Tel Aviv University, Class of 1992
How does pursuing high education work in Israel?
In general, the systems are similar with some differences. First of all, it’s not a liberal arts college approach. It’s much more like a professional school. For example, I was a biology major, so I did tons of biology and a bit of chemistry, physics, and math, but I didn’t take any classes in history or philosophy or things like that. I would say that I took about twice as much biology classes as my students take. As a result, it’s very packed with sciences and everything is in three years.
The second thing that is very different is more about the student body. In Israel there is a mandatory military service for boys and for girls. Then typically after the military, everyone goes for this one year of just taking time to breathe and think about what they are going to do. So the average first year student comes in at the age of 21 or 22 instead of 18. That’s a huge difference. It’s not the first day not with mom and dad when they come to university. They are older, more experienced and they experience a lot especially with military service. On the other hand, it’s not as lively and vivid as you’d find a typical social life at Carolina because the students come to study. There are some organizations and clubs, but there’s not a lot of pride in basketball and all that stuff. There was no Greek life or anything like that when I was a student.
Did you go to the military before you went to school?
Yes, I went for four years because I was also an officer. Then, I took a year off. So I started undergrad when I was 24. I was a bit older than the average, but not a lot.
Although the military sounds so different from college, in many ways, those experiences are the same experiences that I shared with undergrads here. Kind of like we have Carolina vs. that other university that starts with D and that I’m not going to pronounce here, we had your unit against the other unit. That’s the pride. Instead of dorms, you’re sharing a tent or room with other friends. The first real crush, not the high school one, the first love, and even people breaking up, just happens a bit earlier than compared to College here.
Did you always know you wanted to do biology?
No. This is one of the great things and one of the things I like about the system in Israel. The mandatory is not something that you want, but something you have to do. On the other hand, it offers one advantage over the system here and that is that about 90% of the students here came directly from high school. Well, if you have a chance to maybe do something really stressful like the military, where you’re not continuing the assembly line of education from middle school to high school to college, it gives you a little bit of time to think and see what really is interesting and to explore. There are some things that you like at the age of 22 that you don’t like at the age of 17. For example, I never took biology in high school. I was taking physics and math. But that trip post-military—I went to Europe with my girlfriend back then, my wife today—opened my eyes and ears and everything to explore, learn new things, learn new cultures. And one of those things was to learn more about nature. As we were walking, I would ask my wife, who actually took biology in high school, a lot of questions. When I came back, I wanted to read a little bit more about that. Then I read more and it was really interesting, just popular books. Then I read even more. Then I started to summarize the interesting books about evolution and other topics. It was great. Then the time came to decide what major and I said, “Why not biology?” So I decided to go for it, and now I’m here.
Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do with your biology degree?
No, none whatsoever. As I tell many of my students, we are all familiar with the whole issue of, “Ok I’m a senior now and I’m about to graduate and I have no clue what I want to do with my life.” I share with them my story because it shows that it’s true for not 100%, but for many. It’s perfectly fine; it’s ok. I always move from Point A to Point B. I try to plan as much as I can, but I learned early enough to let life lead me a little bit.
I decided to stay in academia after I did some undergraduate research. I fell in love with that and it was all great. I said, “This is what I want to do.” One of the smartest things I ever did was a decision I made upon graduation. I decided that instead of going directly to graduate school (which I should have done because I wanted to do research), I took 3 years off to become a farmer. I wanted to make sure that what I want is really what I want. During those 3 years, I learned new things and explored some new skills, but a fire burnt inside. I realized that I really did want to go to research, so I went back and continued to graduate school. It was all research, but I love teaching and I was doing teaching whenever I could. I came here to Carolina only to do research and to come back to Israel. My family and I fell in love with Chapel Hill, but I also fell in love with teaching. It was much more than really liking teaching, it was my true calling.
The same way of making or not making decisions when I was 22 and 23 was the same way that helped me at the age of 44 to decide to focus on teaching and advising, which is that I’m doing now. I never know exactly what’s going to happen. I can tell you for sure an idea of what I’m going to do in the next 10 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something a little different.
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
I would tell myself, “It’s fine. It’s going to be ok.” I was just as stressed out as anyone that I’m speaking with now getting into graduation. I didn’t have a clue of first of all, what I wanted to do when I grew up and second of all, if it was even feasible to do whatever I wanted to do when I grew up. That’s fine; that’s ok. We are in a very, very fortunate era. My parents lived for survival. They were in the Second World War and their whole goal was to survive. If they found a job when they made it to Israel, they found a job that came with some security and some bread to put on the table, literally. That’s it. I’m not in that position. I can choose jobs, which is something that my parents could not do and something that right now, about 65-75% of the world still can’t do. What I’m saying is enjoy what you have.
Did you procrastinate or start work ahead of time?
To some extent, I did procrastinate. Because I came at the age of 24 and because it was after military service, I had to confront things that were a little bit more stressful than having 3 exams in the same week. I’m not comparing myself to students. I’m just comparing me to myself, having that experience. I was confident enough to say, “Ok I need to think about my time.” In some cases, I would procrastinate and in other cases, I wouldn’t. I learned to plan very well. For example, in Israel, —this is another difference I didn’t mention earlier—they don’t have midterms. It was all one final, high stakes exam. You take one final and you were allowed one make-up usually. Now, after you’re done with the military, you actually continue to serve in the reserves. I was in a position where I had to go for about 40-50 days a year, and I don’t go when I want or when it’s comfortable and convenient. I would go when I was needed. Out of the 6 semesters that I had, in about 5 of them, I had to go the reserves during exams. The university gives you a make-up after you go or you can take a break from the reserves to take the exams. As a result, you don’t really have 3 or 4 days to study for the exam. What I had to do in many cases was to study for a group of exams and then go and take all of them. I really had to learn how to plan ahead because in that position about to study for the exam, I cannot start from scratch. Procrastination could’ve worked only to some extent because you take the exam at the end. It was a lot of juggling to do.
Did you have any interesting class experiences?
There was one really funny course, the Biology of the Reproductive System. We had a hippie professor who came from the US in the 60s from Berkley. He was still in the 60s and that’s the way he taught us about the biology of reproduction. I’m not going to go into too much detail. Let’s just say that when I teach reproductive biology in Human Anatomy and Physiology, I don’t use the same slides that he used to show. This is something I remember because his class was always filled with students, regardless of whether they were students in the class or just people who came to see what he would talk about this time.
Did you have any noteworthy professors?
We had some lousy professors and some great professors. As a professor I learned a lot from being in undergrad. I think when I’m teaching or planning my classes, it helps me a lot to remember myself as an undergrad. I try to adopt some of what I liked, but I especially avoid what I disliked. For example, I try my best to not take advantage of my powerful position as a professor.
What did you do for fun in undergrad?
We didn’t really have fun as a student body. We didn’t go to the Pit; we didn’t care about that. There were some clubs, some music, and theater. It was more about going back to where you lived (we didn’t live in dorms), and doing whatever you do. For me, that was cooking. It’s interesting because today I had a class about the digestive system and I showed off with some of the stuff that I do. We talked about the role of food in life, which is much more than just providing nutrients.
We would meet and hang out. Although we didn’t have a legal issue with alcohol and we could’ve had it because the legal age is 18 in Israel, I actually don’t remember us doing a lot of that. It was just hanging out with friends.
What kind of music did you listen to?
Oh man, this is old. Progressive rock, Genesis (old school Genesis). My undergrad was late 80s- early 90s, but the music I grew up on was the early 70s and stuff like that so Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes.
Again, this is the late, late 80s, but I was 24 and our generation grew up in the 70s and early 80s. Those were the years we got our musical education and fashion influence. It’s the same as, let’s say, you in 5 or 6 years at the age that I was in undergrad being affected by Britney Spears or Taylor Swift or whoever that was. So the Taylor Swift of my generation is the disco ages in the 70s and the Beegees in the 80s.
What about movies?
I can’t remember which ones. Deer Hunter with Robert de Niro. The Godfather was an epic one. I was a lot into the good quality European movies like Fellini and things like that. Movies were something I liked a lot.
In the military, Kung Fu movies were a lot of the fun.
What is your worst roommate story?
I lived for one year with a great guy as a roommate. I do remember one thing that I felt so horrible about. We both lived in a completely remote place where our original houses were. We’d go home every weekend, which was 2 or 3 hours away, and came back on Saturday night. In Israel, the week would start on Sunday and we’d have Saturday off. That’s another difference. We studied 6 days a week. One of those weekends, I stayed in the city to study and I didn’t go home. I fell asleep at some point, and I had locked the door from the inside. That poor guy came with his bags from home and for whatever reason, I was not able to hear him (I was usually a light sleeper). He was knocking on the door and shouting and everything. He could not get in. At some point, he asked the neighbors and he climbed all the way from somewhere. When I woke up, he told me the whole story and I felt so bad.
Also, he had asthma and I had never heard anyone have asthma attacks. He got one and I thought he was about to die. I was really about to call the ambulance and he told me, “It’s fine, it’s fine.”