. . . and there is" the Weizmann"

Wednesday, 20 April, 2022
Tags: News

There are many excellent research institutes around the world, with a glorious past and a bright present. Harvard and Caltech, Oxford and Cambridge compete to see who has more Nobel Prize winners. And there's "the Weizmann" in Rehovot, Israel.

There are many excellent research institutes around the world, with a glorious past and a bright present. Harvard and Caltech, Oxford and Cambridge compete to see who has more Nobel Prize winners. And there's "the Weizmann" in Rehovot, Israel.

Even before the Middle Ages, the Jews were known as 'the People of the Book', an apt name because, while elsewhere you could hardly find anyone who could read and write, they had few illiterates among the poorest. Knowledge has always been important, so it is not surprising that in 1934 when more and more people from distant countries and continents were leaving for Palestine, Israel and Rebecca Sieff, a Jewish couple living in London, were about to found a research institute in memory of their son in Palestine
No wonder that in the year following the official creation of the State of Israel by a UN resolution in 1948, the then Daniel Sieff Institute of Science was renamed the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) on the 75th birthday of its founder and first director, the renowned chemist and even more renowned Zionist, Chaim Weizmann. This was done with the full agreement of the Sieffs, all the more so because Weizmann was about to take on another important task, that of becoming the first president of the newly formed state.
One more thing is important to note. We know that Chaim Weizmann was a militant Zionist. But what was his goal besides the creation of a Jewish state? Which is still stated on the Weizmann Institute's website, among a wealth of information available. 'The Weizmann Institute of Science is committed to creating an inclusive and equitable academic environment for people of all genders, ethnicities, religions, etc.'

True, guards take care of the safety of the 2600 scientists, doctoral students, researchers, and administrative staff at rest, but the gates are usually open, Rehovot residents can stroll through the campus parks and there are programs for everyone. Not only is WIS one of the world's most renowned multidisciplinary basic research institutions, but it is also a leader in promoting science education. Students of exceptional ability and interest in science are invited but high school drop-outs and adults, too. They even have a fully interactive outdoor science museum - the first of its kind in the world - offering fun science activities for all ages.

But now it's time to move on from the story of WIS to our story, and find out from Balázs Hangya how he and eight other KOKI researchers came to the Weizmann Institute on 7 March 2022.

- Let's start perhaps at the beginning!

- We went out for a KOKI-Weizmann symposium, which grew out of an Eötvös Loránd Research network (ELRN) initiative. As the Institute's "international liaison", I receive emails encouraging collaboration from the ELRN International Cabinet weekly. As most of these are not highly relevant to KOKI researchers, they are not very often picked up by the research community. This call was an exception, however, because the Weizmann Institute is known to have fantastic brain research groups, and Norbert Hájos took the trouble to respond to the call. His proposal won the approval of Rony Paz, Dean of the Weizmann Institute's Neuroscience Department.

Rony thought that a joint symposium could start a process of joint thinking that could later lead to collaborations - especially if funding is made available. From then on, I took over the organization from KOKI and Yoav Livneh from Weizmann.

- Weizmann strives for efficiency, but was it really that simple?

- It certainly helped that we were able to meet in person at a FENS-Kavli conference in Vienna in October.

- And what was the situation with Norbert and the others?

- I had no difficulty in generating interest, 10 of the group leaders applied. From then on things were smooth sailing, the technical details of the trip were organized by colleagues in the ELCF International Cabinet, especially Gabriella Verbovszky.

- How did you organize the scientific part of the program?

- Yoav and I divided the 10-10 KOKIs and Weizmann researchers into 2-3 person symposia by theme, making sure that each symposium had a mix of speakers from the two countries.

- You were able to get that done pretty quickly, but what about the trip itself? Traveling to Israel was never like traveling to Western Europe, and nowadays . . .

- We were quite worried about whether we could actually make the trip. This was allowed under the current Israeli rules, but the Weizmann internal rules were stricter. In the end, the conference was given the green light on the condition that we had to wait for the results of the PCR tests at Tel Aviv airport after arrival.

- Since everyone was prepared for the conference program, I guess everything went smoothly from there.

- Almost. We hadn't expected that Hungarian bank cards wouldn't work with the Israeli side of the Wolt app, so we ended up having dinner only after some difficulty. At night, we all got our negative results, so we could breathe a sigh of relief and leave the accommodation.

- Tel Aviv is 22-24 km from Rehovot. Apart from the road and the unusual surroundings of Weizmann, did you see anything else?

- The next day, the ELCF, in cooperation with the embassy, organized a short visit to Jerusalem - about 40 km from Rehovot - and in the afternoon Nachum Ulanovsky was already showing us his 700-meter tunnel for measuring bats in flight.

- This is a truly fantastic project, which has already revealed some surprising new facts about how the brain works! Kriszta Kovács was also very enthusiastic about this visit, which was one of the many experiences she had. The very idea of building a 700 m tunnel for bats is extraordinary!

- In general, I also felt that the researchers there were not afraid of any technical challenges. It's no problem to create a new virus to answer their question or to build a labyrinth for bats.
For years, I have been teaching at the Transylvanian Neuroscience Summer School, a technically focused course with a do-it-yourself philosophy where students put together working two-photon microscopes in a few days. Seeing lots of familiar students at the coffee breaks at the conference made me realize how many students from Weizmann get into the otherwise very competitive course. I think it's because the institute also has the "let's solve it" approach that makes the summer school unique.

- It could be great to see familiar faces and they were perhaps attracted to the lectures by the familiar Hungarian names, too!
What was the program and who were the speakers?

- The two-day workshop was opened by Rony Paz on behalf of Weizmann and Adrienn Szendrey, Deputy Head of Cabinet on behalf of ELCF.
This was followed by a lecture on synaptic transmitter release by Zoltán Nusser. The 10 Weizmann speakers were Meital Oren-Swissa, Nachum Ulanovsky, Yarden Cohen, Tali Kimchi, Ivo Spiegel, Ofer Yizhar, Takashi Kawashima, Michal Rivlin, Yoav Livneh, and Ilan Lampl. From KOKI, we also had László Acsády, Erik Hrabovszky, Norbert Hájos, Krisztina Kovács, Judit Makara, Ferenc Mátyás, Balázs Ujfalussy and myself, and Bea Sperlágh gave her performance via zoom.

- How were the presentations, and how was it to listen "live" again?

- For me, the scientific program was very stimulating, I found practically every lecture interesting, whether the topic itself was close or far from me. It was also noticeable that after the many zoom conferences, everyone really appreciated the face-to-face meeting.

- We should also appreciate that even in the most difficult times it was possible to keep in touch, listen to presentations, ask questions, and even - certainly with a lot of hard work - "enjoyable" conferences were still possible in 2020!

- True, but I think we all understand by now that the two are not the same. I'm certainly not the same at a conference that I can turn off at any time and walk over to the lab or walk out to the kitchen, not to mention how much more information one can convey via metacommunication channels when one is not limited to two dimensions and 16-pixel faces.

- This is not even debatable. But let's go back to the starting point, the cooperation between the two institutions. Has anything tangible happened?

- The possibility of concrete collaborations has been raised. The best way to think of this is that the Hungarian and Israeli partners are applying for a collaboration grant.

- Yes, there are such opportunities, but on what topics can collaborations be developed first? Has there been a proposal for this?

- I think that collaborations are created when they need to be created, i.e. the best collaborations are triggered by questions and hypotheses, but joint thinking and the right funding environment can certainly provide a good breeding ground for such collaborations. The next step to facilitate this could be a second conference in Budapest in a year's time.

- I think many are already looking forward to it!
Now, the only thing left to do, which is also at the end of every scientific article, is to say thank you!

- It is important to thank the ELRN staff for their efforts, especially Gabriella Verbovszky and Adrienn Szendrey, and the ELRN for their financial support, which made this visit and workshop possible.