Arrivals - Meet Israel’s American-born university president


Prof. DANIEL CHAMOVITZ, 57  (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
How does a young boy who grows up as the only Jewish kid in a blue-collar mill town become the seventh president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU)?
Professor Daniel Chamovitz’s life journey is filled with interesting twists and turns. He tells of his grandfather, who arrived in the US from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, and sold clothes from a cart. A generation later, Daniel’s father, a physician, founded Aliquippa’s first hospital.
“I grew up as a classic schizophrenic American Jew,” says Chamovitz. “During the week I was the all-American boy. On weekends, I went to synagogue and was a Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement activist. My mother was a second-generation Hadassah board member.”
In his search for normalcy and identity, Chamovitz applied to be a biology major at Columbia University. The fact that he was accepted because of geographic distribution has made him especially sensitive to giving people from underserved communities the chance to go to college.
“As a freshman, I failed the written English placement exam, and they put me in remedial English, together with the other students from disadvantaged schools,” he recalls with a smile.
However, before college, Chamovitz did a gap year in Israel with the Machon Youth Leadership Training program. It was while working on a tractor in a Negev alfalfa field on Kibbutz Ketura that he had his ‘eureka’ moment.
“I saw that when we cut the alfalfa, it grows back, but when we cut wheat it doesn’t,” explains Chamovitz. “I thought if we could figure this out, we would be able to feed the entire world.”
Chamovitz returned to Columbia, but his Israel experience had taken root. He made aliyah in 1984 and continued his studies in plant genetics at Hebrew University (HUJI). His passion and brilliance for the subject accelerated his academic achievements.
He received his Ph.D. in genetics from HUJI, and from 1993 to 1996 he carried out postdoctoral research at Yale University. This was followed by a faculty position at Tel Aviv University where he chaired the Department of Plant Sciences, and then Dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences. He was the founding director of the Program in Food Security at Tel Aviv University, and does pro bono consultation for governmental agencies on issues concerning food security.
WHILE HE was dean, Chamovitz found time to volunteer as a teacher in a local middle school, engage high school students about science careers and lecture to groups about the role of plant biology in feeding a growing world. He was also involved in developing a modern undergraduate curriculum for plant sciences.
Despite a scientific career that has been characterized by novel and field-defining research – he was the first to clone a gene involved in the biosynthesis of beta-carotene – Chamovitz is personable, accessible and modest. His book, What a Plant Knows, has been published in 18 languages, was voted Top 10 in Amazon, and is often referred to in discussions on plant senses and intelligence.
“I am not sure how it happened, but over the years I was pulled into doing research,” he says.
This research led to collaborations with China, Vietnam and Africa that built his international reputation as a scientist and food security expert, and brought an offer to be the next president of BGU when Professor Rivka Carmi stepped down.
“I thought long and hard about the offer,” says Chamovitz. “It was my wife, Shira, Dean of Students at Ono Academic College and a very smart woman, who reminded me about the alfalfa fields and what brought me to Israel. What better place than a university in the Negev to continue my dream to feed the world?”
In January 2019, Chamovitz assumed the presidency of BGU; the only current American-born president of an Israeli university. He is inspired by Ben-Gurion’s dream to make the Negev bloom and feels that BGU is the most important university for the future of Israel.
“BGU and Soroka University Medical Center are the foundations for Beersheba’s growth as a vibrant metropolis,” he says. “There is an innovation ecosystem here that combines academia, medicine and a hi-tech innovation hub. Together, we are doing transformative research and developing technologies that are changing the world.”
Coming full circle since his acceptance to college, Chamovitz is committed to making higher education accessible for young people from underserved communities. At the same time, scholarship recipients are encouraged to give back, and volunteer with children, youth and seniors in Beersheba’s most underprivileged neighborhoods.
Chamovitz is proud of his three adult children, Eytan, Noam and Shani, who are eighth-generation Israelis on his wife’s side.
“Not accepting the way things are is in my DNA,” he says. “I’ve always been excited by the unknown and this has led to some unexpected discoveries.”
This is the spirit that Chamovitz hopes to nurture in Israel’s next generation.