Bar-Ilan hosts 5 Towns scholars


Six students from Woodmere, Cedarhurst and Lawrence were among 28 college undergraduates participating in the 12th annual Summer Science Research Internship Program operated jointly by Bar-Ilan University and Yeshiva University. The program, on Bar-Ilan’s Ramat Gan campus, provides students with hands-on experience in emerging scientific fields while being mentored by leading Israeli scientists. 

During the seven-week research experience, the students conducted intensive internships in the University’s STEM research laboratories.

Sara Stein of Lawrence was an intern in the Emotional Processing Lab headed by Prof. Eva Gilboa-Schechtman, from the Department of Psychology. Although she’s been working on three research projects, one occupied most of her time: a project fondly named “Depressometer.”

The aim of this project was to understand what cues experienced clinicians use to evaluate the severity of depression and to use this understanding to create machine-based mechanisms to assist less experienced clinicians in this task. To this end, Stein, who’s entering her junior year and studying history, psychology, and Jewish Studies at Queens College, watched videos of dozens of real diagnostic interviews and helped analyze these interviews with respect to facial and vocal depression of emotions.

“Other researchers in the lab will use her meticulous work to enhance our understanding of depression and create automatic aids for the assessment of depression,” says Gilboa-Schechtman.

With the technological advancements in DNA sequencing and analysis techniques, recent years have shown many useful cases for this intriguing field. However, the sheer amount of data stored within a genome is so vast, that almost all analyses take current computing resources to the edge of their capabilities. The Emerging NanoScaled Integrated Circuits and Systems (EnICS) Labs Impact Center at Bar-Ilan University has been studying this field and developing hardware methods for improving and accelerating the analysis of genomic data.

During his summer internship, Effie Bluestone of Woodmere, who is studying electrical engineering at Cooper Union, joined Bar-Ilan Master’s student Victor Galindo in performing an analysis using hardware designed under Prof. Adam Teman and Dr. Leonid Yavits at the EnICS Labs. Bluestone took genomic data of infected blood samples and stool samples with special microbiomial properties and tested to see if the person receiving treatment with the stool was further infected by it.

Sisters Emily and Nicole Haller, 21-year-old rising juniors of Woodmere, have much in common. Beyond being identical twins, they’re both majoring in computer science at Queens College and interned this summer in Prof. Hillel Kugler’s lab at Bar-Ilan’s Kofkin Faculty of Engineering. Their brother, Jonathan, worked in Kugler’s lab two years ago. 

As part of a long-term effort, Kugler’s group has been developing software to model and analyze gene regulatory networks (GRNs).

“This summer Emily and Nicole considered an extension where probabilities may be attached to possible interactions, and then the algorithms should automate the process of finding the most plausible model taking into account the known probabilities,” said Kugler. “The project required gaining an understanding of the problem and background and writing a new code to tackle it. Emily and Nicole have worked hard, made very good progress, and learned new skills while confronting the complexity in working on real word problems.”

The work was also supervised by Eitan Tannenbaum, a PhD student in the group who is applying the computational tools to state-of-the-art biological systems, including pluripotent stem cells and kidney cells, and developing novel extensions to the algorithms and tools. 

The sisters were eager to work in the same lab so that they could bounce ideas off each other.

“I’ve always loved math, and the problem-solving aspect of computer science,” says Emily. “The opportunity to be part of an environment that advances our goal of becoming computer science engineers and to take part in the Jewish studies aspect of the program was a perfect fit,” adds Nicole. “Just being in Israel and getting exposed to its advanced technology on a daily basis has been great,” concludes Emily. 

Joshua Brafman of Cedarhurst, a computer science major at Yeshiva College, joined the Computational Biology Lab led by Prof. Yaron Orenstein to develop machine-learning methods for gene-editing applications. In his project, Josh focused on off-target sites, which are genomic sites that are accidentally edited due to similarity to the on-target site, and their occurrence could lead to undesired consequences, such as cancer. 

“Josh meticulously implemented different approaches to evaluate machine-learning methods for the task and identified a leading approach based on chromosomal partitioning of the data,” says Prof. Orenstein, adding that Brafman performed his studies and research exceptionally well and got along well with all his Israeli lab mates.

“This program is phenomenal,” said 20-year-old Meira Steiner of Woodmere, a pre-med student at Stern College. “It’s the perfect balance of science and study, being in Israel and being with friends. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and open to teaching us, while giving us autonomy in the lab. It’s one thing to learn about something and another to actually do it. Conducting research consistently every day and seeing it practically applied is a great opportunity.”

Steiner has been conducting research in the Lab for the Molecular Mechanisms of Aging headed by Prof. Haim Cohen, from the Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences. Most recently Cohen and his team successfully increased the life expectancy of mice by an average of 30 percent.

For five years, Prof. Arlene Wilson-Gordon, of Bar-Ilan’s Department of Chemistry, has been directing the program, pairing students with Bar-Ilan faculty members and research assignments that would best enhance their summer experience and promote individual growth and career development. 

The program also included trips to Israel Aerospace Industries, the Volcani Institute, Sheba Tel Hashomer, and the Teperberg Winery, lectures by Bar-Ilan scholars on a wide range of topics, as well as night activities, Torah learning, and Shabbatonim at YU’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, where the group is housed.

The BIU-YU Summer Science Program falls under the aegis of Bar-Ilan’s International School. It is funded by the late Dr. Mordecai Katz OBM and Dr. Monique Katz, the Irving I. Stone Foundation, and the Zoltan Erenyi Fund.

Reported by Bar-Ilan University.