Award for research into the miniscule and astronomical


09 December 2009 Award for research into the miniscule and astronomical There is no subject too great, or too small, for the World ORT-Weizmann Institute Excellence Award, which aims to cultivate enthusiasm for science among young Israelis. The panel of judges for this years contest for teenaged scientists was confronted by entries which were impressive not only for their precociousness but for their diversity. This year was very interesting because of the range of topics, from medical research to chemistry, nanotechnology and physics, said World ORT Research and Development Coordinator Dr Yakov Ronkin, who acted as Coordinator of the Award Committee. The entrants schools were also diverse and included a religious school, a kibbutz school and an art-science academy. It was very nice to get the products of such a wide spectrum of the Israeli education system. And I was very pleased to see we had more girls than boys, Dr Ronkin added. The top place was shared by 18-year-olds Gail Weiss and Emily Elhacham, each of whom receive a $4,000 university scholarship. Gail graduated this year from the Mekif Chet High School in Rishon LeTzion and Emily from the Ohel Shem High School in Ramat Gan but are good friends thanks to their participation in a special three-year programme for gifted students at the Weizmann Institute. From left: Gail Weiss, Emily Elhacham, Professor Shimon Vega, Shahar Gvirtz, Or Mischari, Michael Simon, and Dr Yakov Ronkin. The awarding of a joint first prize was a sign of how high the standard was across the board, said the Chairman of the Award Committee, Professor Shimon Vega. The choice is always difficult and I was very impressed by the finalists. They all did a beautiful job, Professor Vega said. Its really special to see there are young people who know what it is to do science. Gails computer code, for example, was really at a high level; it was amazing. But even if they get help at the end of the day they have to do it themselves. And these are committed people: they spent many hours, days and weeks in the laboratory. They are exceptional. The finalists had been among the 82 entrants from across Israel who presented their research to the Davidson Institute for Science Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Emily conducted research into the use of chemical sensors based on metal nanoparticle networks for the detection of organic pollutants in water. Her research, which won her a Diploma of Excellence at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, tested the feasibility of nanosensors to detect low concentrations of organic pollutants. She conducted her research at Tel Aviv University under the supervision of Professor Gil Markovich. The project was an opportunity for her to combine her two loves of nanotechnology and the environment. Chemical contamination of water systems is a major threat to human health so early identification of such contamination can help avoid catastrophe and prevent interruptions of the water supply. I hope this research will open the door for further research in the field of nano-sensors and lead to simple, low-cost solutions for the monitoring of water quality, said Emily, who would like to pursue a career in research. But she said science had much more to teach young people than science itself and she praised ORT and the Weizmann Institute for encouraging scientific education. They are getting weaker as well as stronger students into laboratories and giving them the experience so that they can see what they can do, she said. Giving them the right equipment is so important, not only from the scientific point of view but also for the learning of values such as the use of imagination to think of ideas as well as perseverance and hard work. For Gail, the World ORT-Weizmann Institute Excellence Award was the third major competition she had entered with her research into making an efficient programme to describe the trajectories of stars without sacrificing accuracy. She did the project at the Weizmann Institute with the help of her mentor, Hagai Perets. Computer simulations of the trajectories of stars which are influenced by each others gravitational pull are inefficient because of the large number of variables which need to be calculated. At the same time, such calculations are prone to inaccuracy because they are subject to chaos, so that a small error in measurement grows in a butterfly effect. By applying a standard technique in a slightly unusual way I found that when I ran the programme again I increased the efficiency and also increased the accuracy, Gail said. This was a huge success because we would have expected the opposite. She is not aware of anyone else having made this discovery but cautiously refrains from claiming this as a breakthrough. I never thought my project would get to this stage so Im getting a little fearful that a scientist will come to my door one day and say Ive stolen his idea, she said. Gail, whose father is a professor of electrical engineering and whose mother is a maths teacher, said she would like to pursue a career in academia and she plans to use her scholarship to help fund a degree in maths and computer science. In the meantime, she is due to start her two years national service in February during which time she will use her scientific research skills at the IDFs world-leading laboratory devoted to the investigation of Improvised Explosive Devices. The third place prize of a $2,000 scholarship went to Or Misrachi, from the Cabri-Manor High School in Kibbutz Cabri. Under the mentorship of Professor Zeev Blumenfeld at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, Or investigated the gonadotroping-releasing hormone agonist for protection against premature ovarian failure during cyclophosphamide therapy in women with systemic lupus erythematosus. And science books were awarded to the fourth- and fifth-placed finalists, Michael Simon of the Israeli Art and Science Academy in Jerusalem and Shahar Gvirtz of the AMIT Gush Dan High School in Givat Shmuel. Michaels project, which he conducted at the Lautenberg Centre for General and Tumor Immunology at Hebrew University and the Biomedical Research Institute at Hadassah Medical School, set out to characterise a new receptor found on the surface of lymphocyte cells. And Shahar investigated a new reaction to produce and purify silicon an important element in the electronics industry which required lower temperatures than the procedure currently in use. Dr Ronkin said all of them had shown qualities needed to become good scientists. I was particularly impressed by the way in which they dealt with failure in their experiments, he said. It is a common experience in scientific research that things do not go according to plan. On such occasions, these young people would repeat the experiments and check their data and adapt their experiment accordingly. Its very important not to stop when things dont go your way. The prizes were funded by the UK-based Kennedy Leigh Charitable Trust and World ORT, which operates its programmes in Israel including the Excellence Award under the name Kadima Mada-Educating for Life. The Kennedy Leigh Charitable Trust was established by the late self-made millionaire Michael Kennedy Leigh in 1967, the son of Jewish immigrants to the United Kingdom. The trust, 75 per cent of whose annual allocations go to Israeli beneficiaries, supports a wide range of projects in education, medical research, the arts, coexistence, sport and other fields.