$100 million grant lets students study STEM for free in this country
Meet a graduate of Harvard and Stanford who is now working on his third degree at the Technion.
As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, Lucien Weiss loved playing with Legos. Now 31 years old and a post-doctoral student thousands of miles away from home, his childish enthusiasm hasn't waned – and those plastic toys are serving as the building blocks to his scientific research.
Weiss now resides in the Israeli town of Haifa and studies at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, known in some circles as the MIT of the Mediterranean. In a lab tucked away on the eighth floor of the Emerson Family Life Sciences Building, he's got his head buried deep inside the lens of a microscope. The sign on the door says it's part of the nano-bio-optics department, a specialty within a specialty within a specialty. In a nutshell, Weiss and his colleagues are part scientists, part MacGyver. The lab is full of high-tech equipment, but it's also littered with the detritus of a garage workshop – masking tape, a wrench and a can of WD-40. They are tinkering with the microscopes by adding extensions and – yes – even using Lego blocks as a modular way to test theories related to bacterial infections and cancer-related diseases.
Swaying back and forth on a black rolling lab chair, Weiss gets visibly excited when talking about his field of research. "The general premise is a lot of the things we're interested in are microscopic by nature," he told From The Grapevine when we visited him last month. "They are taking place on a cellular or sub-cellular level, which means you can't see it with the naked eye. And so microscopy is a good technique to understand how those things work."
So how did a kid from a small town in the U.S. end up in a laboratory in northern Israel? Weiss has philanthropist Mortimer Zuckerman to thank for that. He's the former owner of the New York Daily News, The Atlantic and Fast Company, and the current publisher of U.S. News & World Report. In 2016, the philanthropist donated $100 million to help support students like Weiss in science, technology, engineering and math in the United States and Israel.
As part of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, high-achieving postdoctoral scholars from premier universities in the United States are given scholarships to do research at one of seven Israeli universities. Weiss studied chemistry at Harvard, and received his Ph.D. at Stanford, under the tutelage of Professor Yoav Shechtman, the son of Israeli Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman.
Once they complete their research, many Zuckerman postdocs like Weiss are expected to accept faculty positions at top North American universities, weaving a network of academic collaboration between U.S. and Israeli institutions. "These scholars become the best ambassadors," Lina Deshilton, the program's executive director in Israel, told us. "This program is creating an impact." Dozens of students have already gone through the program in just the first few years and there are plans for expansion.
"Science is a program that is forever changing," Zuckerman explained. "And if you establish colleagues and relationships amongst two countries, they will go on for years." Israel's Council for Higher Education recently announced that it aims to double the number of international students in the country by 2022.
Back in his lab at the Technion, Weiss laughs when asked if devoting his life to the niche field of advanced fluorescence microscopy was something he thought about growing up. "I think that one of the things that was special about coming here, and traveling abroad in general, is that so many of your interests get satisfied," he said. "Growing up, I was certainly interested in science and I come from a family of scientists."
But, he explained, he enjoys traveling and new experiences just as much. "This part of the world, especially, is so intriguing that coming here is amazing," he told us. "You're driving down the street and you come across an aqueduct or you can see stuff from the Ottoman Empire or the Roman Empire. It's all within a half hour drive, and that is very special. It's a place that you grow up reading about, imagining it, seeing it in movies, in all of your history courses – and it's all right here."
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