The faces of scientific cooperation

Scientists report on their experiences in Germany and Israel

February 06, 2015
Scientist exchange is firmly established between the two countries. Through the Minerva Foundation alone more than 900 Israeli doctoral students and post docs have so far received a grant to fund a residency in Germany; around the same number of young German scientists have been to Israel also thanks to the Foundation. The research fields they work in are very diverse – as illustrated by these brief profiles of Germans and Israelis reporting on their experiences in the respective other country.  

The laboratory as meeting point

Since August 2013, Alon Chen, born in Be’er-Sheva, Israel, is Director at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. Before he accepted this position, he already visited Germany several times for scientific meetings. However, living in Germany, he and his family experienced a very warm welcome and supportive atmosphere. Their impression today is tremendously positive, they enjoy both the daily life and the work related interactions.

 “Unfortunately we cannot change the devastating part in German history and the involvement of our Institute in these dark days. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that the history affects the daily work and progress of science,” states Alon Chen. “Our research is focusing predominantly on the future and not the past, for better understanding of the healthy and pathological brain and for the development of better treatments for different psychopathologies. As an Israeli scientist and Director at this Max Planck Institute I am happy to be part of the strong and proliferating relationships between the scientific communities of Germany and Israel.”

Under his lead, the "Max Planck – Weizmann Laboratory for Experimental Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Neurogenetics" was inaugurated in March 2014 – a close scientific cooperation between the Max Planck Society in Germany and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, which was funded by the Max Planck Foundation. The joint Laboratory currently supports collaborative research projects for young scientists at the two Institutions addressing one of the looming issues of this century: the causes of cognitive, emotional, behavioral and neurological disorders.

 Plant research brings a scientist to Potsdam

Chemist Dr. Rivka Elbaum has a special relationship with Germany: her Jewish grandfather was able to escape Germany before the outbreak of War. When she decided to undertake a research residency at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam-Golm in 2007, he was sceptical. “But the march of everyday life has broken down many prejudices,” says Elbaum. Her residency was made possible by the contacts her doctoral supervisor at the Weizmann Institute had with Peter Fratzl, a Max Planck Director. Sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, she was able to spend 13 months working in his department at the Golm-based MPI studying new means of wheat propagation. During that time, she discovered a mechanism in the plant which enables seeds to better penetrate the soil. She moved from Israel to Potsdam with her family for the job. “Our son was the only child in his kindergarten who didn’t speak German. Now he’s continuing to learn German back in Israel,” reports the 44-year-old scientist. “Being in Germany wasn’t easy for me – it’s definitely different to other countries,” says Elbaum with reference to the country’s Nazi history. How, she had no negative experiences. “Younger Germans often feel guilty for the crimes of the older generation. The cooperation between the two countries is also important for personal relationships between Israelis and Germans.” Elbaum has since returned to Israel and is now working at the Hebrew University. She is still in touch with the German scientists she made friends with, and she’s already been back several times, too. She can well imagine coming back to Germany for a lengthy period at some point. Possibly even this summer to work with German scientists from the Humboldt Institute in Berlin.

Taking opportunities in Germany

At the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Dr. Vadim Puller is working on combating HIV and influenza. As a physicist, he came here specially to turn his hand increasingly to the field of biology. Puller finds it good that the strong cooperation between Germany and Israel makes it easier for a scientist to come here – it’s what brought him here from Israel, in fact. The MPI provided him with strong support too, helping him to find a place to live, for example. After his residency, he plans to return to Israel to continue his research. He likes Germany, and he’d like to come back some day, he says. He’s never had a confrontation with Germany’s Nazi past. Naturally, before he moved, he did think about whether he might be affected by xenophobia. Now he feels at home in the country and comfortable in the MPI. And it’s no wonder: “There are eight people in my Research Group, each one of them from a different country,” reports Puller. No one feels foreign, he says. “Almost everyone speaks English, you can talk to anyone.” What surprised him in Tübingen were the numerous young tourists from Israel. “Luckily, the good political relationship between Israel and Germany is normal for us of the younger generation, and that’s a good thing. After all, it means great opportunities for us!”

Consciously keeping the past alive

Dr. Elisabeth Gallas’ research is concerned with Jewish post-war history, so a residency in Israel was an obvious choice, also because her former research institute in Leipzig has good connections with Jerusalem and the scientists know each other. Supported by the Minerva Foundation, a subsidiary of the MPG and an important promoter of scientific exchange between the two countries, she is now working as a grant holder at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The cooperation is important for both countries – as an opportunity for further rapprochement,” says Gallas. “Germany has to be aware that it cannot close its eyes to the politically difficult situation we face these days – Germany’s past has a part to play in the situation, too.” Though she also studies the history of the Nazi period, she’s never been negatively confronted with it in her day-to-day life. “Israelis think it’s good that the younger generation is interested in the country and the culture. If they hear me speaking German, the Israelis are pleased and sometimes even answer me in German,” reports Gallas.


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