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Marla Schaefer and Prof. David Cahen

People behind the science

Date: November 16, 2015
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 9

When Rowland Schaefer first visited the Weizmann Institute in the 1980s and learned about its solar energy research, he was intrigued and excited.

“He remembered well the oil embargoes against Israel in the 1970s, and he understood how critical it was for the country to become independent of foreign oil,” recalls his daughter Marla Schaefer. “The idea of helping Israel kick-start the development of an alternative source of energy was irresistible to him.”

In 1986, the Institute inaugurated the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Solar Research Complex. When the family came to campus that year to visit, Marla says she recalls her father being captivated to see how a solar panel absorbed the sunlight and converted it into a laser-sharp beam of light that burned a hole through a slab of metal. The project soon drew in hundreds of other supporters from around the world, leading to key new understandings on how to most effectively convert sun into energy.

The Institute established a career development chair in the Schaefers' honor the next year; it has been held by a series of young scientists and is today held by Dr. Ilana Kolodkin-Gal of the Department of Molecular Genetics. Then, in 1994, the Institute conferred an honorary doctorate upon Rowland Schaefer, which Marla calls “one of the most meaningful honors of his life.” And the family’s giving continued throughout the years in an array of areas.

In 2002, the Schaefers established the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Professorial Chair in Energy Research, with the incumbent Prof. David Cahen. Prof. Cahen, of the Department of Materials and Interfaces, is a leader in solar energy research. “The investment - forward-thinking philanthropy - that the Schaefers made in solar energy research early on helped an important area of research get started in Israel - research that had never been done here before,” he says. “Their gift for the Solar Research Complex, in particular, drew attention to this field and to alternative energy in general.”

Even before her parents’ death (they died two days apart from one another, in 2013) Marla was already deeply involved in the Weizmann Institute of her own accord. A member of the International Board, she has continued her family’s long tradition of support to the Institute and, together with her sister Bonnie, she oversees the family foundation in Boca Raton, Florida. Marla was inducted into the President’s Circle in the 2014 Global Gathering in New York. She and her sisters, Bonnie and Roberta, are philanthropically active in a variety of causes.

The foundation is a leading supporter of the Israel National Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science, which funds Israeli women doing postdoctoral research overseas - a critical step in attaining a faculty position in Israel. Dr. Kolodkin-Gal received the prize in 2009, during her postdoc studies at Harvard University. “I am honored to be associated with the Schaefer family, both through the CDC and through Marla Schaefer’s support of the postdoctoral program for women, which truly helped advance my research career,” says Dr. Kolodkin-Gal.


‘A good business model’

Marla Schaefer grew up in South Florida and moved to New York City; today she and her husband Steve split their time between Boca Raton and New York. They have two daughters.

Marla grew up with a father who, she says, was “a true entrepreneur, and I believe the entrepreneurial spirit he saw at the Weizmann Institute resonated with him.”

In the early 1960s, Rowland started what became an international wig business. He acquired a company that owned leased counters at department stores across the U.S.; part of that acquisition was a small chain of wig, hat, and accessory stores called Claire’s Boutiques. In the 1970s, as wigs fell out of fashion, he sold the wig business and concentrated on rolling out Claire’s as a jewelry and accessory business. By 1990, the business had more than 1,000 stores in the U.S. alone. In 2002, Rowland handed over the management of Claire’s to Marla and Bonnie, and by the time the sisters sold the company in 2007, Claire’s had 3,200 stores on four continents including a thriving franchise in the Gulf countries. “

As a businesswoman I can say that I love the business model of the Weizmann Institute - that it is not ‘siloed’, opening up communication between disciplines to nurture collaboration… At Claire’s, Bonnie and I opened up the management to women not simply because they are women but because they were good at what they did, and the company flourished. At Weizmann, the model is similar: open up opportunity to the excellent people and science will flourish.”

When one of her nieces was diagnosed with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes, it deeply affected her father, she recalls, and the family began thinking about how to help work toward a cure and where their philanthropic impact might be best felt. Among the beneficiaries of their giving was the diabetes research of Prof. Irun Cohen (now Professor Emeritus) of the Department of Immunology.

She continues, “I feel that if there is going to be a cure for a disease, it’s going to come out of Weizmann, because the scientists here don’t hold their discoveries close to their chest; they share it, knowing that sharing will lead to something great, she says. “At Claire’s, I felt that the best moments of inspiration would come from discussions in the hallway. I think you’re more likely to have a situation like that at Weizmann where the cross-pollination is part of the fabric of the place.”


Prof. David Cahen is funded by The Mary and Tom Beck Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research which he heads, Carolito Stiftung, Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation Endowment Fund, Nancy and Stephen Grand Center for Sensors and Security, Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Martin Kushner Schnur, Mexico, Wolfson Family Charitable Trust. Prof. Cahen is the incumbent of the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Professorial Chair in Energy Research.

Dr. Ilana Kolodkin-Gal is funded by The Abramson Family Center for Young Scientists, Adelis Foundation, Ayala Benjamin-Mashat, Switzerland, The Benoziyo Fund for the Advancement of Science, Angel Faivovich Foundation for Ecological Research, Leo and Julia Forchheimer Center for Molecular Genetics, Dan and Susan Kane, Westlake Village, CA, The Larson Charitable Foundation, Abraham and Sonia Rochlin Foundation, Lois Rosen, Los Angeles, CA, Lord Sieff of Brimpton Memorial Fund, The late Rudolfine Steindling, Estate of Samuel and Alwyn J. Weber. Dr. Koldkin-Gal is the incumbent of the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Career Development Chair in Perpetuity.

Prof. David Cahen

Prof. David Cahen