Author: Ausftau

Global First: Center for Combating Pandemics

TAU is combining interdisciplinary expertise with Israeli ingenuity to fight COVID-19 and future epidemics.

By Rava Eleasari

Despite tens of millions of cases worldwide and rising, SARS-Cov-2, the new coronavirus also referred to as COVID-19, remains largely misunderstood. The scientific and medical communities still do not know the causes – or long-term effects – of the killer virus’s wide range of symptoms. As more and more countries, including Israel, experience a second wave of COVID-19, with rising death rates and devastating economic consequences, it is more urgent than ever to crack the virus and secure a more certain future for all.

Against this backdrop, Tel Aviv University recently launched the Center for Combating Pandemics, the first of its kind in Israel and possibly the world. Building on TAU’s innovation record, interdisciplinary culture, and strong links with hospitals, industry and government, the Center has three main foci. It will strive to improve frontline containment of infection, bolster biomedical knowledge for developing vaccines and treatments, and strengthen nations’ capacity to ensure social and economic resilience. It will coordinate among the 100 groups researching the coronavirus across campus, as well as provide master’s and doctoral fellowships, upgrade labs and equipment, host visiting professors, run conferences and workshops, and facilitate international collaborations.

Seed funding for the Center has been generously provided by founding donor and TAU Honorary Doctor Frank Lowy, TAU Governors Dr. Kathy Fields-Rayant and Dr. Garry Rayant, the Yuri Milner Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv. The Center was inaugurated in an online ceremony and webinar on October 18.

“In the past 15 years, the world has seen a string of viral pathogens infect large numbers of people, among them SARS, MERS, swine flu and avian flu. Clearly, we are not safe from dangerous emerging diseases,” says Center Head Prof. Itai Benhar of TAU’s Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research. “We must look ahead.”

Professor Itai Ben Har

Pandemics Center Head Prof. Itai Benhar. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Improving frontline performance

To ensure that Israel – and other countries – are better prepared, the Center will establish a Frontline Response Program. To this end, the Center will assemble groups of experts from fields such as preventive and emergency medicine, epidemiology, disaster management, psychology, social work and the health professions, along with data science, environmental studies and engineering. These teams will fine-tune tools and protocols for halting transmission.

Examples include a recent project, funded by Google, at TAU’s AI and Data Science Center for research employing AI techniques and advanced statistical methods to improve COVID-19 public health measures. Using government data, the researchers are building a model of the spread of the pandemic to assist in planning and testing various methods for stopping infection.

In another project, a team led by Prof. Motti Gerlic and Prof. Ariel Munitz, both of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, has developed a robotic blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus and is working with the Israel Defense Forces to test the method on soldiers.

Developing vaccine and therapies

Along with improving the emergency response to the pandemic, the Center will establish a Biomedical Solutions Task Force aimed both at deepening understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying the virus and at developing up-to-the-minute, precision drugs and technologies to diagnose, treat and prevent it. Dozens of TAU scientists are already making widely reported breakthroughs, often with colleagues at TAU-affiliated hospitals.

One particularly promising direction is the vaccine research of Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research. His vaccine candidate, which targets a vulnerability in the coronavirus’s well-known “spike” protein, was awarded a U.S. patent along with major funding from the 3M corporation. Other projects include repurposing a melanoma “nano-vaccine” to fight COVID-19 and the development of an antibody cocktail, which is expected to treat and temporarily prevent the virus.

Must History Repeat Itself?

“It was one of the worst outbreaks, killing 100,000 in just seven months. All public entertainment was banned and victims were forcibly shut into their homes to prevent the spread of disease.”

–Account of the bubonic plague epidemic in London, 1665

Supporting fact-based policymaking

The Center will mobilize scholars from non-biomedical fields including economics, law, public policy, management and education in a Social and Economic Resilience Think Tank aimed at informing national policy. Their goal will be to objectively look at what’s happening today, ask hard questions, and recommend solutions.

Questions could include: How do we as a society provide equitable access to medical services and resources to all those in need? How do we care for our elderly, vulnerable and disadvantaged groups? How do we strike the right balance between individual rights and public welfare?

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that you can’t separate the medical crisis from the socioeconomic crisis,” says Prof. Sigal Alon of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who studies employment. “The Center for Combating Pandemics will boost my ability to incorporate different perspectives in my recommendations to decision-makers to improve the job market in the corona era.”


Professor Sigal Alon

Prof. Sigal Alon. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Center Head Prof. Benhar concludes: “Over the longer term, we envision the Center not only contributing to global efforts to combat and contain the current crisis, but also building the scientific and professional foundations to enable us to successfully cope with the next one.”

Rescue Mission: Pioneering TAU Program Preserves Ethiopian Jewish Heritage

“The students understand that if they don’t do it, it simply won’t happen.”

The Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies and Archaeology is launching a new MA program, the first and only one of its kind in the world: Study and research of the Biblical texts of Ethiopian Jewry.

The Program, named “Orit Guardians” after the Ethiopian Bible, aims to study and safeguard the scriptures and culture of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community, thus empowering its members and strengthening their status in Israeli society.

Biblical scholar Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni, who leads the initiative, explains: “The Scriptures of Beta Israel are accompanied by oral traditions of translation and interpretation, as well as prayers composed by the Kesim [religious leaders] for their communities through the ages. These cultural treasures are in danger of extinction, if an urgent effort is not made to document and preserve them – and this is our main goal. To our great delight, we found enormous enthusiasm among educated and socially aware Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who wish to safeguard their heritage for future generations.”

The students who have just begun their studies in the 2020-2021 academic year are all Ethiopian Israelis with bachelor’s degrees, highly aware of their heritage and eager to take part in the effort to preserve it. Prof. Rom-Shiloni: “The important point is that they are the only ones who can do the job. Unlike researchers who do not belong to Beta Israel, these students speak Amharic, and have access to the elderly Kesim.  This is a novel, pioneering and uniquely inspiring project. The students bring immense motivation and commitment, understanding fully well that if they don’t do it, it simply won’t happen – and this heritage, that is so precious to them, will be lost. We believe that the students’ research projects will contribute to the enhancement of the Jewish identity of Ethiopian Israelis and increase the public’s awareness of their culture, while establishing the heritage of Ethiopian Jews as an academic field of study and research in every aspect – cultural, historical, lingual, religious, spiritual and social – in both Israeli and international academia.”

Support for the Program is provided by the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation of Canada.

Prof. Rom-Shiloni: “The volumes of the Hebrew Bible, found in every Israeli household, are all almost absolutely identical, down to the letter. This text, known as the Masoretic Text, was consolidated in Tiberias between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. We know, however, that Biblical textual traditions existed hundreds of years before that time. Research on texts from the Second Temple period, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, has revealed that in the last centuries BC Jewish communities held various versions of the sacred texts – which were essentially similar, but definitely not identical.

The Jews who came to Israel from Ethiopia brought their own Scriptures, written in Ge’ez – an ancient Semitic language known only to their spiritual leaders, the Kesim. Through the ages, a rich oral tradition emerged alongside the written text, including prayers in Ge’ez, as well as translations and interpretations created by the Kesim for their communities, in languages that they could understand – Amharic and Tigrinya. But Beta Israel’s way of life changed completely when they came to Israel – detracting from the Kesim‘s status, undermining their age-old training processes, and bringing these cultural treasures to the brink of extinction. The Orit Guardians program is, in a sense, a rescue mission undertaken to academically study this important heritage.”

The new Program’s  lecturers and supervisors will be faculty members at the Department of Biblical Studies as well as Dr. Anbessa Teferra, Head of the Semitic Linguistics Program at the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Linguistics, and Dr. Ran HaCohen of the Department of Literature. The Program is supported by an Academic Committee headed by Dr. Diana Lipton and consisting of TAU faculty members from three departments: Biblical Studies, Semitic Linguistics and Literature. The University envisions that the Orit Guardian Program will be expanded to include BA and PhD studies in the near future.

Featured image:

The ‘Orit Guardians’ Program

TAU’s Cyber Week 2020 Goes Virtual

Global cyber leaders and international researchers will gather on one virtual stage from October 19-21

TAU’s Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center, the Israel National Cyber Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will hold its annual Cyber Week conference online on October 19-21, 2020. Traditionally, the Cyber Week Conference takes place on the TAU campus and attracts over 10,000 international participants. This year, due to the global pandemic, the Cyber Week Conference will be held online.

Participants in this year’s event will include Yigal Unna, Director General of the National Cyber Directorate and Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, Head of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center at TAU, as well as many prominent international figures from the fields of Cyber and Information Security, business, financial and technological sectors, and leading corporations in relevant areas. Speakers include: Gil Shwed, Udi Mokady, Esti Peshin, Omer Tene, Ofer Schreiber, Partner and Head of Israel Office at YL Ventures, Mikko Hypponen, Cyber Fraud Expert at F-Secure, Mark Russinovich, Microsoft VP and CTO, famous hacker Chris Roberts, Cyber Security guru Bruce Schneier, Jaya Baloo, Head of Information Security at Avast, Cyber expert Theresa Payton and others.

The National Cyber Week Conference is Israel’s chief annual event in the fields of Cyber and Information Security and a leading event globally. It serves as a major meeting ground for prominent cyber experts and researchers from around the world, alongside entrepreneurs, policymakers, international security organizations, diplomats and top business professionals. Its aim is to exchange cyber dialogue that focuses on current issues, trends and technological solutions. Topics to be addressed in this year’s event include: cyber trends as a result of the pandemic, challenges of working from afar, life after the pandemic, cyber and health systems, cutting-edge trends in cyber warfare, information privacy in the diplomatic context of terrorism and cybercrime, innovations in cloud security, law and cyber in Israel and worldwide, and more.

Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, Chairman of the Conference and Head of the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center at TAU: “It is already clear that even if the COVID-19 pandemic is soon eradicated, life afterwards will be different. One aspect of the change will be increased use of online communication – as exemplified by this year’s online Cyber Week. This intensified use will increase our dependence on computer systems and digital communication, generating more opportunities for cyberattacks by malevolent actors.”

The updated program of the event

Prince of Monaco to TAU: Together, We Can Fix Environment

Frenkel Initiative for Combating Pollution but one example of productive ties between TAU and Monaco, says Albert II, during webinar

Tel Aviv University held an online meeting on September 24 with the Prince of Monaco, Albert II, together with entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Aaron G. Frenkel, Prof. Colin Price, Head of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and Head of the Frenkel Initiative for Combating Pollution, and Mr. Nico Rosberg, a sustainability entrepreneur and Formula One World Champion. The meeting, which addressed environmental issues and sustainability development, was also attended by TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat and Prof. Francois Heilbronn, President of the French Friends of Tel Aviv University, who acted as moderator.

Years of collaboration

The Prince has actively promoted environmental causes for many years, leading quite a number of environmental initiatives, both local and international. In 2006, he established the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation which advances environmental protection and sustainable development, supporting studies and research on environmental issues, technological innovation and social awareness practices. TAU and Monaco have been collaborating for several years. In December 2017, a delegation from TAU participated in a gala event focusing on the environment, smart cities and ecology, in collaboration with the Foundation. In June 2018, Prince Albert II received an Honorary Doctorate from TAU, in recognition of his deep commitment to preserving the environment for future generations, while promoting collaborations for finding solutions to problems of climate, water and ecosystem diversity. Last September in Monaco TAU launched the Frenkel Initiative for Combating Pollution, supported by Aaron Frenkel. This initiative is a continuation of the joint agreement for combating pollution signed during Albert II’s visit to TAU in June 2018. “Many organizations in Monaco are now connected with scientists from Tel Aviv university, working on different projects for combating pollution,” Frenkel says. “I hope others will join me, and we could create a momentum of projects bettering our places and the world as such.” The joint initiative will support applied research at the Department of Environmental Studies and the Department of Geography and Human Environment at TAU’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. Research will focus on solutions for problems of air pollution, while also supporting Monaco’s activities in the fields of energy efficiency and renewable energy. “In the Porter School of Environment, we are trying for the last six years to promote innovative startup companies in the field of smart abilities. We just recruited a new round of startups last week thanks to the generous support of Mr. Frenkel and the collaborations with Monaco,” says Prof. Price. Featured image: Top left clockwise: Prince of Monaco, Albert II, Aaron G. Frenkel, Prof. Colin Price and Mr. Nico Rosberg

Researchers Identified the Genetic Causes of Inherited Hearing Loss in the Jewish Population of Israel

A New Gene for Human Deafness Found in a Family in Israel

In the Jewish population of Israel, until now, seven genes were known to be involved in hearing loss. Now, thanks to a new study led by Zippora Brownstein, PhD, and Prof. Karen Avraham from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the number of genes known to be responsible for inherited hearing loss in Israeli Jewish families is 32.

These results have immediate implications for genetic counseling for families with hearing loss and for care of children with hearing loss. The research was in cooperation with scientists from multiple Israeli universities and hospitals, and from the University of Washington in Seattle, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethlehem University, the University of Iceland, and the University of Maryland. The researchers also identified a mutation in a gene not previously recognized to cause hearing loss in humans. This breakthrough research was published recently in the journal Clinical Genetics.

The 25th gene

More than 150 genes are known to science to be involved in hearing loss. Genetic diagnoses for inherited hearing loss have previously been difficult, both world wide and in Jewish communities, because any one of so many different genes, and any of many mutations in each gene, could be the cause. Until now, mutations in only seven of the 150 genes had been detected among persons with hearing loss in the Jewish population of Israel. In the current study, which included 88 Israeli families with hearing loss, the researchers identified mutations in 25 additional genes.

Although 24 of the 25 genes are known to cause hearing loss in families worldwide, most of the specific mutations in Israeli Jewish families are newly observed and thus far known only the Jewish community. The 25th gene, called ATOH1, was found for the first time to cause hearing loss in humans.

Organ of Corti of the inner ear labelled with antibodies to show sensory hair cells responsible for hearing. Photo Credit: Shahar Taiber & Prof. Karen Avraham

“We know that ATOH1 has an important role in the ear,” explains Prof. Avraham, “without it, hair cells of the inner ear – the cells responsible for our hearing – cannot develop properly. Until now, a mutation in this gene was identified only in mice, and the mice had a hearing loss. We found a similar mutation in relatives with hearing loss in a large family in Israel – the first people in the world known to have a mutation in this gene. I believe we will find more families, both in Israel and abroad, with mutations in this gene that cause hearing loss. The goal is that with this information, new treatment possibilities for people with hearing loss will be developed – including gene therapy.”

Prof. Avraham adds: “We surveyed Jewish families throughout Israel with all types of hearing loss: from congenital to older age at onset, and from moderate to profound. Our survey exploited advanced gene sequencing technology, including a custom gene panel that we created, called HEar-Seq. This custom gene panel allowed us to simultaneously sequence all 150 genes known to be involved in hearing loss, and many “candidate genes” as well. HEar-Seq revealed the distribution of genes and their mutations responsible for hearing loss in all the Jewish communities that make up modern Israel. It led us to ATOH1.

Our discoveries have immediate implications for genetic counseling, which can enable families to prevent additional cases of hearing loss through pre-gestational genetic diagnosis and in-vitro fertilization. Also, for many families, treatment and rehabilitation for hearing loss can be tailored to the family’s specific mutation. The findings of this study allow doctors and audiologists in Israel to provide personally tailored treatment to patients with inherited hearing loss.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Israel Precision Medicine Program of the Israel Science Foundation, the Ernest and Bonnie Beutler Research Program of Excellence in Genomic Medicine, the Hedrich Charitable Trust, and travel grants from the University of Washington Virginia Bloedel Hearing Research Institute.

Prof. Karen Avraham

Zippora Brownstein, PhD

Finding Humor in Imperfection

The “TAU Review” held a Zoom interview with well-known Israeli comedian, writer and TV and radio host, Einav Galili, who earned her BA in psychology and arts from TAU in 2001.
By Melanie Takefman “Holocaust jokes are a wonderful thing,” says TAU alumna Einav Galili. “When you laugh at something, it doesn’t dishonor it; it’s another way of dealing with something that’s impossible to deal with…the Holocaust intrigues me and in that way it is totally mine to laugh about.” By contrast, if a German told a Holocaust joke, “I would shoot him,” she says jokingly, maintaining her trademark poker face. “Comedy is a way to expose our dark side without anyone dying.” For decades, Galili has brought a sharp, intellectual and hilariously wry voice to Israeli media.  Yet, with her influence comes responsibility: Galili believes that she has a role to play in shaping public discourse. “It’s part of my job to extract topics from their conventional molds and clichés and forge something more complex,” she says. In Israel, “you must be radical to have a presence…People want short, extreme and click-baity. I often try to give a fuller picture….I try very hard not to be predictable.” The same is true about the range of subjects she broaches on the morning radio show she co-hosts: from politics to the connection between Koala and human diseases. For Galili, comedic and serious content need not be separated. “The most interesting people are those whose humor is laced with pain and whose pain is laced with humor. In the end, it’s all different layers of the same thing.” Yet, sometimes being funny comes at a cost. As a main panelist on one of the country’s longest-running TV satires, State of the Nation (later renamed Back of the Nation), Galili is no stranger to controversy. “What we say makes people uncomfortable…..It’s a program that’s a big headache to support and maintain. You have to withstand pressure and you receive angry phone calls.” Still, she has never been censored. With governments around the world cracking down on journalists and limiting freedom of speech, she doesn’t take that for granted and considers herself “spoiled” in this respect.  At the same time, she says that viewers themselves often quash serious programming. “You come home in the evening. Life is tough…it’s hard to make a living…there are a million things to deal with. You don’t have the energy for another burdensome investigation about violence against women. You want Netflix!” she says. “I can understand them.” Exposing national neuroses That being said, satire is “like the vital signs of a human body. If we don’t have it, it’s like declaring death.” ​​​Humor is especially important during crises such as the Corona pandemic. “Sometimes humor can be divisive; one groups laughs at another. But when people laugh about a common experience such as Corona, it brings people together.” She adds, Humor exposes the neuroses that characterize Israeli society….there is a very interesting dance with humor around taboos. It helps determine what’s legitimate and what’s not.”   Photo: Adi Orni In addition to her radio show and Back of the Nation, she hosts the Israeli version of the BBC TV program Room 101, in which she interviews Israeli personalities about their biggest fears or pet peeves. She also lectures about humor and writes newspaper columns. She recently produced a documentary about the anti-aging industry. Galili is one of several well-known female comedians in Israel, but women are still the minority in the field. An avowed feminist, she says that she insists on having at least one female writer on the Back of the Nation team. What separates her from her male counterparts, she says, are the jokes she doesn’t make. She will never make a joke about a woman being old or ugly or fat, she says. ”It’s not in my agenda.”
She will, however, soliloquize about her children’s hamsters, riffing on their proclivity for reproduction and what happened when she had to eulogize one of two identical pets (she didn’t know which one died.)

​Her various endeavors have given her insights into the human psyche. ”We live in a society preoccupied with perfection: We strive to look perfect, to make a good impression, to portray ourselves as more than what we are, more beautiful, younger, more confident, more successful in our careers, taller, skinnier.”

To her, perfect is boring. It is exactly in imperfection“the defects and the cracks”that she finds her most engaging and inclusive material.

Drawing on academic training Analyses like these exemplify how psychology permeates Galili’s many professional roles. Her TAU studies left an imprint on her in other ways too. Studying at the University taught her discipline and the value of hard work. In academia, and particularly in psychology, a very competitive program, everything is systematic, she says. If you put in the effort, you see results. Her studies also armed her with critical thinking skills—how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable information—an important ability in the era of social media and fake news. Galili recalls her time at TAU as a very enjoyable and enriching experience. She was completely immersed in her studies, alongside “amazing” classmates and inspiring professors. She remembers Prof. Ina Weiner, a “fascinating” professor who taught her honors psychology, and art historian Dr. Henry Unger, who “taught me elementary terms about the arts world. It was precisely enough to know what to look for.” As an alumna, Galili is one of 85,000 members of the TAU Alumni Organization, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, under the direction of Sigalit Ben Hayoun. The Organization’s goal is to leverage the influence of TAU alumni as a positive force in Israeli society and serve alumni through shared knowledge, networking and opportunities. Upon receiving her BA, Galili completed the coursework for a master’s degree in psychology, but never submitted a thesis. Even though she is very happy with where her career has taken her, she has never stopped dreaming of returning to TAU to complete her MA. We hope she realizes that dream. Featured image: Einav Galili. Photo: Shay Bachar.

New Program Fosters Well-Rounded STEM Graduates

Expansion of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Humanities in STEM ushers in a new era in the Israeli university curriculum By Rafael Ben-Menashe Beginning in the next academic year, 1,500 incoming students in Engineering, Exact Sciences and Life Sciences will encounter a new opportunity in their studies: they will be able to take three Humanities courses as part of their regular degree requirements. The force behind this move – a first in Israel – is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Humanities in STEM at TAU. “Students will experience dramatically different learning styles by switching between humanities and STEM subjects,” says Prof. Yochai Oppenheimer, a member of TAU’s Department of Hebrew Literature and Academic Head of the Mandel Center. He describes this change as “a refreshing jump into a pool for the mind” and says that, through the Mandel Center, TAU is embracing a global trend of incorporating liberal arts into science and technology curricula. The focus will be on introductory and survey courses that will instill essential skills of humanistic thought such as critical thinking, debating, writing, ethical analysis and more. Battling a worldwide trend Around the world, enrollment in the humanities has fallen over the last two decades while that of STEM has increased. At Tel Aviv University, the number of undergraduates at the Entin Faculty of Humanities dropped from 2,600 in 2003 to 1,600 in 2018, a reduction of 38% over 15 years. In response, the Jack , Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, under the leadership of the late Morton L. Mandel, pioneered the Program for Humanities in Engineering at TAU in 2016. Completely new on the Israeli academic landscape at the time, the Program allowed a group of 25 honors students to add a sizeable humanities module to their engineering studies. They were given generous scholarships along with personal mentors to guide them in course selection. The Program was a great success: Participants praised it and top tech companies expressed eagerness to hire graduates. Based on these positive results, in 2019 TAU established the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for STEM and the Humanities to replicate the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Program for Humanities in Engineering for outstanding Exact Sciences and Life Sciences students as well. The newest expansion of the initiative, toward the 2021-22 school year, will extend humanities offerings to all incoming STEM students at TAU. “The Mandel Center reinforces the humanities’ relevance to science and technology, nurturing well-rounded technological leaders in Israel. Presently the Israeli Council for Higher Education is considering duplicating the program at other Israeli universities,” says Oppenheimer. Welcoming uncertainty Students enrolled in Mandel Center-sponsored humanities courses say they provide a bonus, a break from the more regimented styles of thinking in STEM subjects. “In the sciences, we fear questions that don’t ultimately have definitive answers,” says Michal Levin, a fourth-year engineering student. “In the humanities, we are taught to embrace those types of questions.” Similarly, Ido Mellul, a first-year biology student, says: “The program has helped me better formulate philosophical questions in a scientific context. For example, I questioned my lecturers regarding applied ethics in the case of gene-editing technology,” he says. “This was something I didn’t think I could do before.” Levin also points to the Mandel Scholarship she received as a tremendous aid in her studies. “It eliminated the stress of finding work and financing my life while studying.” The courses offered through the Mandel Center cover philosophy, rhetoric, cultural studies, literature and history. “The idea behind the program immediately struck a chord with me,” says Amit Alkoni, a third-year engineering student. “I served in an engineering unit of the Intelligence Corps in the army, and my service helped me envision how effective evaluation of communication and ethics can expand my professional horizons.These are tools I ultimately acquired through studying the humanities.” Last year, shortly before his death, TAU conferred its highest honor, the degree of Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa, upon Morton Mandel, an entrepreneur and lifelong Israel supporter, for his visionary support of TAU. “The Mandel Foundation’s generosity has allowed TAU to rejuvenate the humanities, ensuring that TAU students benefit from this crucial school of thought, which in turn benefits Israeli society as a whole,” says TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat. Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, President and CEO of of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, adds: “We are delighted to collaborate with Tel Aviv University on this important venture. The combination of STEM subjects with humanities education is precisely the kind of preparation every student should have today and in the future before he/she enters the work force. Given the decline in humanistic education and values this is the time to have such interdisciplinary programs. Tel Aviv University is a pioneer in this far-sighted work across the disciplines, and I am quite certain that it will become a model for many other institutions in Israel and abroad.” Featured image: Mandel Scholars Amit Alkoni and Michal Levin. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

“A Scientific Discovery Can Never Be Undone”

Change-maker Yuri Milner talks to the “TAU Review” about why he supports TAU and Israel
​By Ruti Ziv A theoretical physicist turned tech investor and philanthropist, Russian-Israeli Yuri Milner was a prescient early backer of Facebook and Twitter, and later of other successful companies. In the past decade, he and his wife, Julia, have focused on diverse philanthropic initiatives, among them the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which supports the Breakthrough Prizes – the “Oscars of Science” – and the “70 for 70 Doctoral Fellowship Initiative” allocated to TAU and other Israeli universities on the occasion of Israel’s 70th birthday in 2018. The Milners also contributed major emergency funding to TAU and other Israeli institutions at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. The TAU Review spoke to Mr. Milner about his connection with TAU and Israel, his lifelong interest in science and technology, and his big idea – that scientists should be treated like celebrities. What is your first science-related memory? My parents named me after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man to be sent into space that same year. My first real memory of science is a book I read as a child about the possibility of other civilizations in our universe. Decades later, I co-launched an initiative called Breakthrough Listen, which addresses the existential question “Are we alone in the universe?” If a message from aliens reached Earth, how would you respond? I think the only currency and the only sensible exchange between two civilizations that are separated by thousands of light years or more must involve asking something that is really essential. So I would answer them with a question, “What do you know about the origins of our universe?” and compare our answers to see if they’re more advanced than us. You have devoted a lot of time and money to establishing the Breakthrough Prize and other Breakthrough initiatives. Why? Science is not appreciated enough. You would think if this is our main currency, we’d invest more in it. But we don’t. Essentially everything that we are thankful for from our predecessors is based on science and technology, for example improved life expectancy, standards of living and economic progress. Do you view TAU as a breakthrough university? TAU is known around the world, not just in Israel. I think it is definitely one of the most preeminent global institutions, and I think that the contributions of TAU are numerous and distinguished. Although we work with other scientific partners in Israel, we selected TAU as a prestigious partner and an administrator of some of our activities. When the coronavirus crisis hit, we committed major funding toward COVID-19 research at TAU labs, alongside contributions to Magen David Adom and Ichilov Hospital [Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center], as well as a shipment of 1 million vitally-needed face masks for those essential workers who continued to go to work every day during the pandemic. In this case, we asked TAU to advise us on what would be the proper way to contribute. And their advice was very, very helpful to enable us to very quickly – and speed was critical in this situation – identify the most efficient ways to support Israel in a difficult situation. You marked Israel’s 70th anniversary with a focus on science – you established a major doctoral fellowship fund and produced the  “70 & 70” list recognizing 70 of Israel’s greatest scientists in cooperation with the Washington Post and Ha’aretz. What was your goal in doing so? Israel is already famous for its science and technology, but I thought that its international reputation could be further enhanced by these initiatives. A relatively small nation like Israel with limited natural resources really has only one path – applying its intellectual potential to the problems of the world. We must also recognize that science is global and universal. It is one of the few fabrics that connects the world and brings us all together. Especially in the world now, when people are feeling separated from each other due to the COVID-19 crisis, I think science is one of those elements that brings us all together. Photo (left): The Milners at a TAU event in honor of the 70 for 70 Initiative. Credit: Yehonatan Zur. What lies behind your idea that scientists should be compensated like celebrities? In today’s world, recognition is based on either celebrity status or financial wealth. Few people are celebrated for their intellectual achievements. What the Breakthrough Prize is trying to achieve is to bring about a more balanced world whereby intellectual achievement will be celebrated at least on par with other achievements, and where scientists will receive the recognition they deserve. We thought that celebrating the most brilliant minds could maybe inspire kids interested in science to pursue an academic career. What advice would you give to young Israeli scientists who dream of changing the world? Although I tried for a number of years to do this myself, I wasn’t too successful. My advice would be contrary to my own experience – try to focus on fundamental science. If you put your name on a building, that building will not survive over hundreds of years. But if you make a scientific discovery, this is something that cannot ever be undone. In a thousand years from now, Einstein will still be remembered for his theory of general relativity, while many other great men will be forgotten. So if you really want to leave a lasting legacy for our civilization, the only sure way is through fundamental science and making discoveries.​ I envy people who choose basic science as their occupation. Not being able to make a contribution myself, I am trying to focus our foundation on supporting those who can. Tell us about your connection to Israel and making Aliyah. I became an Israeli citizen over 20 years ago. This was really an important calling for me because, growing up in the Soviet Union, I had limited ability to connect with my heritage and ancestors in a meaningful way. As soon as it was possible, I decided to become an Israeli citizen and, to the extent possible, to contribute to the State of Israel. Featured image: Yuri and Julia Milner. Courtesy of Yuri and Julia Milner.

TAU Professor First Israeli Named to US Inventors’ Academy

Noam Eliaz is a global change-maker in materials engineering

In a significant first for Israeli academia, TAU’s Prof. Noam Eliaz has been selected as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors, USA.

Eliaz, of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, founded its Department of Material Science and Engineering and is the director of the Biomaterials and Corrosion Laboratory.

“As inventors and entrepreneurs our job is to constantly look for the next professional challenge and develop the new groundbreaking invention, for the benefit of society and technology,” said Eliaz. “This is the first time that an Israeli has been elected as a senior member of the academy, and I hope that this will open the door for more Israeli researchers to integrate as senior members in the future.”

Eliaz’s research is multidisciplinary and touches on both basic and applied sciences. He is considered a global leader in several disciplines which have direct applications to the defense and implant industries. He previously served as a metallurgical laboratory officer in the Israeli Air force, and was a Fulbright and Rothschild postdoctoral scholar at MIT.

Eliaz is one of 38 new senior members whom the Academy recently recognized for groundbreaking achievements in the development of patents and technologies that impact the welfare of society and contribute to the innovation ecosystem.

Prof. Noam Eliaz

Google Awards Competitive Grant to Tel Aviv University for COVID-19 Research

The grant is for high-impact research using Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat the coronavirus, a Google fund aimed at supporting data based solutions for some of humanity’s greatest challenges, chose to award a competitive grant to Tel Aviv University for high-impact research employing Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat COVID-19. This step is one of many taken by Google in its ongoing effort to contribute to the global battle against the pandemic while also promoting its “AI for Social Good” research program – headed by, among others, Prof. Yossi Matias, Vice President at Google and CEO of the Research and Development Center at Google Israel. The Israeli center is a key player in Google’s endeavors to combat COVID-19, and also to help protect populations faced with natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and wildfires.

The grant is being awarded to TAU’s AI and Data Science Center for research employing AI techniques and advanced statistical methods to improve COVID-19 public health measures. Using data from government ministries (Health, Transport, etc.) and the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the researchers intend to build an accurate high-resolution model of the spread of the pandemic and then use it to plan and test various methods for stopping infection. This interdisciplinary research brings together TAU scientists from the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, the School of Public Health, the Department of Statistics and Operations Research, the Blavatnik School of Computer Science, the School of Electrical Engineering, and the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research.

Prof. Meir Feder, Head of the AI and Data Science Center at Tel Aviv University: “We’re proud that Google has chosen to award this significant grant to our center in order to expand COVID-19 research in Israel. This grant will support the development of AI and Reinforcement Learning based tools for planning and examining the effects of different steps on the spread of the pandemic. The research findings will be used by decision-makers in their efforts to establish policies for stopping the pandemic.”

Featured image: Prof. Meir Feder, Head of the AI and Data Science Center at Tel Aviv University

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