"Advancing People, Advancing Science”

Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program is catapulting academic ties, scientific discovery in the US and Israel
09 November 2021
Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program scholars at TAU: Dr. Gili Bisker (left) and Dr. Michelle Talal (right). (Photo: Zuckerman Institute)

For Dr. Gili Bisker of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, her dream of establishing a state-of-the-art nanotechnology lab required a massive undertaking. Thanks to generous backing from the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, Bisker recruited a team and purchased advanced equipment to support her ambitions, such as the recent development of an insulin nano-sensor for next-generation diabetes research.  


Bisker’s technological innovation is one example of the vast impact the Zuckerman Program has had on Israel’s scientific landscape since its establishment in 2016 by American media mogul, TAU Honorary Doctor and philanthropist Mortimer (Mort) B. Zuckerman. 


The Program is one of the world’s largest science fellowships. It has committed to provide $100 million over 20 years to future STEM leaders in the US and Israel as well as to bolster academic exchange between the two countries, thereby strengthening bilateral ties. As part of Zuckerman’s vision, the Program encourages “brain gain” to help Israeli academia compete with top American universities for the most promising candidates. 


“The fields of STEM are advanced by people,” says Bisker, a Zuckerman Faculty Scholar, whose research combines biomedical engineering, physics, chemistry and biology with nanoscience. She joined TAU’s faculty after six years of postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "If you advance people and support them, you advance science—that is what the Zuckerman Program is doing.” 



Five-Year Milestone 

From its first cohort of 14 scholars, the Program has expanded to 217. A partnership with the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) helped raise the number of participating institutions from four Israeli universities to seven, and from 12 US universities to 84, in addition to eight in Canada. The Program also brings together scientific faculty members through a recent partnership with MIT and offers science communication training to scholars through the Alan Alda Method™. 


Eric Gertler, who along with brother James Gertler is a trustee of the Zuckerman Institute, which was created by their uncle, Mort Zuckerman, says "This year we celebrate five years of the amazing growth, expansion, and achievements of the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program.”  


​ Zuckerman Scholars alongside Eric Gertler (center) and Lina Deshilton (right of center) 


The Gertler siblings, both TAU Governors, are dedicated to perpetuating their uncle’s vision and passion for enriching higher education, scholarship and international collaboration. They were instrumental in the establishment of an additional project at TAU, the Jacob A. Frenkel and Mortimer B. Zuckerman Institute for Global Economics, in 2018. 


"The STEM Program continues to increase the impact on scientific advances and collaboration between our two countries at a time when science is truly changing the world,” says James Gertler ahead of the 2021 Zuckerman US-Israel Symposium in Tel Aviv. 



Four Paths for Creating Impact 

The Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program offers four fellowship tracks: the Zuckerman Postdoctoral Scholars Program; the Zuckerman Israeli Postdoctoral Scholarship Program; the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program; and the Zuckerman-CHE Outstanding Israeli Female Postdoctoral Program. 


One of the main obstacles impeding the progress of Israeli academia is brain drain, the inability to retain local talent in the face of attractive career prospects abroad. The Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program facilitates brain gain through large-scale funding to support the recruitment and activities of Israeli researchers who completed prestigious fellowships at the world’s top institutions. 


To date, the Program has backed 30 new cutting-edge local labs headed by returning Israeli scholars. 



Incubator for Postdocs  

The Zuckerman Postdoctoral Program enables promising American postdoctoral scholars to conduct research at a top Israeli institution and then return to American academia, weaving a network of collaboration, entrepreneurial spirit and goodwill between the two countries. 


Zuckerman Postdoctoral Scholar Dr. Michelle Talal, an ecologist and environmental scientist from Portland, Oregon, is pursuing research at TAU and plans to establish her career back in the US.  


“I chose to conduct my postdoctoral work here because I knew that it was an innovative place to grow in my field,” says Talal of TAU’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and School of Plant Sciences and Food Security. She is currently investigating urban nature sites in Tel Aviv before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Lina Deshilton, Executive Director of Zuckerman Institute Israel, notes that the Zuckerman Program is working to attract even more American postdocs to Israel, going forward. “In 2019, out of 53 American postdoctoral STEM researchers in Israel, 25 of them were Zuckerman Scholars." 


In parallel, the Zuckerman Israeli Postdoctoral Scholars Program enables Israeli PhD graduates to conduct research at top American institutions such as Harvard, Yale, University of California - Berkeley and more.   



Empowering Women in STEM  

As part of its commitment to promoting gender equality in STEM fields, women comprised 54% of the latest cohort of Zuckerman Scholars.  


Furthermore, the Zuckerman-CHE Outstanding Israeli Female Postdoctoral program annually awards scholarships to 20 Israeli women PhD graduates conducting postdoc research in America. 


“As a woman in STEM, there have been times when I felt discouraged,” says Talal. “I have often been the only female scientist in the room, and once, a male scientist suggested that I switch my major after a bad chemistry exam.   


“The Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program has really shown its commitment to advancing women scientists by highlighting our research, providing us with financial support, and creating a community of scholars," she adds. 



Building International Bridges 

The Zuckerman Scholars at TAU note that the Program’s community of scholars is one of its most valuable features. This network is fundamental to the Program’s mission of bolstering bilateral ties and Israel’s international standing, especially in the face of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Israel. 


Deshilton explains that Mort Zuckerman modelled the STEM Leadership Program after the Rhodes Scholarship, with the goal of supporting exceptional students. As the program continues to grow, not only is his vision of supporting excellence and scientific collaboration being realized, but the program has also developed an expansive and extraordinary community of Israeli and North American supervisors. 




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