Each year we ask UK students who have taken part in the Dr Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) to write a guest blog to reflect on the month they spent in Israel working as part of a research team alongside scientists at the Weizmann Institute. Outside of lab time students explore Israel while forming friendships that will last a lifetime. Michael Kohn went to University College School, Hampstead and has taken up a place to study Mathematics at Imperial College London.
It was in mid-March that I opened an email that said:
Following today’s interview, I am delighted to let you know that you have been offered a place on the 2018 ISSI programme at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
And from then on, the experience just got better and better…
I must, however, admit that it was incredibly scary coming off the plane and arriving at the Institute; there were so many questions wreaking havoc in my mind. Would I be good enough for such a prestigious institute? What would the people be like? Is this really a good idea straight after A levels? I still can’t answer the first question, but the wonderful counsellors made it incredibly easy to establish the youth village as a second home and bonding with fellow students was effortless. And as for the third question - I hope to embellish the answer to this below:
Initially applying as a mathematician and theoretical physicist, I was placed into an Environmental Sciences laboratory. I was able to use the statistics that I had learned just a few months beforehand in school and apply those techniques to analysing plant responses to stress. Yet, it was only in the final few days of the project that I fully comprehended exactly what we were doing and why, and I experienced a ‘eureka’ moment. We also were fortunate enough to be one of only two labs to undertake field work and travel to the Yatir forest at the northern tip of the Negev desert to see ‘Science in Action’, which was incredibly exciting.
Not satisfied with remaining within my own project, I capitalised on one of the best features of the Weizmann Institute; its open-door policy. I was able to schedule (and then attend!) meetings with professors doing cutting edge research in fields that I really wanted to know more about; namely Dynamical Systems, Game Theory, Statistics and Radiocarbon Dating. I was also one of the lucky ones who got to look around the telescope and the particle accelerator. I even managed to sneak into another project (don’t tell anyone!) and solve a mathematical theorem that turned out to form a key part of their Quantum Physics project!
You wouldn’t have thought that a science programme would be the perfect way to relax, especially just after the intense period of A levels, but the ISSI managed to balance lab work with an abundance of time to socialise and to see Israel. On Israeli weekends (Friday to Saturday, which messes with your mind going back to the lab on a Sunday) we toured Jerusalem and then the Galilee. We saw the famous sites; including the Western Wall, Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Yad Vashem, Caesarea and Haifa; and if that sounds like a lot for two weekends, that’s because it was! However, we still managed to find time to relax at the pool or over card games or World Cup matches. Towards the end of the ISSI we ventured into the Negev desert (something which not even the locals tend to do in the summer in the 40-degree heat) for six days. There we hiked, snorkeled, swam and…organised a trivia competition? Well, what can you expect from 75 science-focused teenagers? In those six days I also really began to form strong bonds with the friends I had made, and it wouldn’t have been possible for me to climb the fort of Masada at sunrise without their support all the way up!
Since returning home, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the ISSI experience. It was exceptional in so many ways, but there was one way in particular that is most important. In a get together with three other ISSI 2018 participants (two visiting from the USA), I asked them the question “What exactly made ISSI so amazing?” as I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly made the programme so unique. They unanimously responded: the people. I count myself to be so privileged to spend a month with the most talented, brilliantly funny, and open young people (students and counsellors alike) from all across the world. The international aspect is a huge bonus; everyone has a different view of the world and has experienced a different culture, so ISSI becomes a melting pot of ideas with science as a common passion. I now have a circle of friends from all across the world, and thanks to social media I’ve been able to keep up with many of them, and I know that I have made friendships that will last a lifetime.
My personal highlight from the entire trip was an evening excursion to the sand dunes in the desert to search for scorpions and snakes, before lying back with a cup of tea (on the same sand that could potentially have a scorpion right next to your head – thankfully they were in a different area) and stargazing - not only incredibly beautiful but also scientifically fulfilling!
I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the time spent on the ISSI formed the best month of my life. It sounds so clichéd, but you just have to participate yourself to know the ups and downs, the thrill of the adventures and the projects and the heartbreak of saying goodbye to 75 or so of the best people you’ve ever met. Truly a unique experience and perhaps one of the best decisions I ever made!
Published: October 04, 2018
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