A special kind of chemistry

For husband-wife scientists Dr. Hassan and Eman Massalha, Weizmann is their second home

When Eman Khatib-Massalha first stepped onto the Weizmann Institute campus as a PhD student, she was nervous about moving somewhere with a very small Arab community. She had studied in both Jerusalem and Haifa, where the Arab student population is large, and grew up in the northern Israeli town of Tamra, near Akko, but knew very little about Rehovot. 

She soon came to realize that it was a non-issue. Eman recalls how she was “just another student in a lab”—Prof. Tsvee Lapidot’s lab in the Department of Immunology—and immediately felt at home.

The road to Weizmann, from the Galilee

She had never even heard about the Weizmann Institute as an undergraduate, despite completing her BSc in medical laboratory science at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem in 2011, Eman reveals. She then completed an MSc at the University of Haifa and at the Eliachar Research Laboratory at the Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya, where she studied human biology and worked as a research assistant.

It was during this time that a (Jewish) female colleague told Eman about a friend at the Weizmann Institute named Hassan—she thought he and Eman might make a good match. What started as a set-up evolved into Hassan’s encouragement for her to come study at the Weizmann Institute, too.

Eman had planned to continue in the Eliachar Research lab for her PhD, and was hesitant to move. Her programs in Jerusalem and Haifa had been split evenly between Arab and Jewish students, and she felt socially comfortable where she was.

Dr. Hassan Massalha, from the northern Arab village of Daburiyya, outside of Nazareth, had been in Rehovot for more than 12 years. After completing his BSc in biotechnology and food science at the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus in 2009, he moved across the street to the Weizmann Institute, where he attained his MSc under Prof. Dov Zipori in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology. He then went on to complete a PhD in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, studying under Prof. Asaph Aharoni. 

He convinced Eman to at least come visit the campus—and visit him, too—and see the Institute for herself. And the rest is history. They married a year later and in 2014 Eman began her PhD research at the Institute.
“The things you get at Weizmann, you will not get anywhere else in Israel,” says Eman. “From the start, Tsvee [Lapidot] has given me all the tools to do everything I wanted to do and has encouraged me to submit my studies for awards, symposiums, and conferences.”

Eman, whose PhD focus is on immune-metabolism and inflammation, is working on a study that reveals immune-metabolic crosstalk between lactate-producing neutrophils (innate immune cells formed from stem cells in bone marrow) and the bone marrow endothelium, which has implications for treating immune disorders. 

In 2016, she won the Israeli Council for Higher Education Excellence Award for Arab Students, and was invited to attend a symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. At the 2017 World Immune Regulation Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, she won both a European Federation of Immunological Societies-European Journal of Immunology Travel Grant, and a highly selective best workshop presentation award.

Steps away

The couple has shared credit on a recent journal article, and today, they share a building. Dr. Massalha is now conducting postdoctoral research on the sixth floor of the Wolfson Building—in Prof. Shalev Itzkovitz’s lab in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology—while Eman works on the third floor. They consult with each other on their research, attend conferences together, and encourage each other when the going gets rough.

When Eman shied away from injecting mice in her lab, her husband came up with a solution: she would prepare the injections and he would administer them for her. And now that there’s a baby in the picture, they take turns—Eman prepares the injections while Hassan sits in the car with their daughter or takes her on a stroll around campus; then they switch places.

Recently, she spoke at her former high school in Tamra about her experience at the Institute and her budding scientific career. The students expressed hesitation about venturing to Rehovot, not only because of distance but because they did not know how they would fit in. Eman urged them to come for a visit, just as her husband had urged her a few years prior. The students are now planning a trip to the Institute this spring, which Eman is helping to coordinate.

“As the only female PhD student from Tamra at the Weizmann Institute, I feel proud to be able to encourage students in my town—particularly girls—to pursue science, and to not be afraid of relocating to another part of the country where they will be in the minority,” she says.

They have also both helped make the activities at the Davidson Institute of Science Education and the Clore Garden of Science more accessible to the Arab community, and have translated websites and educational content into Arabic. "We have also written original teaching materials and facilitated visits and workshops for Arab students," Hassan says.

In all, he has been at the Institute for 10 years and Eman, five. As for their daughter, Heba, they call her a “Weizmann baby.”