Giving & getting: Gali Umschweif-Nevo


Gali Umschweif-Nevo and daughter PazGali Umsweif-Nevo, 30, is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Medicine whose research focus is traumatic brain injury and the brain’s ability to protect itself from damage. As a participant in the Hebrew University’s Harry and Sylvia Hoffman Leadership and Responsibility Program, which was established by Harry OAM and Sylvia Hoffman of Australia in 2007, she attends its bi-weekly seminars and volunteers within a number of frameworks. She did her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University and is pursuing her doctorate under the supervision of Profs. Esther Shohami and Michal Horowitz of the Department of Pharmacology in the Institute for Drug Research at the School of Pharmacy.

Q: What do you gain from your participation in the Hoffman Program?

A: The Hoffman Program is a golden opportunity to meet intellectual, thinking doctoral students who are also “people of action” from a broad spectrum of academic disciplines. This mix has allowed us to create a group that facilitates the individual empowerment of each and every one of us. Being exposed to opinions other than my own and discussing social, educational and economic conflicts provides me with precious knowledge in fields far beyond my own. I really look forward to our group meetings.

Q: What does society gain from your participation in the Hoffman Program?

A: I have been volunteering with Latet since 2008, working with a special project called Latet Health whereby volunteers bring needy Holocaust survivors food and medication vouchers each month. Initially, I helped build the project in Jerusalem but as soon as the project was up-and-running, I started my own sub-project. Taking advantage of my academic knowledge as a pharmacist, I provide “pharmaceutical consultations” to any interested Holocaust survivor. In each case, I receive their list of medications and then meet them at home where I brief them on each drug and give them comprehensive written guidance. I ask leading questions to establish if they are experiencing side effects, drug-drug interactions, inappropriate use or over-dosage. After each meeting, I write to their GP about our meeting and any problems I have identified. The project has proven a great success and I am now trying to involve the School of Pharmacy, possibly with doctoral students in clinical pharmacy providing professional consultations for needy Holocaust survivors.

I recently got a call from a survivor who I had met with a year earlier — she asked me to visit since she had been prescribed a lot of new drugs. It turned out that she was very keen to learn how to use a computer so I have been teaching her on a weekly basis.

I also volunteer at the school at the Hadassah University Medical Center Hospital in Ein Kerem, the Hebrew University’s medical campus. I don’t only teach the hospitalized kids but also — mostly, in fact — their teachers. The school recently joined a new program and so I am teaching the teachers about the human body so that they can prepare and give lessons to the kids in that subject. My work includes giving presentations, lessons and teaching.

Q: What is the connection between brain injury and heat, the subject of your doctoral studies?

A: Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a main cause of morbidity and mortality in the Western world. Since brain damage often can't be fully repaired, it is important to find ways to minimize damage caused by the trauma through neuroprotection, the term for biological mechanisms that induce brain protection. Some neuroprotective pathways are activated spontaneously — or ‘endogenously’ in scientific terms — by the brain itself shortly after the injury. To learn more about endogenous pathways, I use a model in which mice are acclimated to mild heat for 30 days. It is known that heat-acclimated mice acquire protection from many kinds of stress including TBI. I am studying the ongoing and dynamic changes in the brains of heat-acclimated mice that contribute to neuroprotection. The model not only enhances our understanding of how the brain protects itself but may lead, in the future, to the development of new treatments for TBI victims.

Q: Is science a part of your family background?

A: My father was born in Poland in 1935 to scientist parents: his father was an immunologist who worked with a group that discovered the typhus vaccine, his mother was a pharmacist. During World War Two, his family was taken to Auschwitz where his father was forced to continue with his research and the development of a typhus vaccine. After two years in Auschwitz and having lost both his parents, my father came to Israel and joined Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz. He became an outstanding athlete, served as a pilot in the IDF Air Force and then as a pilot with El Al.

Q: And before you became a student?

A: I was born in Israel and raised in Ramat Hasharon. Since my father was often away from home, my mother — who came to Israel from Croatia as an infant — raised me and my brother. Like my father, I was an outstanding athlete in high school (long jump) but when I joined the army, I gave up athletics and was assigned to field intelligence. As commander of a team commanders’ course, I was responsible for up to 40 soldiers, helping to develop their leadership skills and teaching them how to handle various team conflicts.

Q: And today?

A: I am married to Mumik and we have two children: our son Bar was born in December 2009 and our daughter Paz in June 2011. We live in rented accommodation in Motza Illit (just outside Jerusalem)

Q: What else should we know about you?

A: I previously worked as a teaching assistant at the Hebrew University but, two years ago, I was appointed the pharmacology teaching coordinator. I oversee — professionally and logistically — 15 teaching assistants (master’s and doctoral students) who teach within five pharmacology courses (about 500 undergraduate students per year) in the Faculty of Medicine.

Q: Where will you be in 10 years?

A: I would hope to have a position either in academia or the pharmaceutical industry that will allow me to use my academic skills along with my leadership skills. I hope to be volunteering and contributing to society with my family and co-workers. After my postdoctoral studies, I plan to stay and work in Israel and not work abroad despite the better financial offers. I believe that there is no place in the world like Israel and I can't see myself raising my kids anywhere else in the world.

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November 2011