Fifteen outstanding physics students, all in their third or fourth year of undergraduate studies in leading universities in China, recently participated in a month-long winter school in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Faculty of Physics. The month was meant to end in February – right as the Corona virus outbreak was underway in China and flights were cancelled. The Institute’s Feinberg Graduate School and Faculty of Physics played host, extending their stay by weeks until they could fly home. These students continued working in the labs, and the Institute provided them with everything they needed, for as long as needed.
“From a being place where they had fears about security, the Institute became a haven, and let them delay their return to China, where the news was not encouraging. They all stayed in touch with their families, and it is with not a little trepidation that they are returning home,” says Prof. Binghai Yan of the Institute’s Condensed Matter Physics Department. Prof. Yan has already been in Israel for three years with his wife and two young children. “I have been in touch with all the students on a daily basis, and they all did wonderful work here at the Institute – theoretical as well as experimental. Some even took part in ongoing experiments in the labs to which they had been assigned. My hope is that the Institute will attract more graduate students from these top-tier universities in China, and I believe that the experiences these students had will have an influence, also with their friends back home, Many who came had known little or nothing about Israel or what the Institute offers, and they are applying to study in the US and Europe,” he says.
Boning Li, from Peking University, Beijing, found himself in the lab of Prof. Moty Heiblum of the Condensed Matter Physics Department. He says that he was immediately charmed by the quiet and the beauty of the place. “Before I came, I was a bit nervous about the security situation in Israel; from the news we heard, it seemed like missiles would be flying over our heads in either direction. But passing through the front gate, I found gardens and trees and quiet that I was unused to. In the lab, I was again surprised by the high level – of the equipment, the clean rooms and the research. The lab members treated me like a doctoral student, explaining everything and letting me participate in important experiments. And I felt enriched by being surrounded by so many different cultures and languages.
“And then the Corona outbreak happened. We were all worried, but they brought us together and calmed us down, taking care of all our needs while we waited until we could leave,” he says. “I very much want to return here for my masters’ or doctoral studies – I feel great here, and I will definitely recommend it to my university friends.”
Zhaoyu Bai, who is at the Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, was assigned to the lab of Prof. Gilad Perez of the Particle Physics and Astrophysics Department. Bai was most impressed by the relationship between PIs and students. “I was amazed by the amount of time the group heads devote to each student; I had not expected that. And at first I addressed him as ‘Professor,” but Gilad said to me: ‘Zhaoyu, call me Gilad. We don’t have that kind of hierarchy here between teachers and students.’ That really moved me,” he says with a smile. “When the Corona virus started to spread in China, we were confused and worried, especially as we were in daily contact with our families there. But at the Institute, they told us to call to report any problem – health or emotional. They promised they would take care of everything, and they did, letting us stay the extra weeks until we would return to China. And no, we did not encounter any resistance or prejudice. After my experience, I can say I fully intend to return here,” he said.
Heran Wang, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, may have valued his extended stay in Israel even more than the others: “From the moment the news came out about the Corona outbreak in China, the Institute took care of our visas, and of course our accommodations, and I feel welcome to stay an extra few weeks. My university in China is closed, and all of our coursework is now online, so I can continue to study from the office space kindly lent me here. When I do go back to China, I will tell all my friends about the wonderful opportunity here for conducting research outside of China. I was in the group of Prof. Yuval Oreg, and I did not expect him to have too much time for me, but he spent hours guiding me through my research project. I loved the fact that the research is very active – one can talk about it everywhere, including the kitchen. And I loved the cats that walk around the campus – I became attached to the ones in the faculty and played with them at every opportunity."