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Science Stories | Scientists
Q & A with Prof. Irit Sagi
New Dean of the Feinberg Graduate School

Prof. Irit Sagi took over as Dean on Jan. 1, following the term of Prof. Lia Addadi. Prof. Sagi is a member of the Department of Biological Regulation and the incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair.

At the Weizmann Institute, she also chairs the WIZO-Weizmann Education Center, which oversees the activities of the day care centers on campus. She is married and has three children.

In her new role, she supervises FGS’ five research schools: the André Deloro Research School of Physical Science, the Solo Dwek and Maurizio Dwek Research School of Chemical Science, the Lorry I. Lokey Research School of Biochemical Science, the Ekard Research School of Biological Science, and the Moross Research School of Mathematics and Computer Science. Studies in the Department of Science Teaching are also under the auspices of FGS.

Q You like to talk about ‘scientific chutzpah’. What does that mean?

A I do – but it is Albert Einstein’s phrase. I have no intellectual property rights to it! At the Feinberg School’s graduation ceremony last month, I quoted Einstein, who said that if there is a single word that defines his scientific path, it would be chutzpah: The ‘nerve’ to question conventional wisdom, to discard long-established theory, and to go above and beyond current perceptions. That is how I see the Weizmann Institute: a small, nimble, exceptional research institute, endowed with a fair share of scientific chutzpa.

Q As Dean, what are your priorities?

A Maintaining academic standards, raising the number of foreign students and postdocs, and ensuring that students feel they have a professional trajectory in academia and industry.

Academic excellence is one of the prerequisites for outstanding science, and is what the Feinberg Graduate School is responsible for. Also, the FGS is a complex entity, partly stemming from the fact that our students come from six distinct entities. Weaving together these entities in a seamless way, from an academic and administrative point of view, is critical.

Prof. Addadi handed over an organization with extraordinary foundations. With hundreds of donor-funded scholarships, the research schools are buoyed by the impressive contribution of the Institute’s friends. These scholarships are critical in that they enable the Institute to offer free tuition to every student plus a living stipend, which frees our students to concentrate solely on their studies and research. Thanks to this very unusual and—in my view, visionary—policy, students are considered research partners, learning and working side-by-side with postdocs and faculty, which really sets us apart.

I also want to enlarge the number of foreign students and postdocs on campus. If we are to continue to be a creative, innovative, and dynamic research institution, we need to be open to new ideas, different scientific cultures, and new ways of thinking in order to retain this edge. The contribution of our international students and postdocs with their culturally varied perspectives and new ways of doing research enriches our scientific culture. And the important bonds they form here with colleagues–and future collaborators–provide greater worldwide exposure for the Institute, our students, and Israeli science.

In addition, I am reviewing ways to help FGS students and graduates cope with the growing uncertainty of their professional prospects, especially in the life sciences. With the current paucity of permanent academic or industry positions, many students are hesitant to pursue advanced academic training. Therefore, it is our responsibility to provide our students with tools to respond to the dynamics of the scientific and industrial job market by making educated use of the entire range of possible resources, including, of course, networking. We believe that the Institute’s Alumni Association can help with this, and it will assist in making connections between the graduates who have “made it” in the professional world and our students.

Q On-campus childcare is a rarity in Israeli higher education. Why is it a Weizmann priority?

A The ability to provide scientists, and especially women scientists, students, and staff with the peace of mind that comes from knowing their children are receiving the best possible care is incredibly important to fostering scientific excellence. The on-campus childcare provided by the Anixter Family Foundation Early Childhood Village, and, from September, also by the new Siem Daycare Center, is a much-needed resource in recruiting talented young researchers and giving them the freedom to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their research.

Q Last but not least, please tell us about your research.

A While most biological research centers on what goes on inside the cell, we look at what goes on outside the cell. My lab focuses on the cell microenvironment which includes the extracellular matrix, a collection of extracellular molecules secreted by cells that provides structural and biochemical support to the surrounding cells (ECM), and multifunctional neighboring cells. We have found that ECM enzymes, which can induce morphological changes in the matrix, affect cellular programming. This gives us significant opportunities to influence cellular programming and interfere in disease processes that affect intimate cellular communications at the very near microenvironment of cancer and inflammatory cells in the course of diseases onset and progression.

For example, we have developed an entire set of antibodies targeting ECM and microenvironment enzymes that are involved in the structural organization of collagen, gelatin, and other key microenvironment components. Collagen and gelatin are the main structural proteins of the various connective tissues in animals and humans. In cancer, their structures and morphologies facilitate the tumor’s expansion via metastasis. My group found that applying such antibodies lead to blocking the spread of inflammatory and tumorigenic cells because it prevents the microenvironment to form a supportive structure and regulatory medium for nourishing pathological cells, thus demonstrating therapeutic potential in many invasive diseases such as cancer and Crohn’s.

Prof. Sagi is supported by the Spencer Charitable Fund, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust , the Michael and Rhoda Ambach, Cynthia Adelson of Canada, Dr. Mireille Steinberg of Canada, and the Leonard and Carol Berall Post Doctoral Fellowship. She is the incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair.

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