Dr. Daniela Amann-Zalcenstein began life in Germany in 1974. After receiving her master's degree in biotechnology in 1998, she worked as an engineer for Sequenom – a German company specializing in state-of-the-art genetic analysis technology.
When Sequenom received an order for a genotyping system from Prof. Doron Lancet of the Weizmann Institute's Molecular Genetics Department, the company's engineers hesitated to go to Israel, which they believed to be a war-torn, dangerous place, to install the equipment. All except for Daniela, who shouted: "I'll go!"
Amann-Zalcenstein spent two weeks at the Institute installing the equipment. Later that same year the system ran into some problems, and she returned to Israel to deal with them personally. But there was a customs strike, so the needed tools did not arrive. In the meantime, she participated in group meetings and lectures at the Institute. "I started to feel part of the Weizmann 'family.' By the time the tools arrived, I had fallen in love with the place and decided to do a Ph.D. here."
She commenced her Ph.D. studies in 2002 under the guidance of Prof. Jacqui Beckman, later transferring to Prof. Doron Lancet's group and graduating in 2008. Amann-Zalcenstein's research, in collaboration with Prof. Bernard Lerer, a psychiatrist at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, focused on discovering the genes that cause schizophrenia. Lerer works with an isolated Israeli-Arab population with a high incidence of schizophrenia. The team suspects that they possess a common schizophrenia gene inherited from a founding ancestor.This gene could be relatively easy to detect, as it should be shared by all members of the population. Although a mutation that could give rise to schizophrenia has not yet been found, Daniela and her colleagues think they have found two highly relevant candidate genes that may be associated with this disorder. These have been jointly patented by Hadasit and Yeda – the technology transfer arms of Hadassah Medical School and the Weizmann Institute, respectively.
The Weizmann Institute was not the only thing Daniela fell in love with. "While attending a party, I found myself chatting with a guy called Amir and learnt that he was also a student at the Institute. When I realized our relationship was becoming serious, I had to make a life-changing decision if we were to continue – whether to convert to Judaism." After almost two years of intensive Jewish studies, Amann-Zalcenstein converted and married – she recently gave birth to a baby boy, Jona Benjamin.