1000 WORDS

By Carin M. Smilk, JNS.org

It seems that not a week goes by without hearing news of some technological breakthrough undertaken by Israelis. The biomedical developments alone — heart surgery using sounds waves, the first country to perform an “artificial meniscus” implant, innovative ways of detecting cancer cells in the human body—have made international headlines, with more advances to come. Many of these can be credited to the nation’s academic institutions; while small in number, they remain big in productivity.

The Technion‒Israel Institute of Technology is one of them.

Quietly going about doing the research and development it does, the world-renowned university in Haifa has possessed marked breakthroughs since its beginnings in 1913 — a full 35 years before the establishment of modern-day Israel.

Well, maybe not so quietly: Just this week, it has been reported that the Technion will handle two experiments as part of a joint Israeli-Italian microgravity medical-experimentation project and space launch slated for the end of March.

But leaving these impressive ventures aside, what it really comes down to is the innovation of its students and faculty, coupled with its administrative leadership, which for the past several months has been led by Uri Sivan of the school’s faculty of physics. Officially elected last Feb. 7, he took the helm as president on Oct. 1.

Sivan, 64, points out that Israel has gone through tremendous changes in the past three decades as the economy has transformed dramatically, and the technological impact has grown along with it.

“The country today is booming,” he told JNS. “There has been a technological revolution that has led to Israel being called the ‘startup nation.’ ”

Developments in the biomedical industry, computer sciences, health and human services, mathematics, engineering, security and defense contribute to the making of “a world-class university that educates technological and societal leaders,” notes Sivan. And one’s that’s inclusive, he adds.

Being in Haifa and further from the politics that embroil Israel’s other major cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, students can more unobtrusively go about their business of academics and research. Being in Israel’s diverse north, Technion also draws a significant number of Arab students — about 20 percent — as part of its total enrollment of about 9,500 undergraduates and 4,500 graduate students. Add to that a minority empowerment program that includes boosts for Ethiopian, women and haredi students.

“We aim to be an island of pluralism and tolerance, to serve as a beacon for those values,” says Sivan. “We are creating a just and non-discriminatory environment where everybody feels good and brings their individual potential to the maximum so as to succeed. Our social role is very important to us.”

Increase Young People’s Interest In Nanotechnology
Sivan, a resident of Haifa and father of three, served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics; a master’s degree in physics; and a Ph.D. in physics, all with honors, from Tel Aviv University. He joined the Technion’s physics department in 1991.

His research has covered a range of fields, including quantum mesoscopic physics, and the harnessing of molecular and cellular biology for the self-assembly of miniature electronic devices. His group at the university designs and builds ultra-high-resolution atomic force microscopes.

He and Dr. Ohad Zohar of the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute at the Technion (of which Sivan is founding director, and headed between 2005 and 2010) engraved the entire Hebrew Bible onto a small silicon chip. On a gold-plated silicon chip the size of a grain of sugar, the “Nano Bible” was written as part of an educational program developed to increase young people’s interest in science and nanotechnology. Its text consists of more than 1.2 million letters carved with a focused beam of gallium ions and must be magnified 10,000 times to be readable, according to the American Technion Society.

In 2009, President Shimon Peres presented the Nano Bible to Pope Benedict XVI during his official visit to Israel. The three copies of the chip are at the Vatican Library; the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.; and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Over the course of his career, he has been awarded the Mifal Hapais Landau Prize for the Sciences and Research, the Rothschild Foundation Bruno Prize, the Israel Academy of Sciences Bergmann Prize, the Technion’s Hershel Rich Innovation Award and the Taub Award for Excellence in Research. He also sits on a number of scientific advisory boards.

So how does he intend to apply his prodigious scholarly contributions to a new phase of work at the university — that of building other less concrete bridges to the world?

He notes three major directions for investment, both intellectually and fiscally.

The first, he explains, is continuing a process that started several years ago in relation to the network of multidisciplinary centers at Technion. “We are in the process of restructuring our research to build on human health, energy, environmental sustainability, education and advanced manufacturing. These subjects cannot be addressed in a single discipline.”

Practically, he adds, this means restructuring the campus as well, physically housing these areas of research and its researchers together.

More foreign faculty would help as well in “this global world” and endeavor, says Sivan.

Second, he speaks to a different type of education in areas of math, science and engineering.

“We aim at the highest bracket; our graduates lead the industry,” he says. “But we have to start a center embedding leadership skills in a more general arena, on nontraditional studies like entrepreneurship, ethics, environmental awareness — skills that are different from conventional engineering. We believe these are essential for the technological leaders of tomorrow.”

He calls them “soft skills,” though integral in the making of contemporary researchers, scientists and engineers.

And lastly, he considers the ecosystem within the industry — what he describes as the loss of a monopoly over knowledge. “Just a few years ago, university professors were the sole source of information and authority. This is not the case now. People have easy access to information and there have been major developments in communication; basic research is now done in the outside industry and not as much in academia.”

And so, one of his goals is also one of his challenges.

“The companies doing research today don’t necessarily represent the interest of societies, as universities do. They focus on commercialization. It’s the flip side of the startup nation: how to serve society versus financial gain.”

One way to do that, he says, is to build ties with the industry on both local and global scale. We need to reach a new understanding with those companies,” stresses Sivan. “They need to understand that their long-term interest is in preserving academic interest and protecting curiosity-driven research. We need to streamline the technology transfer from the university to tech and startup companies.”

Money and academia, he states (cue audible sigh). “It is challenging. We’re going to work on that.”

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