(L to R) Prof. Roy Kishony, Einat Tamar, Amir Argoetti, Noga Aharony, and Dr. Idan Yelin
How the Technion is putting community first and using an interdisciplinary approach to help fight COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis tinged with uncertainty, but “such a crisis can turn into a source of strength and insight” when handled correctly, said Technion President, Professor Uri Sivan.
Grounded in the philosophy that “community is immunity,” the Technion is focusing on a two-pronged approach: First, keep the community safe through accurate communication of the latest information and ensuring availability of essential supplies. The Technion Student Association has been providing food and other essentials to residents in self-isolation. Classes have been moved online and the university is working in sync with government authorities to ensure all recommended protocols are met. The Technion is also inviting donations for the COVID-19 Student Emergency Fund. Donations will aid students with financial challenges and help deliver psychological support and distance learning, among other pandemic-related services.
At the same time, the Technion is kicking interdisciplinary research teams into high gear. Case in point: A team of researchers from Technion and the Rambam Health Care Campus have successfully tested a “pooling” method that will dramatically increase the testing rate for the virus. Samples are pooled in batches of 32 or 64 and run through a test together. If they collectively come back as negative, it can be safely assumed that nobody in that group has the virus. If a positive result is flagged, only then is each sample run through again.
The pooling method is just one of the dozens of interdisciplinary projects that the Technion has launched in the wake of the pandemic. Collectively, they address almost every angle of the crisis: diagnostics like the pooling method and a test for asymptomatic coronavirus carriers, aid for medical teams such as the development of new antiviral disinfectants, and medicine delivery technologies. Faculty and students are also researching novel drug delivery mechanisms to the lungs, monitoring disease progression and learning from it, and using nanotechnology to trap the virus and develop vaccines.
In the long term, one effect of COVID-19 on the Technion will be on intensification of research in multidisciplinary fields, which address the threat of epidemics and pandemics. These include medical research, pharmaceuticals, big data, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, digital health responses, and much more.”
| Prof. Uri Sivan
The multidisciplinary focus is evident in research conducted by Associate Professor Avi Schroeder and his lab colleagues. They used nanotechnology and other disciplines to develop an antiviral vaccine to cure a deadly disease in shrimp and are now adapting the technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine for humans.
For his part, Prof. Sivan has reiterated the institution’s commitment to the community and urges donations for the fund, which can help address immediate student needs and the long-term challenges that might unfold in the wake of the pandemic. The “community is immunity” emphasis underscores the broader message: Researchers, along with the
student, faculty, and administrative bodies, are all part of a wider community at the Technion that are working together to address the pandemic. As Prof. Sivan said, “We will emerge from COVID-19 together with insight, strength, and resilience.”
Students from abroad feel at home, hunkering down in Haifa
Patricia Mora Raimundo, a pharmacist and graduate researcher in Prof. Avi Schroeder’s lab in the Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering, has seen the “community is immunity” principles in action at the Technion. Raimundo is scheduled to complete her doctoral thesis work in October at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. When the COVID-19 quarantines began in earnest, Raimundo weighed the decision about leaving Israel. Having sublet her apartment in Spain, she would have to live with her parents. Travel would leave her susceptible to infection, and Spain was increasingly becoming a hotspot for the virus. She was worried about potentially infecting her parents.
At the same time, she felt cared for in the dorm at the Technion. When her grandma had a fall in Spain, her colleagues at the Technion kept Raimundo company over the phone all day. Similarly, when she was nursing a sore throat, she received medical supplies and food. “Everybody at the lab is so nice and helping me. I think I’m going to be good here,” Raimundo said. She has been working on a review and her doctoral thesis. In her spare time, she did learn an essential, something she had never attempted before: how to make a Spanish omelet. “It was quite good for my first one,” Raimundo said.
Improving his cooking skills is also how Egor Egorov has been spending whatever little spare time he can find. Egorov, who is pursuing an internship in Prof. Schroeder’s lab, intended to apply for a doctoral position at the Technion. When news about COVID-19 broke, he realized he couldn’t return to Israel if he left. Egorov, who is from Russia but pursued schooling in England, originally intended to travel to England in April to play tournament hockey. The 23-year-old, who has studied medical biochemistry, has since shelved his travel plans and works in the lab three days a week.
Egorov has been very impressed by the security and containment operations that have kicked into place at the Technion. “The amount of information we have been getting from the institute speaks for itself,” he said, adding that he has been touched by how the school is helping financially challenged students as well. In addition to cooking, Egorov has been leaning on an old faithful to get him through challenging times: Harry Potter.
Exercise helps, too. A fellow researcher used to be a boot camp coach and shares regimens through WhatsApp, Egorov said, adding with a laugh, “We take a picture of ourselves as proof that we have completed it.”
All Hands on Deck
When the pandemic reached Israel, Technion students took action. The Technion Student Association (TSA) mobilized hundreds of students to minimize the human cost of COVID-19. While coping with a rigorous academic workload, student volunteers are eagerly contributing their time and skills to help those most affected by the crisis.
In late February, the TSA stepped up to support approximately 15 students self-quarantined in their dorms — and hasn’t looked back. The organization has helped students manage the move to online courses and has reached out to the broader community. Working closely with Haifa’s Welfare Department, Technion students are calling and delivering meals to self-isolating senior citizens.
Technion students are also donating computers to Haifa’s schoolchildren so they can pursue their education remotely. “As Technion students, we understand the importance of education and we want to ensure everyone has equal opportunity,” said TSA Chair Linoy Nagar Shaul ’21.
Technion medical students have also jumped on board by providing child care for health care workers, and helping clinics with triage and administering COVID-19 tests.
In the midst of the catastrophe, Technion students have shown how this cloud has a silver lining.