By Nofit Milstein
REHOVOT, Israel -- June 12, 1998 -- "The first thing my professor did after meeting me at the airport at 5 a.m. was to take me to the supermarket. Then he showed me around the Weizmann Institute campus. Having been brought up in Japan and done my M.Sc. at MIT, the informality of the whole thing left me in a state of shock," says Yasuto Tanaka, a Ph.D. neurobiology student at the Weizmann Institute of Science. A broad smile accompanies his hand gestures. "Now I can't think of anyone acting in any other way. When I visit Japan, I'm hit with culture shock."
This is not an isolated case. "Informality and accessibility to scientists of all disciplines are central to a student's academic success," says Prof. Samuel Safran, Dean of the Weizmann Institute's Feinberg Graduate School. "Since we are relatively small, we can provide an excellent 2:1 student-faculty ratio. A free exchange of ideas, combined with a very high degree of flexibility to follow interdisciplinary programs, gives students the means and the freedom to pursue their particular scientific interests."
This week, the Feinberg Graduate School celebrated its 40th anniversary. At a festive ceremony, 160 graduates - including some 30 foreign students from nine countries - received their degree certificates. There were 93 Ph.D. and 67 M.Sc. recipients, including 53 women and 107 men. This latest class brings the total number of graduates produced by the School since it was founded to about 3,000.
Sergei Soloviev, who came to Feinberg from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, says, "There are a great number of famous scientists here and many visitors from all over the world. Speaking with them freely and directly is much more useful than just reading their papers." Soloviev is working towards a Ph.D. in cognitive sciences, combining research in applied mathematics and computer science with neurobiology.
"I remember several occasions when I returned reinvigorated to the lab after crossing the lawn and coincidentally meeting a scientist from another discipline who gave me a different angle to my problem. That's possible at the Weizmann Institute, which is small yet encompasses so many disciplines. Frequently, ideas are born just by bumping into someone," says Feinberg graduate Naomi Balaban who is now a pathologist at the University of California at Davis. In the spring, Balaban drew international attention when she discovered a way to circumvent the need for antibiotics in the fight against a common type of bacteria.
Weizmann Institute students are free of the difficulties Albert Einstein professed to have come across in his studies. "[My teachers] scorned me for my independence and passed me over when they wanted assistants," he once wrote. The Feinberg Graduate School takes a different approach.
"The Weizmann Institute gave me the opportunity to be unconventional and to carry out my ideas; that definitely set the stage for what I am doing today," says Balaban.
"Graduate students at the Institute aren't teaching assistants, since there is no undergraduate body on campus. A student is a member of the research team and receives a stipend to study full time," says Andreas Schwarz from Germany, who received his Ph.D. at this week's ceremony. His interest lies in biological chemistry and he collaborated with three other departments at the Institute during his Ph.D. studies. "Professors are more available to help you since they have no undergraduate courses to teach - you can knock at the door of a renowned professor to ask him a question and he'll offer you a cup of coffee."
Classes are in English, and an international atmosphere permeates the campus. The Feinberg Graduate School is the only academic institution in Israel whose courses are automatically accredited in the United States (under charters granted by the State of Israel and the Board of Regents of the State of New York). "The presence of visiting scientists from a broad spectrum of countries adds fresh viewpoints and research methods. Our scientists' strong international reputations attract top postdoctoral researchers and scientists from around the world," says Prof. Safran.
Dov Grossman, from Los Angeles, did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and is now pursuing his graduate studies at the Institute. "When I want an insight into the tension between India and Pakistan, all I have to do is go to a nearby lab to ask two students from India whom I know." Grossman's research: combining organic and biological chemistry in order to devise a synthetic substitute for insulin.
Although professional considerations are what bring most of the students to the Weizmann Institute, Andreas Schwarz points out, "The atmosphere here is ideal for scientific research in all of its aspects. Even the climate itself: There's no underestimating the fact that almost every day when you wake up, there's a clear blue sky waiting there for you."
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.