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From Star Wars to Medicinal Marijuana: the College of Judea and Samaria

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On August 7, 2005 @ 12:00 pm In | No Comments

The College of Judea and Samaria has recently received a boost with a government decision to upgrade its status to that of “university.”Professor Dan Meyerstein is not interested in mixing politics with science and academia.

As a chemist and President of the College of Judea and Samaria (CJS) in Ariel, Israel, he stands firm that decision by the Israeli government to raise the institution’s official status from “college” to “university” last month was based purely on academic merit, not disengagement politics.

Historically, the area of Judea and Samaria is the land west of the Jordan River, with Jerusalem approximately in its center. The area has been known by these names for centuries, until about fifty years ago when the area was dubbed the “West Bank.”

Despite the political storms that arise around it in the media, the town of Ariel in Samaria is a quiet and serene backdrop for its residents and students representing the full spectrum of Israeli society: Jewish and Arab, secular and observant, new immigrant and Israeli-born sabra. Like its location, the College serves as a melting pot for all levels of Israeli society.

Among the 8500 students and 160 senior faculty members, the vibrant mix of people has given the school competitive advantages in research. With an infusion of eager and industrious young researchers from Israel and abroad, including about 10 percent of the faculty from the former Soviet Union, the CJS is now the largest and fastest growing college in the country.

Meyerstein, who specializes in radical reactions in environmental pollution, is invited regularly to the US to lecture about his own personal advancements in Chemistry through the American Chemical Society.

His air is jovial; his words precise: “We have lost the free in free-radicals,” he quips. “We just call them radicals now,” he says of his work in industrial pollutants.

As a chemist, Meyerstein may have a novel solution to preventing nasty industrial chemicals from leaching into the environment. As the school President, he has found no other institution in the US or elsewhere under 15 years old and as advanced in its research as the school he runs in Ariel.

Part of the College’s evolution was its willingness to invest in high caliber equipment like the free-electron laser, a throwback from former US President Ronald Reagan for to destroying attacking ballistic missiles. The cold-war veteran is now being applied in areas from security to medicine.

With only twelve such lasers in existence, the CJS is a pit stop for researchers from other parts of the country and the world who want to harness the power of electrons that can be accelerated to the speed of light.

Professor Avraham Gover from Tel Aviv University, who earned his PhD at Caltech, California, uses the laser for research in Physics; high profile visitors from DARPA – The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – which is the central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense have been seen in the hallway of the laser building, reports Professor Shmuel Sternklar.

DARPA directs selected research and development projects where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions. For example, the laser may be applied to help US security officials see non-metallic materials through clothing without radiating people or as a weapon that can inflict pain without causing tissue damage.

One would imagine such a tool to be overseen by armed guards, but on quieter days, researchers like Sternklar, New York native and others can be found walking freely among the laser’s laboratories.

Sternklar uses the laser for treating pain rather than inducing it. His goal is to perfect a non-invasive cancer detection method using light with offshoots to his research serving such purposes as detecting biological agents in water.

When he moved to Israel from the US in 1983 Sternklar found that the shift from the west to the mideast never compromised his academic research goals, but rather that Israeli mentality provided a refreshing way of approaching and solving scientific problems.

“Israelis have a special ability of not giving up. This shows up in all levels of life and that includes science and technology,” says Sternklar, who if offered $5 million dollars in research grant money would build a better laboratory for the same research he is doing today.

He didn’t even joke about taking a vacation.

A quick stroll to the labs behind the laser building leads to Professor Ester Fride’s territory, where she and her students study the pharmacological benefits of cannabinoids. Resembling the active ingredient THC from marijuana, cannabinoids are able to provide pain relief and clear up infections without the famous side effects. Fride’s lab is also testing its drug as a medicine for cystic fibrosis.

Fride is one of two main scientists who are working with cannabinoids in Israel: the other is Professor Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has gone on to commercialize his findings through NASDAQ-traded drug company, Pharmos.

Across the hall from Fride, is a researcher that hopes to someday change the way leukemia sufferers are medicated. Dr. Michael Firer, originally from Australia, is working on new ways of personalizing drug delivery. His research was fueled by the fact that today’s current cancer therapies kill healthy cells when fighting off the nasty ones. In his pre-clinical studies Firer is developing a peptide mercenary that can seek out and kill cancer cells selectively while leaving healthy cells undisturbed.

Other researchers are developing ideas that on the surface may seem more fitting to sci-fi movies, like Edward Bormashenko who is building computer chips with light. The optical transistor-like structures he is researching has enormous potential for developing a new generation of fully optical computers. If Bormashenko’s research comes to fruition, he will be able increase the operation speed of computers dramatically.

Not far from the realm of Bormashenko, Professor Zvi Shiller has worked on helping solve mysteries at Easter Island to researching jet propulsion at NASA.

Today, Shiller is attempting to develop software that may allow NASA’s next generation of Mars rovers to roam the red planet without remote-controlled aid from earth. When a robot is 48 million miles away, as one can imagine, it makes NASA’s task of precise navigation difficult. By developing complex algorithms needed to delegate the motion-planning task to the rover, Shiller hopes to be able to help the robot stay within defined parameters.

But whether destination Mars or providing the know-how to produce environmental building blocks for the local community, the CJS is very much centered around developing its research goals, which are realized by grants provided by Israeli, Chinese and American sources.

When commended for the work at the bustling school Meyerstein replies, “Each one of us is an expert in a very narrow field.” While cocking his brow, he sends a signal that statement is not just about the scientists at CJS in general but to humanity as a whole.

“Applied basic research is not a dirty word,” he admits: “Of course, our most important products are our graduate students, but business on the side doesn’t hurt and publishing in journals is certainly helpful.”

Given the scope and quality of research minds at CJS, the college – soon-to-be-university – is set to become the world’s next hotbed in international research, startup companies and research developments.

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