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American transplant moves up Weizmann ladder

Posted By Rick Radin On March 11, 2002 @ 12:00 am In | No Comments

Sam Safran (left) served as a graduate advisor to one of his research collaborators, Tsvi Tlusty.Prof. Sam Safran has had broad and rich experience in the academic world since moving to Israel from the United States more than a decade ago.

Safran, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., left a career at the Exxon Corporate Research Labs in New Jersey in 1990 to join the Department of Materials and Interfaces at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Since making the move, he’s continued his research into the structure and properties of so-called “soft materials,” a study that spans physics, chemical engineering and the edges of biotechnology. At the same time, he’s acquainted himself with the job of supervising his share of the 800 graduate students working for masters and doctoral degrees on the Weizmann campus and developed an interdisciplinary research program in the physics of biomaterials and collaborative research arrangements with scientists in the United States, Europe and Japan. In addition, Safran is the author of a graduate school text on soft matter that has recently been translated into Japanese.

To take the plunge into academia a step further, Safran, 50, also served as Dean of the Institute’s Feinberg Graduate School from 1995 to 2001 and was appointed vice president of the Weizmann Institute in December 2001.

“I’m much busier now than I was in the United States and professionally I’m very happy, although I miss friends and family in the U.S.,” said Safran, whose wife, Marilyn, works in the field of bioinformatics at Weizmann. Bioinformatics involves the creation of extensive electronic catalogues of biological data. The couple has three children, two of whom are college students in Israel.

“The decision to move was a combination of personal (pro-Israel sympathies) and professional reasons,” he added. “At the Weizmann Institute I have many colleagues in my field in addition to maintaining my international connections.”

Safran attended New York’s Yeshiva University, graduating with a degree in physics and went on to MIT to complete his doctorate before beginning his career in the oil industry.

While at Exxon, he began working on the properties of liquids that are encapsulated in other fluids in order to make them flow more easily. Lately, he and his graduate student team have been weighing the possible application of similar physical principles to materials of importance to health care problems.

“Over the past five to ten years, my colleagues worldwide and I have been studying the physical properties of biological materials and bringing these approaches to more biological applications,” Safran said. Recent predictions by Safran’s theory group of the shapes of adhering cells, combined with experimental work by both physics and biology groups at Weizmann has important implications for technology and could be used to develop diagnostics that would cause unhealthy cells to take on distinctive shapes, allowing doctors to identify them and target them with therapeutic drugs.

Other groups working on the physics of biological materials in both Israel and the United States have focused on materials for gene therapy, currently a hot province in biotechnology. One approach to gene therapy attempts to cure diseases by replacing damaged DNA in human cells with healthy DNA. A major difficulty inherent in the process is that the cells and the DNA are both negatively charged, causing them to repel each other. Soft matter researchers are working on methods to encapsulate the DNA in a positively charged liquid membrane, which would allow it to penetrate the cell and deliver the DNA to the cell nucleus.

Safran said he was asked to serve as vice president of Weizmann by its new President, Ilan Chet, who took over in December. Chet, a world-renowned plant biologist, served as vice president of Hebrew University for ten years before coming to Weizmann. The combination of a biologist balanced by a physicist, and a Weizmann newcomer and a Weizmann veteran in the two top posts should make for an excellent balance, Safran said.

Safran admits that continuing the present pace of his research, along with his new duties as vice president, which include recruiting and starting up new faculty and fund raising for research, will be a big job.

“It’s a part-time post, but I’m going to retain my full-time post as a scientist,” he said. “The challenge is to preserve the scientific level and support in Israel given the state of things. Due to the economic downturn, increased spending for defense, and other governmental pressures, support for science is getting squeezed.”

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