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Prof. Rivka Carmi
A campus woman of firsts
For physicians and geneticists, there are few greater honors than to have a syndrome named after you.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev president Prof. Rivka Carmi, whose combined specialties of pediatrics and genetics put her in a position to discover diseases caused by mutations, has identified not just one, but two disorders – though only one of them could be called Carmi syndrome.
That still-fatal condition is confined mostly to one Beduin tribe. Called aplasia cutis, epidermolysis bullosa with pyloric atresia, it affects babies conceived through the marriage of close relatives (consanguinity or inbreeding) and usually kills the babies within days.
“I tried so much to find a treatment, but nothing worked,” she recalls of her 20 years of research into the disorder.
“They are born with widespread blistering and areas of missing skin.”
The blisters continue to appear in response to minor injury or friction, such as rubbing or scratching, but they usually occur over the whole body and affect mucous membranes such as the lining of the mouth and digestive tract. The babies are also afflicted with an obstruction of the lower part of the stomach that prevents food from emptying out into the intestine, and a variety of other complications. The parents both have copies of the defective gene, but do not show signs of the condition themselves.
Years later, a member of her team, Dr. Ohad Birk, identified the gene.
The second syndrome Carmi identified was thoraco-abdominal syndrome (TAS), in a Jewish family of Libyan origin.
“One can’t have two syndromes named after one person, so it is known as TAS,” she says.
This syndrome was originally fatal in boys, but today it is treatable. Still, in two decades, the actual gene, which is on the X chromosome, has not been discovered.
“As it is sex-linked, we knew which chromosome and in which space the gene lies, but we couldn’t find exactly where,” she explains. “Various treatments and surgery can repair the problem in boys, even with surgery in their mother’s womb.”
Carmi has other important “firsts” to her credit. She was the first woman dean of an Israeli medical school – BGU’s Health Sciences Faculty – and nine years ago she became the first woman president of an Israeli university. Then, in 2010, she became the first woman to chair the Committee of University Heads, and remained so until 2013.
And now she has another high honor under her belt. Last Monday, Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II will make her an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her work to deepen scientific and academic relations between the UK and Israel.
Born in Zichron Ya’acov, she held positions of authority during her IDF service, training newly inducted women soldiers and officer candidates. She then went to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University to study biology, but felt she didn’t have the heart to dissect a squid or even pull flowers apart to define them. So she decided to study genetics via HU’s Medical Faculty.
That, of course, required participation in autopsies, but she mostly watched.
“As dean of BGU’s Health Sciences Faculty, I stopped animal experimentation for teaching, but not for research. There are advanced simulations, but our medical school still has students do autopsies,” she says.
Since becoming president in 2006, she has “learned to honor the art of fund-raising. I enjoy contact with donors and meeting people who are an inspiration. It is never pleasant to ask people – mostly foreigners – for money, but I enjoy presenting big projects to develop the university, Beersheba and the Negev.”
She looks forward to the advancement of the IDF’s City of Training Bases, which is due to open soon near Beersheba – especially the facilities that will be involved in academic subjects such as computers and intelligence.
The downside of being president is dealing with university labor disputes and arguments over academic freedom, in the face of statements from politically opinionated faculty members.
“Academia was always avant-garde. But I’m not happy when I’m called names and castigated for my alleged political orientation,” she says. “At first, it really bothered me, but then I understood it wasn’t against me personally. As I am attacked both from the right and the left, it suggests that I am not doing anything wrong.”
Only recently did she feel that BGU had recovered from last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
“Students have caught up with their work as a result of the university – the target of large numbers of rockets and missiles from Gaza – being closed down for 50 days. It was my third war as BGU president. We intentionally boosted psychological services to help students and staff.”
Still, there is a sense of coexistence on campus, where Beduin and other Muslims comprise between 5 percent and 7% of the student body.
Academia around the country is changing before our eyes, Carmi says. She points out that nearly 60% of medical students are women, which means more doctors are needed because most women work less than full time so they can raise families, and they do not go into all specialties.
Meanwhile, she says, it’s harder to find men who go into MD-PhD programs, and there’s less interest in doing medical research. “There are still altruists, but the role models are different today.”
In addition, most of BGU’s 20,000 students want to study toward careers and not just get an all-around education. As such, the liberal arts and social sciences attract fewer applicants.
“There is still philosophy, Jewish thought, history and literature, but we try to combine subjects into multidisciplinary ones such as philosophy and mathematics so they have a greater chance of finding a job,” she says. “We are a small country. The question is whether every university has to teach everything. There can be cooperation among universities in some fields.”
With digital media so predominant, more courses and learning materials are online. Nonetheless, Carmi declares, “I’m not worried about university campuses disappearing.
There still has to be interaction between the teacher and student, and [people] meet and discuss things in the cafeteria and on the lawn. We can’t fight technology, but we have to offer different ways of learning. It won’t happen tomorrow, but in 25 years, it will be much different. We will still need buildings and classrooms.”