Technion is celebrated as Israel’s scientific hub

From left, Bruce (Beau) Michelson, Jr., Technion University students Amit Gilboa and Yaela Golumbic, and  Renee and Bruce Michelson are pictured at an American Technion Society event hosted at Renee and Bruce Michelson’s home in Ladue. Photo: Michael A. Iskiwitch

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Obscured by jargon and riddled with complexity, science can sometimes seem like inaccessible terrain for many. That’s where people like Yaela Golumbic come in.

“Science is around us in everything we do,” said the 34-year-old. “When we wake up in the morning and decide what to eat or make medical decisions — every decision we make in life is based on science and sometimes if you don’t have the information, you can’t make an informed decision.”

Golumbic, a doctoral student in the field of science communication at Technion University, was one of two Israelis in town over the weekend for a “fireside chat.” The purpose was for both to talk about their lives and the groundbreaking work of the university, which has cultivated a reputation as a premiere institution for scientific and engineering education.

Held in the living room of Renee and Bruce Michelson, the Sunday gathering was sponsored by the American Technion Society. Associate Vice President David Chivo represented ATS at the event, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with participants after a series of queries led by the Michelsons’ son Beau.

Chivo told attendees that the Technion’s work had been vital not only for solidifying its own image but for acting as an ambassador abroad for the Jewish State in nations like Zambia, which recently moved to warm relations with the country because of scientific partnerships between the two states. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“It highlights a remarkable phenomenon,” he said. “Israel, via its technology and its innovation is able to realize diplomatic dividends that even five years ago would have been thought inconceivable.”

He said such results were not limited to Africa, noting that the Baltic states were looking to Israel for answers on cybersecurity and China is opening a campus in partnership with the Technion.

“India is describing in its press that Israel serves as its role model for what a technologically advanced, innovation-based economy should look like,” he said.

Golumbic’s co-presenter, Amit Gilboa, said he attended the university because he wanted to take on the most challenging role he could as a student.

Gilboa, 30, studies civil and environmental engineering at the school and serves as a tank commander in the 10th Armored Brigade where he holds the rank of major. 

Sometimes getting called to duty can require a quick transition as it did with Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 conflict in Gaza.

“The process of going from a student to a soldier is very fast. It is only four or five hours before I am starting to talk the talk and walk the walk,” he said. “But vice-versa from being a soldier going back to a student can be very difficult.”

He said fundraising from ATS helped Israel Defense Forces members who took a break from school to participate.

“Each student who was a soldier during that operation got a certain amount of money according to the days he did in service,” he said.

Golumbic, who once served in the IDF as a tank mechanic and munitions officer, spoke of her work leading “Sensing the Air,” an effort to help improve communications to and from average Israelis regarding air quality in the Haifa area. Exemplifying the idea of “citizen science,” she has helped distribute more than 30 sensors in the region so that Haifa residents can help bring problems to light.

“If someone smells something really bad, they can tell us, ‘I’m in this place and I smell something. I don’t know what it is,’” she said. “That information is valuable because if a lot of people give information like that, scientists can really understand what the sources of the air pollution are and what the distribution is.”

Part of the initiative helps information flow the other way as well with the creation of a user-friendly platform for average citizens to access and comprehend data.

“In my search to try and understand how to explain these things and talking to friends and relatives, that’s what brought me to switch direction in what I was doing for a career and go into science communication,” she said.

She said Technion wasn’t just the best place to learn but also a part of the community.

“Growing up in Haifa, Technion was always there. It is not just something far away that you heard about,” she said. “A lot of people in the neighborhood studied there or worked there. It was something very present so you wanted to be a part of that.”

Gilboa said that, like the army, it can be a “melting pot” for everyone in Israeli society despite cultural differences.

Chivo noted that just over a fifth of students at the school were Arab-Israelis, a figure that mirrors the nation itself.

Questions from participants focused on everything from the university’s comparatively low tuition costs to Technion’s role in the nation’s startup technology culture.

“Sixty-three percent of all high-tech companies out of Israel were either founded or are being led by a Technion grad,” Chivo said. “If you look at the whole country, Technion graduates are contributing $100 billion toward Israel’s GDP.”

He said that represents about a third of Israel’s economic output.

Another attendee asked about job prospects for Technion graduates. Golumbic said they were bright for those in the right fields.

“I know when my husband is looking for young engineers to hire, that’s what he’s looking for on their CV,” she noted.

Sign up for Your Morning Light