September 11, 2013

A Month at Israel’s Weizmann Institute Expands PHS Grad’s Scientific Horizons

SarnakLast spring, Princeton High School senior Ann Sarnak was in the school’s guidance office when a flyer caught her eye. It was for the international summer program at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a major center of research and graduate study in Rehovot, Israel.

Familiar with the country because it is the home of her grandparents, and passionate about scientific research, Ms. Sarnak decided to apply for the program. Less than a month later, she learned she was one of 19 American students chosen to spend a month at the ISSI to perform research with gifted mentors in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. The Americans were among 80 young people from all over the world selected to participate in the program.

Looking back, Ms. Sarnak regards the ISSI as a life-changing experience. “It was a great atmosphere,” she said, speaking by phone between classes at Yale University, where she is now a freshman. “When the [ISSI] president talked to us, he stressed that it is a research institute driven by scientific curiosity as opposed to more of the biotech-driven institutes that are focused on the industrial side of things. It was nice to hear that what was driving the projects was curiosity, individual minds, intelligence, and intellect. I think that’s something unique about the Institute.”

During the first three and a half weeks of the program, students were assigned to a mentor in the laboratory to work on specific projects. “The projects were really varied. Some of the mentors involved us in research they were already doing,” Ms. Sarnak said. Her mentor was investigating the brain’s response to learning.

“It was really interesting. I was working with computers, running statistical tests on our data which was based on our mentor’s research,” Ms. Sarnak said. “We did an experiment similar to one she had done, with a slightly different variable, using other participants in the program as our data.”

Working in the lab, “We weren’t just running around in lab coats,” Ms. Sarnak said. “It was more interactive, because our subjects were human beings as opposed to cultures. It was different from what I was expecting, but I’m glad I got the chance at that type.”

In its 45 years of existence, the Bessie Lawrence program of the ISSI has offered some 3,000 gifted high school graduates the opportunity to work in cutting-edge fields of science alongside researchers in their labs. Nearly half of these alumni are from the United States.

“They can be found in the most prestigious academic institutions and in prominent positions in the private sector,” said Marshall S. Levin, the executive vice president and CEO of the American Committee for the Institute. “We are especially pleased to be able to offer this opportunity to young women such as Ann, because the Institute is a leading advocate for encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in science and technology. Most important, this program allows participants to experience firsthand the Weizmann model of curiosity and collaboration, which motivates them in their university studies and well beyond.”

The students spent the last week of the program in desert field schools, studying, hiking, and conducting field experiments. The program wasn’t all work and no play. Weekends were filled with trips to different geographic regions, major cities, and various sites. Ms. Sarnak got to visit her grandparents, who live in a town on the Mediterranean coast outside Tel Aviv.

Although she was gone only a month, Ms. Sarnak came home with a much-expanded perspective. “You’d think a biologist and a mathematician might not be intrigued by each other’s works or interested in collaborating. But that was the feeling I got there — that people were interested in fusing elements from different labs,” she said. “There was a great sense of collaboration between people in different fields.”