Breaking the Silence

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Profs. Karen Avraham and Yoram Groner. Uncovering genes


Working toward breaking a silence to which millions of children and adults are condemned, Karen Avraham, Associate Professor of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and Chair of the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, has been studying the Israeli and Palestinian deaf populations to identify the genes and mutations that lead to hearing impairment.

While studying for her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, St. Louis, Karen decided to accept the mundane job of washing glassware for a molecular biology lab. "As time went by, I found myself washing less glassware and immersing myself more in the research that was being carried out in the lab: the cloning of tubulin genes; tubulin proteins make up microtubules that serve as structural components within cells," explains Karen.
After completing her first degree in biology in 1984, Karen decided to immigrate to Israel. "I decided I wanted to study something more medically related, and I found the perfect combination in Prof. Yoram Groner's lab in the Weizmann Institute's Molecular Genetics Department; he offered me the opportunity to work with him in unraveling the genetic basis of Down's syndrome."
Groner had discovered a certain gene a few years earlier and found that when it is overexpressed, it leads to some of the symptoms of Down's syndrome. To study the gene further, Karen created a transgenic mouse model – one of the first to be made not only at the Weizmann Institute, but in the whole of Israel at the time – allowing them to look at the expression of the gene and understand its effects more thoroughly.
"The atmosphere in Yoram's lab was fantastic. It was such a supportive environment; there was no such thing as 'it can't be done'," says Karen. "I was also fortunate to be surrounded by so many role models at the Institute, particularly the women, who served as an inspiration to women like myself."
"There is no doubt in my mind that the Institute was instrumental in my receiving an excellent postdoctoral position at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, Maryland, where I began working on the genetics of deafness."
Karen returned to Israel after completing her postdoctoral training and accepted the faculty position at Tel Aviv University, where she currently works, allowing her to continue researching the genetics of deafness. She has also been collaborating with a Palestinian professor, Moien Kanaan of Bethlehem University, with whom Groner had acquainted her, and together they have published several papers in leading journals.