Expanding the Limits of the Possible


The Weizmann Institute of Science confers nine honorary PhDs

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A rock star, a Paralympic swimmer and a Nobel Prize in Physics laureate were among the nine recipients of honorary Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Weizmann Institute of Science on Monday, November 7, bestowed upon them in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to society.

“Each one of tonight’s honorees has expanded the limits of the possible, while inspiring others to fulfill their own boundless potential,” Prof. Alon Chen, president of the Weizmann Institute, said at the conferment ceremony, hosted by news anchor Lucy Aharish on campus at the Michael Sela Auditorium. Part of the Institute’s 74th Annual General Meeting of the International Board, the ceremony and related events are taking place in person – and as usual – for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recipients of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s PhD honoris causa for 2022 are:

Dr. Jessica Meir, USA

Dr. Jessica Meir is a comparative physiologist and NASA astronaut. Born and raised in Maine, USA to an Israeli father and a Sweden-born mother, Dr. Meir completed in 2009 her PhD in marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California, San Diego, focusing on physiological aspects of marine birds and mammals, studying also mechanisms for coping with oxygen deficiency. In 2012, she became assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2013, NASA selected her for its 21st astronaut class. She served as a flight engineer on the International Space Station on two expeditions in 2019-2020, contributing to multiple scientific experiments. Raised in a Jewish household, Dr. Meir has expressed a deep connection to Israel and even brought an Israeli flag with her to the International Space Station. Dr. Meir is being honored in recognition of her far-reaching explorations of the furthest corners of Earth and beyond in search of new knowledge; her proud connection to Israel and her tireless work in advancing scientific outreach and of the shining example she has set for aspiring young scientists the world over to take risks and pursue ambitious goals.

Ms. Keren Leibovitch, Israel

One of Israel’s greatest Paralympians, Ms. Keren Leibovitch is a three-time world swimming champion, a five-time European champion and a seven-time Paralympic medal winner, including four gold medals. She has set multiple world records and has served over the years as an eloquent and inspiring spokesperson both in Israel and abroad for athletes with disabilities, combining her exceptional physical talent with perseverance, initiative, and heart. Ms. Leibovitch was born in Israel in 1973. At 18, she became paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident while training to be an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. She began swimming competitively as part of her rehabilitation. Later she was able to leave her wheelchair – she can now move on crutches – thanks to Pilates training that she began in preparation for swimming across the English Channel. Ms. Leibovitch is a single mother of four boys (two sets of twins). She is being honored in recognition of her exceptional accomplishments as a world champion; serving as a powerful example of a victory of mind over body and for serving as an inspirational role model for all people.

Mr. Harvey Knell, USA

A prominent business executive and influential community leader, Mr. Harvey Knell is president of KCB Management, a family office and an investment firm. Mr. Knell has multiple leadership roles. A member of the Weizmann Institute’s International Board since 2014, Mr. Knell was elected as a Life Member in 2019. He is also an active member of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he is on the Board of Directors and serves as Vice Chair for Financial Resource Development. Mr. Knell and his wife, Dr. Ellen Knell, a fellow PhD honoris causa recipient, are generous supporters of the Weizmann Institute and advocates for it in California and beyond. Mr. Knell is being honored in recognition of his pioneering role and professional achievements as a distinguished business leader; his commitment to charity and of his conviction and enthusiasm in answering the needs of the Weizmann Institute and its American Committee.

Dr. Ellen Knell, USA

Dr. Ellen Knell is a geneticist who specializes in cancer-risk assessment and genetic testing and is active in Professional Child Development Associates, a nonprofit helping autistic children. She is also a past president of Southwest Chamber Music, an ensemble that won two Grammy Awards during her tenure. Together with her husband, Harvey Knell, who is also a PhD honoris causa recipient, Dr. Knell founded a philanthropic foundation that supports education, arts, culture, research, and Jewish causes. Longtime members of the Weizmann Institute family, the couple in 2013 established the Knell Family Professorial Chair at the Institute. They also provided funding for the development of the Weizmann UK Building for Biocomplexity Research. Most recently, they established the Knell Family Center for Microbiology. The Knells have three sons and six grandchildren. Dr. Knell is being honored in recognition of her professional endeavors, dedication, and commitment to the field of cancer genetics, her deep resolve to guarantee the wellbeing and future of the Jewish people and Israel and her invaluable friendship with the Weizmann Institute.

Prof. Nancy Hopkins, USA

Born in New York City in 1943, Prof. Emerita Nancy Hopkins has made significant contributions to research of basic molecular biology, the genetics of cancer viruses and the genetics of early vertebrate development. Prof. Hopkins, whose research has helped shape our understanding of how genes are turned on and off, is also a pioneer in advancing the role of women in science. She completed a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry at Harvard University and in 1973 joined MIT’s Center for Cancer Research. Prof. Hopkins chaired the committee that authored an influential 1999 study on the status of women faculty in science and is the co-founder of the MIT Future Founders Initiative to increase the number of female faculty members who start biotechnology companies. Prof. Hopkins is being honored in recognition of her pioneering scientific research and revolutionary advocacy for gender equity in science.

Mr. Shalom Hanoch, Israel

Often called the father of Israeli rock, Mr. Shalom Hanoch was born in 1946 in Kibbutz Mishmarot in northern Israel. A composer, lyricist and singer, Mr. Hanoch’s musical oeuvre since the 1960s has shaped the Israeli soundtrack and become a touchstone for cultural identity. At 14, Mr. Hanoch was already writing songs. He collaborated with the late Meir Ariel, another pillar of Israeli culture. After serving in Lehakat HaNachal, an Israeli entertainment troupe and a greenhouse for musical talent, Mr. Hanoch partnered up with the late singer Arik Einstein. Their collaboration gave birth to seminal recordings, including the Shablul album, which introduced Israelis to Anglo-American rock ‘n’ roll. His works – including powerful social commentary numbers like “Mehakim LeMashiach” (“Waiting for Mashiach”) – have had an indelible mark on the Israeli cultural scene. Mr. Hanoch is being honored in recognition of his extraordinary musical and poetic talent, versatility and incomparable contribution to modern Hebrew music.

Mr. Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, USA

Mr. Sandor (Sandy) Frankel is a practicing attorney with decades’ worth of experience, an award-winning author and a trustee of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust – a major promoter of public health and prosperity, including in Israel. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., Mr. Frankel has led the Israel program of the Trust, which has distributed some $3 billion since 2008 to charitable projects worldwide. In Israel, it has improved access to quality healthcare, and strengthened Israel's leadership in science, technology and medicine – including by funding the Weizmann Institute’s research of Crohn's and inflammatory bowel disease. Mr. Frankel is being honored for his benevolent spirit, imbued with compassion and pragmatism, and motivated by a deep affinity to Israel, as well as for his enthusiasm for innovation and discovery through the Helmsley Trust.

Prof. Steven Chu, USA

The groundbreaking research of Prof. Steven Chu has given impetus to the ongoing renaissance in atomic physics and quantum optics research. In 1997, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to him jointly with Profs. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips, for his enormous contributions to laser manipulation of atomic motion. Born in 1948 in St. Louis, Missouri, Prof. Chu completed his PhD studies in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. A former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Prof. Chu teaches physics, among other fields, at Stanford. His methods have revolutionized scientists’ ability to perform precision measurements and control atomic systems, advancing fundamental understanding of quantum physics, the properties of matter, light-atom interactions and new physics. Prof. Chu is being honored for these contributions as well as for his visionary leadership in the field of renewable and sustainable energy and for his exemplary service as a role model to generations of young scientists.

Mr. Gary M. Abramson, USA

Mr. Gary M. Abramson is a top real-estate entrepreneur and a longtime pillar of the Washington, D.C. Jewish community. A partner at Tower Companies, the firm that Mr. Abramson’s father, Albert, founded in 1947, Mr. Abramson is a pioneer of sustainable building practices in the United States. Mr. Abramson, who is a Life Member of the Weizmann Institute’s International Board, and his wife, Mrs. Pennie Abramson, are generous supporters of multiple Weizmann Institute endeavors and share a deep dedication to advancing the future of science in Israel. The couple have three children and four grandchildren. Mr. Abramson is being honored for his visionary commitment to socially responsible, sustainable real-estate development; his generous dedication to nurturing the scientific leaders of tomorrow and his unstinting efforts to foster multigenerational ties between his family and the Weizmann Institute of Science.