Math and Physical Sciences

Grantee Spotlight: Stony Brook University

Stony Brook, New York, USA
By Thomas Sumner | November 17, 2022
The academic mall at Stony Brook University. Credit: John Griffin/Stony Brook University.

When New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller broke ground on Stony Brook University in 1960, he set an ambitious goal for the fledgling institution: to become “the Berkeley of the East.”

More than 60 years later, the university has cemented itself as a premier place for education and research. Stony Brook ranks 31st on U.S. News & World Report’s 2022-23 public university list and is in the top 1 percent of universities globally, according to QS World University Rankings. The university’s research accomplishments include estimating the moon’s age, creating the first MRI of a living organism and unearthing a link between birds and dinosaurs.

Given Stony Brook’s track record of success, the institution was a natural partner in Simons Foundation International’s mission to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The university also has a special connection to Simons Foundation International (SFI) co-founders Jim and Marilyn Simons: Jim Simons previously chaired Stony Brook’s math department, and Marilyn Simons received her Ph.D. in economics from the university.

“This is an institution that is near and dear to Jim and Marilyn, and they want to support the work that’s happening there,” says Roxanne Delaney, who works with SFI as vice president of the U.S.-based Simons Foundation.

SFI currently funds a diverse range of programs at Stony Brook, including a center devoted to geometry and theoretical physics, research opportunities in Kenya, and a program that supports underrepresented students in STEM.

“The Simons Foundation and SFI are the epitomes of true, valued partners,” says Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. “Their leadership has been transformational for this university’s faculty, students and alumni over the last two decades, and they are helping to catapult us toward the exciting next chapter of Stony Brook’s history.”

“The Simons Foundation has long been a partner of Stony Brook and helped support a wide range of programs,” says SFI President David Spergel. “With its growing programs, SFI aims to play an important role in supporting excellence at Stony Brook University, one of the flagships of the State University of New York.”

Simons Center for Geometry and Physics
From Euclid’s geometry to Newton’s calculus, progress in mathematics and physics has long been deeply intertwined: Headway in one discipline spurs discoveries in the other. With support from SFI, the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics (SCGP) at Stony Brook promotes this important interplay by bridging the gap between mathematicians and theoretical physicists.

The Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University. Credit: Danski14/

Founded in 2007, the center houses some of the world’s leading minds in theoretical physics and geometry. Faculty members range from up-and-coming postdocs to distinguished senior researchers. They engage in deep thinking and exchange ideas with one another and with world-renowned visiting scholars on topics including cosmology, string theory, the Stokes phenomenon and applied mathematics.

“At the SCGP, we get to work together across disciplines and explore big ideas in a setting that inspires creativity and collaboration,” says center director Luis Álvarez-Gaumé, a theoretical physicist who studies string theory and quantum gravity. “I am incredibly grateful, both personally and as a Stony Brook University scholar, for the opportunity to engage in such deeply meaningful research and discourse.”

Turkana Basin Institute
For more than 4 million years, Kenya’s Lake Turkana has witnessed changes in climate, ecosystem shifts, and the evolution of new animal species — including early humans walking on two legs.

Archaeologists with the Turkana Basin Institute screen for fossils. Credit: Turkana Basin Institute

In 2007, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey partnered with Stony Brook to construct the Turkana Basin Institute, a long-term research facility near the Turkana lakeshore. The institute, supported by SFI, enables scientists and students to conduct research in the “living laboratory” of the Lake Turkana Basin.

Researchers at the institute use new technologies such as DNA testing, remote sensing, geographic information systems and high-resolution aerial photography to open doors in archaeology, paleontology and evolution. Stony Brook acts as the institute’s academic base, providing facilities and support for graduate and postdoctoral students from the United States and Africa.

“The Lake Turkana Basin is one of the world’s most remarkable areas for science,” says Lawrence Martin, director of the Turkana Basin Institute and a professor at Stony Brook. “The institute provides the valuable infrastructure that allows us to explore and learn from this truly extraordinary resource.”

Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program
Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are a fast-growing segment of the U.S. job market. They offer upward economic mobility and are essential to driving progress in nearly every industry. Yet Black and Latine workers hold only 17 percent of U.S. STEM jobs despite making up 28 percent of the overall workforce.

“We need scientists and mathematicians who are reflective of our diverse world, and the scientific and educational communities must work together to find, train and support underrepresented scientists and mathematicians,” Spergel says.

Together, Stony Brook University, SFI and the Simons Foundation are working to bolster and improve the pathways to STEM careers for underrepresented students. The Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars program, announced in May 2022, will provide scholarships, housing and stipends to up to 50 new Stony Brook students each year in the STEM fields. The university will welcome its first cohort of scholars in fall 2023.

“The Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars program will allow young people to reach their potential as they bring new, much-needed diversity of perspective to science and innovation,” says McInnis. “At any given time, we will have 200 future STEM leaders on our campus, forging their way in the STEM fields and setting the stage for future generations of students to follow in their footsteps. I cannot wait to welcome our first cohort to Stony Brook in 2023.”

An ongoing partnership
Stony Brook and SFI plan to continue working together to drive scientific progress. For example, SFI supports Stony Brook’s proposal to build a climate science research facility, the Center for Climate Solutions, on Governors Island in New York Harbor. If selected, the proposal would reimagine the island as a global hub for climate science research and innovation managed by Stony Brook.

“Stony Brook is an outstanding university that plays a critical role in training the scientific workforce of the future,” Spergel says. “SFI aims to support SBU and enable them to become an even stronger institution.”

Grantee Spotlight: Stony Brook University