Israel’s first female Nobel Prize-winner, Professor Ada Yonath, became an unexpectedly familiar face at the Raya Cowan International Science Summer Camp.
As scheduled, Professor Yonath “ﾓ co-winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her work on ribosomes, which produce proteins in cells “ﾓ delivered a lecture to the 19 high school students from eight countries whom World ORT had brought to the Weizmann Institute of Science for this year’s summer camp. After the lecture there was time to meet some of them personally.
But she surprised everyone by repeatedly visiting her laboratory to see how two students who were performing research there were getting on. Ofek Aloni and Matheus Esteves Ferreira were using X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structure of lysozyme “ﾓ an enzyme responsible for breaking down the sugar coating of bacteria, killing them by causing their cells to rupture. “It was a project that Ada worked on at the start of her career at the Weizmann in the 1960s,” said Dr Matthew Belousoff, who was mentoring the students. “She got really involved with them; she sat with them every day to see what they were doing, getting them to show her their results and would tell all the old stories. She’s normally very busy and doesn’t even see me “ﾓ and I work with her! But she got all excited about seeing the kids working on one of her old projects.”
For Matheus, a student at ORT Brazil, the experience was a dream-come-true.
“I never imagined that I would be so close to a Nobel Prize laureate!” he said. “The summer school has been amazing. Since I was a child I have wanted to do research, maybe because my family is involved in science. Being at the Weizmann Institute, which is the second top research institute in the world, and working in Professor Yonath’s lab “ﾓ it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
It has crystallised, as it were, what Matheus wants to do with his life.
“I want to do medical research and now I’m thinking of using crystallography to study diseases,” he said. “I hope to come to Israel to do research, maybe a Masters at the Weizmann, let’s see. This has been my first time in Israel and I like it.”
The teenagers from Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Italy were selected for the summer school through a series of comprehensive tests and personal interviews from a list nominated by local ORT professionals.
Split into groups of two or three, the students pursued projects ranging from using computers to simulate and study the collisions of sub-atomic particles as measured at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics to investigating the function of cells responsible for the removal and adding of skeletal bone.
At the end of the Summer School each student prepared a detailed written research report and shared their findings with the rest of the participants in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. They will also prepare a report on their activities and present it on returning to their respective schools.
As much as the teenagers loved the science, they also shared a passion for the cultural aspects of the three-week programme, including a weekend in Jerusalem, and tours of Tel Aviv and the Golan.
“I have not only been learning about history, I’ve been living it,” said Luiza Vettorazzo Amaral, also from Brazil. “The only thing that I can’t say was good was the visit to Yad Vashem and the military cemetery at Mount Herzl because it was very sad and all day I was touched by the sadness.”
Jenny Movshovich, from Mexico, particularly enjoyed the hiking and rafting in the Golan Heights.
“It was a very good opportunity for everyone to be together,” she said. “We went to the border between Syria, Lebanon and Israel; the view was incredible and we learned aspects of Israeli history including the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.”
It was Jenny’s second trip to Israel but, she said, much better than her first.
“This time I was with people who share my interests so I could make friends more easily,” she said. “And I got to know Israel from the intellectual as well as the cultural and political point of view. I understand life here much better now. Before, I didn’t want to come to Israel to study but now I’m thinking of doing a Masters here.”
During the Summer Camp Jenny used quantum mechanics and computer simulations to gain a better understanding of the physical properties of medium-sized molecules that are important for the future design of solar cells and optoelectronic devices.
“I found it really interesting; I really learned a lot,” she said. “We had to study advanced math as well as physics and a little bit of chemistry. And the work we did contributes to something good by helping to identify organic compounds which be used to replace toxic and expensive inorganic ones in solar cells.”
In learning about the world about them the young scientists also learned about themselves. Keren Goldsmith, from Kibbutz Evron near Nahariya, waxed philosophically after delving into the modification of gold nanostructures by etching in various solutions.
“Before I came to the Summer School I was thinking about how it would help me and my grades. But since I got here I have seen science on such a large scale that I appreciate [John] Donne’s words, that no man is an island. Science affects so many people, it affects so much, you start to see how really important it is,” Keren said.
She added: “Albert Einstein said it’s not knowledge that matters, it’s imagination. Here, I have learned that I am made of the same atoms, the same energy of all material on Earth. Therefore, I don’t need to trust only knowledge “ﾓ all the knowledge and the logic of the world exists in me. This why we have imagination “ﾓ to see and experience the invisible, to uncover the secrets of the universe.”
Working on the nanostructure of gold in ways which could have radical implications for the treatment of cancer opened whole new worlds to Keren.
“At the end of the process, when you see the tiny particles, you feel a deep connection with them,” she said. “You have touched them, controlled them. Then you understand the infinity of eternity, every particle or chemical reaction never ends, it influences and keeps on moving to create different realities which I am having a difficult time to understand deeply.”
Bulgarian student Izabel Milcheva was surprised how the Summer School allowed her to come out of her shell.
“Even though I’m shy I found it easy to make new friends; I was really surprised. I will definitely try to keep in contact with everyone when we leave. We have got a lot of things in common because the science is the thing that connects us,” Izabel, a student at the Lauder-ORT Dimcho Debeljanov Jewish School in Sofia, said.
Izabel’s project was aimed at understanding the connection between the physical, chemical properties of molecules which cause odour and the perception of that odour by humans and mice.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “We worked with some unpleasant smells but nothing really horrible.”
Although not religious, Izabel was moved by experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem.
“When I saw all the people singing and dancing the atmosphere was really special,” she said. “I was really touched by the way they celebrated this Holy day.”
World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer congratulated the students on their achievements and thanked the scientists and staff who ensured the Summer camp was such a success.
“I am particularly grateful to Robert Levine in New York for his help in obtaining the necessary funds without which none of this would have been possible; just one of the many ways he supports the Jewish People,” Mr Singer said.
World ORT’s Raya Cowan International Science Summer Camp has been made possible thanks to a donation of more than $300,000 to ORT America from the estate of Raya Cowan, a Polish refugee who became a US citizen in 1946.