AWARDS & RECOGNITIONS
A nod from the Norwegians for Prof. Jacob Sagiv
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has lauded Prof. Emeritus Jacob Sagiv of the Department of Molecular Chemistry and Materials Science a “pioneer” for his life’s work in nanoscience. Every two years, the academy confers the Kavli Prize for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, which prize founder Fred Kavli called “the big, the small, and the complex” fields of science. Prof. Sagiv is one of four scientists awarded the 2022 prize in nanoscience, along with Prof. Ralph Nuzzo of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, Prof. David Allara of Pennsylvania State University, and Prof. George Whitesides of Harvard University.
Born in Romania to Holocaust survivor parents, Prof. Sagiv immigrated to Israel as a teenager. He has spent his entire career at the Weizmann Institute, except for three years at the Max Planck Institute in Germany as a postdoctoral fellow under Swiss chemist Hans Kuhn.
Prof. Sagiv pioneered the nanoscience area of self-assembled monolayers, or SAMs—ordered layers of material one molecule thick produced by physicochemical processes that trigger their spontaneous deposition on a solid surface. He was the first to demonstrate that it was possible to create such layers of molecules and mixtures of different molecules strongly adhering to glass and metal surfaces.
Proving the feasibility of adding SAMs to surfaces paved the way to added functionality. Today, SAMs have numerous applications in biology, electrochemistry, electronics, manufacturing, and nanoelectromechanical and microelectromechanical systems, as well as in ordinary household products that most of us use daily. However, Prof. Sagiv stresses that practical applications would be impossible without the new knowledge arising from basic research. “Scientific discoveries lead to inventions,” he says, adding that unforeseen new findings prompt scientists to pursue promising new directions in which their research leads them rather than sticking to predetermined goals. “If I know what I’m going to be doing for the next three years, why do I need to study it?” he asks. Prof. Sagiv’s research continues to generate new discoveries and inventions. His current work with Staff Scientist Dr. Rivka Maoz focuses on a series of intriguing new findings that may point to possible effects of room-temperature superconductivity—the “Holy Grail” of condensed matter physics which has thus far remained elusive—in some SAM-based nanosystems. They are working with Prof. Eli Zeldov in the Department of Condensed Matter Physics to elucidate these findings.
Jacob Sagiv is supported by:
- Ilse Katz Institute for Material Sciences and Magnetic Resonance Research
Prof. Michal Schwartz awarded Israel Prize in Life Sciences
Prof. Emeritus Michal Schwartz, a member of the Institute’s Department of Brain Sciences, has been awarded the 2023 Israel Prize in Life Sciences for her groundbreaking research on the complex relationship between the immune and central nervous systems. The Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, was presented in April at a festive ceremony in Jerusalem. Prof. Schwartz is the world pioneer in discovering, against the prevailing dogma at the time, the key role of the immune system in lifelong brain function, mental health, neuronal stem cell renewal, and brain repair. Her work has established new paradigms in neuroimmunology and in understanding neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.
Drawing on her discoveries regarding the role of the immune system in supporting brain maintenance and its pivotal role in repair, and using her insights into brain-immune communication, Prof. Schwartz proposed a game-changing platform for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia. This immunotherapy approach to defeating Alzheimer’s disease is currently being tested in a first-in-human clinical trial in Israel, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
Having earned her PhD in chemical immunology from the Weizmann Institute in 1977, Prof. Schwartz has been a member of the faculty since 1980. Prior to achieving emeritus status, she was the incumbent of the Maurice and Ilse Katz Professorial Chair of Neuroimmunology. She is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and accolades, including the 2019 EMET Prize in Life Sciences Bio-Medicine Award—widely considered “Israel’s Nobel Prize.” Prof. Schwartz has mentored countless graduate students in neuroimmunology, many of whom (at least 15) are now scientific leaders in their own right in Israel, Europe, the UK, the United States, and Australia. In 2019 she was also selected as Outstanding Mentor of the Year by the Israel Society for Neuroscience. The high number of citations received by her scientific papers is a testimony to the strong influence of her work.
Prof. Schwartz served as the elected President of the International Society of Neuroimmunology from 2016 to 2018, and is the recipient of the 2017 Rappaport Prize for Excellence in the Field of Biomedical Research and the 2015 Blumberg Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research. In 2017, Lady Globes magazine named Prof. Schwartz as the Most Influential Woman of the Year.
Michal Schwartz is supported by:
- Sagol Institute for Longevity Research
- Thompson Family Foundation Alzheimer’s Disease Research Fund
It’s complex: Weizmann newcomer wins prize for quantum work
Prof. Thomas Vidick, who joined the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics last year, has been awarded the 2023 Michael and Sheila Held Prize by the United States’ National Academy of Sciences for his seminal work in quantum computing theory. Established in 2017, the Held Prize honors outstanding, innovative, creative, and influential research in the fields of combinatorial and discrete optimization, or related parts of computer science. The National Academy of Sciences recognized Prof. Vidick for having “deepened and transformed our understanding of quantum complexity and quantum cryptography.” Whereas classical computing codes information into bits (“0” or “1”), a quantum computer’s bits can exist as both 0 and 1 simultaneously.
This phenomenon holds the potential to exponentially increase computational capabilities, and also presents certain basic challenges, including the question of how to verify results. Prof. Vidick studies quantum key distribution—a central question in quantum cryptography that examines methods of creating an uncrackable, shared secret key that is impervious to hacking, even on quantum computer systems. He produced the first proof demonstrating the security of quantum key distribution that applies even if the quantum devices behave adversarially. At the Weizmann Institute, Prof. Vidick aims to develop protocols that can verify quantum devices. He employs interactive proofs and complexity theory to study problems such as whether quantum computations can be verified or tested reliably using only classical computer systems.
Originally from Belgium, Prof. Vidick has had a lifelong fascination with mathematics, but transitioned to quantum computing, which he sees as a more concrete “first cousin” of math.
Max Planck bestows highest honor on Prof. Daniel Zajfman
Institute Professor Daniel Zajfman of the Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, and former President of the Weizmann Institute of Science, has been awarded the 2022 Harnack Medal, the highest honor Germany’s Max Planck Society can bestow.
Prof. Zajfman studies the dynamics of reactions between small molecules and how they influence the composition of the interstellar medium.
His group in the Molecular Physics Laboratory uses ion trapping to recreate conditions of outer space. He and his team also study the behavior of trapped ions (atoms or groups of atoms that lose or gain an electron, changing their charge to positive or negative), including a phenomenon known as the self-bunching effect—when oscillating ions with similar charges unexpectedly attract each other. This could have applications in mass spectrometry, a tool for measuring mass-to-charge ratios of molecules and molecular weights.
Since 2001, Prof. Zajfman has been an external member of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. He was named director of the nuclear physics institute in 2005, and a member of the Max Planck Senate in 2008.
A native of Belgium, Prof. Zajfman began his career as a senior scientist at the Weizmann Institute in 1991. He was promoted to full professor in 2003 and elected the 10th president of the Institute in 2006, a position he fulfilled with great success until stepping down in 2019. Under his leadership, the Institute’s budget doubled, and numerous scientific centers and institutes were established. Prof. Zajfman also advocated for funding individual scientists, believing that the best results are obtained when scientists have full independence and control over their work.
Toward the end of his term as president, he told Science Business that Weizmann “gives our researchers full labs and full funding from day one, and total independence to work.” Since it was introduced in 1924, the Harnack Medal has been awarded only 34 times. Former Weizmann Institute presidents Prof. Haim Harari and the late Prof. Michael Sela z”l were presented the medal in 2001 and 1996, respectively.
Daniel Zajfman is supported by:
- Simon Weinstock Professorial Chair of Astrophysics
‘Transformative’ papers in cryptography
The Gödel Prize for 2022 has been awarded to Prof. Zvika Brakerski of the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics and two colleagues in the United States.
The European Association for Theoretical Computer Science and the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computational Theory, which jointly award the annual prize for outstanding papers in theoretical computer science, have hailed two papers on Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE) by Prof. Brakerski, cryptographer Craig Gentry, and Prof. Vinod Vaikuntanathan of MIT, as “transformative.” The committee praised the papers’ “enormous impact” on both theoretical and applied computer science research since they were first presented at conferences in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and published in SIAM Journal on Computing and ACM Transactions on Computation Theory in 2014.
Unlike data stored by standard encryption, data encrypted in an FHE scheme can be computed without having to be decrypted. This removes privacy barriers to storage sharing, allowing multiple entities to perform expensive computation and data storage tasks. While FHE was first proposed in 1978, the first construction did not appear until 2009, and was considered “complicated and hard to understand,” as well as limited by non-standard security guarantees, Prof. Brakerski explains. “We managed to show that in terms of security, [FHE] can provide the same guarantees as nonhomomorphic encryption,” he adds. And the scheme is more efficient than earlier FHE schemes “by many orders of magnitude.” FHE might be the first example of an advanced cryptographic primitive algorithm to transition from something thought to be of strictly theoretical interest to being widely implemented in industry. Prof. Brakerski believes this has increased the public’s confidence in the cryptographic community’s ability to find solutions to elaborate problems, citing the cryptography-based blockchain economy as an example.
The prestigious Gödel Prize is named in honor of Czech logician Kurt Gödel.
Work on tiny bacteria earns a big prize
Scientists in Israel continue to lead us to “unprecedented achievements,” Chairman of Israel National Lottery-Mifal Hapais Avigdor Yitzhaki said in November 2022 when he presented Prof. Rotem Sorek of Weizmann’s Department of Molecular Genetics with the Michael Landau Prize.
Established in 2000 in honor of Israel National Lottery founder Michael Landau, the prize is awarded annually to four scientists and four artists.
Prof. Sorek was recognized for his paradigmchanging research into how bacteria fend off viruses, and how bacterial defenses against phages— viruses that selectively target and kill bacteria—contributed to the development of the human immune system. Prof. Sorek employs a combined computational-experimental platform to discover sophisticated immune mechanisms in bacteria. He found 50 previously unknown mechanisms and showed that key components of the human innate immune system originally evolved from immune mechanisms found in bacteria. His studies also revealed small molecules that bacteria use for intracellular immune signaling and demonstrated that some bacteria can generate molecules that could potentially be used as anti-viral drugs.
Prof. Sorek also won the 2022 Michael Bruno Memorial Award from the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, was recently elected a member of Germany’s National Academy of Sciences, and is the recipient of the 2023 Human Frontier Science Program Nakasone Award.
Rotem Sorek is supported by:
- Miel de Botton
- Andre Deloro Prize
- Knell Family Center for Microbiology
- Sagol Weizmann-MIT Bridge Program
- Dr. Barry Sherman Institute for Medicinal Chemistry
Dr. Rina Rosenzweig and Prof. Zvika Brakerski at the 2023 Blavatnik Awards Ceremony, held at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv-Jaffa in June.
The best of Israel’s young scientists
Dr. Rina Rosenzweig from the Department of Chemical and Structural Biology and Prof. Zvika Brakerski of the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics have won the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in Israel for 2023.
Dr. Rosenzweig studies the structure, dynamics, and interactions of large protein assemblies to understand how malfunctions in protein folding and aggregation cause debilitating and often fatal neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases.
The Blavatnik Award recognizes her discovery of “chaperone” proteins that drive cells’ innate ability to prevent and reverse aggregation of proteins, which if harnessed could lead to new treatments.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to pursue my research in such an amazing and supportive environment as the Weizmann Institute,” Dr. Rosenzweig says. Prof. Brakerski studies the foundations of computer science and focuses on cryptography and quantum computing. The Blavatnik Award recognizes his development of the first efficient encryption algorithm that makes it possible for cloud computers to analyze encrypted data without decrypting them first—a breakthrough that could make cloud computing significantly more secure. (More information on Prof. Brakerski’s research can be found on the opposite page.)
The award is given by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, headed by philanthropist Len Blavatnik. Since expanding in 2017 to include Israel, 10 of the subsequent 18 prizes have gone to Weizmann researchers.
Rina Rosenzweig is supported by:
- Abisch Frenkel Foundation for the Promotion of Life Sciences
- Blythe Brenden-Mann New Scientist Fund
- Helen and Martin Kimmel Institute for Magnetic Resonance Research
Excellence in translational biomedical research
Prof. Noam Stern-Ginossar from the Department of Molecular Genetics has received the 2023 Rappaport Prize for Excellence in the Field of Biomedical Research.
Established in 2010 by the Bruce and Ruth Rappaport Foundation, the annual award is presented to scientists for groundbreaking translational research with the potential to impact human health. The Rappaport Prize aims to encourage scientists to undertake scientific and clinical research that could significantly advance a particular medical field.
Prof. Stern-Ginossar develops and harnesses novel high throughput approaches in combination with a variety of molecular tools to tackle unexplored aspects of gene regulation during infection, and to perform detailed analyses of previously inexplicable facets of infection biology. Viruses, for example, have complex and dynamic interactions with their cellular hosts. As exemplified by the devastating consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, deciphering these interactions is of great importance.
The experiments performed in the Stern-Ginossar lab identified processes whose targeting can help in blocking viral infection. Before the pandemic erupted in March 2020, the Stern-Ginossar lab was mainly investigating the cellular dynamics of cytomegalovirus (CMV), a herpesvirus that infects the majority of the world’s population, leading to severe diseases in newborn babies and immunocompromised adults. However, when COVID-19 appeared on the global scene, Prof. Stern-Ginossar redirected her laboratory’s resources and technologies to investigate SARS-CoV-2.
Her research shed light on the virus’ arsenal of proteins, as well as its ability to regulate gene expression in the infected cell and evade detection by the immune system. This line of research brought us closer to understanding the mechanisms that viruses use to take over our cells―a significant milestone in our preparation for future epidemics.
Noam Stern-Ginossar is supported by:
- Abisch-Frenkel RNA Therapeutics Center
- Miel de Botton
Shining a light on optogenetics
In 2022, the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) announced the newest researchers elected to its membership—recognizing outstanding achievement in the life sciences— including Prof. Ofer Yizhar from the Department of Brain Sciences.
New members are nominated and selected by the existing EMBO Membership, approximately 1,900 scientists in Europe and around the world, based on their exceptional work in a variety of life science fields. A formal welcome ceremony was held at the annual EMBO Members’ Meeting in Heidelberg, Germany, in October 2022.
Prof. Yizhar is an expert in optogenetics—a revolutionary technology that offers neuroscientists the first-ever opportunity to control the activity of neurons in living brains. Neurons of interest are tagged with opsins—light-activated proteins—rendering them sensitive to light. Different opsins respond to different wavelengths of light, and as a result, scientists can control and monitor the activity of neural networks using specific wavelengths along the color spectrum.
The Yizhar group is internationally renowned for its development of an innovative toolkit of optogenetic opsins and methods that neuroscientists can use to explore different aspects of brain function. Beyond the realm of basic research, optogenetic control of brain activity has been proposed as a potential treatment method for brain disorders, including intractable epilepsy, chronic pain, persistent traumatic memories, and various neuropsychiatric conditions. By studying the brain using optogenetics, Prof. Yizhar and his team can obtain unprecedented insights into how it may be possible to restore healthy function to a brain at risk.
Ofer Yizhar is supported by:
- Laura and Anthony Beck
- Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurological Diseases
- Donald Gordon Foundation
- Licht Family
- Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Charitable Foundation Chair for Research in Neuroscience
AI-assisted tissue imaging
Dr. Leeat Keren in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology has been awarded the Wolf Foundation’s Krill Prize for Excellence in Scientific Research for her innovative work, which improves scientists’ ability to analyze molecular interactions within tissues made up of heterogeneous cell populations.
Established in 2005, the prize recognizes scientists at Israeli universities for breakthrough research. During her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, Dr. Keren helped develop an imaging technology called multiplexed ion beam imaging by time-of-flight, or MIBI-TOF. This form of mass spectrometry makes it possible to view the precise amount and location of dozens of different proteins in each cell, while preserving spatial information about where such proteins appear within complex tissues.
Working with Dr. David Van Valen at Caltech, Dr. Keren was able to improve the usefulness of data generated through MIBI-TOF imaging by creating an AI algorithm for cell segmentation—the identification of cell boundaries within images of complex tissues, even in cases where cells overlap. The AI-empowered system also extracts information on where protein interactions occur within cells and can quantify how cells change, a metric important for characterizing disease conditions, including cancer.
Applying this AI-assisted image analysis to triple-negative breast cancer, Dr. Keren and her colleagues have been able to determine the applicability of immunotherapy protocols to individual cancer patients and predict treatment outcomes. “I am honored to receive the prestigious Krill Prize,” she says. “My lab will continue to push the boundaries of multiplexed imaging to improve diagnosis and prognosis for cancer patients.”
Leeat Keren is supported by:
- Azrieli Foundation
- Enoch Foundation Research Fund
- Sharon Levine Foundation
- Rising Tide Foundation
- Schwartz Reisman Collaborative Science Program
- Fred and Andrea Fallek President’s Development Chair