An Interview with Prof. Sam Safran

01.10.1995

 

Prof. Samuel Safran. New responsibilities

Q: What are your goals as Dean of the Institute's Feinberg Graduate School?

A
: I want to maintain the highest standards of academic excellence, while preserving the Feinberg School's unique informality. That means admitting students with demonstrated scholastic achievements and providing them with superior opportunities to learn. Unlike many schools where a distance is maintained between student and advisor, the School long ago developed a system whereby students spend most of their time working and studying directly with an Institute scientist -- right in the scientist's lab. We also don't impose many required courses on our students. This translates into a learning environment that is refreshingly informal -- and highly conducive to both good training and good research.

Q
: The Weizmann Institute is an academic institution devoted primarily to basic research. Yet prior to joining the Institute's Faculty of Chemistry five years ago, you worked in research labs of the Exxon petroleum company in the United States. Is there a conflict between the domains of pure and applied research?

A
: The borders between pure and applied research are disappearing. At Exxon, I engaged in fundamental research -- but I investigated the properties of materials that were of direct interest to the company. I believe it is stimulating for scientists to look at real-world problems -- they give vitality to basic research. Science is essential to technological development, and we cannot afford to be so removed from the real world that we ignore the applications of science to that world.

Q
: Science is often seen as an activity somehow remote from other endeavors. Yet you have said that science is an integral part of human culture. Could you explain this statement?

A
: An artist painting a sunset is expressing something of our relationship with the natural world. A scientist studying the scattering of solar radiation is doing essentially the same thing. He or she is just focusing on another aspect of our relationship to the world. Both are valid ways of viewing and understanding nature. Science is thus an inherent part of human culture, and scientific progress is an important cultural activity. Moreover, both good scientists and good artists seek to provide their work with strength by conveying as much as possible in as "elegant" a form as possible.

Q
: The Feinberg Graduate School is relatively small compared to some of its well-known American and European counterparts. How does its size affect the quality of its programs?

A
: Because we're relatively small, with only some 200 master's and 500 doctoral candidates, we can provide an excellent 2:1 student-faculty ratio and maintain a "family" feeling with relative ease. The School is an integral part of the Weizmann Institute, and our scientists' strong international reputations enable them to attract top postdoctoral researchers in varied disciplines. This not only maintains the Institute's high research standards, but it allows Feinberg students to work with some of the best people in their field. Furthermore, with no undergraduate body, the research environment is intensive. And while a majority of our students are Israelis, a substantial percentage comes from abroad, lending the School a wonderful international flavor. All in all, it's an atmosphere that's conducive to producing first-rate scientists.

Q
: Your doctorate is in physics, yet you are a member of the Institute's Faculty of Chemistry. How did this come about?

A
: The Faculty of Chemistry is the most diverse and interdisciplinary of all the Institute's faculties. It has a Department of Structural Biology, as well as a Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research, a field which is by nature interdisciplinary. The work of other departments within the Faculty relates chemistry to biology, physics and even mathematics. Since scientific research today is multidimensional, it is timely that the Dean -- for the first time -- comes from the Chemistry Faculty. It is really a microcosm of the Institute as a whole.

Q
: What additional qualities should the Dean of the Feinberg Graduate School possess?

A
: The Dean has special responsibilities, not only as a scientist, but also as an educator. In addition to working with graduate students, my office also bears responsibility for the Department of Science Teaching and the Youth Activities Section. Both of them focus, in different ways, on science education for youth. I am not an educator per se, but I have great respect for education and a strong interest in graduate education in particular. In fact, I recently completed a graduate-level textbook on surfaces, interfaces and membranes. But the book is also addressed to materials scientists, chemical engineers and physicists, and attempts to present for these professionals modern ways of looking at materials. I am also collaborating in developing a new course for our chemistry and materials science students -- The Structure and Physical Properties of Materials -- for the fall semester. During my term, I hope to be able to continue and expand on the contributions of the previous Deans and enable many students to embark on a fruitful scientific career.
 

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