2023 International Summer School students return inspired

September 5, 2023

Three lucky Australian high school graduates spent the month of July attending the Weizmann Institute of Science’s annual International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) in Israel.

First year science students, Chi Chi Zhao (PhB Hons at ANU), Finn Lip (PhB Hons at UWA), and Nathan Teh (Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science at USyd), have returned to their respective Australian universities, inspired and energised from their once in a lifetime experience.

The ISSI offered them a unique opportunity to experience the challenges and rewards of scientific research firsthand, working with Weizmann’s top scientists, while learning about life in Israel today.  This year the scholarships were supported by the Trawalla Foundation and private philanthropists.

At the ISSI, the Australian students joined 70 other talented high school graduates from around the world.  They spent their first three weeks on Weizmann’s Rehovot campus, working in laboratories under the supervision of senior scientists and PhD students. They attended lectures and workshops and visited state-of-the-art facilities on campus. On completion of their respective research projects, they gave an oral presentation and submitted a written report.

The final week of the program was spent in the Negev desert, where expert guides led hikes and excursions to acquaint participants with the ecological, geographical, geological, zoological and archaeological characteristics of the region. Such tours are an integral part of the program to give the students a sense of the beauty of the country and introduce them to the history and diverse culture of Israel.

Read the students’ reflections on their experiences:

Chi Chi Zhao

It’s really hard to sum-up my experience at the ISSI in words, but in a nutshell, I would describe it as an incredible, once-in-a-life-time adventure!

If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, you might know the concept of core memories; unforgettable memories that hold so much meaning that they become a core component of who you are. Borrowing this concept, I think that throughout the ISSI, I made countless new core memories that will continue to shape the person I am, and the person I aspire to be.

During the program, I was lucky enough to work under the mentorship of Dr Guy Nadel in Professor Rony Seger’s laboratory in Weizmann’s Department of Immunology and Regenerative Biology. Together with my amazing teammates, Amanda from the USA and Agata from Poland, we worked on a cancer research project focusing on beta-like importins and their stimulated activation by forskolin. From our results, we were able to identify possible differences between metabolic pathways in normal versus cancer cells, which could be targeted in potential therapies.

The field of beta-like importins is a novel field, and so whilst the task was daunting at times, it was exciting to be conducting research in completely unknown territory.

Before attending the ISSI, I had never undertaken a proper research project, so it was wonderful to be able to finally put my theoretical knowledge into practical use. Over the course of my project, I learned many new skills like immunostaining and advanced microscopy, whilst also learning how to operate the state-of-the-art laboratory equipment.

One of the best aspects of the research project was collaborating with my research group, bonding with them over long days in the microscope basement and late nights in the lab. At the conclusion of the program, we presented our findings at the student conference; an incredible experience, as not only were we able to share our hard work, but we were able to see how far everyone else had come.

Whilst the academic side of the ISSI was the key experience, the next best part of the program was meeting so many incredible people from around the world. Over the month, we bonded as a group. It’s crazy to think that I now have friends in the USA, UK, Switzerland, South Korea, Germany … to name just a few places. There was always something exciting to talk about and I treasure the conversations I had over the course of the program, whether it be a quick chat on the way to breakfast, a quiet heart-to-heart on the bus, or a deep discussion late at night under the stars.

Everyone at the ISSI had their own burning passions and motivations.  It was fascinating to learn about their dreams and motivations. I think I learnt just as much from my peers as I did from my research. I’m so grateful for having the chance to meet and be inspired by all these amazing people from around the world, as well as my fellow Australians who have also become firm friends.

Another incredible facet of the trip was being able to learn so much about Israel’s history, people, and culture. I haven’t travelled widely, so it was really interesting to experience first-hand a culture that was entirely different from my own.  We were lucky to visit many locations, such as Jerusalem, Haifa, Caesarea, Tel Aviv, and Eilat with each city being different from the last, both in terms of landscape and people, reflecting the diversity of Israel. The desert stay was probably my favourite week of the entire trip, despite the multiple 3:30am wakeups for hikes. There is something special about the emptiness of the desert that brought about a sense of tranquillity and peace, and I’ll always remember the incredible views and sunrises. I also loved learning more about the different cultures and religions – from taking part in Shabbat dinners and eating lunch with the Druze, to sipping coffee and tea with the Bedouin.

This adventure was only possible due to all the people who supported us along the way. I’d like to sincerely thank the Trawalla Foundation and Weizmann Australia for their generosity and for giving me the opportunity to have the experience of a lifetime. Thank you to Kirsten for all of your help and for always being there when we needed you. Thank you to Dorit, Aya, and Nirit for organising the ISSI and putting in an unimaginable amount of time and effort. Thank you to Rony for always answering my questions and for supporting us throughout the project. Finally, thank you to my mentor, Guy, for being such a caring and guiding teacher and always encouraging us to try our best and reach for our dreams.

To conclude, the ISSI really changed my perspective on the world in general; meeting so many incredible people and visiting so many interesting places has really opened my eyes to how vast the world truly is. More importantly, it has demonstrated to me that despite the vastness of the world, it is always possible to make a difference through hard work, determination and creativity. I feel so grateful to have had this experience and will try my best to make the most of all the opportunities the program has provided. I really encourage other students to apply for the ISSI – it’s definitely an experience you’ll never forget.

Finn Lip

It’s a remarkably difficult task to describe and summarise what was perhaps the most transformative experience of my life so far.

To me, Weizmann will always represent a place for open discussion and sharing. It is a place where people with a passion for life and all that it entails can come together and communicate. More importantly, at Weizmann you can ask questions that many are often too afraid to ask, and as such, can push the boundaries of what we already know.

The experience has inspired my current studies at the University of Western Australia, where I am completing a Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours), with a major in Integrated Medical Sciences and Clinical Practice and an assured pathway to a medical degree (MD).

A key highlight of my trip were the 70 participants with whom I shared my Weizmann experience – they were among the most inspirational people I’ve met in my life. Their interests, not only within but beyond science, can only be described as passion in the purest sense of the word, and it was a privilege to share that passion with them.

Our time together over the four weeks we spent in Israel was taken up, not only by discussions about science and our projects, but about the nuances of each of our unique cultures, with many late-night philosophical and anthropological conversations about our futures, the pursuit of meaning and knowledge, and what living a fulfilling life meant to each of us. I am so, so grateful to have met all the students at ISSI and am excited to see what we all get up to in the future.

In many ways, my time at Weizmann not only reinforced my ambitions for the future, it introduced me to the fact that knowledge and the opportunity to learn is all around us.

With regard to my project – the primary reason for my trip to Weizmann – the novelty (a word I’ve realised is used a lot in scientific circles!) of the technology at the disposition of Weizmann scientists was incredible, and the hypotheses and theories those scientists aimed to test, even more so. My project introduced me to some of the newest genomic sequencing and gene editing technologies and it was a privilege to use these technologies to explore one of the most exciting disciplines of leukaemia research. I had the pleasure of working alongside Annie Nguyen (USA) and Estrella Salazar (Mexico) with Master’s student Alex Wainstein, to analyse the phenotypic properties of a frameshift deletion in the ASXL1 gene (one of the primary driver genes associated with leukaemogenesis) on different cell lineages through clonal haematopoiesis. Through analysing and observing the relationship between data obtained from scRNA-seq, DNA-seq and CUT&Tag technology, we were able to ascertain the relationship between the genotypic mutation in the ASXL1 gene, and the consequent changes to epigenetic regulation and phenotypic gene expression profiles of each of the cell-types.

In many ways, the biochemical theory underpinning our experiment offered me a sense of escapism – the ability to immerse myself in complex, cellular mechanisms and dynamics that go on silently beyond the limits of our perception, and yet are so interrelated with what goes on in the observable world. My time in the lab revealed the overlap of theory and practice to an extent I have never experienced, as well as the vastness of knowledge there is still left to pursue – there is truly so much we do not fully understand.

To Weizmann Australia, thank you so much for organising, facilitating and funding this trip, which has changed my life in so many ways. To Alex and the entire Weizmann Institute of Science, thank you for providing the resources and facilities for the program and, of course, for finding it within yourselves to put up with me for the entire four weeks.

I also cannot express my gratitude enough to all the staff of the Davidson Institute who made the experience possible in the first place – to Dorit, Nirit and Aya as well as all the social councillors and staff working behind the scenes, thank you. It was a pleasure and an honour to represent Australia alongside Nathan and Chi Chi.

Nathan Teh

The main thing I would like to say about my ISSI experience at Weizmann was that it was extremely life changing.

I had the privilege of working in a Neurobiology Lab with my mentor, Dr Lea Ankri, and the rest of Dr Michal Rivilin-Etzion’s laboratory. Here we explored a new mechanism in direction selective ganglion cells which required a lot of coding in MATLAB. I was hesitant at the start, having never laid eyes on code before, so it was not a subject I was familiar with, but with the endless patience of Lea and the support of my fellow lab group members, I made it through, learning a valuable skill in figure generation and analysis. Writing the report on a tight deadline, fuelled by some delicious focaccia made by Lea, was a thrill, and the end presentation really summed it up in a burst of creativity, cheering from all our friends in the ISSI, punctuated by relief and pride in our work.

Mornings spent running over from breakfast to the lab in the summer heat, a mandatory coffee and chats with the lab were a highlight, and so the memories built in that lab will stay with me for a long time, providing building blocks for my future.  This, my first research team experience, has now inspired me, and so it won’t be my last.

Apart from the incredible science and lab experiences, other highlights of the ISSI were the travelling and the people.

We beheld some amazing sights – from the Roman public bath houses in Caesarea, to the stunning landscapes in Makhtesh Ramon, which were not just beautiful, they made me realise there is so much to see in the world. The Bahai Gardens felt like you were on a floating island above Israel, looking down trimmed hedges onto a sun-glistened golden dome to the white Haifa, curving to a blue Mediterranean Sea. It makes you feel small and made me realise that there are many gems hidden outside Australia and its outback, giving me the irresistible urge to explore further.

For me, the people were everything. You could feel intimidated by the sheer diversity in culture, but somehow, everyone just seemed to flow together. I enjoyed the late nights spent playing cards, listening to music, telling jokes and having deep chats about future dreams, plans, worries and perspectives. Everyone seemed to be a musician, from jazz bassists to opera singers, and the plentiful daily jam sessions at the club house were joys I will never forget.

The feeling of warmth and getting to know many places through the people I met – Mexico, America, UK, Switzerland – means they are no longer foreign to me as now I have friends there. Now, more than ever, I want to explore, continue research, continue discovering and forming lifelong relationships.

A big thank you to all at Weizmann Australia for organising the trip and to the generous donors for supporting me. This experience has really raised the bar for me.  My future actions will be guided by what happened in Israel, so thank you to everyone, I’m very grateful.

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