For U.S. journalists, Ben-Gurion U. science mission more than an assignment

Click photo to download. Caption: On the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University media mission, Alexandra Lapkin—a reporter for The Jewish Advocate of Boston—tries on shoes designed to help people with strokes, Cerebral Palsy, and brain injuries learn to walk. Credit: Ronni Strongin.

 

By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/JNS.org

“The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, spoke those words, he could very well have been referring to the scientific breakthroughs that were destined to emerge from the school that would bear his name.  

What Ben-Gurion may not have envisioned is the emergence of an annual rite in which American journalists see those discoveries for themselves. After 10 years, the Murray Fromson AABGU (American Associates, Ben-Gurion University) Media Mission has brought nearly 100 reporters and editors from across the Atlantic for an up-close look at the cutting-edge research taking place at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), which is home to some 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students.  

“We want them (the journalists) to see that, although it’s so new, only 45 years old, this university was the realization of Ben-Gurion’s vision of a world-class research center in the heart of the desert,” said Ronni Strongin, the AABGU vice president who initiated the media trip. “With each group of journalists who come and see it, the news gets out there about the amazing things going on here.” 

The theme of this year’s mission—which wrapped up March 20 after a week of demonstrations and insider briefings by top scientific researchers—was the health and medical advances currently being developed at BGU. The showcase included research and innovations in the fields of neuroscience and imaging, stem cell research, biomedical robotics, biopharma, and medical informatics. 

Since this year’s theme was scientific and medical breakthroughs, several of the nine journalists on the mission were science reporters. For them, including Tanya Lewis, a staff writer with LiveScience.com, the “gee-whiz factor” ran high. 

“I’m really into robotics so it’s been great being here,” Lewis said after a briefing on diagnostic robotics designed to crawl through the human body. “To see the technology they’ve come up with here and the ones still in development and their medical uses is just exciting.” 

Among the highlights of this year’s mission: 

  • At the BGU Department of Physiology and Neurobiology’s Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Prof. Alon Friedman’s team is developing a drug to prevent epilepsy after brain injury by repairing the blood-brain barrier, a network of blood vessels filtering the blood flowing to the brain.
  • Visiting the Sleep Unit Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Biomedical Signal Processing Lab, the journalists were among the first to hear of a new diagnostic approach to sleep problems using a non-contact, non-invasive audio process, rather than hooking patients up to uncomfortable sensors in costly sleep centers. 
  • In the Laboratory for Rehabilitation and Motor Control of Walking, Dr. Simona Bar-Haim and her team of researchers run a program that helps teens with Cerebral Palsy live more independent lives. The journalists were invited to try on the “Re-Step,” a shoe for training people with brain injuries, strokes, and Cerebral Palsy who struggle with impaired mobility, allowing them to practice walking on changing surfaces. “It’s incredible that they can actually retrain patterns in the brain that have been damaged,” said Melissa Gerr, a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times. “It was pretty amazing to see that.”
  • Dr. David Zarrouk, director of the Bioinspired and Medical Robotics Laboratory, showed off his team’s tiny robots. Some resembled cockroaches, others were designed to travel the length of a human intestine. Bioinspired, he explained, means guided but not limited by nature. “We want to combine the knowledge of nature with 21st century technology,” said Zarrouk. BGU is one of the world’s foremost centers of robotics research and design. 

Click photo to download. Caption: A participant of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University media mission experiments with small robots designed to travel the length of a human intestine. Credit: Deborah Fineblum Schabb.

As the journalists peered through a microscope at a beating heart cell, Dr. Rivka Ofir of BGU’s new Center for Regenerative Medicine, Cellular Therapy and Stem Cell Research presented the journalists with “disease in a dish”—a technique of programming a patient’s diseased cells into any kind of cell that will best allow them to be studied for the root cause of the problem. Ofir also shared her years of research into the effect of the lemongrass plant and her findings on its positive impact on immunity against disease. 

As they pulled their suitcases toward the waiting van, the journalists reflected on what they had learned. “We got to see the exciting things they’re doing here, and some of them in their early stages,” said Amishai Gottlieb of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent. “I especially thought the sleep apnea study was very cool.” 

Dr. Rivka Carmi, president of BGU, described the annual media mission as an “exceptional program that showcases a completely different side of Israel—science and innovation, community outreach, and the Negev.” To maximize the mission’s impact, she said, “We invite people who might otherwise never visit this part of Israel, to open their eyes to the exciting work being done here.”

In fact, Alexandra Lapkin, a reporter with the The Jewish Advocate of Boston, used the very same image to describe her experience. “It’s been an eye-opening week,” she said. The research was fascinating for her, but simply being in Israel was just as powerful. 

“What happens is, the view of Israel gets very muddled from far away,” Lapkin said. “You have to see it for yourself, wander the city streets, and see all kinds of people sitting at outdoor cafes, happy and surprisingly… peaceful.”

In fact, the “all kinds of people” aspect was a fundamental take-away for the media mission participants. 

“It’s not the way I thought it would be here,” said LiveScience.com’s Lewis. “There is an immense diversity of people and cultures here that I didn’t expect.”

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Posted on March 25, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..