This professor made aliyah and is shaping science in the Negev

His research group of 10–15 people is a vibrant mix of undergraduate, MSc and PhD students, and includes some qualified retiree consultants.

 Joshua Baraban and family (photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)
Joshua Baraban and family
(photo credit: COURTESY THE FAMILY)

Though some of us feel fortunate if we understand our blood test results, many people are awed by the subject of chemistry. Conversely, Prof. Joshua Baraban can’t remember a time when the mysteries and complexities of science were not part of his life.

“I wanted to be a scientist from a young age,” he confides, “and am very grateful to the many wonderful teachers and mentors I had at all stages.”

No doubt these formative encounters have led him to view his current role as chemistry instructor and head of a research laboratory at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as that of teacher and mentor, too. He holds fast to the tenet that “science can make the world and humanity better.”

Commenting on the last five years since he and his family made aliyah, Baraban is overwhelmingly positive.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). (credit: AMERICANS FOR BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY)Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). (credit: AMERICANS FOR BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY)

Positive experiences

“We like Israel and Beersheba, and also our jobs,” he says. “I run my own research group on the chemistry faculty, and also teach undergraduate and graduate students. I was, and still am, very enthusiastic about BGU and its chemistry department, and think that the university and Beersheba have a very bright future.”

On the career level, Baraban comments that “science and technology are still growing here, and regarding opportunities, the potential is very strong.”

The discipline of physical chemistry that Baraban chose as his particular niche helps clarify how things work, using the laws of physics to understand chemical phenomena. He explains its underlying purpose as an educational one, “because it’s important for scientific knowledge to be widespread in the general population.” His specific concentration is on spectroscopy, which uses light to probe chemical problems and enables scientists to understand the properties of molecules and materials.

At the university he teaches mostly in English but interacts with people in Hebrew. His research group of 10–15 people is a vibrant mix of undergraduate, MSc and PhD students, and includes some qualified retiree consultants.

As many younger students will move on to industry, he explains the applied outcomes of their work. These might include new experimental technologies to develop friendly fuels, or exploring untapped possibilities of materials and compounds.

Such chemistry, in collaboration with related disciplines like mechanical and chemical engineering, also has an environmental impact. For example, an Energy Ministry research grant enables the group to investigate breaking down plastic wastes.

AS FOR his motivation to make aliyah, Baraban cited family and professional opportunities. Of course, “environment for the children, both Jewishly and generally,” was another concern.

On a more personal note, the Magazine asked Baraban about the challenges involved. He replied in a way characteristic of his even-keeled personality: “Moving to a new country obviously required a lot of adjustments to how things work, and in a new language. We were fortunate to get a lot of support from the community here (neighbors, the local shuls, and so on).” 

But “random strangers” also reached out to help them. “When we went to buy beds soon after arriving here, the store-owner heard that we were new olim,” Baraban relates. “He insisted we take loaner mattresses for free until the ones ordered arrived.”

Though he arranged his employment before their aliyah in 2017, his wife, Mara, took a planned two-year break then. Not only did she give birth to their youngest child that first year, but she helped the children acclimate to their new surroundings and attended ulpan to improve her Hebrew.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Baraban has augmented his considerable list of awards from US bodies – such as a National Science Foundation fellowship – with the prestigious Krill Prize from the Wolf Foundation (2021) and an Alon fellowship (2019).

He notes that Israel offers “a more sustained emphasis on basic research” than other places – a definite advantage for academics. “Of course, there are pluses and minuses,” he reflects sagely, “and many things are simply different.”

Back in their youth, both Barabans lived on the East Coast, where their highly educated families attended Conservative synagogues and led a traditional lifestyle. Joshua went to Jewish day schools throughout, while Mara attended day school, then public high. He also spent an enriching gap year in the American yeshiva program at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion.

After Mara graduated MIT in physics, she did a PhD at Yale in theoretical physics, completing this in 2010. The couple met at the popular Yale Slifka Jewish Center, a valuable resource for kosher food and religious activities. In 2007, as young marrieds, they spent a half-year in Jerusalem, where Joshua worked within a Yale-Weizmann Institute collaboration, and Mara focused on Jewish studies at Nishmat.

After Joshua graduated from Yale in 2013, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he pursued PhD studies at MIT. His postdoctorate studies before aliyah were in Boulder, Colorado. This period included development of a pyrolysis microreactor for studying high temperature chemistry with outcomes for recycling and energy saving.

During this postdoc period, Mara worked as a radio-frequency engineer, then as a system manager at Ball Aerospace. In her distinguished career she has gained the reputation of being a highly successful problem-solver in industrial settings. She now works in hi-tech and physics at the Gav-Yam hi-tech park in Beersheba.

The four Baraban children enjoy more freedom and less intense schooling here. Some benefit from the national MAOF program for gifted students.

“Education clearly requires some involvement on our part,” their parents say, “but Beersheba has many opportunities for enrichment.”

How does Joshua cultivate younger people’s interest in science? “My lab does a lot of tours for kids and teens,” he responded. “Tomorrow we are hosting local high school students interested in chemistry. Everyone likes seeing lasers.” The kids are thrilled to discover that lasers do not only appear in Star Wars!

Socially, the Barabans found friends among the English-speaking population affiliated with Soroka-University Medical Center and BGU. For relaxation “Mara does ballet, yoga, biking. We both read books,” Joshua says. In general, they feel that “though we enjoyed all the places that we lived in overseas, raising our family in a Hebrew-speaking, Jewish environment is very valuable to us.”

During the pandemic the restrictions on travel were difficult, with all their close family overseas. However, recently they enjoyed a family trip to reunite with the East Coast relatives they so sorely missed.

On a more minor key, since Joshua still hankers after mint chocolate chip ice cream now and then, he may have to shift direction from his high temperature specialty to some ice-cold chemistry! ■

Joshua Baraban, 39From Denver to Beersheba, 2017