Severe combined immunodeficiency diseases are life-threatening genetic conditions caused by mutations that prevent the development of a functional immune system. New genome-editing techniques could provide the key to curing these devastating diseases.
This summer, Gittel Levin of Teaneck interned in an Israeli lab working on a possible treatment for these diseases based on CRISPR genome-editing technology.
“My major is biochemistry,” Ms. Levin said. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and want to build a career around it, maybe creating gene therapies for genetic diseases.”
Ms. Levin — a graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus and now a rising senior at SUNY Binghamton — got this opportunity as part of the 12th annual Summer Science Research Internship Program, sponsored jointly by Yeshiva University in New York and Bar-Ilan University in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.
During the seven-week program, 28 Orthodox college undergraduates worked in Bar-Ilan research labs matching their interests — nanotechnology and advanced materials, neuroscience, engineering, life sciences, mathematics, chemistry, physics, or psychology.
In Dr. Ayal Hendel’s lab in the Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences, Ms. Levin learned new lab skills and honed others she already had acquired.
“I wanted to learn more about CRISPR and genome editing, and I’ve gotten great hands-on experience with it,” Ms. Levin said. “Dr. Hendel really pushed me to ask questions and expand my knowledge beyond what I had studied into what the future holds for genetic engineering.”
The other schools from which this year’s participants were chosen were Yeshiva University, Barnard College, Harvard University, Cornell University, Princeton University, Queens College, Touro College, Middlesex College, Rutgers University, and Cooper Union.
The program also included trips to Israel Aerospace Industries, the Volcani Center Agricultural Research Organization, Sheba Medical Center, and Teperberg Winery.
The students attended lectures by Bar-Ilan scholars and enjoyed optional evening activities, including a comedy night and a bakeoff, in addition to Torah learning and Shabbatonim at YU’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, where they were housed.
Maya Rubenstein of Englewood, 21, a chemistry major at Princeton, was placed in Professor Ilya Grinberg’s chemistry lab. Dr. Grinberg’s team does computational simulations and designs new functional materials.
“I’m hoping to do a minor in computer science,” Ms. Rubenstein said. “At Princeton you have to do original research, and I was told I can combine chemistry and computer science for my thesis. Now I am better positioned to do that.”
A graduate of SAR High School in Riverdale, Ms. Rubenstein said she plans to make aliyah and is debating whether to continue on to a Ph.D. in chemistry or to go into software engineering.
“Undergraduate students are often given internships where they don’t do much and they’re left to watch,” she said. “I wanted to do science. I gained a lot of skills in the Bash and Python programming languages, and I learned what computational research and a computational chemistry lab look like.”
Talia Simpson and Cayla Muschel, both of Teaneck, conducted a meta-analysis on social cognition in women with Turner syndrome. In TS — a condition that affects females — one of the X chromosomes is partially or wholly missing. Working in the lab of Dr. David Anaki of the psychology department and the brain research center, the two interns searched for all the published literature on the subject and culled and extracted the relevant data from the scientific articles. Then they computed the effect size, indicating the magnitude of the difference in social cognition capacities between TS and non-TS women. Finally, they assessed different variables, such as age and estrogen replacement therapy, to observe whether they affect social cognition in TS.
This meta-analysis highlights the role of social cognition abilities in TS and will help to design rehabilitation interventions for these women.
Ms. Simpson, who graduated from Ma’ayanot in Teaneck and is about to begin her final semester at YU’s Stern College for Women as a psychology major with a neuroscience concentration, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical health psychology and neuropsychology.
“Clinical health psychology in particular fascinates me, since there is so much untapped potential for us to improve our health through understanding and utilizing the mind-body connection, and the frontier at the intersection of mental and physical health is an area I would love to further explore,” she said.
Ms. Muschel, also an alumna of Ma’ayanot, just graduated from Stern with a degree in psychology and neuroscience and is completing her honors thesis. She said that because her post-high school gap year in Israel was cut short by the covid pandemic, she missed out on an immersive experience there.
“We never got that sense of closure about living in Israel and what that experience is like, so getting the chance to live here this summer was really spiritually and professionally beneficial,” she said.
“I think the mission and ideal of what the program is supposed to be is both really incredible and really niche. There aren’t necessarily a lot of opportunities to combine science and religion at the same time.”
Akiva Lipshitz, 23, a rising YU senior from Teaneck and Frisch graduate, was placed in Professor Doron Naveh’s lab in the Kofkin Faculty of Engineering. Dr. Naveh studies the physics of atomically thin semiconductors and lab work geared to enabling new kinds of microelectronics and sensing technologies.
Mr. Lipshitz’s project centered around screening electrical charges and finding a way to cancel charged particles using free electrons in graphene.
“It was the first time I engaged with experimental physics,” he said. “We’ve had an opportunity to work with some really exciting laser imaging technologies as part of our research and to engage with fundamental physics — quantum and electromagnetic — directly in our measurements.”
He was invited to join the Naveh Lab as a master’s student, an offer he is seriously considering. Aliyah is in his plans.
“I want to get a Ph.D. in physics and go into high-tech entrepreneurship so that I can contribute innovative technology to the Israeli economy after making aliyah,” he said.
He noted that “a lot of companies, like Intel, design their chips in Israel and that much of the research in computer chips takes place in Israel. There’s a lot of room for applications of this in the realm of entrepreneurship.”
Professor Arlene Wilson-Gordon, of Bar-Ilan’s department of chemistry, directs the summer science research internship program. She said she tries to match participants with faculty members and research assignments that would best enhance their summer experience and promote individual growth and career development.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for students from abroad to participate in research in Bar-Ilan’s state-of-the-art labs and to get to know researchers from all the diverse sectors of Israeli society,” she said.
The program is funded by the late Dr. Mordecai Katz and Dr. Monique Katz, the Irving I. Stone Foundation, and the Zoltan Erenyi Fund.