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Friday, November 21, 2014

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At 43, Ben-Gurion U comes into its own

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Ben-Gurion University of the Negev president Rivka Carmi

BE’ER SHEVA, Israel — The gradual but steady rise to renown of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), situated in Be’er Sheva, the geographical heart of Israel and capital of the Negev, has had as much to do with its spare and majestic surroundings as its world-class academics and research.

That became clear during a weeklong media mission hosted by BGU, which is only 43 years old, just days before troubles in Gaza escalated.

The media mission, it was emphasized during our numerous meetings with BGU officials, could serve through its coverage to underscore the institution’s inextricable and symbiotic ties to a region that craves water and must make the most out of the little it has through ingenuity and genius.

Drip irrigation, which allows vegetation to flourish through a specialized system feeding it drop by drop, was developed at BGU.

The university is flourishing as an academic research centre, seven-year BGU president Rivka Carmi informed mission participants, despite still lacking the “superstar” status enjoyed by older, more venerable Israeli institutions such as Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and Technion in Haifa.

Part of it is because of BGU’s relatively young age, she said, and the other reason is geography.

“It is difficult to compete,” Carmi said. “We are the youngest kid on the block.”

She said unique to BGU has been its mandate, which, as Israel’s iconic founder David Ben-Gurion dreamed, remains to “spearhead the development of the Negev,” an area making up 60 per cent of Israel proper.

Ben-Gurion, agreed Faye Bittker, BGU’s 13-year director of media relations, might be disappointed if he were alive today, at least as far as general interest in the Negev on the part of Israelis is concerned.

While BGU and the region have flourished immeasurably compared to a half-century ago, which would have thrilled “the old man,” Bittker acknowledged, the Negev, because of its desert environment and distance from major Israeli cities, is no magnet. It continues to be perceived as too far away from the real action, even though Tel Aviv is less than 90 minutes away by car.

But by all appearances, based on activities at BGU’s bustling main Marcus Family Campus in Be’er Sheva, this feeling is decidedly not shared by its 20,000 students, or by Israeli officialdom, which appears to finally be giving BGU its due. The university has more students residing on campus than any other Israeli institution of higher learning, and BGU and its students make a concerted effort to reach out to the general Be’er Sheva and Negev communities, as well as to the region’s indigenous Bedouin community, through a variety of volunteer programs.

“BGU has the highest level of volunteerism of any Israeli university,” Bittker informed us.

It was also made clear that were it not for the presence of BGU, sculpted with just the right touch of esthetic seamlessness into the stark Negev landscape on five campuses, there would be no modern-day Be’er Sheva, a university town of 200,000.

Carmi indicated to the media mission and repeated in her annual report that BGU has finally appeared to have reached a “tipping point” in terms of the Negev region and higher education finally receiving “long overdue recognition.”

Israel’s Council for Higher Education, which operates under the Education Ministry, delivered to BGU a higher percentage increase in budget allocation than any other university.

Carmi explained that this was due in large measure to BGU’s imaginative, cutting-edge research on so many fronts, among them information technology and applied and environmental research.

As part of its program, the media mission attended a fourth biannual, four-day international conference on “Drylands, Deserts and Desertification” at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Sde Boker campus, which drew 400 of the world’s top researchers as well as many graduate students. All were determined to find new, innovative ways to halt encroaching enlargement of desert areas – “desertification” – as well as to harness the power of the sun for electricity and address a multitude of other issues related to “dryland” environments and achieving “sustainable” living conditions on all types of terrain.

According to BGU’s annual report, the university has also launched a five-year plan anticipating growth in fields such as renewable energy, regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy and homeland security, while also relying on its “core strengths”: solar energy, agriculture, water research and cognitive science.

Carmi informed the media mission that BGU is also helping to implement a plan to move Israeli Defence Forces basic training to the Negev, with construction also having begun on its Advanced Technologies Park that is planned to house high-tech companies like Deutsche Telekom.

As a result of this type of investment, a “Silicon Wadi” is being created adjacent to the university, BGU’s annual report said.

“This is the future,” Carmi said. “We’ve invested $20 million into the Technology Park – all part of Israel as a ‘startup nation.’”

During our six days at BGU, it was the sheer diversity and scope of the academics and research projects – from the humanities and medical school to the sciences, the environment and information technologies – that stood out for the mission:

• At the faculty of health sciences, doctors Lior Aharonson-Daniel and Bruria Adini were conducting research studies on emergency preparedness response and trying to scientifically measure “community resilience” to emergency or catastrophic situations.

• Later the same day, Prof. Iris Shai showed the mission the correlations between levels of visceral and subcutaneous fat (the former being “far worse” for us, her research indicates).

• In the same building, professors Smadar Cohen and Roby Granek demonstrated research that could arguably win BGU its first Nobel Prize: a way to heal heart tissue damaged by a heart attack using a “bio-material device” derived from algae deliverable by injection. BGU has received about $10 million to further develop it.

• Meanwhile, in the polymer lab, physicist Rafi Shekler, alit with the yellow glow of his dust-free lab, demonstrated how he could print solar cells onto plastics, which would prove useful because of polymers’ ability to conduct electricity.

• At the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Centre at Sde Boker campus, Shoshana Dann showed how a state-of-the-art solar dish could be used to provide heat, light and hot water to 25 families.

There were many other examples during the course of the trip.

The media mission spent the day prior to departure travelling through the Negev desert visiting so-called “ecotourism” sites, among them wineries that use brackish (salty) water to make a very acceptable Merlot, as well as a solar energy park, the ruins of the ancient Byzantine Nabbatean town of Shivta, and a desert lodge built almost single-handedly by one man.

Carmi told participants that BGU’s future looked brilliantly bright.

“We are known all over the world,” she said, “in Australia, Africa, China.

“We have a brand,” she said, adding that BGU, established only in 1969, only four years before Ben-Gurion’s death, has truly come into its own, fulfilling the vision he had 21 years earlier when the Jewish state was born.

David Lazarus took part in the media mission as a guest of BGU.

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