Doing the nano quickstep: Ronit Freeman

Ronit FreemanFor Ronit Freeman, the idea of synergy between nanobiotechnology and ballroom dancing doesn’t sound at all strange. In fact, she says, it is no coincidence that she comes up with ideas and solutions to her scientific research after a satisfying dance practice.

Freeman, a scientist and a competitive ballroom dancer, is currently completing her doctoral studies in nanobiotechnology under the supervision of Prof. Itamar Willner and his research group at the Hebrew University’s Harvey M. Krueger Family Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Willner, the Esther K. and M. Mark Watkins Professor of Organic Chemistry and a winner of the Israel, EMET and Rothschild prizes, is a pioneering researcher whose studies bridge chemistry, biology and materials science. “It’s a privilege to work with a world renowned researcher in a field that is at the forefront of science,” says Freeman.

Her doctoral studies focus on the synthesis and characterization of semiconductor nanoparticles and their application for molecular and biomolecular sensing. The highlights of her research include the incorporation of functionalized nanoparticles into cancer cells for monitoring intracellular metabolism and anti cancer drugs; and the development of various approaches for the multiplexed detection of different target molecules.

Nanobiotechnology was not Freeman’s automatic choice. After completing her undergraduate degree in chemistry and computer science at Bar-Ilan University, she attended an open day at the Hebrew University in search of a research field that would immediately attract her. On seeing a scientific poster presentation for Prof. Willner’s group, it was love at first sight and she soon began her studies in Jerusalem. This was no easy task for Freeman who lives in a centrally-located city with her husband and has to commute every day to Jerusalem.

During the course of her graduate studies, 31-year-old Freeman has received several academic excellence scholarships and scientific prizes, including a Clara and Danny Klein Fund scholarship, the Israel Science Foundation’s Converging Technologies Fellowship, and a fellowship through the Clore Scholars Programme. “It’s impossible to advance without financial assistance,” she says. “I am grateful for the support, which has allowed me to continue my research and advance my academic progress.”

As for her experience in the lab, she feels privileged to have access to the state-of-the-art equipment in Prof. Willner’s lab and says her work with other scientists is a constant learning experience. “It’s amazing how much you can learn from other scientists when you’re new; and then — without even noticing — you become an old-timer yourself, helping to advance and encourage others."

In addition to her doctoral studies, Freeman is currently a teaching assistant in organic chemistry. Once she has completed her doctorate, she plans to pursue her postdoctoral studies in the US and hopes to return to a position at the Hebrew University where she could set up her own lab.

Freeman’s love for competitive ballroom dancing undoubtedly adds to her juggling act of family, research and teaching, but it is clearly an essential element in her life. She danced as a child and teenager but had to stop during her intensive military service as a captain in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps and her demanding undergraduate studies.

She is addicted to the stage, she acknowledges, and therefore decided to return to dancing. After checking out the options, she discovered competitive ballroom dancing and began practicing in Eli Mizrahi’s school in Jerusalem. She enters competitions and works hard to continuously improve her ranking — not an easy task, but no doubt a satisfying one.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “I regard dancing as a different outlet for the same qualities required in scientific work: accuracy, creativity and lots of perseverance. It’s great to have an interest that is so different from my ‘formal’ work, especially since — for me at least — they complement each other.

Looking ahead, “I hope to further explore the field of medical applications and nanobiotechnology,” says Freeman. “There is so much more to discover and I believe that we have a long way to go in these areas. But that’s exactly what is challenging, and the fact that I get excited about what I do — and see it for the innovative, pioneering and exciting field that it is — means that I’m definitely in the right place."

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By Lee Goldstein, March 2012