Ben-Gurion U president sees Negev as Israel’s future
September 19, 2012 | Linda Zlatkin - Correspondent
MONTREAL - When Ben-Gurion University President Dr. Rivka Carmi met with her Montreal supporters at the Meet & Greet (cinq à sept) held recently at the Westmount home of Reuben and Fran Croll, she acknowledged and thanked everyone for helping in sharing the vision and mission of Ben-Gurion University and the Negev desert.
“I salute you all for helping to raise friends and funds,” expressed the world-renowned pediatric geneticist who is the first woman to be appointed president of an Israeli University.
“I felt like I was in a huge family five years ago, as I do today,” she continued, after a glass was raised in l’Chayim for Robert Elman, the new president of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
A pioneer in her field, the Israeli-born doctor has published more than 100 abstracts on medical genetics. Thirty-five years ago, she noticed that researchers were dealing with Jewish diseases, but nobody was dealing with the hereditary diseases of the Bedouin Arabs in the Negev Desert.
“The reason for these genetic diseases is because of their custom of marrying very close within their community.
“The idea was not to undermine their custom, which is very embedded in them, but to educate them about the risks for birth defects when they, for example, marry first cousins. We have social workers and psychologists explaining to them in simple ways what can happen,” said Dr. Carmi, a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Medical School, who also did a two-year fellowship in Medical Genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School. Between 2002-2005, she served as the chair of the Israeli Association of Medical Deans.
Since working with the Bedouins, Dr. Carmi and her team have identified more than 40 genes and new mutations. The genes can be detected in the prenatal stage and before conception too, so early detection is paramount. Today, these diagnoses are reducing the incidence of these devastating diseases and peculiar syndromes, one of which is called Carmi Syndrome after the doctor herself, when a baby is born without skin and dies within two weeks.
“Genetic testing is highly encouraged – and I cannot emphasize enough how important education is, especially for the women. Even though it is a patriarchal society and the women are behind the scenes, they are the shakers and the movers. They are the ones who make the health decisions,” she said.
At first, the people were wary, but now awareness and trust is there. The community has accepted the new messages and changes have come. They are not having as many children and the women are going to university. Many of them are professionals now. The number of women in university has grown from about 23 to 300.
“The idea is to think original all the time and to concentrate on unique projects to differentiate ourselves,” added Dr. Carmi. “We’ve decided to dwell upon the role of immunity in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“We’re also concentrating on how to create small particles in drugs so that they can be delivered to the exact point in the body. And I’m very excited about all the research going on to develop the Negev desert so that people will be able to settle there one day. Scientists are working on maximizing water efficiency, improving agriculture and bringing solar energy. We see the Negev as the future of Israel.”