Create chemical sensors that make environmental sense
Prof. Mindy Levine
Department of Chemical Sciences
I want to create chemical sensors that make environmental sense.
Her excitement for science is contagious, and the faculty and students at Ariel University will likely be “infected”. Meet Prof. Mindy Levine, new immigrant to Israel who comes to Ariel University from the University of Rhode Island, Columbia and MIT, among others.
As a young girl, Mindy had every intention of following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a physician. She spent a summer doing data analysis in her father’s medical practice, but felt that for her, medicine was fairly routine. Her first exposure to chemistry was in her first year of college at Columbia. Her chemistry professor constantly challenged his students, and his exuberance rubbed off on her. She decided than that she wanted to devote her life to scientific research and teaching. “It makes me sad to meet so many people who studied chemistry but remained uninspired. I love it!”
In her 36 years, Mindy has already managed to make her indelible mark in fields such as supramolecular organic chemistry and chemical education and outreach, having published more than fifty articles, given hundreds of research presentations, and received numerous prestigious research grants and awards.
Next to research, teaching is her passion. Mindy follows her own rule: to do at least one scientific demonstration or experiment during every class. “Once the students are interested and engaged, and see the relevance of chemistry to their lives, they’ll then be more willing to do the drudgery and memorizing.”
This same enthusiasm led Mindy to establishing a private initiative for science birthday parties for kids back in the US, The Party Elements, which she is hoping to continue doing in Israel.
Aliya had been on Mindy’s mind for some time. A 5-month sabbatical at Bar Ilan in 2018 reinforced her feeling that Israel was the place she and her family wanted to be. Feeling that the window of opportunity for making Aliya with her elementary school-aged children might be closing, she contacted several Israeli universities to explore employment possibilities, but felt most impressed and connected with the people she met at Ariel University. “It is small and friendly and reminds me of all the good parts of the University of Rhode Island. The research at Ariel is exciting and I can really see myself integrating and being happy here.” She arrived at the end of August 2019, just in time for her children, aged 10, 7 and 5, to begin the new school year.
One of the things Mindy likes most about Israeli culture is that for the most part, Israelis think out of the box and do not automatically abide by rules that don’t make sense to them. She does, however, appreciate people who are willing to work together to try to find solutions to problems in unconventional ways.
Mindy’s greatest interest is solving problems in chemistry. When she talks to students who are trying to write a research question, she tells them there are many approaches. She starts by asking them, “What are we doing today that’s pretty much the same way our grandmothers did it, or what do you wish could be different?”
Perhaps her greatest interest is in remote chemical detection sensing. “Not every chemical pollution problem can be solved, but with proper detection and engineering solutions, there’s a lot that can. Take, for example, the huge amount of wasted food that is thrown away because the expiration date on the container has passed. If we want to determine if milk in a container is spoiled, we open it and smell it. If it smells fresh and we then close the carton, the spoiling process is accelerated. That’s doable if there’s just one carton of milk. But if we’re dealing with a milk-producing factory, it’s impractical to open every carton. What is needed is a sensor that can detect spoiled milk remotely without opening containers.” The same holds true for packaged products which may contain undetected chemicals that could affect early puberty, allergies, etc. The methods in existence today are slow and not readily available to industry or the public. “I would like to be involved in developing sensors, even for individual use. There is no regulation on homemade alcoholic drinks, which, if unchecked, could contain harmful chemicals that could lead to blindness, disease or even death. To determine if products contain harmful elements or pose biological dangers, there needs to be a way of quantifying the threat, which then makes it possible to analyze the relationship to resulting disease. In 2019, we’re pretty good at detecting the chemicals we’re looking for, but not other potential hazards.”
Mindy welcomes the new challenges of living in Israel. “This new start is an opportunity for me to look back personally and professionally at the past 9 years of my research, and decide what I really care about most and want to grow in. There’s a lot on my plate, but with lots of coffee to keep me going, it’s going to be great!”