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In Memoriam: Yael Mutsafi, 1981-2019


Date: April 27, 2020
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 17

Dr. Yael Mutsafi, who completed both her PhD and postdoctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute, tragically passed away from breast cancer on December 4, 2019, at the young age of 38. She left behind a husband and two young children.

Yael was described by her loved ones as a rare woman whose extraordinary intelligence was matched only by her boundless compassion.
“She had an amazing, almost frightening memory,” recalls her PhD thesis advisor, Prof. Avi Minsky of the Department of Structural Biology. “She would quote studies she had read years before, and even remember the page number of the source—I couldn’t believe it. Not only did Yael have an extraordinary mind—she was extremely empathetic and cared very much about people.”

She grew up in Arad, in Israel’s Negev desert, and was fascinated by science from an early age. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology at the Tel Aviv University in 2005, she joined Prof. Minsky’s lab as an MSc student. It was not long before Prof. Minsky recognized her talent and suggested she switch to the direct MSc/PhD track. During that time, she studied the life cycle of the giant mimivirus to better understand how viruses penetrate and multiply in living cells. After completing her PhD, Yael pursued her first postdoctoral fellowship in Prof. Deborah Fass’s laboratory in the Department of Structural Biology where she used fluorescence and electron microscopy methods to study how the physical support system around cells, known as the extracellular matrix, assemble.

“Everything Yael did, she did intensely and deeply,” Prof. Fass remembers fondly. “She would dissect every seminar, every paper, every scientist we knew. She had an opinion about absolutely everything, expressed firmly but with grace and delicacy. I pull up her voice in my memory all the time because I loved so much to hear it.”
Following her postdoctoral studies in Prof. Fass’s lab, Yael won a Revson Fellowship in 2015 from the Israel National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science managed by the Weizmann Institute, and moved with her family to Bethesda, Maryland, where both she and her husband worked as postdoctoral fellows at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Shortly after she joined the NIH, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. After multiple treatments, she went through a brief remission period, but the cancer returned.

“When everyone recalls memories of her, they always talk about how intelligent and kind she was,” her husband, Daniel, says. “To me, her unique perspective on everyday things—a painting, a book, a person—her seeing something that no one else noticed and sharing these insights with me made life with her so interesting. Our children and I miss the privilege of her love, her softness, her tolerance and acceptance, and her support and power.”

She is survived by Daniel and their two children, Nadav and Shai, as well as her siblings, Michal, Noa, and Omer, and her parents, Yossi and Yaffa.