Weizmann head: chutzpah, science go hand in hand

With his tailored suit, salt-and-pepper hair and French accent, professor Daniel Zajfman appears to be a respectable academic. Yet the president of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science is a big fan of a uniquely Israeli trait: telling the boss to stuff it.

“Young people can make a difference if they don’t respect authority,” the Belgian-born, Israeli physicist said on a recent visit to the Bay Area. “When I first came to Israel, I saw I could do what I want. The reason we have so many startups is because people have chutzpah, and we [the Weizmann Institute] use this [trait] to push the limits of knowledge.”

Daniel Zajfman photo/cathleen maclearie

Since its founding 80 years ago, the Weizmann Institute has trained thousands of research scientists in a variety of fields, from biochemistry to physics to mathematics, educating one-third of Israel’s Ph.D.s.

With 17 departments and 50 interdisciplinary centers on its campus in Rehovot, the institute has achieved breakthroughs in prenatal medicine, lasers, optics, agriculture, genetics and just about everything else under the sun. Or over it.

Zajfman was in the Bay Area to meet with supporters of the institute. Many of its graduates work in the region, and two of its most generous donors, Stephen and Nancy Grand, live in San Francisco. Last year, the Grands donated $50 million to kick-start a biomedical research center at the institute that now bears their name: the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine.

Personalized medicine is revolutionary because it focuses on the unique protein and chemical composition of the individual.

It’s something like a snowflake approach to medical treatment.

“It’s more than DNA,” Zajfman said of personalized medicine, which draws on genomics, protein profiling, pharmacology and bioinformatics.

It pinpoints “who you are, chemically speaking and protein-wise, so we can provide information to doctors of the future to make a better choices with given drugs. If we can do that, it improves health care tremendously.”

When he accepted the post of president in 2006, Zajfman had to curtail his own astrophysics research, though he maintains a lab at Weizmann. He said being at the forefront of multidisciplinary research makes it a worthwhile tradeoff.

Because he sees himself as a teacher as well as a researcher, Zajfman cares about the state of science education around the world. Science illiteracy leads to bad consequences, he said, such as passivity in the face of climate change.

“You can learn 20th-century history without knowing what happened 500 years ago,” he said. “You can learn jazz and know nothing about classical. Science and math do not work like this. There’s no way to move forward if you don’t go step by step. It needs to be done in a very precise way.”

Another Weizmann project that Zajfman is touting:  the first Israeli space satellite, now under development in partnership with NASA and tentatively nicknamed LIMSAT (which stands for “less-is-more satellite”).

Zajfman grew up in Brussels, enthralled with both science and Zionism. He belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a youth Zionist organization, and made aliyah to Israel at age 20. He earned a doctorate in atomic physics from the Technion in Haifa and later worked at a lab in Chicago.

He joined the Weizmann’s particle physics faculty in 1997 and has been there ever since.

As scientists, Zajfman and his colleagues are relatively insulated from the global spread of academic boycotts of Israel. Professors who espouse such boycotts, he feels, betray the purpose of higher learning. “Academic research is made to transfer knowledge from one place to another. It has nothing to do with politics.”

And if the boycotters really want to hold true to their ideal, he added, they should also boycott the results of Israeli research — including Israeli inventions and medical breakthroughs.

“If not, you’re really dishonest,” he said. “If you want to boycott, do it to the fullest.”

Having lived in Europe, the United States and Israel, Zajfman feels Israel is truly the land of opportunity for enterprising scientists. His institute was founded by Chaim Weizmann, a chemist by training and Israel’s first president. Zajfman thinks that is no coincidence.

“[The institute] represents modern Zionism,” he said. “What’s the value of Israel? Why did it go through 65 years of existence? When Chaim Weizmann had a vision, it was clear: science. Clearly the economy of Israel is based on science.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.