Vera and John Schwartz

A lifelong journey that has led to the Weizmann Institute

People behind the science

Date: October 18, 2017
Source: 
WEIZMANN MAGAZINE VOL. 12

The word ‘microbiome’ is insinuating itself into our lexicon, among scientists and non-scientists alike. And it’s no accident. New discoveries about the relevance of the microbiome—the combined set of microbes including bacteria, fungi, and viruses and more that reside in our bodies—have emerged repeatedly in recent years.

Vera and John Schwartz of Pacific Palisades, California, were aware of the emergence of this new body of knowledge early on, and it ignited their interest most powerfully at the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Global Gathering in New York in 2014. That’s when they met Dr. Eran Elinav of the Department of Immunology, a leader in this emerging field whose studies have shown, among other insights, how foods affect different people differently, often dramatically so, because of each individual’s unique microbiome.

Energized after that meeting, the Schwartzes established the Vera Rosenberg Schwartz Research Fellow Chair for a staff scientist in Dr. Elinav’s lab, with Dr. Hagit Shapiro as the first incumbent. Last year, they established the Vera and John Schwartz Family Center for Metabolic Biology, headed by Prof. Asaph Aharoni of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. The Center will fund cuttingedge multidisciplinary research in the field, including Dr. Elinav’s research.

“Eran is compelling and brilliant. He is doing really important work,” says Dr. Schwartz, who is a physician and serial entrepreneur. “What he does is a personification of tikkun olam [the Jewish directive to ‘mend the world’], and we are supporting him and Weizmann because we want to do something to help the world and Israel, too.”

Infected with ‘a virus of love’

The Schwartzes first became involved with the Weizmann Institute in 2004, and their relationship has grown and blossomed ever since. Now, says John, “Weizmann is the number-one beneficiary of our giving—with numbers two to 11 being our children and grandchildren,” he adds in jest.

In 2004, Lester Crown, the Deputy Chair of the Institute’s Board of Governors and a lay leader at the American Committee, invited the couple to an ‘Air ACWIS’ mission to the campus, which Vera describes as “full of non-stop activities and an introduction to the amazing scientific endeavors going on at the Weizmann Institute.” Says John, “It was incredibly exciting and inspiring. Lester did just what he set out to do—infect us with a virus of love for the Weizmann Institute. We have been giving ever since.”

In addition to the Chair and the new Center, the couple has supported the ACWIS Anniversary Lab of Dr. Noam Stern-Ginossar of the Department of Molecular Genetics; the Davidson Institute of Science Education; and research on gallium arsenide, a key element in the production of semiconductors, solar cells, and other applications. They are members of the President’s Circle, and John is a member of the International Board.

Because their interest in the Institute was instigated by a visit to campus, in 2010 they sponsored a trip of their own friends and colleagues, many of whom have since also become supporters of the Institute “and now love it as much as we do,” says John. The Schwartzes themselves, however, weren’t able to participate in the trip themselves because of Vera’s health.

In fact, it is Vera’s health challenges that attracted her to Dr. Elinav’s work in metabolic biology. Both she and John once struggled with weight problems and she continues to face gastrointestinal (GI) issues which makes her vulnerable to stomach viruses and bacteria, and inhibits their ability to travel. “We were interested in GI biology both because of Vera’s background, and also because when Vera and I met, we both grappled with weight issues. I lost 80 pounds and Vera lost 40 pounds after we met each other, but we have always known that what works for Vera doesn’t work for me, and what has worked for me doesn’t work for Vera. So when we first heard about Eran’s incredible work on the individual makeup of the microbiome, it made perfect sense to us.”

Moreover, he adds, “As a physician, I was excited about this area because scientists are learning more and more about the many roles the microbiome plays in controlling so many aspects of our biology: our metabolism, cognition, and mood. It’s a field in which Weizmann is a true pioneer. For that and other reasons, we’ve become passionate advocates for the Institute.”

Says Dr. Elinav: “I am honored and deeply thankful to have been endorsed and supported by John and Vera. Their generous philanthropic support is important, as is their personal passion and keen interest in our research.” The Schwartzes are passing their enthusiasm for the Institute to their friends—some of whom will accompany them to the Annual General Meeting of the International Board in November, when the couple will be honored for the establishment of the Vera and John Schwartz Family Center for Metabolic Biology. And they are also transmitting their enthusiasm to their three children and five grandchildren; next year, their eldest granddaughter will have her bat mitzvah in Israel and they plan to bring the whole family to visit the Institute.

Entrepreneurship and leadership

John is a graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University and earned his MD at New York University. He trained at Bellevue Hospital in New York and at the University of California, Irvine.

Having attended many continuing education meetings for physicians—and having not been satisfied—he understood that there was a need for courses that would keep physicians up-to-date about developments in their fields. So he founded Continuing Medical Education, Inc., to do just that. He served as its chief executive officer, and CME grew to become the largest proprietary provider of clinical information for American doctors, hosting trade shows and professional meetings, publishing medical journals, and disseminating important updates. By the time he sold CME in 1999, the field was booming and 65 bidders from around the world competed to to acquire the company.

After completion of the sale, John hired several professional money managers and began educating himself about investment options. Spurred on by his curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit, John decided to share what he learned by launching conferences that would serve investors in the way that CME had served physicians. His Value Investing Congress attracted hedge fund managers and high-net-worth investors from around the world.

After his mother and last surviving brother died in 2014, he retired and has since focused his attention on family and philanthropy.

But that’s only half the story that explains their path to Weizmann. “An interest in medicine and science is something Vera and I have always shared,” John says.

Vera worked in the acquisition and administration of medical research grants at UCLA for 23 years. She then served as chief operating officer and chief financial officer at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ (VA) Health Services Research Center in Los Angeles for the following 20 years. At the VA—the largest healthcare provider in the U.S., providing healthcare to veterans—she oversaw a staff of 200. Among the advances that occurred under her leadership was a major study of women’s health needs within the system, which led to the VA’s establishment of hundreds of specialized women’s health clinics throughout the country.

Vera is a lifelong dancer who does all types of dance, including hip hop, jazz, and lyrical. She relishes her state-of-the-art kitchen and loves to bake and cook—a skill she has passed down to her daughter and her oldest granddaughter. Vera also studied landscape architecture at UCLA and designed their beautiful drought-tolerant gardens in Pacific Palisades.

“I have great confidence in Weizmann, with its astounding scientists and superb scientist-leaders: a veritable treasure trove of splendid people," says John. "That’s why we give. It is an honor to support the wonderful people at Weizmann and the many ways they are improving the world for all of humanity.”

The John and Vera Schwartz Center for Metabolic Biology

The new Vera and John Schwartz Family Center for Metabolic Biology will advance research on metabolomics, the study of the thousands of chemicals (metabolites) active in an organism (plant, animal, or human); and by the broad spectrum of microbes, called the microbiome, that co-exist with them. These metabolites play an essential role in the functioning of the cell and the organism and are becoming increasingly recognized as important factors in health and disease, including in brain science.

The Center will strengthen the Institute's ability to identify and monitor metabolites, diagnostics, and treatment, as well as new strategies for disease prevention, a formidable agenda due to the complexity of the vast repertoire of these molecules. The plants we eat and bacteria from our microbiome can produce hundreds of thousands of different metabolites.

The Center will rely on cutting-edge technologies including ultra-performance liquid chromatography for chemical separation followed by highresolution mass spectrometry analysis. This allows the accurate measurement of the mass of a molecule and of its ‘daughter’ breakdown products, which enables deciphering and quantifying the chemical makeup of metabolites.

Says Prof. Aharoni, “Integrating metabolomics with biomedicine is an extremely powerful combination that will lead to major discoveries at the Weizmann Institute. Vera and John Schwartz’s support will make available a whole new set of research tools that will put Institute scientists at the forefront of metabolic studies worldwide.”