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Chemical Reaction?

December 27, 2007 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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More young American Jews may be returning to the physical and biological sciences; they are doing this, according to experts, not just as a desired path to medical school, but because they want to pursue a career in the traditional sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology.

The consensus in Jewish scientific circles these days seems to be that the pendulum may be swinging back to young Jews' "growing interest" in the basic sciences, says David Srolovitz, dean of the College at Yeshiva University in New York.

While the numbers are probably still low regarding study of the sciences compared to medicine and business, "we have bottomed out," said Srolovitz -- medicine and law may not have the same appeal for Jewish students as those fields did a decade ago.

Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler, who holds a doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University and three professorships at Yeshiva University, agreed that the number of Jewish students specifically entering the medical profession itself is down, perhaps because that field is not offering the financial rewards it once did.

Always competing for Jewish students is the business track for MBAs. But according to Karen Bacon -- the dean of Stern College for Women at Yeshiva, and a microbiologist herself -- many young people enter business because of economic pressures, the high cost of education and financial needs for the future.

However, academics are being paid a lot better than they used to, and the financial gap between academia and industry is closing, noted Ronan Marmorstein, professor of the Gene Expression and Regulation Program at Philadelphia's famous Wistar Institute.

"But money is only part of the equation," he added, citing the "intellectual challenges" involved in new and novel scientific experimentation.

Bacon agreed, and stressed that at Stern, the numbers are increasing in sciences more than ever before because what's driving these young women is the "intellectual curiosity."

Late Arrivals
Historically, going back to Europe, Jews came late to the field; for a long time, science as a profession was simply not within their reach. So the recent abundance of Jewish physicists and mathematicians is a modern phenomenon: From 1907 to 2005, there have been 44 Jewish laureates of the Nobel Prize in physics.

Still, the percentage of Jewish intellectuals involved in the physical sciences is rather modest compared to the percentage dedicated to all other academic branches.

While not yet totally convinced of this switch to physical sciences -- mainly because of the differences in compensation -- Tendler feels that recent breakthroughs in stem-cell research and genetic therapy indicate that more Jewish students might be heading there.

Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, emphasized that this is an "exciting time for science, and that the media also is doing its part to attract talented young people to science."

Of about 1,600 graduates of Penn's College of Arts and Sciences, he noted that 500 majored in science. That number -- about 30 percent -- is way above the national average, he said.

Marmorstein agreed that there are "lots of Jewish young people going into science today."

A structural biologist studying three-dimensional structures of proteins to understand their function and how those functions can be altered in human diseases.

Many young people "catch the science bug through experiments," he noted. He has engaged in basic cancer research for 13 years at Wistar.

DeTurck, a mathematician, emphasized that Penn tries to get students into real labs as soon as possible.

In the final analysis, it all comes down to study. And for Jews, emphasized Tendler, the study of science is important.

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