These college students are discovering Israel and their futures

Bar-Ilan University labs abuzz with US undergrads participating in Ninth Annual Internship Program.

Arutz Sheva Staff,

Participants in the annual summer internship program
Participants in the annual summer internship program
Faith Baginsky

"It's impossible to have a more productive summer than I've had," asserts Alexandra Tolmasov. The enthusiastic 20-year-old is just completing nearly seven weeks as a participant in the ninth annual Summer Science Research Internship Program, a joint Bar-Ilan University-Yeshiva University initiative. The Program enables students to gain hands-on experience in emerging scientific fields while being mentored by some of Israel's finest scientists.

This summer, 30 undergraduate science majors from the US, UK, and Holland have been working in a variety of laboratories at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) conducting intensive internships in the University's research laboratories with faculty members from the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Alexander Kofkin Faculty of Engineering, Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences, and the Departments of Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, English Literature and Linguistics, and Psychology.

Alexandra's life has been as chock-full of experience as has this summer. Born in Forest Hills, NY, she moved with her family to her parents' native Moscow when she was six. There she experienced widespread anti-Semitism – both in the city and at the public school she attended. From a young age she wanted to move back to the US to be part of the Jewish community. Her parents still live in Moscow, but Alexandra and her two siblings now make their home in New York and Boston.

Alexandra spent the summer in the Lab of Molecular Mechanism of Aging directed by Prof. Haim Cohen, a world-renowned expert on aging and longevity at Bar-Ilan's Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences. Working with MA student Almog Katz, she had the opportunity to explore how exercise affects aging. They found that mice who exercise have more of the protein SIRT6 which is connected to healthy sleep cycles, DNA repair, glucose metabolism, and stress responses. This may be tied to longer life.

"Within a very short time of Alexandra's arrival, I heard students arguing between them, in a positive way, as to who would work with her. I believe this nicely demonstrates how well she integrated into the lab and contributed to our research," said Prof. Cohen.

This year's program participants are undergrads studying at Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women, Cornell University, University College London, Cooper Union, University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University.

Prof. Arlene Wilson-Gordon, of Bar-Ilan's Department of Chemistry, is directing this year's program. Based on the students' academic background and interests, she paired them with Bar-Ilan faculty members and research assignments that would best enhance their summer experience and promote individual growth and career development.

“The students get an insight into the world-class research that is being carried out in Bar-Ilan's research labs and get to know Israeli graduate students. We hope that some of them will return to Bar-Ilan for their graduate studies and make their homes in Israel," she says.

From Holland to the United Kingdom to the United States to Israel, Jechiel van Dijk is a true globetrotter. Born and raised in Holland he attended yeshiva in the UK before embarking upon his college career. Since he felt that a university abroad would offer him a more suitable social and Jewish life, he traveled west in order to attend Yeshiva University. And this summer he is honing his scientific skills in the Middle East.

During this year's summer break Jechiel has worked in the lab of Dr. Tomer Lewi, of the Kofkin Faculty of Engineering and Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at Bar-Ilan University, whose research interests include nanophotonics, light-matter interactions and metamaterials.

Jechiel reproduced some of the ideas put forth in an academic study published by Dr. Lewi, which focused on the extraordinary inorganic material vanadium dioxide (VO2), and how it reacts to light at certain temperatures.

Used in thermal, electrical and optical devices, VO2 holds great promise for a plethora of applications due to its distinct ability to transition between two very different phases. Below a critical temperature (67 °C), VO2 is in its insulator phase, which means reflects light poorly. Above the critical temperature, VO2 abruptly transitions into a metallic phase, where it highly reflects light, as most metals do.

This unique property allows for dramatic manipulation of the optical properties of VO2 with just a small change in temperature, and hence the ability to use it as an active optical material.

"Jechiel worked on a theoretical model that predicts how much light will be reflected and transmitted when sandwiching VO2 between two other insulating materials," said Dr. Lewi. "His work is the first step in helping our research group to determine what would be the ideal set of materials to couple with VO2 in order to obtain the optimal active optical device."

Of his summer adventure, Jechiel says he enjoyed the combination of Torah and science offered by the program. Socially, he says, "I don’t think I've ever been in such a big group where everyone is such a great person. I've met a lot of people and made long lasting friends." Jechiel will spend the rest of his summer vacation with family in the Netherlands before heading back to New York to complete his Bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics.

For Michal Mizrahi, a pre-med student from Teaneck, New Jersey, this summer may have had a great impact on her future career plans. The 20-year-old pre-med student studied biology in her freshman year at YU's Stern College for Women. But after working in a chemistry lab for the last six-and-a-half weeks, she's now contemplating a move to chemistry. "I was hesitant to work in a chemistry lab because all my lab work until now has been in biology, but I enjoyed my experience at BIU so much this summer that I'm now thinking of going into the chemistry field," she says. "I love the analytics in chemistry and I am now more inclined to drift away from biology."

Michal worked in the lab of Prof. Lior Elbaz, an expert in electrocatalysis and fuel cells from Bar-Ilan's Chemistry Department. Prof. Elbaz's lab at the University's Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials advances the commercialization of fuel cells as an attractive alternative energy source to fossil fuels, in an effort to lower pollution levels, and reduce Israel’s, and the world's, dependence on foreign oil. In her research in Elbaz's lab, she mainly focused on synthesizing platinum nanoparticles on carbon supports, as catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction, to achieve high performance in fuel cells.

According to Prof. Elbaz “it was great having Michal with us this summer, we enjoyed her curiosity for science and very high motivation. Michal is a very fast learner, and she managed to conduct her own research, which yielded some interesting results, in a relatively short period. We would love to have her back in the lab with us again.”

Being younger than most other program participants and with no prior experience in chemistry, Michal had to absorb a wealth of new material at the beginning of the summer, and she says that she was surrounded by a warm environment, including Prof. Elbaz, Dr. Naomi Levi and the graduate students in the lab, where she was motivated to conduct research independently, and gained constant, constructive feedback and much encouragement. She’s been thrilled that she was able to actually see the results of her efforts in the lab.

Until now, the only exposure Michal had to Israel was more of a vacation setting and visiting family. This visit was her first opportunity to sense how it would be to actually live and work in Israel. And given the great environment she worked in over the past few weeks, she's seriously thinking about returning at some point for an extended period and even possibly aliyah (immigration to Israel).

The Summer Science Research Internship Program also includes half-day trips to scientific, industrial, medical, archaeological, and other sites around the country, including IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries), the laboratories of the Agriculture Research Organization (Volcani Center), Soreq Nuclear Research Center, excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, and more, lectures by BIU scholars on a range of topics, as well as night activities, Torah learning, and Shabbatonim at YU's Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, where the group is housed.

Since its inception nine years ago, the program has benefited from the generosity of Dr. Mordecai D. Katz, Honorary Chairman of the Bar-Ilan Board of Trustees, who has supported the YU student participants, and from the J. Samuel Harwit z”l and Manya Harwit-Aviv Charitable Trust.

Alexandra Tolmasov and Almog Katz with their new friend Rachel Mauda
Noga Touitou



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