Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, a world-renowned plant biologist, became BGU's President on January 1, 2019. In this special interview, he discusses his plans, his hopes and his vision.
Daniel Chamovitz was born in the US and in 1981 arrived in Israel for a gap year at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. It was there that his love for Israel and the south blossomed. The realization that he would like to be a kibbutznik, emerged quickly, at the same rate he learned to drive a tractor. Somehow though, things turned out differently. It could be that Kibbutz Ketura missed out on a quality member, but the science world gained a brilliant and ground-breaking researcher in the field of plant science.
On January 1, Prof. Chamovitz assumed his position as BGU's President, and he is certain to increase its rate of growth even more. "BGU has a different mission from the rest of the universities in the country", he says. "It must aspire to research excellence without compromising its ability to affect the geographical environment in which it is situated, while identifying and realizing local potential. The students studying here are a fantastic asset. I look forward to productive cooperation with them. With our pooled strengths, we will continue to be a winning team.
The starting point for BGU's seventh President was the town he was born in, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. His family tree has multiple medical branches – his father, his sister and three uncles are doctors. It's no wonder that in his youth he was sure that a white coat and a stethoscope would be inseparable parts of his professional life. "I was convinced that I would become a doctor, that I was genetically determined to study medicine", he says.
Fortunately for the world of flora and fauna, things didn't go according to the original plans. While in Ketura, as a tractor driver, Daniel noticed something odd. "I was in the alfalfa field and I saw that when the alfalfa is cut, it grows back", he recalls, "But when wheat is cut it doesn't grow back. At the time, I didn't have a clue about plant science or agriculture, but for me this was a eureka moment. When you work on a tractor you have lots of time to think. I thought to myself that if we could understand why the alfalfa regrows and wheat doesn't, we could feed the whole world. And maybe this knowledge is no less important than having another physician in the family".
At the end of his gap year at Kibbutz Ketura, Chamovitz returned to Columbia University. "But they didn't teach botany, so I transferred to the Hebrew University," he recalls. "And there I was drawn into fundamental science, to plant genetics". Excited by the new world he discovered, the promising plant researcher continued on to a doctorate in plant genetics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ) and within a short time understood that this was his true calling. "I had a fairly successful doctorate at the HUJ and continued to a post-doc at Yale". It was there that he built the reputation that brought him once again to Israel. As a faculty member at Tel-Aviv University, he won the prestigious Alon Fellowship, awarded by the Israel Council for Higher Education, to excellent young researchers.
A Surprising Telephone Call
Of the interesting circumstances that brought him to BGU, Prof. Chamovitz recalls: "Until recently I was the Dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University. A few months ago, I received telephone call from one of the Faculty's emeritus members. 'I have to speak to you', he said. I told him that I couldn't, I had no time. But he called my secretary again and told her that he had to speak to me that same day. I agreed that he could come at 7:30 pm. He walked into my office and said to me, 'Danny, I'm going to say something that will change your life – what do you think about being President of Ben-Gurion University'? That's how it all started. He was a messenger of the search committee. One thing led to another, and two months later the University's Executive Committee chose me as the next President.
Can you tell us about any other life-changing decisions?
"I was born in a small town in the US which had 15,000 residents. I was the only Jew in my school. The first day of deer-hunting season was a school holiday… My father was the doctor of the community. I had two completely separate lives: from Monday to Friday I went to school, the only Jew, doing all the American stuff, and on the weekends I was a leader of the 'Young Judaea' youth movement in Pittsburgh. These were two different circles of life, as though I was two separate people. I eventually realized that I had to immigrate to Israel, because I wasn't prepared to live this 'schizophrenic life'."
With the food, came an appetite?
"I had great influence at the level of basic science, I am not detracting from the importance of my achievements, but I wanted to see what I could do to influence society as a whole. I wondered what would happen if we took plant geneticists and public policy people and dieticians and engineers, and brought them together to think about what can be done to feed the world. That's how the Manna Center Program in Food Safety and Security at Tel-Aviv University, the first of its kind in the country, came into being.
When he received the offer to meet with BGU's presidential search committee, the penny dropped: "I remembered that my romance with Israel actually began in the South. In my meetings with the committee members, I felt that my academic mission, my desire to become a member of a kibbutz in the south, and the realization of the Zionist dream – all these came together. I later called two young BGU faculty members who I had earlier tried to persuade to come to Tel-Aviv University, but who had preferred BGU. I asked them what they thought BGU's potential was? They both said that there is huge potential here, an amazing future and added: 'We need a President who will take us to an international level'. One of them said, 'Danny, it's a pity that it's not you, but your future is secure at Tel-Aviv'. Everyone was convinced that someone else would be president. After meeting with the search committee and some Senate members and a bit of soul searching – I realized that this is where I see my future. That's how I came to BGU.
Regarding the international level, how do you see, for example, the strengthening of the relationship with Chinese power?
I truly believe that a modern university has to look to the east rather than the west in order to develop its international ties. Many students from the Far East are desperate to study here, especially in hi-tech areas, and encouraging this trend will help us advance our objectives. I was happy to discover that widespread academic connections were developed between BGU and universities in China. We are on the right track.
Can you single out an academic institution that could be a role model for BGU?
A university that is close to 50 years old doesn't need a role model. It's mature enough to define for itself what it wants and what it aspires to be, and my role as President will be to sharpen these definitions.
Tell us about the objectives you have set for yourself when you become president?
"Today BGU is in a unique position to take on a leading role at a national and international level. The University comprises of a range of academic fields, having developed the natural and engineering sciences, humanities and social sciences and professional programs, and having succeeded in attracting excellent researchers beginning their academic careers. It's a university based on excellence in research and teaching. Our ability to influence society stems from our academic reputation, and the better it becomes, the more significant our influence will be. Apart from this, there is a need for innovation in the way we teach. The way that I studied for a bachelor's degree and taught a bachelor's degree 20 years ago doesn't correspond with what reality demands today. We have to be ready for changes that will allow students to progress faster and to progress to the direction they want. This is also part of excellence".
What is your message for administrative and technical staff?
"Their dedication and professionalism are crucial for the University's success and prosperity. I will work with them in cooperation to promote our objectives and aims".
How do you see the social role of the University?
"We must be a beacon in the positive sense, not the ivory tower of the south. We have to influence the education system, and society. This is already being done excellently at BGU".
How can we get more students from weak populations to enroll here?
"When I talk about excellence, I don't mean that we should only accept students with a psychometric score of 750 and above. We must influence the level of high school education so that we can lead students from weaker sectors to a level that will allow them to obtain a matriculation certificate. When we accept someone to the University, we should help the student succeed. The Rector and I will have to define priorities. We will have to decide in which fields we can have the biggest and quickest influence. From there it will flow to other things".
You come from the natural sciences and you have extensive scientific knowledge. How does the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences fit in with your idea to promote research at the University?
"When I spoke about research excellence, of course I also meant humanities and social sciences. At Columbia University where I studied, there was a 'core curriculum'. The most important courses that I studied in my entire academic career were two: one was Contemporary Civilization and it was an obligatory course for all students at the university. It began with Plato and ended with Marx. This course taught me to think, to dissect and to be critical. The second important course I studied was Introduction to Academic Writing – Scientific Writing, which was also an obligatory course. I am convinced that these two courses contributed greatly to my success as a biologist".
How do you classify academic excellence? How do you recognize potential?
"I'll begin with the potential. This is something that's difficult to define, but when you see it you know it. Every lecturer has a student of whom he says, 'This student has potential.' You feel it even if it is difficult to measure. As for excellence, I'm not the most politically correct: there is no place for mediocre articles. When I became Dean, I stated that I don't count articles published in a journal whose level is less than Q1, unless the author can convince me that his article is important. I expect at least half of the articles to be in the top 10% in their field. We are in academia. If we don't have ambitions and high standards, we won't move forward".
To conclude, how you see cooperation between the students and the University?
Without students, there is no University. They are an amazing resource; I learned that from my children's friends. They are all studying at BGU. This resource is not fully utilized. Why do I say this? Because I hear from them that most aren't thinking of staying here for master's and doctoral degrees. For graduate education they want to go to the Weizmann Institute, or Tel-Aviv, or Jerusalem. Now they are here: What are we doing right and what are doing wrong? What can I as president do to make the same students a part of the future of the University and the future of the south. We have to work, at a departmental level and at a faculty level, to cultivate even more the 'pride of the unit'. And we should recruit everyone toward the same goal.
The research that became a best-seller
Prof. Daniel Chamovitz is known today as an international public activist who promotes plant science research and its contribution to feeding growing world population. His book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, published in 2012 and updated in 2017, has been translated into 18 languages and won global acclaim. This concise gem has a flowing style to examine the research carried out in the field of plant senses, to the point that sometimes one has the feeling that the book is about people. The book is popular in in many countries, with the highest sales, in relation to the population, in Estonia. Prof. Chamovitz says with a smile: "Either no other books were printed in Estonia in that year, or the Estonian people are born science buffs".
This article was first published in Hebrew in the December 2018 edition of the official Hebrew-language University newsletter Alef, Bet, Gimmel.