The dreams of young scientists

Germany and Israel are jointly fostering the next generation of researchers.

dpa/Jan-Peter Kasper

With her index finger, Rimaa Jabareen traces the fine grain of a flat slice of olive wood. Her laptop screen shows colorful curve tables. The 17-year-old girl from Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel has researched a new and improved method for determining the age of olive trees. This should greatly improve things for archaeologists working in the entire Mediterranean basin where olive wood has been a favourite building material for thousands of years. Jabareen submitted her results to Israel’s Young Scientists Contest and in March 2015, as one of the finalists, she won a prize. At the invitation of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in the fall she will spend three weeks in Germany.

This makes Jabareen one of the youngest participants in German-Israeli cooperation, a field that predates the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1965. The BMBF has provided hundreds of millions of euros in support of this cooperation, with a special emphasis on the up and coming generation of scientists. This applies to all the fields of activities that have developed over the decades, from the Minerva Foundation through International Research Cooperation and the German-Israeli Foundation (GIF) to German-Israeli Project Cooperation (DIP) and the Martin Buber Society of Fellows.

Geneticist Peter Angel at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg is the coordinator of cooperation with Israel. Researcher Angel has been in touch with Israeli colleagues since 1998. “The Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) have vast expertise in cancer research and what they are doing fits in very well with what we are doing at the DKFZ,” Angel notes. “They are extremely dedicated scientists, focusing on quality,” and in addition HUJI also benefits from Hadassah’s affiliated specialist hospitals.

Cancer research is a key area in German-Israeli cooperation, as agreed on back in 1973 by the BMBF and Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space (MOST). Other fields of cooperation between ministries include water technology, marine and geosciences, as well as civil security research. Subsequently joint projects were organized by the BMBF and Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor (MOITAL). Since 2012 student exchanges have also been organized in these two areas.

Angel is full of praise for the “easy going atmosphere” at joint workshops with Israeli researchers: “We also present unpublished results there” – something that given the fiercely competitive relationships between scientists is a real mark of confidence. Every year a scientific committee chooses five German-Israeli tandem projects, to be funded for three years. As a result of success, annual funding has increased by a third, bringing it up to around 1.5 million euros. As a result, as Angel points out, every year three more research projects can be funded.

“I made a risky choice when I selected my research field,” as Aaron Ciechanover said once. “At the time, nothing was known about it and research was being undertaken in opposite directions.” Now aged 67, the physician who works at the Technion, Haifa, discovered the carcinogenic mechanisms of the ubiquitin protein, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2004 together with two other researchers. However, his involvement in this research field came around at the end of the seventies. He was repeatedly given funding from the German-Israeli funding “pots” such as GIF, DIP and the DKFZ-MOST-programs.

Rimaa Jabareen also has big plans. As the young Israeli-Arab girl revealed after a presentation in the final stages of the Young Scientist Competition in Jerusalem, “I dream of becoming an astronaut.” The event is similar to Germany’s Jugend Forscht (“Youth Researches”) competition  which has been held by the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem for the past 18 years.  In the fall of 2015, together with award winner Noa Chen from Holon, who studied the figure of the goddess Ashera in Jewish writings, and Ta’ili Hardiman from Jerusalem who won the award for her work on the esthetics of evil in cinema, Jabareen will visit German universities and check out opportunities for studying. The visit is the special prize awarded every year by the BMBF every year to three competitors.

Different formats are designed to bring up-and-coming scientists together with topnotch researchers and to encourage interdisciplinary exchanges in a particular subject area. Currently the first German-Israeli “Battery School” (GIBS) comprises two symposiums, in each of which 25 doctoral students from Germany and Israeli participate. Since electrical energy is amply available from sun, water and wind, but at the moment there is no satisfactory way of storing it, it is necessary to invent new types of batteries, together with different approaches to batteries. The program involves lectures on batteries given by various experts from both countries, and offers sufficient time for discussions. The first symposium took place in Tel Aviv in the fall of 2014. A second symposium is planned for 2016 in Germany. Participating institutions include the Münster Electrochemical Energy Technology (MEET), the Giessen JLU, the Karlsruher Institute for Technology (KIT) and Tel Aviv University (TAU) Bar-Ilan University and the Technion.

The DESERVE Project’s “German-Israeli Winter/Summer Schools” also finance the participating master and doctoral students as well as post-docs for up to two week stays in German-speaking surroundings or Israel. TAU meteorologist Pinhas Alpert wants to use microwave links, as with smartphones, in order to exponentially improve the accuracy of weather forecasts. “But I still can’t put my idea into practice,” he admitted to the participants in the first DESERVE Winter School at Masada in December 2014. DESERVE stands for “Dead Sea Research Venue” and is coordinated by a number of Helmholtz centers such as KIT. The project, which also involves Jordanian and Palestinian scientists, investigates the weather, climate changes and water content of the Dead Sea.

“Personalized medicine” also involves bridging the gap between basic research and applied science. As of 2015, the Helmholtz Association is providing support to the tune of 900,00 euros for a number of select German-Israeli projects in a pilot phase. As reported by Peter Angel at the DKFZ, researchers are trying to make medication more effective by also taking account of the genetic profile of the illness. Not only should improved treatments fight cancer: they should also be helpful in the case of Alzheimer’s and infectious diseases.

The SynVaccine start-up has dedicated itself to beating AIDs. Its goal is to produce in the lab synthetic vaccines to provide protection against incurable illnesses. Biologist Tamir Tuller of TAU is a co-founder of SynVaccine, and in 2012, together with his colleague Richard Neher of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, he received the ARCHES award for research into the HI virus. This distinction, to the value of 200,000 euros, is awarded by the Minerva Foundation to mixed teams from both countries whose research promises substantial results in their field.

SynVaccine got going practically straight away: at the November 2014 Berlin Falling Walls Conference it was singled out as an “extremely promising business start-up. “Many are frightened of having dreams,” as teenage student Jabareen observed. This shouldn’t happen to her.

Published courtesy of the BMBF