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Q & A with Danny Chamovitz: Making the Negev bloom

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Danny Chamovitz (Dani Machlis photo)

Danny Chamovitz is the president of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He was in Canada recently to meet the university’s supporters throughout the country. Before becoming president of the school, he was world-renowned for his work in genetics, food security and his book, What a Plant Knows.

What is the path that led you here?

I’d been at Tel Aviv University. Before that, I made aliyah in 1984. And so, the path that led me to Ben Gurion University is actually a circuitous path that started back in my youth, as a member of a Zionist youth movement, to being part of a group that had planned to move together to a kibbutz in the desert, to wanting to be a farmer, to studying plant genetics, to becoming a world-known plant biologist. And then, becoming known for my contributions to food security, which got me somewhat of an international reputation. And I guess that’s what caught the eyes of Ben Gurion University, which about a year ago asked me to become president of the university, to come back down to the Negev, literally, to help make the desert bloom.

What has your experience been like so far?

The first eight months have just been mind-blowing. When I was in Tel Aviv, I wasn’t quite aware of everything going on at Ben Gurion University. Now, it’s clear to me that we are, without a doubt, the most important university for the future of the State of Israel.

Why is it so important for the future of Israel?

Well, if you accept Ben Gurion’s calling that the future of Israel is in the Negev, and if you see Israel’s massively growing population, that we’re going to reach 20 million people, maybe by 2050 even, or definitely by the end of the century, the only place for this development is in the south. And the only way the south, the Negev, is going to succeed is if Beersheba becomes a vibrant metropolis. And the entire development of Beersheba is tied to the development of Ben Gurion University.

We are the ones who developed the high-tech industry in Beersheba. We are Beersheba’s largest employer. We’re the ones who bring higher education and culture to the Negev. There’s no other institution like us in the south.

For example, starting several years ago and now moving forward, the army made a strategic decision to bring all of its units to the south, out of the centre of Israel. And all of the high-tech units, the computing units, the intelligence units, are going to be connected both physically and administratively and academically with the university. The army sees us as central to its development.

What is your strategic ideological vision as president?

Well, we have to build ourselves from our strengths. We have a unique position being in the Negev. So Ben Gurion University, as a major research institution, is working to solve not Israel’s problems, but the world’s problems. And if you look at the future, we know what the world’s biggest problems are right now. It’s on the nexus of food, water and energy. You know, that’s what everyone’s talking about, right. And that’s what we’ve been doing at Ben Gurion University for the past 15 years.

Because if you could solve the water, energy and food problems of the desert, you could do that for the rest of the world. But just now, everyone’s starting to realize that this is where we need to be. That’s one of our major strengths. And that’s why universities from all over the world want to come and collaborate with us, whether they be from Canada, India or China.

The other strength we have is that we’re the only university in Israel that has on its campus every major field, including a hospital and a medical school and an industrial park. That means that all of these people – physicians, psychologists, computer scientists, industrialists – can all drink coffee with each other. And I’m a big believer in coffee pushing the world forward, because it’s those chance meetings with people that lead to real interdisciplinary interaction, which then leads to the real discoveries. And while other universities in Israel have all of those things, they’re separated by kilometres, not all on one campus.

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What else appeals to you about this position?

Beersheba is one of the poorest cities in Israel and Ben Gurion University is in the poorest neighbourhood of Beersheba. And so, we have a direct role in helping Israel’s most underserved populations. For example, 60 per cent of our students volunteer with both youth and adults in the neighbourhood surrounding the university.

Ben Gurion University services Israel’s poorest population, which are the Bedouins. Ten years ago, there were only 60 Bedouin students at Ben Gurion University, out of 250,000 living around Beersheba. Today, it’s more than 600. And so, we have a major challenge, very similar to what’s going on in Canada with the native populations: how do you make higher education accessible to populations that have a very poor public education system, and who don’t have parents who can help provide support? This is a major issue that we’re dealing with.

So, what does a plant know?

It knows quite a lot. For example, plants know if you’re walking on them, because they can feel it. Plants know where the sun is, because they can see it. They know if their neighbouring plants are sick because they can smell each other. They know if a pollinating insect is coming near to it, because they can hear it. They know quite a lot.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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