Sparks. That's what fly out of Prof. Boris Rubinsky's mouth when he talks about his Center for Bioengineering in the Service of Humanity and Society at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: sparks of enthusiasm, dedication and imagination.
"I think every person has a spark," he says, "and what you need to do as a teacher is to find where the spark is. Because I don't think there's a person who doesn't have some kind of a spark. It's just that people don't see it."
Sparks - or electrical pulses - are at the forefront of some of the discoveries and devices Rubinsky, 61, and the center have developed since officially opening last year, effectively changing the way the world's disadvantaged are treated for a variety of medical and technological problems, providing cheap power or offering inexpensive methods of sterilization of liquids, all in the name of what the Romanian-born Rubinsky calls "tikkun olam." It's also no surprise that he was the self-described "class poet" in Romania, "always coming up with games, building houses and rockets" as a kid. At 10 he built "an atomic gun" based on a book about nuclear energy his dad gave him at six. He made aliya to Holon with his family at 13 and now lives in Givatayim.
So maybe it's no surprise that almost 50 years later, he and his center are pioneering research that earned him his greatest compliment - from his mother, a Holocaust survivor. "Boris, I am so proud of you" she said when he brought her to his office. "And this is actually the best memory of my life. These few words from my mother I cherish," he says.
Indeed, she may have inspired his entire approach to his work. "My entire childhood, consequently my life, was affected by being the son of a Holocaust survivor," he says in his small office on the university's Edmond J. Safra Campus in Givat Ram. "Because whenever I do something, in the back of my mind there is the thought: 'Is my behavior something my mother would have wanted done to her when she was in the concentration camp. And I always think there are poor people around the world or those who are suffering. Wouldn't it have been great if a German or a Romanian at that time would have felt compassion to Jews the way that I feel compassion to other people in the world? And this is a guiding light of direction throughout everything I do in my life: doing for others."
"TOUGH GUY" is the message on Rubinsky's shirt the day we meet, but in truth he's anything but, the slightly graying beard bobbing as he talks a blue streak, affably explaining his ideas that bubble out of him like a fountain. Part Da Vinci, part Debakey, at the focus of the center's activity is a vital point taken from his mom's experience: "Doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself."
He certainly doesn't need the work. Indeed, many of his more than 20 registered patents just in the US, many around the world and lots in "various stages" have already made him a wealthy man. He could likely have a cushy corporation job in the US, let alone keeping his position as a senior professor at Berkeley, where he ended up in 1980 after attending the Technion before completing a PhD at MIT in two and a half years.
While first put off by its grittiness, the Berkeley experience indirectly led to what he's doing now. "I always had this affinity toward helping the underprivileged," he explains. So he began helping disadvantaged students who had failed or were having difficulties, helping the first African-American woman get her PhD in engineering there, among many disadvantaged or failing students he "sparked" into finding senior positions at universities around the world.
He has "the ability to see solutions," he says, like the time he helped NASA with its welding problem on its space stations. Using a technique called a plasma arc, he helped NASA protect its craft against micrometeorites hitting space stations. He admits he had a side interest, though. "I was hoping that this would lead to my flight on a shuttle, and then as I was approaching the test... there was the Challenger disaster and they basically stopped [the shuttles]. Now I'm too old," he says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, he helped companies - and himself - make money, discovering in Antarctica - where he hung out with emperor penguins - ways to raise genetically engineered salmon all year round. There was also his work in the field of cryosurgery, which happened to lead to discovering a way to reduce fat by using cold, currently being used as a slimming system by the Zeltiq company, to which he licensed the patent and moved on. Ultimately, however, he saw that big companies only "pay lip service to helping humanity... there's an immediate jump to what's the bottom line... I realized I didn't need more money than I had... I decided that you needed something different in life than just making money and letting everyone know who you are." Instead, he chose to change the world, and do it here.
HE STILL felt pulled toward what he calls his "traditional" Jewishness and Israel, and doing something special for both, and by extension, the world.
"Somehow my feeling was that if I want to try to do something for Judaism, for the Jewish people and the world in general, let's try to change the way we do things, and let's try to do it from Israel," he recalls.
During a sabbatical here in 2005, he met with then president of Hebrew University Menachem Magidor, who provided start-up funds and said: "Yes, we're going to let you start this directly here." Soon after taking office, new university president Menahem Ben-Sasson called to express his enthusiastic support. Students, staff and faculty "would come to me and say: 'This is exactly the kind of thing we want to be a part of,"' says Rubinsky.
But first he set two key directions for the center's work: "One is to try to help humanity in general, to try to find projects that nobody else would tackle and that one needs to solve, and second, I truly feel an affinity to the Palestinian people that live in the area, and I want to make their lives better, and I try to integrate as many as possible into the center."
Today Palestinian students work alongside their Israeli colleagues, with one Israeli student pointing out to his Palestinian coworker one recent evening while they were working together that the Muslim should be careful not to miss his evening prayers. Such is Rubinsky's world of wonder.
The center's activities feed off ideas Rubinsky developed, some in his "old life" at Berkeley and his wide-ranging work in medical imaging. "I thought: let us focus on things that have the biggest impact," he explains.
On a visit to the foothills of the Himalayas, "I saw people with cellular phones everywhere," which were inexpensive and didn't require any infrastructure. "So it occurred to me - what is the problem with medical imaging? Medical imaging is very expensive." So he and his team set about tackling that problem, betting on the cellphone as the most important tool along their chain of healing.
While larger medical imaging machinery was out of the question in tiny Mexican villages where the initial trials were held, devices like an ultrasound transducer - which looks like an ice-cream cone with a ball at the top - are much cheaper. "So in principle, what we can do is a physician in a village can have this transducer, and roll it over the part of the body suspected of having a problem," he explains excitedly, as he shows off the transducer in his office.
"Then they can transfer the raw data acquired by the transducer through their cellphone using a Bluetooth attachment. The doctor can then send the information from the cellphone as a file, similarly to how you send an SMS message to a central processing facility. That facility can then produce an image and either send it back to the physician at the patient's side, or send it on to an expert, perhaps saving a life in the process."
The first patent for the device was issued in 2003, based on the idea of what Microsoft called "cloud computing," where the computing is done remotely. "It was a way to produce medical imaging in places that don't have medical imaging machinery. It can be used for detecting cancer, in treating pregnant women, pretty much anything you can do with medical imaging. When it was first published last year it had enormous impact," says Rubinsky, who was approached from groups ranging from India to Ecuador to Rwanda about it.
KEEP IT simple is the center's basic approach to problem-solving. So when they heard that one out of four women who died in childbirth in disadvantaged areas was dying because of undetected internal bleeding, "we said: What can we build so we can detect internal bleeding in these remote villages? We realized you just need a tool which will allow you to determine there is internal bleeding," providing enough time to save the patient.
"So we developed a set of electromagnetic coils, which for all practical purposes are just two wires," says Rubinsky, showing the coils and the system on his computer screen. "One emits an electromagnetic wave and the other receives it, at different frequencies. It occurred to us that the properties of the blood are different from the electromagnetic properties of tissue. So if we put these coils around a woman's abdomen, then you can actually detect by measurements of magnitude of the electromagnetic signal as a function of frequency, if internal bleeding is taking place."
Again, a cellphone is used, information relayed by the device from doctor and patient to medical center and back again. "A simulation was done in Mexico City last summer which succeeded, the raw data sent to Jerusalem," says Rubinsky. The application can also be used for determining internal bleeding in the brain, he adds.
"What we can do right now is have these pretty inexpensive coils everywhere in small villages... and in Mexico City or Jerusalem, we provide medical diagnostics to every woman after childbirth... So this is another successful application. I would call it electromagnetic-based remote detection of internal bleeding, if you want to give it a fancy name. It uses a combination of coils and the cellphone."
According to Rubinsky, the Bill Gates Foundation was interested in the device, there were presentations to Google on it and "Qualcomm has asked us for a business proposal."
In pursuing their work, center members are also realizing another important discovery: "When you develop technology for the economically disadvantaged, it becomes very inexpensive, and very soon you find out that it's useful for the entire world." Trying to help the poor, says Rubinsky, "is going to improve the quality of health for everyone."
Other important work being done in the center focuses on food sterilization, particularly in areas of Africa where women with HIV are not allowed to breast-feed their children, instead feeding them with milk mixed with water that can be contaminated, the children then dying of dysentery.
"The problem in those areas of the world is that you don't have refrigeration; there is lots of food contamination and no ways of sterilization, or if there are, they're very expensive," says Rubinsky. "So again, we have found a way in which we can produce sterilization of food in a very simple, economic way, using the same pulse technology we use for treating cancer. You take a cup and you put the same two electrodes you can use for destroying tumors in this cup, and you pour in the fluid. Then you send the electrical pulse and it sterilizes what's in the cup. This is work done with Prof. Michael Belkin from [Sheba Hospital at] Tel Hashomer, and we call it active sterilization."
The process can also be used for drugs, eyedrops and vaccines. "So by thinking how to help a woman with HIV, a very simple solution came to us," says Rubinsky. The technology is drawing interest from drug, cosmetics and other companies, "and of course we have this requirement that anyone who takes this technology to develop should develop it in a way that is applicable and available and accessible to the economically disadvantaged."
DOES HE think his work is helping Israel's image abroad? "The first thing that matters to me is perhaps not even the image of other people, it's our own soul of our country, and I think we need to strive to purify our soul. And I'm only one person, and small and insignificant, but every person should do the best he can."
Improving Israel's name abroad through the center's research is something that "will happen. The important thing is for us to do good... then it will appear and be recognized."
When a pro-Palestinian supporter heard about his team's efforts including Palestinians, he was upset, worried that bringing Jews and Palestinians together would undermine the Palestinian cause somehow. "That's when I saw the hypocrisy of those who pretend to think about the good of Palestinians," says Rubinsky.
Downstairs in the lab, Rubinsky's students were hard at work, despite it being Hol Hamoed Succot. Arie Meir, 28. a graduate student from Kiryat Motzkin, looked up from his laptop to comment: "For as long as I can remember, I wanted to make a difference, and I went to work for GE because their motto was: 'Saving Lives.' And I feel that here, our work in the center is also aligned with that line. We are building devices, but these devices are saving lives; others are generating energy or feeding people. But this medical imaging will provide health care for people who didn't have it before, and I hope that we will be able to save lives, so on a personal level, this feels very rewarding."
As for working with a Palestinian colleague, he calls it a "minor but important contribution because at the end of the day... I personally think the people will need to get connected and by establishing these connections, we can build bridges, bridge the cultural gap, the political gap eventually, and who knows maybe even bring peace from this perspective."
Rubinsky takes particular pride in being able to say of his students: "When you tell them: Let's do something for the benefit of humanity, they actually want to do it. They would rather do it than anything else."
So does chucking a great university job and starting all over to help feed the hungry and cure the sick rather than working for corporate America have its rewards? Rubinsky says as a scientist he enjoys just completing a project, but there's more. "As a humanitarian engineer," he says he'll be thrilled to be approached by a man or woman from Vietnam "saying I am alive because of you... that will be fascinating and great."
"You need some money with which to live," says Rubinsky before going off to work with his students, "but you don't need so much money and you don't get the same level of satisfaction from millions of dollars that you have from saving millions of lives."