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A Mission of Caring

An Interview with Professor Rivka Carmi, M.D., President, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Leaders Magazine: April 1, 2010 - Staff Report

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As Israel's youngest research university, BGU has had a major impact on the development of the Negev region. For our readers who are not familiar with the region or the University, what do you think they should know?

The University was created by a government decision in 1969 as a center for higher education to bring development to the Negev desert, an area that includes some 60 percent of the country's landmass but less than 10 percent of its population. This was a direct result of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's vision.

He believed that science and technology could be harnessed to "make the desert bloom." This ethos has infused the University with a special pioneering atmosphere, attracting students, staff and faculty who are committed to making the extra effort to reach out and help others, through volunteer work, community activism and focused research projects with very real applications.

What return, if any, does the University derive from this investment in the community?

We are not looking for a financial return, but one in human potential. One of our most successful outreach programs is called the Open Apartments, in which students live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and work with the local population. They operate mini-community centers, reaching out to all the residents of the neighborhood. We have found that this personal touch has the ability to change people's lives.

Rivka painting-open apts

BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi and students spruce up apartments in poor neighborhoods before Passover.


And this dialogue works in both directions – the community benefits from all of these different programs, but there is an added value for our students who are enriched by their experiences of helping others. I see this as one of our most important goals – to educate students to be socially aware while nurturing their leadership skills. No matter how you look at it, it is a win-win situation.

You have described BGU's future goals, "to become a world leader in strategic research areas such as water, alternative energies and biotechnology, as well as taking a leadership role in global health and medicine." How do you envision making this a reality?

Finding the right people, which means we are putting a great deal of energy and resources into attracting the very best and most promising researchers to our University in these and other fields that range from Hebrew literature to water resource management.

Together, with the help of a number of funds created specifically for this purpose – including from the Government of Israel – we have succeeded in bringing outstanding young researchers in certain strategic fields to the Negev. We are also fostering research cooperation with the private sector, particularly in applied technologies, to help realize the full potential of our research programs.

You've noted that BGU is a "worldwide leader in the areas of solar energy, water research and sustainable desert living." How would you best describe BGU's programs in these areas?

The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research [BIDR] have been recognized by the United Nations and many other international agencies for their groundbreaking work in these fields. We are now in the process of planning our third international conference focused on deserts, drylands and desertification, which is held under the auspices of UNESCO.

Each conference attracts over 400 people from countries around the world who are interested in learning more about topics related to sustainability.

One of our priorities is to promote regional cooperation through scientific collaboration. The Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies at the BIDR attracts students from around the world, including Jordanians and Palestinians. This is particularly important in environmental issues that affect the quality of life for all the residents of the region.

What are the best reasons why the readers of LEADERS Magazine should want to contribute to and become involved with BGU and its programs in coming years?

In 2007, The New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman compared the innovation of students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to "oil wells that don't run dry." He had made a visit to the University as a guest of Israeli high-tech entrepreneur and visionary Yossi Vardi, who has been championing the work being done by BGU students of engineering for a number of years.

International industrial giants such as Deutche Telekom, ExxonMobil, Intel and Oracle support research at BGU, capitalizing on what Friedman described as "tapping the power in imagination."

We have recently partnered with KUD International and the municipality of Beer-Sheva to create an Advanced Technologies Park adjacent to the University. Its goal is to leverage the research and development infrastructure of the University and Soroka University Medical Center and create the tipping point, which will result in a true transformation of the region.

The Israel Defense Forces will move their elite communications and computer units to the ATP, which will serve as an anchor to attract other related companies.

I invite all of the readers of LEADERS Magazine to come visit and see for themselves how we have made the desert "bloom with innovation," and learn more about how we are working to spread this knowledge and experience to the world.

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