For Nobel Laureate Michael Levitt, Early BSF Funding Helped Pave the Way Toward Future Success
As a young scientist in the 1970s, Michael Levitt, along with partners Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel, used computers to develop methods that combined quantum and classical mechanics to calculate the courses of chemical reactions. This was right before the 1980s computer boom, and the idea of taking experiments into cyberspace was quite ground-breaking.
Prof. Michael Levitt
But Levitt and his team sensed that computers were about to play a much larger role in our lives, and when he looked for funding, he discovered that the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) shared his vision. He first received BSF funding in 1980—a time, he says, when he was, “just starting to find out what grant funding was, and what it was all about.”
Eventually, Levitt, Karplus, and Warshel would go on to win the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their revolutionary approach of using computers to calculate reactions between atoms and molecules. But getting to that point would have been much harder had it not been for early supporters such as BSF. Thus, Levitt is part of a long list of scientists who were helped by BSF early in their careers—and received continued support to help propel their studies and experiments. Levitt again received BSF funding in 1995 and in 2009.
“The funding definitely helped us do things that were more exploratory in nature,” Levitt said. “One of the things I really like about BSF is that its thinking is very long-term as far as science is concerned.”
Levitt remains a big supporter of BSF. A longtime collaborator with Israeli scientists, Levitt did some of his early work at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He was a Professor of Chemical Physics there from 1980-87.
Levitt said BSF does more than fund U.S. and Israeli scientists; it encourages face-to-face collaboration that he believes is an important part of successful research between scientists from different nations.
“When you’re a scientist in America and you’re working with Israelis, it’s important to go to Israel and see first-hand what they’re doing. It’s just as important for Israeli scientists to come to places like MIT or Harvard. Scientists in many other countries don’t have opportunities to leave their countries and work this way with fellow scientists in other nations, and they would very much like to work this way. This is one of the great advantages that BSF funding helps to provide,” he said.
Today, Levitt is a Professor of Computational Structural Biology at Stanford. He and his Israeli wife, Rina, still spend as much time in Israel as they can. Throughout his career, he has developed bonds with Israeli scientists that have never wavered.
“When you look at the fact that so many of the world’s leading tech companies—like Intel, Apple, and Dropbox—are opening up offices in Israel, you realize that Israel offers some of the best technological and scientific talent in the world,” he said. “Great science comes from great scientists, and Israel has so many great scientists.”