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A look forward

Prof. Alon Chen's speech to the International Board



Date: November 26, 2019
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Prof. Alon Chen, incoming Weizmann Institute President, speaking to the International Board, November 11, 2019

Prof. Alon Chen, incoming Weizmann Institute President, speaking to the International Board, November 11, 2019

Incoming Weizmann Institute of Science President Prof. Alon Chen spoke to the International Board and friends on November 11, outlining his vision and plans for the future. The text of his speech follows.

Good morning everyone—boker tov—and thank you for being here with us for the Open Session of the 71st Annual General Meeting of the International Board.

Dear Chairman of the International Board Prof. Jehuda Reinharz; Chairman of the Executive Board Mr. Shimshon Harel; members of the Board; Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute, and his leadership team, Prof. Michal Neeman; Prof. Israel Bar-Joseph; Prof. Mudi Sheves, and Mrs. Shulamit Geri; past presidents Prof. Michael Sela and Prof. Haim Harari; friends and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute in Munich; distinguished guests and dear friends

It is my pleasure to be here on the occasion of the 71st Annual General Meeting of the International Board of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Weizmann Institute. It is a great pleasure to open my first address to the Board in this beautiful new auditorium bearing the name of an exceptional scientist and former Weizmann President, and a pillar of Israeli science, Prof. Michael Sela. We are grateful to Sara and Michael for your generosity and special spirit that is so present in this one-of-a-kind auditorium.

I would like to begin by saying thank you. I don’t think that I, or any of us, can begin to imagine the road ahead, until we assess the remarkable progress of the past 13 years: Where the Weizmann Institute of Science is now and how far it has come under Daniel’s leadership. Please consider this as only a sampling of highlights from among the outstanding achievements in this period.

Daniel has always stated that the best people make for the best science. So, together with his vice presidents and deans, he systematically made sure this ‘best people-best science formula’ applied across campus, so that the Institute recruited the most promising students, postdocs, staff scientists, and employees. Thanks to these efforts, 150 outstanding new scientists joined the faculty of the Weizmann Institute in the last 13 years.

As part of his mission to infuse the Institute with outstanding and diverse talent, Daniel promoted the investment in the careers of women scientists. He advanced major programs to nurture their careers as an integral element in an overall mission to support the brightest minds for the benefit of Israeli and world science.

Under Daniel’s leadership, major entities for scientific research took root: in personalized medicine, cancer, nano-science and new materials, and more. Our global circle of friends has grown dramatically, and, thanks to all of you, our philanthropic support is stronger than ever. The fact that Weizmann has received top rankings in the world is, without a doubt, a result of our scientists’ work, together with these initiatives promoted by Daniel and his team.

This leadership, and that of the Executive Board and International Board, leaves behind a legacy of excellence: of setting high standards and living up to them, fulfilling Dr. Chaim Weizmann’s vision of science for the benefit of humanity.

Please join me in thanking the outgoing leadership team for their hard work and great achievements. I realize I have big shoes to fill as I humbly take my first steps together with my leadership team—and all of you.

As I enter these shoes, I would like to share with you all some of my thoughts and goals as I take office as President.

Scientific excellence has always been a core value of the Weizmann Institute, and will remain a core value. The Institute is committed to excellence at all levels and assists our scientists in striving for it, starting from the rigorous recruitment process and throughout their scientific careers. The Weizmann Institute is a world-leading research institution that generates transformative knowledge and educates the scientists of tomorrow.

Our alumni embark on careers in high-tech and biotech, and in academia, providing the foundations of Israel’s booming economy, just as Chaim Weizmann envisioned. As we reach the milestone of seventy years since the establishment of the Weizmann Institute, I believe it’s safe to say that we have indeed lived up to Chaim Weizmann’s expectations. Perhaps we have even exceeded them.

All of you are our prime ambassadors. So, when you discuss with family, friends, and colleagues why you support Weizmann, and why they might be inclined to do the same, you must be armed with the answers about what makes Weizmann great? What is it about Weizmann research that is so transformational?

Allow me to use the metaphor of the Institute’s tree of life, which is its symbol and logo. Like all trees, it needs the right set of nutrients to grow and flourish. We’ve already talked about the first nutrient that nourishes this tree, and that is human talent. I believe we should continue to diversify our faculty and campus, because different minds from different cultures bring diversified perspectives to science. Our emphasis on excellence applies in equal measure to our administrative and financial staff, lab technicians, and all our other employees. Their high-quality work enables scientists to devote their full time and attention to their research.

The second nutrient is our multi-disciplinary approach—dissolving boundaries between faculties and departments. We have been practicing it for decades. The curiosity of our scientists naturally drives them to explore new, often unknown territory.

The third nutrient is our community and in our case, smaller is better. Our size allows the multi-disciplinary culture to function effectively and enables our scientists to explore common fields of interest together.

And lastly, we reach out and connect. We overcome our geographic distance from other hubs of science around the world to form scientific collaborations within Israel and abroad. We welcome foreign scientists to our campus while also promoting our research overseas.

With these four nutrients, our tree’s roots are deep and strong, and scientists can reach beyond the frontiers of knowledge in their quests of exploration.

I have a great love of nature, and for plants in particular, as I will tell you more about soon. But as any plant-lover knows, it requires a complex ecosystem for them to thrive. There are several other core values we rely on that enable our scientific-excellence.

One is academic freedom. Research and teaching are conducted here in an environment of freedom and openness. We often talk about academic freedom in the context of the humanities, to preserve freedom of expression, but it’s just as important in science. Scientists must have the liberty to explore and investigate, peer into dark corners, and question and challenge commonly held beliefs.

Another is integrity and transparency. The Institute will continue to adhere to the highest standards of ethics in all fields. Collaboration may seem like an action, but it is a value that leads to true innovation and a creative environment in which good ideas have the opportunity to blossom and flourish. Such an environment requires respect and also diversity.

In this environment, the Weizmann Institute thrives as a basic research institution—and it should continue to focus on basic research. Today the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research has become blurred, because emerging areas of science and technology often overlap.

In the past few years, Weizmann has incorporated larger numbers of research groups involved in translational research, creating a cycle of knowledge-sharing between our labs, clinicians, and industry. This development is an outcome of the requirements of society’s growing needs, as well as that of many funding agencies, and it’s also an effective way to practice science—with an orientation to applications that benefit humanity. This is a development I will advance, while still maintaining the integrity of our basic research focus.

Female researchers bring different perspectives, talents, and forms of creativity to science. By promoting a greater gender balance, we will find that our research scope will grow. Institutions that create environments in which women’s careers can flourish are institutions that become more innovative, more competitive.

The Weizmann Institute will continue its commitment to equal representation of women in research, management, and decision-making.

I’ve mentioned our scientists’ excellence. But our students and postdoctoral fellows comprise the biggest cohort in the Weizmann community and provide much of the muscle and brains behind our scientific projects. The knowledge, creativity, and skills of our students and postdocs strongly influence Weizmann research output and quality. Weizmann should continue to invest resources and concentrate its efforts on attracting and recruiting the most talented and promising students and postdoctoral fellows worldwide.

Alongside the human factor, another tool that is necessary for science to flourish is equipment and infrastructure. Significant developments in knowledge often go hand-in-hand, or are enabled by, technological advances. One great example is imaging technology, which allows scientists to visualize the human body at an unprecedented resolution. As a neuroscientist, I can say that this so-called ‘resolution revolution’ is allowing us to see processes and features of the brain that we couldn’t have imagined a decade or two ago.

This technological tsunami, emerging from physics, biology, math, and computer science, is transforming the life-sciences and cycling back to the exact sciences. This infrastructure and its development is expensive, and it’s dynamic. New technologies are always on the horizon and we seek to find them. This is one way in which philanthropy has played and can continue to play a pivotal role.

A major component of our success is the unique ecosystem that is the Weizmann Institute campus. The cross-fertilization between scientists from different departments and faculties is part of this ecosystem, which is a pleasant environment in which scientists work in close proximity to their homes and families. This special community atmosphere is a key factor in the decisions of new scientists to join the Institute.

Weizmann will continue to maintain and upgrade this environment, with its daycare centers; green, open spaces where families can picnic and play; and restaurants, cafes, and athletic centers where people congregate and interact.

This ‘ecosystem of excellence’ doesn’t happen overnight. The Weizmann Institute places major emphasis on advancing science education in schools and in the public, laying the seeds for tomorrow and ensuring Israeli science and technology continues to break new ground.

We advance this mission through the Davidson Institute of Science Education and the Department of Science Teaching, which both were established by Prof. Haim Harari, and through the Schwartz/Reisman Science Education Centers. We train thousands of science and math teachers and run international and national science camps and tournaments, and offer an array of programs for school children and the public.

Science literacy and education are integral and essential parts of our mission and I intend to continue to move them forward in the coming years.

We must also convey the value of Weizmann research to the general public. I have heard from many Weizmann friends and colleagues who believe that Weizmann is Israel’s best asset. I agree! We must share the knowledge that we generate here in our labs, to ensure that the public, both in Israel and all over the world, understands the value of Weizmann in advancing humanity.

Scientific literacy ultimately provides an intellectual toolset that we can rely on to guide our governmental institutions, policymakers, and businesses in making smart decisions that have real implications on our lives.

Yeda, the commercial arm of the Weizmann Institute, has been very successful in transferring insights from our labs into the marketplace. New initiatives to develop this pipeline are working effectively, and there is no shortage of insights that would benefit from this R&D pipeline. In fact, we can’t afford NOT to proactively ensure that we leverage our best discoveries and make them accessible for potential commercial application. Expanding our tech transfer pipeline is important in securing our financial future.

None of these worthy goals can happen without you, our Board members and friends. Your guidance, generosity, and ongoing support are essential. Our friends and donors have built this institution from the ground up—starting with the first contribution, from the Sieff family of the UK, which established the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in 1934. And until today.

The Weizmann Institute’s achievements are your achievements. I very much look forward to deepening ties with our friends, finding new ways to learn from each other, and continuing to expand the global Weizmann family.

I would now like to present my new management team who are joining me on this exciting and complex journey. They are long-time members of the Weizmann scientific community who share my vision, and, despite their already rich and active research, have agreed to come on board because they are just as dedicated to this institution as I am.

Prof. Ziv Reich from the Department of Biomolecular Sciences will be the Vice President, responsible for assessing the needs of the scientists and then allocating funds and resources to research.

Prof. Roee Ozeri from the Department of Physics of Complex Systems will be Vice President for Resource Development. He will work with our worldwide committees and manage our fundraising and PR strategy, to raise awareness for Weizmann and cultivate philanthropy.

Prof. Irit Sagi from the Department of Biological Regulation, who was until now the Dean of the Feinberg Graduate School, will serve as Vice President for Technology Transfer. She will bridge between the Institute and Yeda, ensuring the most promising discoveries from our labs make their way into the commercial domain.

Prof. Alon Harmelin, who until now ran the Department of Veterinary Resources and in that capacity served as a ‘go-to’ person for life sciences researchers across campus, will serve as Vice President of Administration and Finance. Alon will oversee all the very important infrastructure elements such as human resources, construction, operations, and finance.

Please join me in wishing them the best of luck with their new responsibilities.

I suppose it’s about time that I tell you a bit about myself. As many of you know, my name means ‘oak tree’ in English—hence the image behind me. Perhaps, with this name, I was born to love nature.

Looking back, I believe my first venture into science was when I was in second or third grade and I decided I was going to write a book on desert plants and wildlife of the Negev. I asked my friend Rony to join me as a research assistant and we wandered off on many afternoons exploring our surroundings. I am still working on that book…

Growing up in Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel, I was fascinated by everything that wasn’t sand: plants, flowers, bushes, trees and animals. So, you can imagine that when I walked through the gates of the Weizmann Institute for the first time, to embark on my Master’s studies 24 years ago, I was blown away by the green campus. I knew I wanted to make this place my home.

During my studies, I was drawn to neuroscience and had the tremendous fortune of studying in the lab of Prof. Yitzhak Koch, a leading expert in neuroendocrinology and reproductive biology. He wasn’t just a teacher; he was a mentor. And, since I had lost my father just a few weeks earlier, Itzik also became a father figure. By the time I set off for my postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, I was certain about three things: I wanted to devote my career to studying the mysteries of the brain; I understood the value of mentorship; and I wanted to return to Weizmann as a scientist—if they would accept me.

Today, if you were to ask me what gives me the greatest pride, I would say my students and postdocs. I cherish the fact that students have come to me with terrific ideas which have informed my own research. And—as a result of our ongoing dialogue and their determination—their ideas and their careers have taken off in many fascinating directions.

And it’s largely for the same reason that I have taken on, my new role as President. I am delighted to think that I can play a role in leading the scientists of tomorrow and serving scientific research at an institution that I care deeply about and believe in.

Finally, allow me to be a little philosophical and pose the question of why we are here to begin with? What is the role of science in our world today?

I have had the experience of both running a basic research lab and interacting with psychiatric patients, through my work at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. I have studied depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders and illnesses. Witnessing human suffering in person has informed my research and has served as a constant reminder of why we need science.

Science is pursued out of sheer curiosity. But it also serves a grander mission: to improve the world we live in. To reduce suffering and disease. To understand our place in the universe. If our mission is to improve the world we live in, it’s clear that there is much more work to do.

I would like to end by thanking my beloved family, friends, past mentors, and current colleagues who have been with me all the way over the years.

And finally, it seems fitting on this occasion to share a quote by Chaim Weizmann. It is from his address at the Preliminary Israeli Parliament on the 14th of February, 1949.

and research are the foundations of human creation. We have made great achievements in science and research that benefit the nations of the world, and now we must channel them for the construction of our own homeland. But, as critically important as it is, science alone cannot gain us relief. We need to build a new bridge between science and the human spirit… Throughout my life, I have worked and strived to make science and research a foundation of our national enterprise. But I have always been confident that above science, there are supreme values that offer a cure for humanity’s afflictions and are the basis of justice and integrity, peace, and harmony.

I look forward to working together to continue to pursue and fulfill these indispensable values. Thank you very much.