The art and science of changing tomorrow

Two EMET Prize winners alter the realities of their respective fields.

By MAAYAN HOFFMAN
August 21, 2018 15:49
The art and science of changing tomorrow

Sociologist Eva Illouz (Right) and Geneticist Ephrat Levy - Lahad. 2018 Emet prize winners.. (photo credit: EMET PRIZE)

 
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The Hebrew word emet can be translated as truth, certainty or honesty. And as is the case with Eva Illouz and Ephrat Levy-Lahad – two 2018 EMET Prize winners – changing tomorrow’s reality can apply equally in the arts as in the sciences.

Illouz, the Rose Isaac Chair of Sociology at the Hebrew University and a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality, received the EMET Prize for social sciences for her examination of inner processes – romantic love, self-control, emotional pain – from the sociological perspective.

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She argues that emotional challenges should not be viewed as solely problems of individuals (psychologically) but of the collective (sociologically).

“Women struggle a great deal in their romantic and sexual lives. But this doesn’t mean they do so because their psyche is underdeveloped,” Illouz explained. “It means women share a common condition that makes romantic experience difficult. This experience is significantly different from the romantic experiences people had in the 19th century. Comparative historical analysis of sentiments enables to show how feelings change and how social structures shape them. Emotional experiences that feel to us private and psychological are in fact driven by social, economic and political structures.”

Levy-Lahad, the founder and head of the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, who won the prize in the life sciences category, has been instrumental in understanding that inherited genetic mutations underly common diseases like breast cancer and ovarian cancer and looking at these mutations at the population – rather than the individual  level.

“Existing models of looking at the genetic risks for cancer had been through a pincer approach – a family here, a family there,” Levy-Lahad told the Magazine. “By looking at these risks at the population level, we can make sure the right people are tested before they get cancer and help prevent it.”

ILLOUZ WAS born in Morocco and educated in France. She earned degrees from the Hebrew University and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Only 57 years old, Illouz has published 12 books, translated into 17 languages, and was in 2009 chosen by the German newspaper Die Zeit as one of 12 thinkers most likely to “change the thought of tomorrow.”

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She told the Magazine she came to Israel in 1991 to “join a country where I would be part of the majority. Being a member of a minority felt at times crippling.”

Illouz studies the effect of capitalism on emotional life, specifically the historical and sociological mechanisms by which institutions, such as consumer markets or corporations, trickle down to the minute corners of the subjective mind. She argues that capitalism has transformed emotional patterns in the realms of both consumption and production.

In her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia, Illouz demonstrates how in the 1930s, commodities began to be presented as enabling the experience of love and romance. At the same time, the process of courting a woman was shifted from something done domestically by visiting her at her home, for example – to something carried out in the public sphere, such as on a date at a fancy restaurant.

“Romantic encounters moved from the home to the sphere of consumer leisure with the result that the search for romantic love was made into a vector for the consumption of leisure goods produced by expanding industries of leisure,” said Illouz. “The emergence of a consumer culture at the end of the 19th century relied on images of romantic love and provided new practices to make an atmosphere between two people romantic.”

Illouz studied Oprah Winfrey before she became a national icon, examining how Winfrey played on emotions such as grief, anger and compassion to engage her audience.

“Winfrey is an emotional entrepreneur,” Illouz said.

Those findings were published in Illouz’s Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery.

Among her most pivotal works is Why Love Hurts, which makes the claim that one of the most fruitful ways to understand the transformation of love in modernity is through the category of choice, specifically how people choose their mates. Illouz said she views choice as the defining hallmark of modernity, because in the economic and political arenas, choice embodies the two faculties that justify the exercise of freedom: rationality and autonomy.

While Illouz’s research is applied in many research disciplines, including literature, sociology, anthropology, communications and the sociology of capitalism, she said she believes her greatest impact is that she has offered people more understanding of how their emotions are a product of their social environment.

She noted that many people – particularly women – wrote to her after she published Why Love Hurts to let her know that it helped them understand their failed romantic lives in a different way than they did before reading her book.

“Rather than feeling guilty for this failure, they realized they were part of a much broader drama that I laid out for them,” said Illouz. “I think when a woman feels humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed, diminished or small, she thinks it has to do with her insufficiency and inadequacy. But I would want this woman to look hard and long at the context of her existence to understand what in that context made her feel that way. Power is much more invisible than we think. Power and privilege seem natural. Women accept – at least used to accept – as a matter of routine that they are less, that they need protection, that they are entitled to less. This is why women criticize themselves, always apologize before they speak, are full of self-doubts, are very heavy users of psychology and self-help in all its forms. Those feelings have less to do with us as individuals, and a great deal to do with the type of society – and position in society – in which we are born and act in.”

She continued, “I believe very strongly that understanding without judging brings with it an enormous capacity for action and emancipation.

That was one of Spinoza’s greatest insights. I aspire, like him, to a ‘geometry of sentiments.’”

IN A related vein, Levy-Lahad has focused her research on understanding the impact of certain genetic mutations – not on individuals, but on entire groups of the population.

For example, the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes, in which mutations cause inherited breast cancer and ovarian cancer, were identified in 1994 and 1995. Around 1996 – the same year in which Levy-Lahad founded the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek – it became clear that mutations in these genes are particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews.

“Studying these mutations in the Ashkenazi population was clearly important, both for patients In Israel and to further research on this critical cause of the most common cancer in women,” said the 58-year-old Levy-Lahad. “So, I began studying the population genetics of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.”

Those studies led her to realize that the medical community could use genetics to identify women who are mutation carriers before they become affected and help prevent these deadly cancers through increased surveillance, better surveillance – such as the use of MRIs versus mammography – and preventive surgery. It was Levy-Lahad who recommended all Ashkenazi Jewish women undergo testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 age 30 instead of only women related to those who contracted breast cancer.

“We need to offer screening to this entire population,” said Levy-Lahad.

“We are now preforming studies to determine how to implement such screenings.”

Another focus of Levy-Lahad’s research has been on genetic diseases within segments of the population in which relatives marry one another.

She has been at the forefront of a trend in Israel toward pre-gestational or pre- implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

“We can do in vitro fertilization and take out the cells from the embryo in the first few days in the petri dish, and by testing these cells we can see which embryos are destined to be affected by the genetic disease and which are not and return only the ones we know will be healthy to the womb,” Levy-Lahad explained.

She said that pregnancy termination is not always an option for members of more religious populations in Israel, so a robust PGD program is central to population health management. Some 750 babies have been born using PGD in the last 10 years.

Levy-Lahad’s research has additional implications, in that understanding the genetic basis of novel diseases in humans is “very important.”

“We have more than 20,000 genes, and for most of these genes, there is not a disease associated with them,” she said. “When have a disease associated with a gene, we understand more about the function of that gene, because we understand what goes wrong when the gene does not work.”

For example, her discoveries of novel genes for neurological diseases in children indicate new mechanisms in brain development, and her identification of new genes underlying defects in ovarian development has shown that processes of chromosomal recombination are critical for ovarian development and function.

ILLOUZ AND Levy-Lahad are among five female winners of the 2018 EMET Prize. The other three women are Hanna Engelberg-Kulka for life sciences, Hanna Herzog for social sciences and Michal Rovner for culture and arts.

Levy-Lahad said it is important for successful women to receive recognition like the EMET Prize, because “having role models and mentors is extremely important,” to young women looking to grow. “You have to be able to imagine it in order to do it, and I think seeing women with achievements in any field – and particularly in sciences – tells young women this is possible.”

In the past, women were underrepresented among EMET Prize honorees, which the prize has actively worked to change. Levy-Lahad said women tend not to apply, because “they think they are not worthy.”

“I think there are a number of studies that have been done that show if you look at the percentage of candidates versus the percentage of people who win the prize, if women were actually nominated and were candidates, then they received the award at the same rate as men do. They just aren’t nominated or don’t apply,” she said.

Levy-Lahad noted that the fact that this year there were more women winners or that one can now look to almost any arena and see women with incredible achievements does not mean there is no longer discrimination against women. On the contrary, she said gender equality is an area on which society should focus.

“If you asked me if the landscape is such that women can achieve their full potential, I would say it is not such,” she said. “It is much more difficult for women to achieve their full potential in comparison to men.”

Illouz expressed similar sentiments, and said she faced double the challenge as both a woman and being of North African origins. “Tina Brown, the legendary editor of the New Yorker, said in an interview that a woman needs to be gold where men need only to be silver. I think this is all the truer with Mizrahim.” She also said Mizrahim are strikingly underrepresented in academia in Israel.

“This is a very important and painful issue that should be dealt with and given attention to,” Illouz told the Magazine. “The fact that I got the EMET Prize does not prove the system works. I was treated fairly, but for one like me there are a 100 treated unfairly.”

Still, Levy-Lahad said the message to young women should be one of hope.

“Think big,” she said, quoting her late mentor Charles Joseph Epstein.

“If you think small, it will be small. So think big. It might turn out to be small anyway, but it also might turn out to be very, very big.”

This article was written in cooperation with the EMET Prize.

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