Inside the Weizmann: Why Indian researchers will love being accepted at Israel's finest research institute

Great place to study? Check. Solid Science? Double check. Super-friendly people? Triple check.We spent some time at WIS before the pandemic and still can't stop raving about how great it was
Weizmann Institute of Science
Weizmann Institute of Science

Israel can be a daunting proposition for the average Indian. It's expensive. There aren't cheap flights (or flash sales). It's far enough away to count as being 'almost Europe'. And the airport security and the inquisition you have to pass through are more than enough to make you sweat. And if you've read Ronen Bergman's Rise and Kill First, some of those Mossad stories will keep you on edge.

All these slightly wonky thoughts, along with the daze that follows a six-hour-long Air India flight from Delhi, will quickly dissipate once you pass through the squarish arch bearing the engraved name 'Weizmann Institute of Science'.

Full disclosure: This was almost three months before I heard the words 'COVID or 'Corona' and well before I could place Wuhan on a map of China. Israel, to their credit, was among the first countries to enforce a lockdown and the results were stellar. Discipline is something, I observed, people in the Hebrew state inherently have. As they go into a second lockdown, travel and social restrictions will probably stifle most people's plans, but hey, they don't call it a pandemic for nothing.

Anyway, back to the Weizmann. Taking in the campus — and believe me, unless you have your own personal satellite you just can't do it in anything under three hours — will leave you humming Guns N' Roses' Paradise City. Believe me, when I say this, of all the universities I've been to, this is truly where the grass is green and the squirrels are pretty. It led me to ponder over whether universities in India will ever be able to dream of this kind of space-per-student ratio, before the squirrels brought me back to reality.

Set up in 1934, roughly 14 years before Israel came into existence, Chaim Weizmann (who later went on to become Israel's President) raised the institute to become the tour de force that it is today and that is why everybody loves the institute's origin story. Fun fact: Weizmann's house on the hill, smack in the middle of the campus, has been turned into a museum and it's a pretty great place to start a tour of the campus. There's even the restored Ford Lincoln Cosmopolitan presented to him in 1950 by Henry Ford himself, which is stored in a glass vault-like garage.

Truth be told, the Weizmann is a bit of an academic badass. The fact that they have six Nobel laureates and three Turing Award winners among their ranks has very little to do with it. Nor is it the fact that their list of professors — with their impressively embellished profiles — resembles a Greatest Hits album from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The simple truth is that in their quest to understand basic science (and this a phrase that I heard a lot during that week), they are redefining the paradigms of human understanding — and eventually, making the world a better place. That they do it without making a lot of noise or running noisy, gimmick-filled social media campaigns is the badass bit.

They're that good. And they know it.    

So when COVID came around, the Weizmann got going. Professor Avraham Yaron, The Jack & Simon Djanogly Professorial Chair in Biochemistry, and who hosted us during my visit, said, “Our scientists are uniquely positioned to advance understanding and chart new paths forward amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. At WIS, we are pursuing investigations that, among other things, might improve testing and diagnostics and provide new strategies for prevention and treatment, including a possible vaccine."
 
The Weizmann (or WIS as they like to refer to it) is big on collaborations. And in that respect, they're a bit like Médecins Sans Frontières, except they're the Science version. He added, “In light of the pandemic, the world is looking up at science with hope and believe that researchers will find a solution to this crisis, and help prevent future ones. It has brought the scientific community together and we look forward to continuing this cooperation and joint research collaborations globally and with India specifically.”

Indian students are everywhere. After the Chinese, they're a major ethnic group in most major American, British and Australian universities. They've got clubs. They do mashups. Diwali is a thing. Everyone loves Engineering. Butter chicken is on the menu. You get the drift.

But the Indian students who have made their way to the Weizmann are different. They may not be the guys who consistently brag about how many Ivy League institutes are headhunting them. But they're probably the most sound when it comes to the specific doctoral or post-doc research project they've landed.

And that defines you at the Weizmann. If you've got in, they see something in you. That says a lot about a campus where 300 MSc students and 380 Post-doctoral fellows don't outnumber the 700 PhD researchers. "We look for excellence," begins Professor Yaron.

But how do we measure excellence? "We look at multiple aspects. We look at the grades and if it is too poor we don't consider them, but we don't stop there. We look at recommendation letters and see that the students may have done amazingly well in a lab but gotten average grades. In that case, we balance these factors. We have a committee talk to them and understand how passionate they are. When we see a passion for science we know that they will be amazing. We try to make wise decisions. We try to get the right candidate every time," he explains. With housing and a tuition fee waiver and scholarships by the dozen, I developed a new sense of appreciation for just how far donors and funding could take a scientific institute when I learnt that they have over $100 million invested in research grants for scientific investigations.

Sounds tough? Damn straight. In fact, one of the endearing practices along the road to getting accepted at the Weizmann is that you have to catch the attention of the specific researcher you'd like to work with. Do that via video chats and inquisitions and your life might take a shorter turn to the West than you'd have imagined. "To be honest, my first choice was to go to MIT or CalTech or one of those Ivy League institutions in the USA," explains a researcher from West Bengal who has been at the Weizmann for over two years at that point, "I didn't get in, so I began looking at WIS." Did he get the feeling that he'd settled, I prodded gently. "Absolutely not," came the reply. "The experience, the people, the warmth, the academic freedom is just unbelievable here. And we're way closer to home."

Home run, he stopped short of adding.
 
Obviously, the Science does all the talking here. But what clinches the deal is the sheer attention to family that the Israeli institute has turned into a fine art. I got a sense of just how far they go when I stopped by the International Office. Bright, cheerful, loungey and with boards teeming with activities to satiate pretty much any culture — it was clear that they took the phrase 'make you feel right at home' very, very seriously.

Aileen Halbershtat, who heads the International Office, walked me through just how far they go, "Housing is always a big thing. We offer everyone a minimum of a year's housing. It gives you time to settle down and gives you an immediate community. The apartments are fully furnished so you don't need to worry about that," she says with a knowing laugh, before adding, "When you're moving off campus, we help you find listings, talk to landlords, check the contracts and all that. You can't take an international student, put them out there and say good luck."

Though the spouses aren't allowed to work because of visa restrictions in Israel, WIS helps them study at other universities or find volunteer work, "Israel is a very family-friendly country. We help new parents and expecting parents with pre-parental counselling and we help new parents get acclimatised. It's more than an administrative relationship. We've had more than ten births in the last six months and it is nice because it's a cohesive group. We're planning to get in a nursery expert to talk to them about how to raise their child in a culture other than their own. We're trying to help them understand the best thing to do and bridge cultures," she adds, "We have a great relationship with schools and we help the kids get in and we pay for additional Hebrew lessons so that they can get up to speed and handle their school work." 

And when you do miss home, they go the whole hog. "We had a focus group and they told us that they were missing Diwali and Christmas (Hanukkah is bigger there). So we went to different communities and asked them to bring in volunteers to do it. We said we'd organise the logistics, you do the rangoli or the puja. We now have at least one festival a month and people bring their classmates. We even tied up with an Indian restaurant and it's great. The Indian students put together the programme for Diwali and they had a translator and it worked for everyone," she tells me.

All of this makes for a content family and this impacts the mental space the researchers are in, "It's the same for the Jewish holidays; we had people explain it to them so that they understand our traditions and don't find it strange. We want them to work hard and play hard as well."

Hard. That's a concept that's a bit of a bygone conclusion at the Weizmann. Most of the researchers we met explained to us how they pick areas of study that others consider hard or implausible, break it down to the most basic aspects and have a go at it. "We believe in good basic research. Most of the learning is done via actual research in the lab," explains Yaron, "The results... they'll always come," he says with a grin. 

I cannot help but believe him.

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