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, formed an interdisciplinary steering committee which currently includes scientists and non-scientists who are interested in measuring the effect of mindfulness practices on health and expanding the available classes on campus.

McEwen’s research indicated that mindfulness practices might have an impact on public health. Campbell was interested in clinical translation of mindfulness practices as a clinical practitioner. Before the steering committee was formed, there were no free yoga classes on campus. Currently there are five yoga classes and two free 30-minute meditation sessions available to the members of the Rockefeller community for free. In addition to expanding mindfulness practices on campus, the committee is working to develop clinical protocols to measure the effect of mindfulness practices on various health outcomes in patient populations, such as patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In particular, they will focus on the effect of mindfulness practices on the results of blood tests, levels of inflammatory markers, and gene expression. Additionally, they are organizing a journal club and bringing speakers to increase awareness of the benefits of mindful meditation.

It can be advantageous to do mediation in guided sessions versus on your own because when someone guides you, this helps you understand barriers and create an awareness of “inner landscape.” You can attend one of these mindfulness practice sessions on Tuesdays at 12 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Research Building 110.

Natural Expressions


This February, Santa Maria Pecoraro Di Vittorio of the Rice Laboratory will be performing as a violist in  several events:

On Friday, February 14th at 7:30 p.m., Di Vittorio will perform as an orchestral musician with the Chamber Orchestra of New York in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall. This Valentine’s Day concert features Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, multiple works by Boccherini, and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in celebration of the 205th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Tickets are $40-$50 ($30 for students) and 25% off with discount code CNY32442. Visit the event website for tickets and more information.

On Saturday, February 15th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, February 16th at 3 p.m., Di Vittorio will accompany the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as they perform Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. These performances are the United States debut of the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, featuring Russian prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova. Tickets range from $45 to $135 and can be purchased online.


Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of his book, The Plot, authored by Langs and co-edited by Development’s Mary Jane Folan. Langs’ novella follows two actors filming a story of espionage in Florence, Italy. As they film, the fiction of their script begins to creep into their reality. For more information or to purchase The Plot, visit the Amazon Kindle Store.

Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.

Culture Corner

Comparing Ancient and Contemporary Ideas of Time: The Writings of Plotinus and Carlo Rovelli

Bernie Langs

Plotinus, The Enneads, Penguin Classics; (November 5, 1991), 688 pages, paperback

Rovelli, Carlo, The Order of Time, Riverhead Books; (May 8, 2018), 256 pages, hardcover

Plotinus (A.D. 204-270) founded the school of Neoplatonism and selections of his work, The Enneads, reveal his ideas which blend the thoughts of Aristotle, Plato, and other schools of ancient Greek philosophy. If one has read some of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and great thinkers of the Pre-Socratic school, The Enneads is highly approachable and understandable. The powerful and enlightening insights delivered by The Enneads complete an ancient system of thought as well and serve as a new beginning of spiritual mysticism. The book contains hints of the Christian philosophy that would soon flourish after the passing of Plotinus. Plotinus may have been exposed to many other religions and mystic ideas during his time in Rome.

Plotinus centers his philosophy on three levels. The first level or the One, also known as The Good, The Transcendent, or The Absolute, is indescribable, much like the name of God in the Pentateuch or Old Testament. Nothing can be said about it and it has no body, history, shape, or presence in our world, yet is the source of all. The second level is The Intellectual-Principle or Intelligence and Divine-Thought, acting as a go-between between The One and the third level, The All-Soul. The latter is where our physical universe and the life-forms on Earth exist. The beings at the lowest level are created by the second as a mirror image, a stamped second-tier impression of the pure Essence originating from the first. The first level is well-known in philosophy as the Platonic Forms, and it renders all we know and see in our own world as imperfect reflections. I’ve always had a problem accepting the unquestioned reality of ideal Forms, and Plotinus’ work revolves heavily around a more detailed and philosophically agreeable use of the concept.

The editors of the Penguin edition of The Enneads introduce the book’s Seventh Tractate by stating that it is of importance as the only extended discussion in ancient philosophy of the theory of Time, apart from that of Aristotle in Physics. Early in 2019, I read a fantastic book, The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli, on the current state of the study of time in physics, related to his own research conducted as the director of the quantum gravity group at the Centrede Physique Théorique at the Aix-Marseille University. He is considered to be one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. Rovelli embellishes his highly readable journey on the history of the study of time by peppering the short work with quotes and summaries not only by those studying physics and other relevant scientific fields, but poets, writers, religious leaders, and modern and ancient philosophers. Noticeably absent, however, is a mention of Plotinus and his important tractate on the subject.

On a mission to see where Rovelli bridges mathematical  theories with those of humanistic and philosophical Time, I reread the chapter on Time by Plotinus and much of the book by Rovelli. As I read Plotinus, I understood that one has to allow for a high level of speculative thinking in approaching his concepts. The basis of ancient Greek scientific thought presented, for example, by Aristotle or in older works describing a world resting on an invisible atomic substructure, was often created from the sheer intuitive process of these thinkers of the time. Rovelli gives many nods to this idea, writing, “The ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking,” and gives examples of this by citing the works of Anaximander, Copernicus, and Einstein. Yet, Rovelli argues many times in his book that we can’t trust these instincts. For example, he writes the following about Einstein’s realization that time was slowed down by speed: “The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all.” In addition, there are many intuitive ideas that a modern scientist deems worthy of detailed exploration as compared to those that are often regarded as spiritual or philosophical in nature, dismissed from the start for initiating any objective and rational follow-up and pursuit.

Rovelli is on an exciting mission to spread the newly discovered truths about time and use the study of physics to educate and end the common and popular misconception that time is linear. Time does not move, using my own analogy here, like film flowing through an old projector system, passing through the light of the camera’s lens for one immeasurable moment of the now, and with no possibility of return or vision of what will be shown in future frames. Instead, Rovelli makes the case for the nonlinearity of time. He quotes the poet René Rilke on this subject, “The eternal current/Draws all the ages along with it…” and describes how we grab on to the idea of persistent time, its slippage and “anxiety about the future.” But the reality is in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, where there is no such difference between past and future or cause and effect. The Order of Time is at its best when it lays out for the non-specialist reader the history of time in physics, from the disconnect between Aristotle’s and Newton’s theories to the groundbreaking discoveries of Einstein and discussions on subjects and areas of study such as entropy, gravity, the second principle of thermodynamics, and many others.

Rovelli’s area of study is loop gravity, and it works without a variable of time in its equations. His research focuses on the fields that form matter, photons, electrons, subatomic particles, and gravitational fields: “all on the same level and seeking only a coherent description of the world as we understand it so far.” In this world, time and space are no longer containers or general forms of the world and act as approximations of quantum dynamics which itself knows neither space nor time. He states it is representative of a world of “only events and relations. It is a world without time of elementary physics.”

The Order of Time describes how Plato had the “excellent” idea to translate mathematics and physics using atomists’ (i.e. Democritus) insights. Rovelli notes, “But he [Plato] goes about it the wrong way: he tries to write the mathematics of the shape of atoms, rather than the mathematics of their movements.” He also states that “For a long time, we have tried to understand the world in terms of some primary substance. Perhaps physics, more than any other discipline, has pursued this primary substance. But the more we have studied it, the less the world seems comprehensible in terms of something that is. It seems to be a lot more intelligible in terms of relations between events.”

Plotinus is in agreement with Rovelli that the world of substance is not to be trusted as a source of anything absolute in terms of knowledge or fact. He would never pursue a study of a “primary substance,” as Rovelli says physics has mistakenly done in the past, since he believes it to exist only in the unreachable realm of Forms and that’s all that we as humans comprehend of it. Plotinus also notes that the study of movement has nothing to do with Time, and that the observer of movement has nothing to do without Time outside of being a convenient tool of measure.

Another concordance between Plotinus and Rovelli is that language in itself will always be an imperfect conduit in describing ultimate theories, whether it be The One or a “theory of everything,” a belief in a single quantum equation that ties all fields in a neat packaging. Plotinus writes, “Let them [beings] have it [Time], present to them and running side by side with them, and they are by that very fact incomplete; completeness is attributed to them only by an accident of language” and “[Eternity] can have no contact with anything quantitative since its Life cannot be made a thing of fragments…it must be without parts in the Life as in the essence.”

Rovelli and Plotinus are both in agreement that there is no difference in past, present and future, with the latter saying in terms of physics, “Being can have no this and that; it cannot be treated in terms of intervals, unfoldings, progression, extension; there is no grasping any first or last in it” and “The Primals, on the contrary, in their state of blessedness have no such aspiration towards anything to come: they are whole, now…therefore, seek nothing, since there is no future to them, nothing eternal to them in which futurity could find lodgement.”

The Enneads strays farthest from any semblance of what would be thought of today as recognizable scientific study in its systematic and unwavering belief of how and why this world exists. Plotinus writes, “Time, as noted by Plato, sprang into Being simultaneously with the Heavenly system, a reproduction of Eternity, its image in motion, Time necessarily unresting as the Life with which it must keep pace: and ‘coeval with the Heavens because it is this same Life (of the Divine Soul) which brings the Heavens into being; Time and the Heavens are the work of the one Life.” Science, with good cause, prefers the mathematic study of “infinity” over speculative notions of an “Eternal”. Plotinus writes that we, as human souls, must attempt to rediscover our vision of and relationship with the realm of Forms, a perfect Good, a beacon appearing only in our Intellect through study and Buddhist-like meditational transcendence. For Plotinus, concepts such as the Eternal don’t offer much towards revelation—they are ideas to ponder while trying to reach that higher plane of pure unwavering perfection, which knows no Eternity.

Rovelli writes how he agrees with the late philosopher of science, Hans Reichenbach, that, “in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us…we have imagined the existence of ‘eternity,’ a strange world outside of time that would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls….The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time – Heraclitus, or Bergson – has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate the layers of that mystery…the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions.”

That said, all of Rovelli’s philosophical quotes and anecdotes are truly poetically placed in his book so the reader knows he’s not just a physicist in an ivory tower with knowledge of what only concerns his area of study. He’s a man of the wider world and has read a vast number of books in the humanities. I came to believe during my second reading of The Order of Time that he may actually believe that many of these works offer little in terms of the hard science of physics on time outside of their importance in the historical narrative of misconceptions on the subject.

Towards the end of the book Rovelli notes, “The vision of reality and the collective delirium that we have organized has evolved and has turned out to have worked reasonably well in getting us to this point,” and in closing his work says, “And it seems to me that life, this brief life, is nothing other than this: the incessant cry of these emotions that drive us, that we sometimes attempt to channel in the name of a god, a political faith, in a ritual that reassures us that, fundamentally, everything is in order, in a great boundless love – and the cry is beautiful.” I would beg to differ. Our “collective delirium” has been the source of the deaths of tens of millions of people (see the wars of the 20th century alone) and that our emotional “beautiful cry” is far too often more one of pain than glory. It is unrealistic to believe that science will ever cast a wider net when choosing which of the intuitions of philosophy it deems worthy of research, especially given philosophy’s close relationship to the fool’s gold so often offered up by the schools of theology. After all, Plotinus himself admits that we can say nothing more about The One outside of that it exists and should be strived for internally through Intellect. There’s nothing there to study at length, and no purpose would be served in “locating” the primary level since it’s more of an invisible axiom than a tangible theorem in space or time. Yet it has purpose as a vital pursuit, one that could well serve as a motivator in the back of the mind of any individual seeking a wider understanding and awareness of the world.

Plotinus may have introduced in his Tractate on Time an early inkling of the concept of the multiverse, and it is a hopeful one at that. He writes, “Thus when the universe has reached its term, there will be a fresh beginning, since the entire Quantity which the Cosmos is to exhibit, every item that is to emerge in its course, all is laid up from the first in the Being that contains the Reason-Principles…There is nothing alarming about such limitlessness in generative forces and in Reason-Principles, when Soul is there to sustain all. As in Soul (principle of Life) so in Divine Mind (principle of Idea) there is this infinitude of recurring generative powers; the Beings there are unfailing.”

Aftrican Americans and the Year of the Vote

Tracy Adams

Photo Courtesy: St. Louis Public Library.

It is without doubt or hesitation that African Americans have deep-seated roots in the cultivation, development, design, and fabric of this blessed country, the United States of America. Carter Godwin Woodson, the “Father of Black History,” expressed his beliefs that “Blacks should know their past in order to participate intelligently in the affairs in our country.” With the support of schools, key organizations and the general public, Woodson founded Negro History Week, the forerunner to Black History Month. He centered his work around the idea that “Blacks should be proud of their heritage and that other Americans should also understand it”. The Association of the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has declared, “The year 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement.  The year 2020 also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the right of black men to the ballot after the Civil War.”

History – The Turning of the Ages

In a time when substantial economic and social differences divided how the northern states and the southern states existed, those differences were the driving forces that dictated those lifestyle choices. While the North was experiencing well established industrial and manufacturing periods of development and growth, the South was heavily dependent on a system of agriculture which was even more tightly tied to its dependency on human capital for domestic servitude and forced labor. Tensions were already at a boiling point, and Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” had just one guiding rule: “My policy is to have no policy.” He put the country on a course of no return.

The end of the American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, fought from 1861 to 1865 between the North and the South, ushered in a new era for Black people—particularly freedom from enslavement and the basic right to be counted as equal. (Post-Civil War some four million slaves were freed.) The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 abolished slavery and forced servitude and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 gave Black people the right to citizenship. These were followed by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 which prohibited the government from prejudicially denying voting privileges to any citizen. This move was tremendously significant in the step towards healing the wounds and forbidden hope of decades of oppression, but this did not come without huge cost that would be paid by African American men and women throughout the country for almost a century to come.

The southern states used various means to disenfranchise African Americans, including exercising poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud, force, and intimation to discourage (and eliminate) Black men from voting. The fight for African American suffrage raged on for decades. This unfair treatment was debated in the press, in Congress, and on the street through numerous protests and marches, rallies, and petitions, sometimes leading to death. A full fifty years after the Fifteenth Amendment passed, Black Americans still found it difficult to vote, especially in the South. “What a Colored Man Should Do to Vote” lists many of the barriers African American voters faced.

Moving Ahead … Despite the Odds

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Demonstrators, black and white, rich and poor, stood together to fight for equal rights of black people and fair and equal voting rights for all. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. Prior to this only 23% of voting-eligible Blacks were registered to vote, but by 1969 that number rose significantly to 61%. The Voting Rights Act strengthened the Civil Rights Movement and began to eliminate the fundamental barriers that had historically prevented equality while laying the foundation for a new normal of diversity and inclusion throughout our society.

From 1928 to the present day, ASALH dedicates each year to a unique theme that inspires continuous learning and activism. “Over the years, the themes reflect changes in how people of African descent in the United States have viewed themselves, the influence of social movements on racial ideologies, and the aspirations of the black community.” This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Black voters are considered a key voting alliance with the Democratic Party. A recent survey of 1200 Black voters showed that Black Americans are more interested in voting in the upcoming election than they were in the election of 2016.


As reported by the Pew Research Center, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other racial or ethnic minorities accounted for 26.7% of voters in 2016, a share unchanged from 2012.

Present Day – The Time is Now

There could not be a more important time in the history of recent elections where standing for ideals that promote the continuity of life matter more. Our society paints the idea that if we collectively, as a people, desire the same social, economic, civil, and cultural advancements, then opportunities to fulfill those wants are accessible to all. It has been roughly 155 years since slavery was abolished and voting rights have been mandated—yet voter turnout in the black community is still low due to jaded minds that the change our forefathers fought and died for will never truly be fully realized.

The time is now. Former President Barack Obama said in his February 5th, 2008 speech to supporters, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the ones we seek.” This election has each of our names handwritten on it. The nation is changing its views on respect, sustainability, enrichment, resilience, religious freedoms, and well-being. Each one, each voice, each vote has the power to literally change the world—and impact how the world sees us. This upcoming 2020 electoral race for the White House has emboldened twenty-seven candidates, both politically seasoned, as well as newly sworn in counterparts, to strap on their boots, focus on the most demanding and challenging societal concerns, and head for the finish line. Just the success of gaining the most coveted political position in the nation leaves many with starry eyed hope and ambition to leave their own individual mark on history.

Politically and globally, it is an exhilarating time to engage in issues that affect the worldwide community running the gamut from curing diseases to ensuring clean running water to climate readiness. It is a perfect time to start (if you haven’t already) a new personal initiative to make the necessary adjustments to life as we have known it by getting more involved in community activities  and making your own mark on history.

Demonstrators walk down a street during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Photo credit: Peter Pettus, 1965, Library of Congress.

Socially, the country is becoming more aware of the world we are a part of and the concerns (and cries) of our brothers and sisters in neighboring countries. We accept and defend the right to be recognized as a global leader with the responsibility to set the tone for social wellness the world over. Economically, we are reaching new heights and chartering new territory, with the U.S. taking the lead position in economic health, at just over $20 trillion in GDP, due in part to high average incomes, a large population of over 327 million people, capital investment, low unemployment rate (3.6%), high consumer spending (71% of GDP), a relatively young population (median age of 38.1 years), and technological innovation. Environmentally, we MUST save the planet. With each election year, we see growing interest to make this an enduring priority for the elected officials at the Federal, State, and local levels through environmental protection and preservation initiatives, like the NYC Carbon Challenge, NYC ZeroWaste, and GreeNYC. Visit for more information.

We can join the present-day civil rights movement like African American heroes of the past and present: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B Du Bois, Jessie Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama, or “Wait for some other person or some other time.”  How will you vote?

For more information on voting in NYC, visit