Ben-Gurion University's academic partnerships with local schools have produced publications and friendships alike.
A Jew and a Lutheran walk into a bar.
For some, this might constitute the beginning of a joke, but for Jacob Gopas, a Jewish professor of microbiology, immunology and genetics at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Glenn Rall, a Lutheran professor specializing in blood cell development and function at the Fox Chase Cancer Center under the auspices of Temple University, their sporadic get-togethers are something they both look forward to.
The pair’s friendship is a result of a longstanding academic partnership between their respective universities. Ben-Gurion University has also developed partnerships with Drexel University.
Though Gopas and Rall have known each other for several years, due to their parallel research on the measles virus — for the record, both adamantly advocate on behalf of vaccinations — their official collaboration began two years ago when they received a $150,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue research on how cells respond after being infected with measles.
“There are collaborations that happen because you want to do one experiment together because somebody offers something you don’t have, and then there are collaborations that tend to be more career-long kinds of things. I suspect in Yakov’s case with me, this is one that is going to have some tenacity,” said Rall, who lives in Elkins Park. “Beyond that, some of the science we’ve done is pretty cool and important.”
Gopas will be visiting Philadelphia later this month to attend the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2015 and to work with Rall on publication of their findings.
They are hoping to show how cells produce antibodies to fight off viruses, producing ribonucleic acids, known as microRNAs. While the research is focused for now on learning more about the basic understanding of the cell reactions, their findings could in the future help advance cures to viruses.
The research has moved forward via annual visits, bimonthly Skype meetings and sometimes even sending antibodies and tissues to one another through the mail.
Joint scientific exploration aside, both Gopas and Rall pointed to their growing friendship as the most important aspect that has developed from their academic collaboration.
“We’ve developed a nice friendship, a very, very nice friendship over the years, and we like and respect each other scientifically and professionally,” Gopas said during a recent interview in his office at the university. He added that they each brought their wives to New York City last summer for a double date, visiting museums and eating kosher deli food.
Rall, who made what he called a “remarkably eye-opening” visit to Ben-Gurion University at the start of the partnership, joked that he’s been to every kosher spot in Philadelphia, including Holy Land Pizza in the Northeast, where his team at Fox Chase hosted Gopas for a meal.
This academic Philadelphia-Israel connection began in 1984, when Alton Sutnick, then-dean of The Medical College of Pennsylvania — which later, along with Hahnemann Medical School, became Drexel University College of Medicine — met the then-dean of Ben-Gurion University, Lechaim Naggan, through a mutual acquaintance.
A year later, Sutnick visited Ben-Gurion University and an unofficial partnership struck up between the two schools, mainly through their medical departments.
Upon his return to Philadelphia, Sutnick became involved with American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which he currently serves as a national vice president, and he continued working to promote partnerships between the Israeli university and area schools.
The formal affiliation agreement between Ben-Gurion University and the Fox Chase Cancer Center was signed in 2003, and a separate one with Drexel University was signed in 2009.
So far, the partnerships with both schools have resulted in at least 27 research collaborations, 16 joint publications and over 100 visits between faculty members, plus several student exchanges and countless friendships
Though the partnership with Drexel initially focused on the medical schools, it has extended to include collaborations between the schools’ engineering, history and nursing departments.
David Gefen of Drexel’s LeBow Business School and Tsipi Heart of Ben-Gurion University’s Industrial Engineering Management faculty have three publications to their names, including the article, “On the Need to Include National Culture as a Central Issue in ECommerce Trust Beliefs,” which was published in Selected Readings on Electronic Commerce Technologies: Contemporary Applications in 2009.
In 2013, Yulia Sapir and Smadar Cohen of Ben-Gurion University, along with Boris Polyak of Drexel, had a piece published in Nanotechnology.
Sutnick, who lives in Center City and is a longtime member of Society Hill Synagogue, said his decision to pursue links with Ben-Gurion University was “certainly” related to “the fact that it’s Israel and Jewish — that was a big thing.”
“But another thing was the atmosphere that they created there — kind of an informal learning environment and a lot of personal relationships between faculty members and students — it was the same of kind of an environment that I was trying to create at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. That really attracted me.”
Sutnick, who has since traveled to Ben-Gurion University numerous times over the years, called Beersheva “a bright light at the edge of the desert” and said he considers the city his home away from home.
One beneficiary of the expanded partnerships is Joan Bloch, an associate professor at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, who lives in Cherry Hill and whose daughter, Deborah, attended Ben-Gurion University’s Medical School for International Health.
Joan Bloch has been visiting her counterparts at Ben-Gurion University annually since 2008 and will be spending some of her sabbatical next year at the Beersheva school, looking at the tools they are developing in Israel for improving maternal and infant health locally and globally.
“I’m grateful how supportive both Ben-Gurion University and Drexel have been, and taking part in the collaboration is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done professionally,” said Bloch. “I never thought that I would integrate my love of Israel with my love of nursing and my love of teaching and practice and research — isn’t it amazing that I’m able to do that?”
Staff writer Amishai Gottlieb recently visited Israel as a guest of American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.