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Tenafly youth in Weizmann Institute program

Before beginning his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tenafly resident Mark Velednitsky is manipulating fruit fly genes in a laboratory at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

Mark is one of 19 American students chosen to attend the 42nd annual Dr. Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) science program at Weizmann, one of the world’s foremost centers of scientific research and graduate study. The other 60 students in the program — not all Jewish — hail from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland, and Turkey.

“For the large majority, it’s their first exposure to Israel, and they bring diverse perspectives,” said Mark, a 17-year-old 2010 graduate of the Bergen Academies in Hackensack. “We had a cultural-presentation night where everyone talked about their country, and some sang [traditional] songs. We have plenty of opportunities to learn about other people, but at the end of the day we’re all here to learn science.”

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Mark Velednitsky works on a project in his lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

ISSI combines four weeks of intensive exploration in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, or computer sciences with trips and lectures on Israeli history and current events. The ISSI program’s first trip was a guided tour of Jerusalem. The students are also going north to the Galilee, south to Eilat, and east to Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea.

The goal of Mark’s research is to better understand neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. The hypothesis is that in affected brains, the natural “pruning” mechanism used by neurons (nerve cells) somehow goes haywire, killing off healthy neurons.

“In the lab, we manipulate genes in Drosophila flies and then look at their brains to see what affect those genes had on certain neurons,” Mark said. “This can help us to figure out the mechanism behind changes in the development and decay of neurons. Hopefully, many years down the road, this research will have applications for understanding human neurodegeneration.”

Mark’s first love is mathematics. He was captain of the math team at the Academies in his senior year, and each year took part in seven two-day math competitions at top-tier universities such as Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duke. A psychology research course in his sophomore year sparked his interest in brain and cognitive science, which he approached from a computational perspective to understand how complex thoughts arise from the interaction of simple nerve cells.

With the help of the course’s instructor, the following year he and a friend did a research project on the importance of order in educational design. “That is a fancy way to say that we assessed how the way in which material is presented to students will affect how they ultimately understand it,” Mark explained. “I used students in my school as subjects.”

That project took first place in the behavioral sciences category of the North Jersey Regional Science Fair and earned a semifinalist slot in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition.

Mark lives with his mother, Robin Privman, and is a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. His father, Boris Velednitsky, lives in Bridgewater. Last year, Privman took her son on his first trip to Israel.

“Weizmann and ISSI interested me because my mother lived in Israel for a few years and has distant relatives here,” he said. “I came across it when I was browsing a Website of summer program ideas. The sophistication of the work they gave people really impressed me and I thought, ‘This is right up my alley.’ I wanted to have a cultural and travel experience on top of a great research experience going into college.”

Under the supervision of a graduate student, he and his American lab partner have learned to dissect the tiny flies with forceps under a microscope. “It took about three days to get it right,” he said. They manipulate the genes of the flies using various solutions and instruments. “There are a lot of techniques we use that I’d never heard of, so I’m grateful I got put on this project to learn them.”

Living on Weizmann’s lush Rehovot campus with access to swimming and sports facilities, ISSI participants are also learning about the Israeli way of life. Mark said the work culture in Israel seems different from that in the United States.

“The lab is more relaxed, informal and social,” he observed. “For instance, the lab director invited everyone out for hummus last Tuesday. But there aren’t so many other differences. There is a lot of commonality among people passionate about science.”

 
 
 
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