Los Angeles Undergrads Making Their Mark on Bar-Ilan University Laboratories


Los Angeles Undergrads Making Their Mark on Bar-Ilan University Laboratories

Seventh Annual Bar-Ilan University/Yeshiva University Academic Summer Program Provides Invaluable Training and Hands-On Laboratory Experience to Science Majors from U.S. Universities

Applying genome editing for gene therapy of genetic diseases of the blood and the immune system such as primary immunodeficiencies and cancer; researching disfluency of speech in bilingual children; increasing the efficiency of fuel cells – three Los Angeles undergrads are hard at work this summer conducting important research in various laboratories at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

They are among more than two dozen undergraduate science majors participating in the seventh annual Summer Science Research Internship Program, a joint Bar-Ilan University (BIU)/Yeshiva University (YU) initiative. The Program enables students to gain hands-on experience in emerging scientific fields while being mentored by some of Israel’s finest scientists.

During the seven-week research experience, the students conduct intensive internships in the University’s research laboratories with faculty members from the Bar-Ilan Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Faculty of Engineering, Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences, and the Departments of Mathematics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics, and English Literature and Linguistics.

Prof. Ari Zivotofsky, of Bar-Ilan’s Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Program, serves as director of the program. Based on the students’ academic background and interest, he matched students with mentors and research assignments that would both enhance their summer experience and promote individual growth and career development. While the focus is primarily on lab work, the program also includes trips to scientific and industrial sites around the country, including IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries), Teva Pharmaceuticals, and the laboratories of the Agriculture Research Organization (Volcani Center), as well as a series of lunch meetings with BIU faculty.  To strike the proper “Torah U’Madda” balance, students supplement their daily lab work with nightly chavruta study and shiurim at the Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute Kollel in Jerusalem.

“This program provides talented U.S. university science students the opportunity to become embedded in a high-caliber Israeli university lab, thereby experiencing rather than just hearing about what it’s like to live, learn, and research in Israel,” according to Zivotofsky. “In the labs they become part of a team and contribute to ongoing projects. Spending their summer with a like-minded group of peers fosters a commitment to research, Israeli science, and religious Zionism.”

Rachelli Topp, Judy Leserson, and Yakov Stone – all of Los Angeles – are taking part in this year’s program. Topp will soon enter her senior year at Stern College for Women, where she’s majoring in Biology. She hopes to eventually attend medical school. Topp works in the lab of Dr. Ayal Hendel, who carried out his post-doctoral research at Stanford University School of Medicine. Hendel is a principal investigator and senior lecturer in the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences, where his research focuses on developing genome editing and the CRISPR technology as a method of gene therapy for genetic diseases of the blood and the immune system such as severe combined immunodeficiency. Topp is assisting Hendel’s lab in this effort.

“I have been very much enjoying my research at Bar-Ilan,” says Topp. “The lessons I am learning in the lab and from the people at Bar-Ilan are invaluable. They have taught me the techniques, and they have opened my eyes to the innovation of scientific research and academic culture of Israel. I will take these lessons with me throughout my career.”

Judy Leserson is also studying at Stern College for Women, where she’s majoring in Speech Pathology/Audiology. She’s working in the lab of Prof. Joel Walters, of the Department of English Literature and Linguistics. Walters studies the interface of psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic aspects of bilingualism in early childhood and in mature adults with and without language impairments. This summer Leserson is assisting in Walter’s psycholinguistics lab, where she is researching narrative structures of bilingual children with and without specific language impairment, specifically in terms of the effects of narrative intervention and possible patterns in disfluency of speech.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity to learn about and be a part of the research that will eventually be part of my clinical practice. It’s really cool to see how the theory we learn in class is developed and made practical. I am also grateful for the opportunity to be in Israel and get a glimpse of what it would be like to work here. The professors in my lab have really become like professional mentors and I can definitely see them being valuable connections in my future learning and development in the field,” says Leserson.

Yakov Stone, 20, is studying chemistry at Yeshiva University. This summer he’s working in the lab of Dr. David Zitoun, at the Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, where one of the research projects being carried out focuses on electrochemistry and increasing the efficiency of fuel cells.

“The PhD student that I’m helping, Yelena Gershinsky, is trying to find efficient ways to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. This hydrogen gas could then be used as a source of fuel in fuel cells, which is much cleaner source of hydrogen than we currently have (which is usually produced through steam reformation, a process which is harmful to the environment). Instead, by applying an electrical current to water, it can be split into oxygen and hydrogen gas. This process, called electrolysis, can be made more efficient if certain metals are used to apply the electrical current to the water. My job is to help test the efficiency of different metallic compounds synthesized by Gershinsky,” says Stone.

Stone, who hails from the San Fernando Valley, is considering attending medical school or going on for a PhD. “I love it here. It’s amazing to see the types of research going on in Israel. This is the first time I have worked in a professional lab, and it has made me consider doing a PhD in Israel.”

In addition to Stern College and Yeshiva University, this year’s undergrads are studying at Cornell University, Rutgers University, Columbia University, Tulane University, Queens College, and Macaulay Honors College.

Since its inception seven 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.