Human Impact

Understanding How Human Cells Work – By Studying Animal Evolution

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What can we learn by comparing our genes to those of a giant squid, a frog, or a blind mole? Turns out, a lot. Especially if you throw in 1,600 other species whose full genomes have been decoded in recent years. This is the specialty of Dr. Yuval Tabach at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine – taking apart the genes of thousands of animals, comparing them to one another, and extracting important conclusions about what human genes do, how they influence cancer and other diseases, and how they can be targeted by drugs.

Thanks to exponential developments in genomics, Dr. Tabach now has access to the genomes of 1,600+ species. This is Big Data: the ability to compare millions of genes, representing hundreds of millions of years of evolution. (For comparison, Dr. Tabach’s first paper, published in 2013, was based on 87 species, and in 2019 he had access to 600 species). 

Mining such vast amounts of data to benefit humans is far from simple. Dr. Tabach’s lab develops artificial intelligence algorithms that can search and compare these genomes for evolutionary patterns – identifying distinct networks of genes that execute a particular function. 

Co-Evolving Genes: An Indicator of Mutual Reliance (and Significance) 

How is this done? A guiding principle is that if two genes co-evolve closely together across many species, they are likely to play a similar role and even work together. Co-evolution means that these genes are always found together within a given species, and both absent in other species. In other words, if two genes have evolved together and changed at a similar rate across species, they may rely on each other to execute their tasks.

For example, Dr. Tabach’s algorithms can identify the genes that enable most animals (but not humans) to biosynthesize vitamin C or the genes involved in eyesight. His computational tools can highlight entire gene networks, including genes that might not have been thought to play a role in a given function.

Using his powerful methods, Dr. Tabach recently discovered new functions of genes involved in human breast cancer. By tracking the co-evolution of genes associated with DNA repair (genes that maintain the integrity of our genome) he discovered new genes involved in this important function. When these “repair” genes mutate in cancer, this contributes to the disease. 

Nature’s Superpowers 

Another passion of Dr. Tabach’s is studying nature’s “superpowers”: outliers in the animal kingdom. In particular, he is interested in animals that do not develop cancer and whose aging is slow – including elephants, whales, and naked mole rats. Often these are larger animals, with significantly more cells than humans, and thus have a higher potential for incurring mutations. And yet, these animals have substantially less cancer than other creatures, including humans.

"My team has identified 101 such genes that may play a role in these species’ resistance to cancer. Laboratory tests have shown that one of these genes was capable of reducing cancer potential by 10-20% in human cells, through improving the mechanism of repairing damaged DNA. It is easy to imagine the exciting, vast potential of the other 100 genes, which can be translated into dozens of new anti-cancer mechanisms."

Will We Grow Tusks?

If we begin replacing our genes with elephant DNA, will we become elephants? No. The genetic signatures and genes identified by Dr. Tabach are associated with cancer resistance and can increase life expectancy across species. Having survived millions of years of evolution, these universal, anti-cancer mechanisms may play an extremely valuable role without being highly specific to one organism or another. 

What’s Next?

Computational tools are predictive: they can scan and process large amounts of data and identify patterns. However, the findings and predictions must be tested through laboratory work – first with human cells and tissues, then with live animals. One of Dr. Tabach’s goals is to genetically engineer a cancer-resistant and potentially long-lived mouse. Another direction he is actively pursuing is the development of medications that mimic or replace genes. These may serve as preventative or curative measures.

Dr. Tabach’s work is both broad and specific – and offers hope of a healthier future for people worldwide.

"It is really exciting for us to look back through hundreds of millions of years of genetic evolution, and extract information that can impact human health in the present."

To read about Dr. Tabach’s Coronavirus research, click here.

Photo credit: "Mouse ENCODE" by Darryl Leja, NHGRI. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped

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Applying Computational Tools to Curing Cancer

Yotam Drier
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Dr. Yotam Drier, from the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at the Hebrew University, has set out to cure cancer. Using sophisticated computational methods, he is able to decipher the complex mechanisms that regulate the activity of thousands of genes and show how these mechanisms go awry in cancer. 

Cancer: The Evasive Killer  

Cancer is the number one killer in western society, and has proven a formidable disease to combat. One reason is that cancer cells are constantly changing (mutating) while also multiplying, acquiring new abilities and evading therapies. How do cancer cells do this? The key lies in mis-regulation of their genes.  

Cancer occurs when one of the trillions of cells in our body begins multiplying uncontrollably, giving rise to a tumor mass. This may be caused by gene overactivity or under-activity. For example, a gene might receive mis-repeated instructions to multiply (thus growing out of control), or a gene meant to block cell growth may become inactive. As cancer progresses, several such key genes tend to mutate, resulting in permanent changes to their activity.

Yet perfectly healthy genes can still drive cancer. How? The answer lies in the regulatory DNA, the “other” 97% of our DNA that does not contain genes. These regulatory elements dictate which genes are active within each cell, but it is not very straightforward. Their complex interactions, with each other and with multitudes of genes, make it challenging to uncover how they work.   

At the Cutting-Edge of Cancer Research  

Using advanced tools for genetic analysis and novel computational algorithms, Dr. Drier’s work has revealed several key ways in which gene regulatory elements can drive cancer:

Epigenetics: Chemical “markings” upon the regulatory DNA affect how the genes are regulated. Numerous simultaneous epigenetic changes can drastically change gene activity and drive cancer.  

3D genetic “tangles”: Each cell contains a sort of “tangled” DNA pom-pom, in which genes and their regulatory elements are in close proximity and interact. This structure is often changed in cancer cells. Without proper interactions, genes are not properly activated, driving cancer. 

Dr. Drier has successfully associated between particular changes to the regulatory DNA and specific types of cancer, including pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, tumors of the salivary gland, and others.

"I’m aiming to systematically uncover the code of regulatory DNA and its disruption in cancer. This will allow us to both better understand how basic processes are regulated by, and encoded in, the DNA, as well as to uncover what drives various tumors we do not yet understand. We can suggest better strategies to manage these diseases and new drugs for targeting them."

At the Frontier of Computational Medicine

Dr. Drier’s lab team applies cutting-edge experimental techniques to studying and characterizing tumors in high throughput. In other words, rather than studying a specific gene or type of cancer, he studies a system: the entire cancer genome. Dr. Drier’s lab generates and analyzes a significant amount of data, including the tumor’s genetics, epigenetics, structure, gene expression, and more. 

By applying powerful algorithms, Dr. Drier integrates his findings with other databases and develops computational models capable of predicting cancer-driving events, focusing on changes to regulatory DNA elements. Such events may include changes and differences among healthy and cancerous cells and what causes the cancer to appear, keep growing, and metastasize. In other words, Dr. Drier is capable of predicting the function of observed changes to regulatory DNA and their role in driving cancer. 

Dr. Drier is currently taking a very broad approach; after identifying specific regulatory DNA alterations responsible for causing a particular form of cancer, his team will experimentally check whether indeed introducing these changes to cells causes the predicted outcome in order to establish cause and effect between regulatory DNA changes and cancer (rather than mere correlations).  

Dr. Drier’s work is at the forefront of computational medicine, both at the Hebrew University and globally. His work has greatly contributed to our understanding of how disruptions to regulatory DNA can lead to cancer, and his breakthroughs are illuminating new ways to treat cancer patients.

"I am very grateful for the opportunity to work in the diverse and stimulating environment that the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine provides, where collaborations naturally form between physicians, experimental biologists, and computational biologists, an intersection that provides for very rewarding science."

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Saving Animals & Educating People: Yarah Kablan, Veterinary Student

Yarah Kablan
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Yarah Yosef Kablan grew up in the picturesque Druze village of Beit Jann, located within the Meron nature reserve in northern Israel. Her father would take her out hiking, teaching her from an early age to respect and care for nature. But very little emphasis was placed on the proper and humane treatment of animals, and Yarah was always distressed to see how her community treated pets, especially dogs – who were seen primarily as watchdogs.    

Yarah did whatever she could: learning about different animals, caring for them, and saving stray cats and dogs. Beit Jann didn’t have a single animal clinic, so Yarah decided to become a veterinarian.  

Yarah’s parents are both educated: her father was the village’s first lawyer and her mother is a computer programmer. They encouraged their children to select professions based on their interests, and work hard to succeed. As a result, Yarah’s siblings hold diverse professions, including structural engineering, social work, teacher, industrial engineer, fitness instructor, and programmer. 

When it came time to choose, Yarah decided to study animal science at a college in northern Israel. She also worked at an equine therapy ranch and a pet supply store, and she volunteered at animal sanctuaries and a non-profit dog adoption agency. 

After graduating, Yarah volunteered at a youth center in her village. She held a series of sessions for high school students, teaching them what to do and who to contact if they encounter an injured animal, her decision to become vegan, and brought in a dog trainer who taught the teens how to properly care for, feed, and treat dogs. To this day, the participants are in touch with Yarah, asking her advice. They have saved 3 dogs, and a few have become vegans or vegetarians. Even more importantly, their attitudes have changed, and they behave more kindly towards animals. 



Yarah also joined a local animal rights group that maintains contact over Whatsapp. This diverse group, which includes Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews – of all ages – notify each other and lend a helping hand to save animals. She was even featured in a documentary that was screened at the DocAviv Galilee festival, spotlighting her efforts to save a dog who’d been run over and suffered from a broken shoulder. She has also saved hedgehogs, rabbits, and birds, transferring them to professional hands.



Another passion project of Yarah’s is transferring carcasses to research facilities. This includes a marten whose body was fully intact (a rare specimen) that she kept in her freezer, much to her mother’s chagrin, until researchers travelled to Beit Jann to pick it up.  

Last year, Yarah enrolled in the Hebrew University’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine and begin working towards her DVM degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine).

"I am finally working towards realizing my dream. I never considered any other profession – I always knew I’d become a veterinarian."

She is looking forward to working on her capstone project, researching Leishmaniosis (leishmaniasis) in cats under the supervision of Prof. Gad Baneth, the Rybak-Pearson Chair in Veterinary Medicine. She’s also excited to begin the clinical years, when she’ll finally begin gaining hands-on experience saving animals.

Yarah is scheduled to graduate in three years. She plans to complete her internship at the Hebrew University’s Veterinary Hospital, gaining professional confidence and clinical experience before entering the field. Next, she hopes to join an existing clinic to gain even more experience. When she feels ready, she will return to Beit Jann and open her clinic.


"I’m here to help animals and change people’s attitudes towards them. I dream of opening an animal shelter and helping as many animals as I can."

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Shedding Light (& Diagnosing) the Coronavirus

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Dr. Eitan Lerner is a molecular biophysicist at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences. In biology, the structure of most proteins is related to their function. However, there is a group of proteins, intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), that are partially or sometimes even completely disordered or unstructured. These proteins can fold, bind, and function in many ways. In ordinary times, Dr. Lerner is studying how one such IDP, α-Synuclein, can on one hand support and facilitate proper dopamine release in our brains, but, on the other hand, can cause neurotoxicity associated with Parkinson's disease. 

However, these are certainly not ordinary times. Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Lerner realized he had an opportunity to research something he had always been curious about: rapid counting of particles sized 50-500 nanometers, using light – a grey zone in biology, as most light-based observations focus either on much smaller biomolecular systems or much larger organisms. (The Coronavirus measures 100-120 nanometers in diameter). 

A Different Method, Quicker Results 

Dr. Lerner wondered if single-particle spectroscopy might be applied to developing a quicker Coronavirus diagnostic test. The standard PCR test takes 1-2 days to return results, leaving patients in limbo. Using single-particle spectroscopy, Dr. Lerner believed it would be possible to deliver equally accurate results more quickly. (See box for more info).

"We need an additional testing method, one that will complement the PCR-based testing, but that will provide faster results. Ideally, such a test would also be cheaper, saving the cost of reagents and other lab supplies."

Dr. Lerner got to work developing a microscopy-based apparatus for the counting of virus particles with high sensitivity and, most importantly, rapidly. He developed a method for detecting the presence of the virus based on two signatures: its size, determined by how many fluorescent molecules are displaced by the virus, and its specific interaction with proteins and antibodies – to confirm that the pathogen is, in fact, SARS-CoV-2 (and not a different particle of similar size). By confirming that the volume of displaced fluorescent liquid correlates closely with the observed antibodies – a viral detection event is recorded. The only thing that’s left is to count enough such events in a short period of time. The entire process can be completed in 10 minutes. 

Looking forward, Dr. Lerner will begin testing the system with similar, safer viruses and antibodies supplied by various Hebrew University researchers, and eventually transfer his research to an existing BSL-2 lab. 

Born Out of a Partnership 

Dr. Lerner’s partner in this endeavor is Prof. Dr. Thorben Cordes at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, who is responsible for the engineering aspects of the project. They already have the first prototype – a 3D-printed apparatus that uses readily available supplies. This would reduce costs, increase accessibility, and shorten wait-time – without compromising accuracy. 

"We’ve refused to apply for grants requiring us to give up our intellectual property. If this method works, it must be immediately commercialized – for the benefit of humankind."

All diagnostic tests must balance specificity with sensitivity, while also providing results in a timely manner. Specificity refers to properly detecting the presence (or absence) of the pathogen, while sensitivity measures how much of the pathogen is needed to obtain a meaningful result.

The Coronavirus is initially heavily present in saliva, as well as in other bodily fluids (to different degrees); as time passes and symptoms progress, the virus moves into host cells in the body – where it replicates and causes patients to transfer the virus to their surroundings. (Put on that mask!). A patient who is swabbed on the first or second day of their symptoms will have more virus in their saliva than a patient swabbed on the sixth or seventh day. Eventually, after approximately 14 days, so little virus will be found in these bodily fluids, that it may become harder to detect, forcing clinicians to rely on other methods (e.g. blood tests).

Dr. Lerner has developed the technology that facilitates a test that is as specific and sensitive as the PCR test, but much quicker. It will complement the PCR test and perhaps come to serve as a rapid pre-test to help diagnostic teams in the field make better and quicker decisions, while helping patients get more accurate results - in less time.


This research was supported by the ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (grant No. 3565/20) within the KillCorona – Curbing Coronavirus Research Program


Photo credit: "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" by NIH. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped.


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Can Our Genes Influence or Predict the Severity of Illness?

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As Coronavirus infection rates rose worldwide, it has become clear that the disease’s symptoms and their severity greatly differ between people. As the pandemic continues to spread, it is imperative to identify which individuals, whether already affected or not, are at the greatest risk of becoming severely ill. Furthermore, accurate risk-prediction models will help public health officials determine how to best allocate medical resources. The key to such knowledge may lay in our genes, as they dictate how our bodies (organs, immune system) respond to infection. 

Hebrew University scientists are tacking this important question, taking a two-fold approach. First, COVID-19 patients are treated by Hebrew University-Hadassah clinicians, Prof. Dana Wolf and Prof. Arie Ben-Yehuda. Next, Dr. Yotam Drier, Dr. Shai Carmi, and Prof. Assaf Hellman are applying their expertise in genetic, computational, and statistical methods to patient samples, conducting large-scale genetic data analysis. By applying algorithms that cross-reference the patients’ genetic and clinical information, the researchers may be able to identify gene patterns are associated with severity of illness – explaining why some patients become severely ill, while others do not.

"As a computational biologist, I use data on genetic differences between individuals, along with statistical methods and algorithms, to find which genetic variants influence traits and diseases. I also develop genetic screens and models for disease risk prediction. I will apply these skills to tackling one of the biggest questions of the coronavirus pandemic – why are some people severely ill while others are asymptomatic? And how can we predict which individuals are at risk, in order to better protect them?"

- Dr. Shai Carmi

This study may have an immense impact on combatting COVID-19 by identifying individuals who are at high risk for disease or may respond better to a particular treatment. In the future, simple genetic tests may help predict and determine how to best treat different individuals.

Photo credit: "DNA Double Helix with Data" by Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The Image has been cropped.

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Entering Our Bodies: ACE2 Receptors as Gateway Cells

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The coronavirus is currently understood to enter the human body by interacting with a receptor named ACE2. This receptor is a protein that is displayed on the surface of certain cells in the lungs, nose, and oral cavity, among others. In a sense, the receptor and virus are like a keyhole and key; they must perfectly fit for the virus to enter and infect a person. 

However, which cell types present ACE2 on their surface, and what determines their presence, is unknown. Prevent ACE2 from being displayed, or blocking its interaction with the virus, would likely reduce infection rates and stymie the virus’s ability to infect additional cells in the body. Furthermore, it is possible that the Coronavirus can enter the human body via additional gateway receptors, which could also potentially be targeted for therapy. Such other players are yet to be discovered. 

It is clear that some recovered COVID-19 patients subsequently suffer from a range of illnesses, for example inflammation of the circulatory system in different organs. It is unclear whether the cells of these organs display gateway cells that permit infection by the virus.

Studying Healthy Cell Samples to Learn About Infection 

Hebrew University scientists Dr. Oren Parnas and Dr. Yotam Drier, in collaboration with Hadassah lung surgeon Dr. Ori Wald, hope to provide answers to these questions. To this end, they are collecting cells from the lungs and other organs of non-COVID-19 patients. They are characterizing the exact gene activity profile of each cell and identifying which cell types display active ACE2 receptors. To date, they have profiled thousands of cells and measured the expression of hundreds of thousands of genes. Powerful computational tools are the only possible way to analyze such a vast dataset.

At the same time, the researchers are comparing their findings to existing cell databases to identify cell types with a proclivity towards SARS-Cov-2 infection. Their working hypothesis is that by identifying the type of cell, they will glean clues about the mechanism underlying COVID-19 symptoms. For example, inflammation of the circulatory system could be caused by direct infection of blood vessel cells.

"It may become possible to understand and treat the disease’s symptoms by understanding how it spreads in the human body – on a cellular level. This type of detective work can really allow us to trace the virus’s advancement within the body."

          Dr. Oren Parnas

Looking Ahead: Uncovering a Gene Regulatory Network through Computer Analysis

Within our bodies, molecular networks regulate our genes, affecting when each gene is turned on and off. To fully understand how these networks are organized and how they work, Dr. Parnas and Dr. Drier will disrupt each of the known human genes in cells, one gene at a time, and then measure whether these perturbations change the cell’s ability to become infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

It is possible that an eventual drug will target the regulatory mechanisms that enable infection, rather than combatting the virus at the site of infection. By creating a computational network of the genes’ regulatory mechanisms, scientists will be able to better understand – and disrupt – the chain of events that makes cells susceptible to infection. 

The next step will be to translate these computational findings into lab experiments, in order to verify findings and determine the best course of treatment for patients.

"The impact of this groundbreaking work isn't limited to the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic but will open the door to an entirely new understanding of how molecular networks affect disease and treatment - enabling us to treat numerous diseases more effectively."

          Dr. Yotam Drier

Photo credit: "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" by NIAID. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped.

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Identifying Drugs that Target ACE2 Genetic Networks

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Understanding Human Cells – Through Animal Evolution

What can we learn by comparing our genes to those of a giant squid, a frog, or a blind mole? Turns out, a lot. Especially if you throw in 1,600 other species whose full genomes have been decoded in recent years. This is the specialty of Dr. Yuval Tabach at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine – taking apart the genes of thousands of animals, comparing them to one another, and extracting important conclusions about what human genes do, how they influence cancer and other diseases, and how they can be targeted by drugs.

Thanks to exponential developments in genomics, Dr. Tabach now has access to the genomes of 1,600+ species. This is Big Data: the ability to compare millions of genes, representing hundreds of millions of years of evolution. (For comparison, Dr. Tabach’s first paper, published in 2013, was based on 87 species, and in 2019 he had access to 600 species). 

Mining such vast amounts of data to benefit humans is far from simple. Dr. Tabach’s lab develops artificial intelligence algorithms that can search and compare these genomes for evolutionary patterns – identifying distinct networks of genes that execute a particular function. 

Co-Evolving Genes 

How is this done? A guiding principle is that if two genes co-evolve closely together across many species, they are likely to play a similar role and even work together. Co-evolution means that these genes are always found together within a given species, and both absent in other species. In other words, if two genes have evolved together and changed at a similar rate across species, they may rely on each other to execute their tasks. 

Using his powerful methods, Dr. Tabach recently discovered new functions of genes involved in human breast cancer. By tracking the co-evolution of genes associated with DNA repair (genes that maintain the integrity of our genome) he discovered new genes involved in this important function. When these “repair” genes mutate in cancer, this contributes to the disease. 

Understanding How Our Genes Enable COVID-19 Infection 

It is known that SARS-CoV-2 enters the body by binding to a receptor named ACE2, which is actually a protein displayed on our lung cells. Given that the Coronavirus appears to be a zoonotic disease (i.e. it can move between species), genetic comparisons with other species becomes especially pertinent. For example, mice have different ACE2 receptors, and are thus immune to the Coronavirus. A central strategy in fighting the Coronavirus will likely be disrupting human ACE2 receptors and thus preventing infection. 

Dr. Tabach has applied his computational tools these receptors and identified multiple genes that co-evolved with ACE2 and are functionally related to it – in other words, he has mapped a genetic network. Understanding this network may prove crucial to blocking infection or reducing the virus’s devastating effects once cells are infected. 

Next, using massive drug databases, Dr. Tabach generated a list of existing and commonly used medications that are predicted to interact with, and affect, the ACE2 genetic network. His lab is currently conducting experiments to test whether these drugs can indeed influence the activity of ACE2 receptors. In addition, 16 clinical trials are underway worldwide on drugs identified by Dr. Tabach.

"When you can identify patterns within 1,600+ species’ genomes and combine these with the known effects of existing drugs, and take into account the context of the actual disease, you can identify the perfect drug – it may already exist!"

          Dr. Yuval Tabach

The study describing this pioneering computational analysis was recently accepted for publication by iScience.

Photo credit: "Genomic Data" by Ernesto Del Aguila III, NHGRI. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license. The image has been cropped.

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HU Students Volunteer to Tutor East and West Jerusalem High School Students

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Israeli schools shut down just as high school students were beginning to prepare for their matriculation exams. Dr. Inbal Goshen of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University realized that many youngsters were likely not getting the help they needed during this crucial time. Dr. Goshen's was closely familiar with the needs of high school students, as last year she taught a class at the Leyada high school, adjacent to the Hebrew University.

Dr. Goshen contacted the heads of faculties and departments across the University. Within a week, she had assembled a virtual team of 140 student volunteers, which eventually grew to 170 volunteers. Using digital platforms, these volunteers currently tutor 190 high school students from 11 schools in a wide variety of topics, ranging from physics, mathematics, biology, English, Arabic, computer science, history, and Bible.

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The Online Legal Hotline: Law Students & Alumni Rise to the Hour

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For the past 6 years, Adv. Ohad Amar has taught the Representation of Marginalized Communities course at the Faculty of Law and provided professional guidance for the ~20 students who volunteer annually in the eponymous legal clinic. Each week, the students operate legal aid centers (clinics) in many of Jerusalem’s peripheral and underserved neighborhoods, including Katamonim, Neve Yaakov, and Sheikh Jarrah. Residents come by to learn their rights, get assistance realizing these rights, and for any other legal matters they may be facing. The students also represent clients when cases go to court.

As the Coronavirus spread across Israel, official guidelines were issued on a nearly daily basis – often changing and always written in legalese. Almost immediately, the clinic was inundated with phone calls and emails from its existing clientele. As the questions flooded in, Adv. Amar realized that his clinic was likely a microcosm of the country as a whole.

Inspired by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, Adv. Amar identified the need to transfer information to those who lack access and/or understanding. He decided to launch an online hub where ordinary citizens could receive information in this ever-changing reality. He reached out to six years of clinic volunteers. Within 24 hours, over fifty student and alumni signed up and they’d launched two Facebook pages, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic.

"The online hotline is an opportunity to for us – students, alumni, and friends of the legal clinic – to rise to the hour and offer our assistance to the broadest public possible."

- Eden Levy, student, coordinator of the Arabic-language online hotline

They got to work: translating the regulations and laws into laymen’s terms and answering questions. While the hotline did not provide legal aid per se (rather, referring relevant cases to the clinics), it did take on a number of larger trends that emerged from the complaints: 

  • Reports about supermarkets raising prices. The volunteers compiled a report that was sent to the Minister of the Economy and participated in a Knesset committee meeting on the topic.
  • Long wait times to get through to the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi). The clinic met with the CEO and Knesset Member Aida Touma-Suleiman to discuss this matter.
  • Many applications for various benefits do not exist in Arabic. The clinic appealed, along with a number of other civic organizations, and the CEO of NII promised that everything would be translated into Arabic. Hotline volunteers translated hundreds of applications.
  • Single mothers reporting losing their child support after being furloughed, since it appeared they were no longer employed (a condition for the stipend).
  • People with disabilities reported their aides being fined for being outside, although this was legal. The volunteers appealed all such citations and they were cancelled.
  • Unclear guidelines for divorced parents with joint custody. The clinic asked the police for more detailed guidelines.
  • Clarifying the rights of furloughed employees, helping them realize their rights for unemployment/benefits.

Today, the hotline deals mainly with questions about the updated, loosened regulations, as well as appealing rejected applications for benefits. In addition, many the hotline continues to help people whose stipends have been reduced due to preexisting debts – in a time when money is already scarce.

Combined, the Hebrew and Arabic pages have reached over 15,300 people, and 1,250 questions were answered.

"The hotline’s success demonstrated people’s need for knowledge and the importance of this knowledge for realizing their rights. By providing answers, the online hotline empowered underserved populations across the country, while drawing those with knowledge into this important endeavor."

- Adv. Ohad Amar

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HU Students Volunteer in the Coronavirus Labs

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In this behind the scenes tour, meet the Hebrew University students and researchers spearheading efforts against Covid-19. They are volunteering their time, expertise, and lab equipment to help process Corona tests.


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At the Forefront of Computer Vision Research

Levi Kassel
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Even as a high school student, Levi Kassel was drawn to the sciences. He studied physics and math, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. These years were both immensely stimulating and challenging, and Levi discovered the joy of grappling with theoretical questions. 

After graduating, Levi worked as a developer for Amazon Web Services (AWS) for nearly two years. Yet he felt that he still wanted to learn and began searching for graduate opportunities – specifically in computer science.

"I explored a few options and decided upon the Hebrew University’s MSc program in Computer Science. I am interested in computer vision, and the Hebrew University is at the forefront of this field. In addition, my scholarship wasn’t tied to any particular lab, so I could participate in smaller projects and gain experience before committing to my final project."

 A year into the program, Levi knows he made the right choice. The classes are challenging, the facilities are top-notch, and he’s already completed a small research project. He’s decided to conduct his thesis research under the supervision of Prof. Michael Werman, focusing on foreground segmentation – teaching computers to distinguish between an image’s foreground and background. This has many applications, including monitoring traffic and security cameras, e.g. identifying an abandoned bag in a busy terminal.

"The MSc program in Computer Science has exceeded my expectations. After graduating I hope to work in industry, perhaps in research and development. A friend and I have an idea for a startup, but I may also find myself back at the University, studying for a doctoral degree.

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Ofer Waldman, Recipient of First Joint PhD from the Hebrew University and Freie Universität Berlin

Ofer Waldman

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"I have two passports, two SIM cards, two addresses, and two credit cards. Luckily, I have only one email account."

Ofer Waldman grew up in Jerusalem, next door to the Edmond J. Safra Campus, and attended the Hebrew University High School, known as Leyada. He excelled at the French horn, playing with the Arab-Jewish West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Eduard Said, for three years. Later, Barenboim invited Ofer to further his musical studies in Berlin. He accepted – eventually earning a diploma from the Berlin University of the Arts. 

Ofer remained in Berlin, playing with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Deutsche Opera Berlin, and occasionally with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. In 2008 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra invited Ofer to participate in a short-term project, during which he met his future wife, an Israeli who was living in New York at the time. They married and moved back to Israel in 2009. Ofer joined the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion (the resident orchestra of the Israeli Opera) the same week he began his master’s degree at the Hebrew University’s DAAD Center for German Studies.

"I was living my dream. Having grown up next door to the Hebrew University, I was finally honored to be among its students. It was a great pleasure and privilege to attend this fine institution."

Ofer completed his master’s degree with honors, receiving both the Rector's Prize for Excellent Students and the Dean of Social Sciences’ Award. He decided to continue studying towards a PhD, under the supervision of Prof. Yfaat Weiss from Hebrew University’s Department of History of the Jewish People and Contemporary Jewry. His research focused on Thomas Brasch, a writer of Jewish descent who grew up in East Germany and his complex relationship with the German socialistic state, which his parents, sworn communists returning to Berlin from war-time exile, helped build. Back when he lived in Germany as a musician, Ofer had been immersed in vestiges of East Berlin: his neighborhood, friends, and most of his orchestral colleagues were all rooted in the eastern part of the city. And yet, as Ofer came to realize, the lion’s share of Israeli historical research into Germany had focused on West Germany. 

In 2014, Ofer’s wife’s job offered a relocation to Berlin. Thanks to Prof. Weiss’s ties with Freie Universität (FU), Ofer was able to continue his doctoral research  there. Within a year, marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, the Hebrew University and Freie Universität signed an agreement to grant joint doctoral degrees. Ofer decided to enroll. He approached FU literary scholar Prof. Dr. Jürgen Brokoff, who agreed to co-supervise his doctoral research. Much assistance was provided by FU Prof. Susanne Zepp, who oversees this strategic cooperation on behalf of her institution. Ofer also He received additional support from an international scholarship of the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service. Ofer’s research also benefitted from the fact that nearly 30 years had passed since German reunification, and almost all of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) archives were open and accessible.

In 2018 Ofer’s family returned to Israel, where he completed his dissertation. When it came time to defend his thesis, the Coronavirus had struck and Ofer delivered his defense over Zoom. 

Today, Ofer continues to straddle both worlds. Living in Israel, he is a regular contributor to German public radio (Deutschlandfunk) as well as other German media. He writes, speaks, and protests on a variety of social and political causes, ranging from immigration and asylum seekers in Germany to democracy and human rights in Israel. One reoccurring theme of his work in the German media, along with his collaborator Noam Brusilovsky, is the German obsession with all things Israeli. In this vein, the duo’s radio drama, We Love Israel, was chosen to represent Germany in the European radio contest – Prix Europa. The show went on to have two successful seasons on SWR2. Other topics include the refugee crises of 2015/16 and Germany`s transition towards becoming a migrational society. Ofer’s next feature, again with Noam Brusilovsky, will touch upon the radio broadcast of the Eichmann Trial, whose 60th anniversary will be marked in April 2021. 

"As an Israeli Jew living in Berlin, as an Ashkenazi man, and as a student of the humanities, I recognize my many privileges. Immense public resources have been invested so that I can learn, research, gain knowledge – and I feel indebted to society. I cannot sit in the ivory tower and think critically to myself; I am obliged to open the window, hear what other people are saying, bring their stories to the fore. I feel that both Israel and Germany are on the brink of dramatic changes. In Israel, this is taking form of a threat to the country’s core democratic values, and my role is to contribute to a space of public discourse that is intellectual, relevant, and non-violent.

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Revolutionizing Cancer Treatment

Benzion Amoyav

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Benzion Amoyav was always drawn to science. As a high school student, he studied both chemistry and biology, and was looking forward to continuing studying science at the university level. But at the same time, he also wanted his studies to benefit society. He decided to study pharmacy, which perfectly blended his two passions. 

During his undergraduate studies, Benzion conducted research in Prof. Ofra Benny’s laboratory, focused on developing a system that produces highly tunable micro- and nanoparticles for treating tumors. These “smart” particles primarily attack the tumor and release drugs in a controlled manner, resulting in better patient outcomes and less negative side effects.

After graduating, Benzion completed his internship at Hadassah, received his pharmacy license, and returned to Prof. Benny’s lab to continue with his research, eventually earning a master’s degree.

Today, as a doctoral student, Benzion is researching liver cancer and embolization (blocking solid tumors’ blood supply), a common, yet limited-efficacy, clinical practice for treating various types of tumors. He is taking a radically different approach by countering the microenvironmental conditions that are favorable to tumors. His main effort is to develop a drug-delivery device for focused therapy in combination with embolization.

By releasing the drug in a targeted fashion in close proximity to the tumor, Benzion’s research will enable doctors to reduce side effects, increase efficiency, and improve clinical outcomes.

"I believe that research education is the key for innovation and improvement, because laboratory-based discoveries can help large numbers of people. I am grateful for having the opportunity to impact other people’s lives.

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Lifelong Partners: Our Gut Microbes and Us

Moran Yassour

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Dr. Moran Yassour joined the Hebrew University faculty in 2018, with a joint appointment at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine and the Rachel and Selim Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering. 

We are never truly alone – we have family, friends, and colleagues. But we also have billions of other close partners, which live within us. These are the bacteria in our digestive system, which are vital to breaking down food we consume, synthesizing vitamins, and teaching our immune system to differentiate between self and non-self. Together these are collectively referred to as our microbiome. 

Research has shown that people can have very different collections of types of bacteria in their intestines – thousands of different strains – directly affecting our health, such as our likelihood to suffer from diseases such as diabetes or cancer. 

The Infant Gut Microbiome and Infant Health 

Dr. Yassour’s research focuses on the microbiome. She studies one of the most basic and fascinating questions about the microbiome: how is this community established in the newborn gut? How do delivery mode and breastfeeding affect the microbiome and, in turn, how does the gut microbiome impact an infant’s health? 

To this end, she collects microbiome samples from newborns and their parents, and conducts genetic profiling and a count of the bacteria present. This reveals which genes can be uniquely assigned to specific bacteria. The result is millions of gene reads (DNA sequences). Decipher each patients’ microbiome is an immense task, impossible without computational analysis. Dr. Yassour offers the following analogy:

Suppose I enter a library, remove all the books from the shelves, and shred them into 100-letter snippets. Then I ask you to go through the shreds and tell me which books had been on the shelves. Doing this manually would be impossible. Snippets may appear in numerous books, or simply not contain enough context. This is the power of computational tools. I can sort through the snippets, see what they match, iterate, and narrow down the options – until reaching a match. Eventually, I can recreate the entire bookshelf.

Dr. Yassour applies sophisticated computational algorithms to her “snippets” of sequenced DNA, trying to characterize the microbial population and its functional potential, based on which genes are present. 

In particular, Dr. Yassour studies three key issues related to pediatric health: links between of breastfeeding and microbial composition of the microbiome; how the microbiome is related to food allergies; and how cultural differences influence microbiome composition. 

Breastfeeding & Microbial Composition 

The third most common component in breastmilk are HMOs (human milk oligosaccharides). While indigestible by babies, these sugars feed and sustain the microbes within the gut. By pairing breastmilk and stool samples, Dr. Yassour examines how sugars in the milk affect the composition of bacteria in the intestine and the bacteria’s reaction to the sugars. This would enable baby formulas to better mimic breastmilk – helping formula-fed babies develop a healthier bacterial population. 

The Microbiome and Food Allergies

Dr. Yassour is also exploring infant allergies by collecting samples from healthy infants, some of which later developed an allergy to cow milk proteins. By examining the microbial population of these infants, she can search for microbial markers and create a machine learning classifier that may predict such an allergy.

"I saw how programs meant to help repeatedly failed, causing both sides much frustration. I developed a model that was rooted in these immigrants’ resilience, not their shortcomings. This model can be adapted for any population, not just Ethiopian immigrants.'"

For her doctoral research, Shelly studied social workers and educators who work with children in distress from the Ethiopian community. She examined how these community practitioners perceive aspects of risk and protection in these children’s lives, and the context through which their perceptions are constructed. 

"I spend my days at the library, dividing my time between reading and writing. I’ve published a book based on my master’s thesis and am currently working on my dissertation and a volume of poetry. I love writing, the words just bubble up within me. Without the financial support I’ve received, I wouldn’t have been able to fully dedicate myself to my writing."

Shelly recently submitted her doctoral thesis and was planning on a post-doctoral position in Germany. But the Coronavirus changed her plans, and she will continue her research at the Hebrew University. She hopes to eventually join the Hebrew University faculty. Her husband, also of Ethiopian descent, is also a full-time doctoral student nearing the end of his studies. Besides raising three young children, the couple also provides financial assistance to their parents and siblings. 

In addition, Shelly has been volunteering for as long as she can remember. She’s tutored and mentored children and students, young adults in crisis, and is active in a number of organizations, including the Israel’s social work newsletter, the Coalition for Education from Birth, and Beersheba Mothers Against Police Violence.

Over the course of her doctoral studies, Shelly received four prestigious awards: The Nira Shenhar Prize for Excellence (2017); the Dean’s Award for Ongoing Volunteer Work with Individuals and the Community; The ISEF Award of Excellence (2020); and the Rector’s Award for Community Volunteering.

"The microbiome plays an important role in educating the immune system to differentiate ‘self’ from ‘non-self.’ This is, in fact, a philosophical question, since gut bacteria are clearly not ‘self,’ yet we don’t want our immune system to attack these healthy and helpful microbes"

Cultural Differences between Microbiomes 

Lastly, Dr. Yassour’s lab has begun a study of Bedouins living in the Negev, asking whether Bedouin infants are born with diverse microbiomes, or whether these develop in response to their lifestyle.

"The Bedouin’s lifestyle is far from western, and we hypothesize that their microbiome is much more diverse. Previous studies have shown great differences between the microbiomes of tribal people in South America and Africa and those living in North America. Hygiene has caused the loss of microbial diversity."

Dr. Yassour's 2019 HUJI Talk is available here.

Dr. Yassour’s lab site can be found here.

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Evaluating Public Spaces for Community Use

Gali Sheskin

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"For me, life is not about how you occupy your day but where you spend it. I see my mission as working to improve people’s immediate surroundings and thus enhancing their quality of life."

Gali Sheskin’s bachelor’s degree is in sociology, anthropology, and art history from the Hebrew University. While she greatly enjoyed her studies, she wanted to influence people’s experiences in the real world. As she began her master’s degree in geography and urban and regional planning at the University, Gali realized the Urban Clinic was the obvious address for her. She enrolled in the Clinic's elective course, excited to learn about planning, urban renewal, and to work with various stakeholders to foster dialogue in this field.

"It was important for me to contribute to society, in particular in neighborhoods that suffer from poor services or inter-community tensions. Through the Urban Clinic's highly professional staff, I have gained the academic training and practical tools to be able to listen to the residents’ concerns, understand the issues, and work with professionals and locals to bring about change. Especially in underserved neighborhoods."



Every student at the Urban Clinic must conduct a field project, and Gali decided to carry out hers in Jaffa, where she had recently moved. Though the city is blessed with a rich history, a beautiful seafront, and tourism, it grapples in part with a multi-racial population not at ease with one another's culture, needs, and sensitivities. One site where inter-group tensions played out was the community center in one of Jaffa's most underprivileged neighborhoods. While the center's mission is to host cultural, educational, and social events for all, in practice, each segment of the population regarded it as “the other groups’ turf.”




The community center in Jaffa (photo by Racheli Malki)

Rather than embracing diversity, differences had turned into spatial boundaries, not to be crossed. The center’s director had approached the Urban Clinic for advice before the Coronavirus pandemic, and as the country gradually emerged from lockdown, Gali Sheskin became involved.

Gali’s worked to identify outdoor spaces that could host communal activities in the era of social distancing. But before ‘hitting the ground,' she conducted research, reviewing international literature on how communities share public spaces when resources are limited – not just in times of crisis – and also contemporary articles on post-lockdown public activities to see how other places were moving forward creatively. Next, Gali mapped and rated 15 public spaces based on her own set of parameters, including safety aspects, current usage, potential public nuisance, adjacent buildings, accessibility, and social features. She also spoke to a range of people from the Jaffa community itself – residents, an urban-planner, activists, and a social worker – to hear their feedback, experiences, and suggestions.

"The Urban Clinic allowed me to channel my energies into improving people’s relationship with their neighborhood and having an impact on their wellbeing. I really believe in learning from people in the field: if you want to plan spaces that will serve people, you have to speak to the people themselves."

Finally, Gali presented her findings, setting out her photographs, a map, and her grading of each of the 15 sites’ suitability. Out of these, Gali recommended seven. She also proposed specific activities for each location – such as board games, story-time, a movie screening, a community garden, and a women’s running group – along with a list of the requisite equipment or accessories. The center’s leadership was extremely impressed with the breadth and depth of Gali’s work and is planning to involve local residents in implementing her suggestions in the near future. The hope is that, looking forward, this process will encourage greater participation and inter-community harmony.

"The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is now considering expansion and adaptation of this Jaffa project to other parts of the city too. And the Hebrew University is conducting a scientific evaluation of the project’s impact. Through our paradigm of nurturing urban leadership and local knowledge for just and inclusive cities, we are able to find meeting-grounds, literally and figuratively, for diverse groups within the same neighborhood."

-     Dr. Emily Silverman, Founding Director of the Urban Clinic
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Broadening Academic Horizons in British Columbia

Omer Nehoray

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Omer Nehoray chose to study at the Hebrew University for its strong academic reputation, and because it offered the option of double majoring in business administration and philosophy. 

Omer is an aspiring entrepreneur; he sees business as the engine that moves society forward. His heroes include Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos; their innovations have shaped the world that we live in today. At the same time, Omer often waxes poetic about his views, experiences, and thoughts on the world – evincing his philosophical side. 

In his second year of studies, Omer decided to participate in the Jerusalem School of Business Administration’s exchange program with the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He spent an entire semester living in Vancouver and taking classes alongside local and exchange students.

"Studying abroad was such a pleasure. My horizons were broadened in so many ways, and I felt empowered. I encountered people, cultures, and opinions that all varied from my own. Nothing was homogenous."

In particular, Omer recalls one course he particularly enjoyed. The topic was entrepreneurship; how to take an idea, something you believe in, and turn it into a business venture.

"There’s a methodology for creating a start-up. It takes time and not everyone succeeds. But this course broke down the process into smaller, tangible steps, enabling me to work more effectively towards realizing my dreams."

Omer is now considering pursuing a graduate degree abroad. But at the end of the day, Omer says that Israelis are simply more authentic and direct than other cultures. “I feel more culturally at home in Israel, but value opportunities to have adventures abroad.”

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Scholarships for Graduate Students and Projects in East Jerusalem: Creating More Equitable Cities

Urban Clinic

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The Hebrew University's Urban Clinic, in its quest to create more equitable cities, combines knowledge and practice to strengthen local community leadership and help rejuvenate neighborhoods. However, some sectors have less access to resources and services; systematic urban planning, from grassroots upwards and with the clinic's guidance, can make all the difference to underserved areas. 

The Urban Clinic is thus well-positioned to work with residents and local professionals to address the inadequate infrastructure and public services in East Jerusalem. To this end, the clinic raised funds and established scholarships for Arab students studying towards a master’s degree. Priority is given to projects that take place in East Jerusalem and to students who are themselves residents of East Jerusalem.

"I couldn’t think of anything more sacred than donating my resources towards improving the Hebrew University’s Urban Clinic, the city of Jerusalem, and the State of Israel."

- Jonathan Russo, supporter of the scholarships

Since 2015, these scholarships have enabled 19 Arab graduate students to study both the academic and practical sides of urban planning. These motivated and accomplished students are hand-picked, commit to improving their Hebrew, participate in Urban Clinic meetings, and develop a project in East Jerusalem. Since most of the students come from or live in East Jerusalem, they know only too well the challenges their neighborhoods face. Through the Urban Clinic’s training, they gain the skills, confidence, and knowledge to work with local planning professionals and the Jerusalem municipality, as well as initiate small-scale projects to enhance public spaces and help allocate limited resources wisely. 

For example, in an attempt to address the dire need for housing caused by the difficulty obtaining building permits, one student researched the legal aspects of land registration in East Jerusalem. Another student involved East Jerusalem high schoolers in analyzing and mapping the inadequate parks and outdoor spaces near their homes; together they submitted proposals for improvements to the Jerusalem municipal professionals responsible for developing public open spaces.

"These scholarships empower Arab and Palestinian master students, giving them the professional tools to work as urban-planners in their own community. The Urban Clinic’s ethos and methods teach them how to work within the system to bring about change. Seeing them graduate, obtain jobs in the field, and continue devoting their energy and knowledge to making Jerusalem a more equitable and livable city, is very satisfying."

-    Anonymous supporter of the scholarships 

Meet Aya Eghbaria, a recipient of this scholarship, and read about her projects in East Jerusalem here.

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Shelly Engdau Vanda, Social Work

Shelly Engdau Vanda

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Shelly Engdau Vanda was born in Ethiopia and made aliya with her family, via Sudan, when she was five years old. Although she was a bright student, there was nothing about her upbringing that hinted she’d become a trailblazer. Today, Shelly is one of only a handful of Israeli doctoral students of Ethiopian descent.

"Throughout my years in academia, I never had a single professor of Ethiopian descent. Even today, there are none or next to none in Israel. We’ve created a loose network of Ethiopian academics and we support each other."

Shelly was the first in her family to obtain a higher education when she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. She spent the next four years working in early childhood centers, which offer professional services ranging from speech and occupational therapy to psychological services. Working primarily with families who’d emigrated from Ethiopia, Shelly developed and adapted programs to their needs. Eventually, she was appointed to manage one such center herself. 

Four years later, Shelly decided to pursue a master’s degree. She enrolled in the Hebrew University’s early childhood program. Her thesis was recently published as a book, Resilience in Immigration: The Story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel from a Perspective of 30 Years.  

After completing her master’s degree, Shelly spent the next seven years working for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality in different management roles. She was also a member of the municipal taskforce that helped immigrants from Ethiopia settle in the city. Shelly began noticing problems in how the social services and educational system treated these immigrants; while the problems initially seemed minor, she gradually realized their systemic nature. 

Although Shelly loved working with people, she decided to return to academia to better understanding these issues and hopefully contribute to their resolution. She completed her doctoral studies under the supervision of Prof. Dorit Roer-Strier from the Nevet Greenhouse.

"I saw how programs meant to help repeatedly failed, causing both sides much frustration. I developed a model that was rooted in these immigrants’ resilience, not their shortcomings. This model can be adapted for any population, not just Ethiopian immigrants."

For her doctoral research, Shelly studied social workers and educators who work with children in distress from the Ethiopian community. She examined how these community practitioners perceive aspects of risk and protection in these children’s lives, and the context through which their perceptions are constructed. 

"I spend my days at the library, dividing my time between reading and writing. I’ve published a book based on my master’s thesis and am currently working on my dissertation and a volume of poetry. I love writing, the words just bubble up within me. Without the financial support I’ve received, I wouldn’t have been able to fully dedicate myself to my writing."

Shelly recently submitted her doctoral thesis and was planning on a post-doctoral position in Germany. But the Coronavirus changed her plans, and she will continue her research at the Hebrew University. She hopes to eventually join the Hebrew University faculty. Her husband, also of Ethiopian descent, is also a full-time doctoral student nearing the end of his studies. Besides raising three young children, the couple also provides financial assistance to their parents and siblings. 

In addition, Shelly has been volunteering for as long as she can remember. She’s tutored and mentored children and students, young adults in crisis, and is active in a number of organizations, including the Israel’s social work newsletter, the Coalition for Education from Birth, and Beersheba Mothers Against Police Violence.

Over the course of her doctoral studies, Shelly received four prestigious awards: The Nira Shenhar Prize for Excellence (2017); the Dean’s Award for Ongoing Volunteer Work with Individuals and the Community; The ISEF Award of Excellence (2020); and the Rector’s Award for Community Volunteering.

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Machine Learning and Verification: No Room for Error

Varda Zilberman

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Varda Zilberman always loved science. In high school she majored in physics and electronics, and later studied computer science and math at the Hebrew University, with the idea of pursuing a career in high tech. On campus, Varda felt that she’d found her place. As graduation neared, she deliberated whether to continue to a master’s degree or enter the workforce. She ended up working for a small tech company doing mapping for the Tel Aviv light rail. 

Yet Varda couldn’t ignore the lure of academia; after working for a year, she returned to the Hebrew University to begin her master’s degree. 

"I loved being a student and wanted to take my studies to the next step – conducting research. I wanted to push myself further and see what I could accomplish."

Now nearing the end of her first year, Varda has been working on machine learning in Dr. Guy Katz’s laboratory. More specifically, she studies the field of neural networks verification, i.e. verifying that a neural network satisfies some properties, and exploring ways to speed up the verification process – a computationally challenging task. Verification is crucial for many systems, such as self-driving car and airborne collision avoidance systems.

"I was always drawn to the more theoretical aspects of math, but there’s something immensely satisfying about practical research and getting immediate results, especially working in the field of verification, where there’s no room for error. I love my research and feel that I’m in the right place.

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Applying Machine Learning to Medical Image Processing

Avigail Suna

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Avigail Suna holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. After graduating she began working for Largix, a local robotics startup company, where she first discovered the allure of computer science.  

Working alongside a Hebrew University alumna who taught her to program robots in different languages, Avigail’s eyes were opened to the beauty and elegance of well-written code, and its potential to optimize teamwork. Today, Avigail is a MSc student at the Rachel and Selim Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering.

"I’m really enjoying my studies. I’ve taken a few image processing classes, where my 3D background has been an advantage. The coursework is challenging and gratifying. I’m also amazed by my peers. We work together to succeed, offering a helping hand at any hour of the day (or night!). It is a creative and stimulating environment."

Before beginning her graduate studies, Avigail had met Hebrew University Prof. Leo Joskowicz at a conference. His background is also in robotics, and today he focuses on medical image processing. Avigail joined his lab and conducts research in this field, integrating traditional techniques with machine learning. Specifically, she’s working with Hadassah doctors on an algorithm that can assist in determining, based on an x-ray alone, whether patients with a fractured distal radius will need to undergo surgery.

"I greatly enjoy working alongside people with different professional backgrounds and feel that I am learning a lot. I’m enjoying the challenges and am satisfied knowing that I’m working on a real-world project that will help doctors and patients alike."

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Hebrew University Alumni at the Front Lines: Combatting COVID-19 Worldwide

Zoom Image IMPH

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The Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine’s International Master of Public Health (IMPH) currently has over 900 alumni worldwide, and maintains an active alumni network.

Holding key positions across the globe, IMPH alumni are truly at the front lines of the pandemic, as they are involved in setting national or local policies, planning, coordinating, and providing health services, as well as developing other responses to the Coronavirus crisis. Many of these alumni reached out to their alma mater for professional advice and guidance. 

In response, the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School, in partnership with MASHAV (Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), launched the BRAUN-MASHAV Global COVID-19 Forum

To date, 12 webinars have taken place, featuring Israeli and international public health practitioners and researchers who share their experiences, successes and challenges fighting COVID-19. In addition, participants have the opportunity to ask questions, share their experiences, and network. 

Approximately 40 alumni, representing 15 countries, participate in each session. These have included members of the national task forces in Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria; World Health Organization officials from Sierra Leone and North Macedonia; and other alumni in decision-making capacities in Albania, Honduras, Columbia, Ethiopia, and Norway/Afghanistan – among others.

"I'm proud to say that Israel is at the forefront of providing immediate response in the wake of humanitarian crises, strengthening its commitment as a member of the family of nations. We have done so in the past, we are doing it today, and we will do it whenever and wherever our assistance is needed."

        Amb. Gil Haskel, Head of MASHAV

The BRAUN-MASHAV Global COVID-19 Forum has focused on a variety of topics, including mental health services, food security, personal protection with a focus on masks, cyber-surveillance, protecting vulnerable populations, virus sequencing to understand variations, smoking behavior and tobacco control, and aging populations, among others.

"Each week we are reminded of how much we can learn from one other, and how much we are dependent on one another to tackle this global public health crisis."

          Professor Yehuda Neumark, Director of the Braun School

The most recent webinar, which focused on screening strategies that would permit the safe re-opening of college campuses, was delivered by Prof. David Paltiel of Yale University and Prof. Rochelle Walensky of Harvard University. They offered participants a mathematical model for testing and isolating, to keep infections under control. This included sharing an online calculator into which participants can plug in their own data, adjusting for the number of students, compliance levels, the frequency and accuracy of tests – and more. Ultimately, Prof. Paltiel and Prof. Walensky concluded that frequency trumps accuracy; frequent testing would compensate for any false negatives, while also quickly locating and isolating infected students before the virus could spread out of control.

"Thank you for the presentation, amazing insights into the importance of testing in the “new normal."

    IMPH alumna from North Macedonia

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HU Researchers Searching for a Cure

Corona Research

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Diagnostics: HU researchers are designing and testing rapid diagnostic kits, as well as ways to identify individuals who have been exposed – by detecting antibodies in their blood. This may enable us to map resistance, improve isolation modes, and minimize the spread of the epidemic. These efforts involve a number of scientists, including Prof. Yuval DorProf. Eylon YavinDr. Maayan Salton.

Vaccine development: This effort is being led by scientists with previous experience with similar viruses: SARS and MERS. Our scientists are designing new vaccines and have begun producing the necessary proteins. Many researchers are involved, including Dr. Alex RouvinskiProf. Ora Schueler-FurmanProf. Sigal Ben-YehudaProf. Ilan Rosenshine, and Dr. Reuven Wiener.

Improving the capacity of the immune system to combat the virus: The immune system can be a double-edged sword: When fighting the Coronavirus, it produces antibodies to defeat the virus, while also producing factors that aggravate the disease, particularly the virus-induced pneumonia. Our scientists are designing novel ways to reinforce the constructive components while weakening the destructive ones. These researchers include Prof. Ofer MandelboimDr. Michael BergerDr. Oren Parnas, and Prof. Yinon Ben-Neriah.

Model systems to study the virus and develop new drugs: Animal models are essential for testing new treatments and drugs. Our scientists are developing ways to infect mice (who are naturally immune), which will serve as models upon which to test vaccines and newly developed anti-viral drugs. These researchers include Dr. Lior Nissim and Dr. Yossi Buganim, among others.

Molecular epidemiology studies to identify susceptible and resistant populations: Genetic variations among people may explain why some people are infected and others not, and why some develop more severe disease than others. Genetic studies may reveal ways to stop this – and subsequent – epidemics. We are constructing a new biobank to study and screen genetic factors contributing to disease susceptibility. These include Dr. Shai CarmiDr. Yotam DrierProf. Asaf HellmanProf. Hanah Margalit, and Dr. Yuval Tabach.

Drug development to block infection and reduce tissue damage: Our cellular biologists and pharmacology scientists are experimenting with repurposing clinically approved drugs and food additives to reduce infectivity and reduce tissue damage caused by the virus. These include Prof. Shmuel Ben-SassonProf. Moshe Kotler, and Prof. Albert Taraboulos.

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Pooled Coronavirus Testing – Screening Thousands of People While Saving Time and Costs

Testing for Corona

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A team of Hebrew University scientists and physicians has come up with a way to reduce wait-time for results and conserve precious laboratory supplies – without compromising test sensitivity or result validity. 

As the Coronavirus began spreading, public health and medical professionals recognized the importance of quickly identifying, and isolating, people infected with SARS-CoV-2. This holds especially true for retirement homes, hospital staff, or workers at essential factories. There is a great need to quickly screen large groups of people, especially to rule out even the low probability of infection in individuals, thereby ensuring the safety of the work environment, essential to its functioning.  

The standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is conducted on genetic material extracted from patient swabs. Each patient’s sample has to be processed and tested individually: from inactivating the virus, extracting the genetic material, and conducting the positive/negative test. This requires substantial effort and cost of the materials for each sample. Furthermore, very early in the pandemic, world shortages of necessary materials became apparent, limiting the numbers of tests that could be conducted at once.

A team including Dr. Yotam Drier, Dr. Maayan Salton, and Prof. Yuval Dor of the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine, together with Prof. Dana Wolf of the Hadassah Medical Center, rose to the challenge, by initiating effective pooled patient testing. The Hebrew University was among the first in the world to safely implement this approach, which is currently being adopted globally.

What is pooling? Say only three of 80 people to be tested actually carry the virus. This means that most tests will turn out negative. The researchers surmised that the 80 samples could be pooled into ten groups samples, each containing samples from 8 individuals. This “pool” can then be tested as if it were only one individual, thereby conducting 10 instead of 80 tests. If a particular pool comes back negative, it means that all eight people are uninfected and there is no need to test them individually. If, on the other hand, a pool comes back positive, that particular batch will be “unpacked” and retested, to identify the infected person. This results in substantial reduction in cost and time, particularly when the positive results are a low percentage of the tests, and allows much more cost-effective screening of large groups of people.

While the principle behind this approach sounds simple, it is in fact much more complex, both theoretically and practically. The researchers conducted robust mathematical and statistical modelling, providing the theoretical basis of why and how pooling would work, and determining the optimal pool sizes. Practically, pooling requires robots to be programmed to pool eight samples, and assurances must be in place to guarantee sample quality. 

This method’s success has expanded the testing capacity of the joint Hebrew University-Hadassah virology lab, reaching several thousand tests a day, and consequently in Israel as a whole. The lab operates 24/7 under the leadership of Prof. Wolf, with Hebrew University students and volunteers running the tests and conducting the lab work.

"We are happy to be able to contribute to the national effort fighting COVID-19. The unique strengths of the Hebrew University, including expertise in molecular biology and computer sciences, the close cooperation with the Hadassah Medical Center, the availability of cutting-edge equipment, and the positive spirit of the university’s staff, students, and researchers – who volunteered by the hundreds – have made it possible for the Faculty of Medicine and Hadassah to turn our campus into a national leader of Coronavirus testing. We continue our R&D to further improve diagnoses and identify potential interventions."

          Prof. Yuval Dor, Faculty of Medicine

Rising Infection Rates

Yet the efficiency of pooling goes down as the percentage of positive swabs goes up. As infection rates began rising in late June, it became increasingly likely that pools would test positively – requiring all eight swabs be tested individually. Dr. Moran Yassour, whose research bridges medicine and computer science, sees this first and foremost as a mathematical question.

"The optimal assignment of samples into pools will make or break this. We must mathematically predict a way to triage samples as they arrive at the lab, assigning each test its ideal testing scheme to minimize the number of tests while maximizing their sensitivity and specificity."

          Dr. Moran Yassour

Dr. Yassour is evaluating the entire testing process, by working backwards. The joint Hebrew University-Hadassah virology lab currently has a collection of over 120,000 swabs; by analyzing data from multiple test features (e.g. the protocol used, machine type, specific extraction kit and other parameters) and correlating these with clinical variables (such as patient age, gender, and symptoms), Dr Yassour can develop algorithms to determine the exact combinations in which specific samples should be pooled with each other to ensure the highest efficiency. "This will allow us to simulate the effectiveness of different pooling techniques, and continuously recommend optimal pooling techniques for any given time,” Dr. Yassour says.

"The optimal assignment of samples into pools will make or break this. We must mathematically predict a way to triage samples as they arrive at the lab, assigning each test its ideal testing scheme to minimize the number of tests while maximizing their sensitivity and specificity."

          Dr. Moran Yassour

Together with with Prof. Yuval Dor and Prof. Dana Wolf, Dr. Yassour would like to use this data to train a machine learning based model to predict the probability of a false negative.  

For more details and a complete list of researchers involved in this project, see the publication in Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

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Creating a More Just Society Through Planning

Aya Eghbaria

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Aya Eghbaria is a master’s student in geography and urban and regional planning. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and law, completing her law internship at the Tel Aviv Public Defender’s office. Aya has also volunteered with many civic and human rights organizations. Through these experiences, she has become aware of the different ways to create a more just society.

"I realized that as a lawyer, I was working to rectify existing problems. I wanted to figure out how to prevent some of the problems from happening in the first place. In Arab towns, many of the most severe problems revolve around issues of land, housing, and zoning – and urban planning is a way to change these. When I first heard about the Urban Clinic’s approach to spatial justice, and the tuition scholarships available to become an urban planner, I knew the Hebrew University was the place to pursue my master’s degree."

Aya joined two of the clinic’s projects dealing with East Jerusalem.  The first is a team project on affordable housing and urban planning. They are working with community groups to identify practical and creative methods to generate new, affordable homes.  The second project addresses the lack of registered land titles for homes in East Jerusalem. Without registration, landowners cannot obtain construction permits or mortgages, or make any changes to their property. The team is investigating similar situations internationally and trying to bridge between government and community groups. 

"I’m glad I joined the Urban Clinic from the beginning of studies, as it has helped me better understand my work as a planner and my professional future. The clinic plays an important role, translating academic knowledge to real-life situations."

Aya would like to continue studying for a doctorate, but also values working with people and communities. In this sense, Aya perfectly exemplifies the Urban Clinic, which strives to bridge academia and practice.

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The Urban Clinic: A Town Square

Luisa Venancio

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Luisa Venancio is a PhD student in urban and regional studies, as well as a staff member of the Urban Clinic. She studied architecture and planning in her native Brazil, before moving to France to study for a master’s degree, where she remained to work in humanitarian architecture, including planning post-disaster, low-cost, and cooperative housing. 

Luisa came to realize that projects might fail, not because they were poorly planned, but because they were not planned together with the community they served. Thus, in 2016 she moved to Israel to begin Glocal, the Hebrew University’s International Community Development program. Yet unable to stay away from planning, she immediately became involved with the Urban Clinic. For example, through the clinic she presented to Israeli planners the case study of Medellín, a city in Columbia that undertook a radical, innovative project of social urbanism.

Glocal’s highlight is, undoubtably, the 4-month internship; Luisa decided to intern with Islam Idaes, an Urban Clinic colleague who was the planner for three East Jerusalem neighborhoods. In one of these neighborhoods, a girls’ high school was going to be built. Islam suggested that Luisa teach 9th graders architecture and together develop their vision for the new school, which could be presented to municipal decision-makers. The project was a success, and additional fund raising made it possible to hold an exhibition and publish a tri-lingual booklet. For her thesis, Luisa interviewed the girls about their experiences during the project.

"Everyone seemed in favor of this project, it was in the consensus: teaching girls architecture, technology, and urbanism. So many people offered to help, perhaps because I was an outsider [to the conflict] and they saw the potential for the kids."

With the Urban Clinic playing such a significant role in her studies, Luisa knew she couldn’t leave. She has remained on the Urban Clinic’s staff, while beginning her PhD. She currently works on Urban95, a project focused on toddlers’ experiences living in cities. She’s also a teaching assistant for the course, Big Cities for Little Children. Luisa’s doctoral research will be in this vein, examining the effects of the urban environment upon young children.

"The Urban Clinic has become one of my homes in Jerusalem. It is like a town square, where people come together to share advice, come up with creative ideas, and help one another. My time at the Urban Clinic and living in Jerusalem has taught me to listen and get things done in a polarized environment."

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Solomon Oguche, Bio-Medical Sciences

Solomon Oguche

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Preparing for a Career in Protein Engineering 

Solomon Oguche grew up in north central Nigera and earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Jos. He first experienced the joy of laboratory work during his fourth year of studies, when he was required to undertake a research project. 

As Nigeria is home to the largest number of diabetics in sub-Sahara Africa, Solomon was motivated to study the synergy between the aqueous extract of lemongrass, and metformin, the leading drug used to help diabetics lower their blood sugar levels. While lemongrass has been shown to have anti-diabetic effects and is commonly used in Nigeria, Solomon wanted to examine the interplay between both remedies. His research, conducted using animal models, demonstrated that diabetes benefitted from using both concurrently. 

After graduating, Solomon completed his mandatory national service at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he taught data analysis at a private institute. At the same time, he was planning his next step and began researching graduate programs. Specifically, Solomon wanted to specialize in protein engineering, with the hope of eventually earning a PhD and contributing to the cure of infectious diseases in Nigeria and worldwide. 

When he came across the Hebrew University’s International Graduate Bio-Medical Sciences Program he realized he needn’t look any further. The program boasted top-notch classes and excellent research and laboratory opportunities. 

For the first time in his life, Solomon traveled abroad – arriving in Jerusalem. Today, alongside his classes he conducts cancer biology research in the lab of Prof. Nataly Kravchenko-Balasha. Solomon enjoys learning about running a lab, as he hopes to eventually become a principal investigator and contribute to humanity through his scientific research.

"The international bio-medical science program is superb. It has been an eye-opening experience for me, as I’ve come to understand the nitty-gritty of scientific research. Gaining hands-on research experience and learning how to manage a laboratory will be invaluable for my future"

Although he had tried to prepare himself for life in Israel by reading up about the country online, he’s found daily life much more peaceful and relaxed than he expected. He shares an apartment in the Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood with another Nigerian student and enjoys studying and researching alongside Israeli and international peers. The only thing he misses – is the food back home.

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Community Development: Theory Meets Practice

Jean Claude Muhire

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Meet Jean Claude Muhire, Glocal Alum (2014/15)

Jean Claude Muhire was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Rwandan parents who fled the 1959 ethnic violence. His father teaches primary school, while his mother raised Jean Claude along with his five siblings. When he was seven, his family returned to Rwanda. 

Growing up, his family wasn’t necessarily poor, but finances were tight. Jean Claude received a government scholarship to study fundamental and computational physics at the National University of Rwanda. While he was more inclined towards people-centered fields, such as public health and development, he made the most of it. During his studies he began volunteering, and later working, for the non-profit organization, Spark Microgrants. He would assist communities as they planned, designed, and carried out projects with their micro-grant. 

After graduating, Jean Claude began the Global Health Fellowship, a leadership development program that included training at Yale University. He then spent a year driving social impact projects with vulnerable communities through Health Poverty Action, a non-profit organization working in rural Rwanda. By that time, he was ready to take his next academic step, and applied to Glocal. 

Entering the program, Jean Claude hoped to gain a theoretical framework for understanding his experiences in the field. Glocal’s classes introduced him to new concepts, such as program evaluation, population dynamics, and critical thinking. In particular, he remembers one discussion focused on critiquing a model for giving money directly to people, rather than funding NGOs.

"I was adamantly opposed to directly giving money without any strings attached. I believed that people needed training, not cash. Handing $1,000 to a family who’d never even had $10 – they couldn’t possibly know how to use it wisely."

For his internship, Jean Claude returned to Rwanda to work with World Relief, a faith-based non-profit organization. He helped saving groups (neighborhood-based loan/credit unions) digitalize their transactions, using a donated smartphone. 

After graduating, he returned to Rwanda and began working for GiveDirectly, paving the way for the non-profit to begin working in Rwanda. It took over two years, but he succeeded. Suddenly, the theoretical discussion in class became a practical reality.

"I came to understand that people living in extreme poverty have priorities. They are in the best position to decide what they need. One family replaced their grass roof with one made of more durable materials. Another family, who’d always slept on the floor, bought mattresses. We take these things for granted, such as getting a good night’s sleep."

Five years after graduation, Jean Claude now runs his own consulting business, helping non-profits establish their operations in Rwanda, such as a multimillion-dollar poverty alleviation outcomes fund through an organization called Instiglio. He also works for the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, managing programs and partnerships with government institutions, think tanks, trade unions, and civil society organizations that promote social protection and governance.

"My experience at Glocal was mind-blowing.  What I do today is pure development work. How I negotiate or design a program, evaluate the program, or understand its impact on partners – I learned it all at Glocal. In addition, a master’s degree from the Hebrew University opens many doors and helps me build bridges with different partners. Having a degree from such a prestigious university gives credibility to my CV."

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Muna and Sarah, Biofilm and Endocannabinoid Researchers

Muna and Sarah

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Sarah Gingichashvili was born in Georgia, grew up in Jerusalem, and has spent much of the last decade and a half at the Hebrew University.  She earned a BSc in computer science before deciding to pursue a degree in dentistry. After three pre-clinical years, Sarah continued to an MSc, and then PhD, in bio-medical sciences. In 2015 she joined Prof. Doron Steinberg’s lab and began conducting biofilm research. In her spare time, she began an MSc in computer science, completed an MBA, and worked as a developer for a local health analytics start-up company. 

Muna Aqawi grew up in East Jerusalem and earned a BSc in Pharmaceutical Studies from the Jordan University of Science and Technology. After graduating she returned home and worked as a pharmacist. Yet her love of science lured her back to academia. In 2017 she began the Hebrew University’s International Bio-Medical Sciences Graduate Program and joined Prof. Doron Steinberg’s laboratory, researching biofilm, with the goal of earning a PhD. 

Muna and Sarah instantly became friends – within the lab and beyond. They often go together to the movies or to eat local street food. They have also presented at conferences and participated in faculty seminars together.

"We feel very fortunate to work side by side and to get to know each other through research and the beautiful city of Jerusalem."

This is Muna’s second year receiving the STEP-Sisters award. After her original partner graduated, Sarah was selected to join the program. Their project focuses on the cervix, investigating the potential anti-microbial effect of endocannabinoids (molecules that bind to cannabis-specific receptors) against cervical infections.

"Being part of a joint project has greatly benefitted both of us. Each of us brings different skills and methods to the project: Muna through her knowledge of pharmaceutical formulations and microbiology and Sarah’s ability to develop computerized tools for analyzing biological/microbiological data. By working together, we are able to provide new insights and research previously unexplored avenues."

Muna’s doctoral research, under the supervision of Prof. Steinberg and Prof. Michael Friedman, focuses on the use of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals to disrupt cell-cell communication, with the hope of reducing the virulence of bacterial biofilms. 

Sarah’s doctoral research, under the supervision of Prof. Steinberg and Dr. Osnat Feuerstein, focuses on developing computerized algorithms for characterizing structural aspects of biofilms, with the goal of understanding their resilience to traditional anti-microbial treatments.

"Scientific research is defined by its collaborative and interdisciplinary nature. We believe ourselves obligated to foster those relationships by sharing our research and supporting our peers. STEP does precisely that: pairing scientists from different backgrounds leads not only to short-term scientific collaborations, but to - long-term relationships that in our case will undoubtedly last for many years ahead. We are thankful for STEP-GTP for supporting young scientists and promoting Israeli-Palestinian partnerships – in these troublesome times their support is invaluable."

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Creating a Welcoming City Post-Coronavirus Lockdown

Welcoming City Image

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In a world reimagined due to the Coronavirus, where social distancing, hygiene regulations, and governmental restrictions are infused into nearly every activity, cities find themselves needing to reinvent the public arena. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, home to nearly half a million people, was determined to combat the fear and the economic slump engendered by the stay-at-home measures, while also ensuring the existence of a welcoming, green, safe, and equitable city following the easing of restrictions. 

Thus, the municipality turned to the Hebrew University's Urban Clinic, renowned for its expertise in community planning projects, to help develop its exit strategy from the lockdown. The Urban Clinic's combination of academic depth and practical experience placed it in a unique position to guide the municipality and develop creative solutions. 

The Urban Clinic, in partnership with the Urban Innovation and Sustainability Lab at Tel Aviv University, performed a triple role. As convener, they established the forum for the exit strategy, bringing together some 50 specialists in transport, welfare, housing, economics, sociology, and architecture. These included professionals and academics, as well as decision-makers from the Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Beersheva municipalities. The Clinic's role in enabling all these people to brainstorm together, virtually, was crucial. 

In its second task, as curator, the Clinic organized and moderated a series of weekly Zoom meetings, with break-out sessions to analyze each topic in depth. The Clinic carefully tailored these meetings to facilitate information exchange, creative thinking, and open discussions. 

The Clinic’s third function was pedagogical: to educate the forum’s members by preparing summaries of the literature and experience from abroad on post-lockdown scenarios, while creating an efficient format for taking practical steps and reaching concrete outcomes. Time was of the essence: residents were itching for normalcy, yet it was clear that the exit strategy also had to be sound, making all the difference to the residents’ quality of life and the ongoing management of the pandemic.  

One of the forum’s primary objectives was providing services for the city’s vulnerable denizens. The challenge was to provide their needs within public venues, while also maintaining social distancing. It became clear that sharing spaces was going to be vital.  With the Clinic’s guidance, the forum identified underutilized locations. For example, they recommended using schools in the afternoon and community centers in the morning. In this way, community activities and social services could be safely provided. This format was hugely successful and is expected to serve as a model for other cities in Israel.   


An in-depth article about Hadas, a member of the Urban Clinic heavily involved in these efforts, can be found here.

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