Talking science with Nobel Prize-winning Israeli biochemist during visit to St. Louis

Dr. Aaron Ciechanover


Nobel Prize-winning Israeli biochemist Dr. Aaron Ciechanover visited Washington University last week to speak about his work. However, this was far from Ciechanover’s first visit to St. Louis, as the scientist has a long association with Washington University.

A medical doctor and research biologist, Ciechanover is the Distinguished Research Professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. Ciechanover was co-recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry and won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2003. The biologist was born in Haifa in 1947, one month before Israel became a nation, to parents who had immigrated there in the 1920s.

His seminar at Washington University focused on the work that won him the Nobel Prize and which he continues to this day. The award was given to Ciechanover, Avram Hershko (also a professor at the Technion) and Irwin Rose (of the University of California-Irvine) for “the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degredation.” In lay terms, the researchers discovered the cell’s system for identifying and then breaking down old or unneeded proteins. The Jewish Light spoke to him shortly before his lecture. 

Tell me about the state of scientific research in Israel.

Judging by Nobel Prizes, it is very good. Nobel Prizes per capita, maybe we are number one in the world. In reality though, it’s less good. I think we are running down. I don’t want to predict there will be no Nobel Prizes, but science in a country is not run by the number of Nobel Prizes. The government is trying to reverse it, but in recent years there was a deterioration in the education system in Israel—  from kindergarten to elementary school to high school. And then huge cuts in university budgets—more than 25 percent cuts—in the number of faculty, in infrastructure, and the system really reached what to many felt was a bottom. The results will be felt, maybe in a decade or so. Obviously without a good education system, you cannot be successful. 

It is not only salaries—it is infrastructure, the investment environment, the critical mass of similar people around you. It is much more related to science itself. Teaching in the lower levels has to do with teachers and with schools, and also with infrastructure, with funding, with a computer to every child—and we are far away from it. 

But you see improvement now?

Luckily, the government started to reverse this decline by boosting teachers’ salaries, which had gone down. People didn’t want to become teachers any more, or they were only in the profession for very short time. And the government then began to boost most university budgets, renewing infrastructure, luring back Israelis that had left and had stayed abroad. Hopefully these measures will alleviate the pressure and the damage caused but time will tell. Time will tell. 

How is doing scientific research in Israel different than in the U.S.?

I don’t think it is much different. I think Israel, in many ways, has adopted the American academic system, but we are smaller. In St. Louis well, the hospitals are big, the department is big and the medical school is big. In Israel, we have that on a smaller scale, which makes it a little bit more difficult, since you have fewer people to generate the critical mass of ideas in your area. But I think that the spirit is very much an American spirit. The system of promotion from assistant professor and so on, the infrastructure, the ideas about innovation, and what is needed from the university researchers. It is a very good system.

Talk about the time you have spent in St. Louis. What brought you to Washington University?

I spent many summers here, and a whole sabbatical, 16 months, in 1988 and ‘89, because of a collaboration brought here from Boston with a good friend of mine, the chairman of 

Pediatrics here, Alan Schwartz—a very good friend of mine. We started a collaboration together at M.I.T. as post-doc fellows. Then he went on to become faculty at Harvard and I continued to come to his lab. Then he moved to Wash. U. and he’s still here, and I kept continuing coming to his lab, publishing together for many years, and then I spent a whole sabbatical here. And it culminated when I received, excitingly, an honorary doctorate from Wash. U. So I have some deep ties to this city.  

What is it like doing academic work in two different countries, thousands of miles apart?

I am based in Israel. My lab is in Israel. I have a lab and my graduate students, but I used to bring my graduate students, my fellows, here. We came here and we spent here a long time. But we feel at home here because we continued our own research and then, also again, the American system is very similar to the Israeli system. So it wasn’t like going to a foreign environment, it’s like coming to a different home.

Tell me about receiving that call notifying you about winning the Nobel Prize.

(Laughs) Well, this was one of the very few, the very happiest moments. It caught us by surprise because it was the evening of a Jewish holiday, Sukkot in 2004, and it was in chemistry. You know, if we ever thought about winning [a Nobel Prize], to dare even thinking of it, my mentor Professor (Avram) Hersh and I are physicians, so if we thought about it at all, we thought about medicine—and here it came in chemistry. I cannot describe the moment—it is like we are still digesting it, revisiting it again and again. But, life is moving on and you go back to lab and your science. You cannot celebrate forever—there are a lot of things to do. It keeps you busy but it is an unforgettable moment.