Fighting Cancer the Empty-Handed Way


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Prof. Israel Rubinstein. Scientist and black belt in karate


Slicing the air in a flurry of powerful, yet calculated motions, Prof. Israel Rubinstein lashes out at his invisible foe with the mastery of a black belt karate fighter.

Which in fact he is. When not in the lab, Rubinstein of the Weizmann Institute's Materials and Interfaces Department, seems to tackle unusual challenges - like picking up karate at age 45 in the Dojo (class) of Asher Chen, one of Israel's leading Shotokan instructors. "My son is to blame," he says, smiling. "I wanted to encourage him to do more physical activity. We attended a trial lesson and ended up training together for five years."

Shotokan karate-do has its roots in ancient religious rites. Over fourteen hundred years ago, Daruma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, introduced the monks at his monastery to arduous training techniques designed to soften the spiritual and physical challenges of their path. These methods were later imported to Okinawa, a group of Japanese offshore islands, where they blended with the indigenous fighting techniques.

Karate is a dance of rhythm, rigorous technique, power, and intense concentration, wrapped within traditional Oriental values. Honoring ones opponent, developing strong character, and avoiding conflict - these are the pillars upon which kara-te-do, meaning the empty-handed way, revolves. "Insecurity, in its various forms, is often what pushes a potentially violent situation over the edge," says Rubinstein. "While karate is a potent art of self defense, its central philosophy is to nurture physical prowess together with strength of spirit in order to resolve conflicts nonviolently."

Some obstacles are internal. By 1996, Rubinstein had worked his way up to a brown Ikkyu belt and was eyeing the next challenge, the black Shodan belt, when he found out that he had cancer. "It was a terrible blow, emotionally and physically," he said. "I hadn't been feeling well for quite some time, but learning that I had cancer was devastating."

One of the first steps that Rubinstein took was to track down the Swedish physician Professor Kjell Oberg, world renowned for treating his rare form of the disease. Another was to resolve to continue leading his research group and to resume studying karate. "Modern science is so adept at conquering disease that people often fail to contribute their own healing. I believe in both," says Rubinstein.

Receiving chemotherapy treatments regularly, Rubinstein suffered the side effects afflicting many cancer patients - extreme weakness and localized pain. His training often helped him. "My karate training became a goal to strive for and a source of encouragement. It strengthened my ability to cope with the disease and maintain my normal life as much as possible," he said. "The lessons are also great for relieving the stress of scientific research. In fact, our karate group consists of quite a few scientists from Weizmann and the nearby Hebrew University campus. Challenging or "stubborn" research problems, the tediousness of grant proposal writing - all these are blocked out as the lesson begins. "This may be due," he adds, "to the deep concentration called for in karate, in focusing on your opponent while remaining alert to the surrounding environment. Kata movements, for instance, the core of karate training since antiquity, are meant to overcome numerous attackers from several directions."

In 1998, after his chemotherapy regimen subsided, giving more time for recuperation and training in between, Rubinstein decided to tackle his original goal, the Shodan black belt. "I passed the exam together with 24 other students, tested by a nationwide panel of karate masters. While we were all extremely excited by the accomplishment, I must admit that it held particular meaning for me," he said in his low-key way. "I have my family, my coach, and my fellow karate students, all of whom supported me in whatever way they could, to thank for this."

Karate requires you to reconsider and modify your natural movements, said Rubinstein. You have to shift your center of gravity as low as possible in order to enhance stability and learn how to siphon the body's collective strength through the hip, directly onto the target. Sounds like a strong approach for dealing with life's changing deck of cards.


While at work, Prof. Israel Rubinstein concentrates on projects of very different dimensions  more along the nanometer (one-millionth of a millimeter) scale. A leader in the fields of electrochemistry and nanomaterials, Rubinstein's research group focuses on creating ultra-thin films on electrodes as part of the current trend in science and technology toward miniaturization. Working with Prof. Abraham Shanzer of the Organic Chemistry Department, Rubinstein has recently developed molecular mono- and multi-layered films on metal substrates that can be structurally controlled using specific chemical reactions. The films are designed for use as super-miniature electronic and optical elements, which are the basis of modern technology - the fundamental units in radio, TV, computers, and various communication systems. Collaborating with Prof. Gary Hodes of the Materials and Interfaces Department, Rubinstein's group has made important headway in efforts to create a single-electron transistor, significantly smaller than current transistors. Their achievements may contribute to the development of future miniature electro-optical devices.

Prof. Israel Rubinstein's research is supported by the Henri Gutwirth Fund and the Philip Klutznick Endowed Scientific Research Fund.