Swiss Neurobiologist Seeks Thrills at Israeli Answer to Burning Man

Departures / Arrivals: A Swiss scientist visiting Israel talks about the future of biology; two Israeli judokas travelling to Spain for a competition talk about boys and Olympic dreams.

Bjorn Oettinghaus.
Tomer Appelbaum

Bjorn Oettinghaus, 33, lives in Basel, Switzerland and arriving from there

Hello, can I ask you what you’ll be doing in Israel?

I’m here for the Midburn festival [June 8-12]. I was here a year or two ago, mainly in the south. This time I’ll go north, too, maybe to Lake Kinneret. Friends will join me later.

Who are the friends?

We’re a group of seven from Switzerland and Germany who have been going to festivals since we were 25. We look for experiences that can be shared. We’ve gone to seven or eight festivals together.

Which was the most fun?

I think the best experience was the Fusion Festival outside Berlin. The third time we were there the weather was good and we were all together. But at some stage everything starts to look the same; you can’t remember what was when. I think we’re getting too old for this, and the people at the events are getting younger and younger.

What will you dress up as at Midburn? 

I have a mask that can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Internet, a polygon mask that looks like an old computer game. I will stick on glasses. It’s a Gothic look. I was told that you need good sunglasses here. I have cheap welding glasses and good sunblock.

Sounds relaxing.

Festivals are a bit more stressful than regular vacations. You don’t come back calm. It takes a week to get back on your feet.

What do you and the others do in life?

My friends are physicists, they work at the particle accelerator at CERN. I have a Ph.D. in neurobiology – I deal with subcellular structures. 

Explain, please.

My research is about cellular organelles that are called mitochondria. They supply energy and are also involved in processes of oxygenizing radicals, which is what people take antioxidant food additives for. We do experiments on transgenic mice, namely mice that carry altered genes and pass them to their offspring. In the experiments, we try to see what happens to the cell and the animal when we modify something. We take the gene that influences the shape of the mitochondria and distort it, and the shape of the mitochondria affects the production of energy.

Why mice?

Though there are many differences between humans and mice – for example, human brain cells that are formed by the age of 3 need to last for 80 years, because no new ones are created – at the cellular level I work at there is something like 70 percent correspondence between mice and humans, especially in the neurons.

Do your experiments have practical implications?

Not everything can be implemented. Possibly it will help in a pathological context one day, but that has yet to be seen. Someone will have to check it out.

Not you?

I got stuck with all this at the age of 20 – you don’t really choose. I was a biology student and I was interested in the biomedical side, which seemed more relevant to me than bird-watching. But now I’m thinking of leaving academe. I’ve been a post-doc for two years and I want to get into software development.

Why?

There’s a lot of talk these days about big data; I think that all the information can be stored on a biological hard drive. I’m no computer scientist, but I’m learning how to write code and I want to do something in the field. If I could, I would do a doctorate in computers, but I have to make money.

There’s no money in academe.

There aren’t many professorships as you get older, and you have to ask if and how hard you want to work in order to become a professor. I estimate my chance of getting a professorship at 30 percent, and that’s not a percentage I want to gamble on. It seems like it’s not so hard to find work in fields related to software development.

What does the future hold?

For me? Only more boredom, for now. I will have a desk job in industry, and kids. But I think that in 10 years biology will develop to a level where it will be very hard to understand what’s happening in the field if you’re not a true biologist. Like physics today. We will succeed in understanding and measuring many things, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be practical. For example, baldness in men can be dealt with already now with testosterone ointment – but then they’ll grow tits.

Nitzan Meiron (L) and Rotem Shor.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rotem Shor, 22, lives in Modi’in; and Nitzan Meiron, 22, lives in Rishon Letzion; flying to Madrid

Hello, can I ask you where you’re going?

Nitzan: To the European Open judo tournament in Madrid. We’re on the Israeli team.

Is it an important tournament?

Nitzan: It’s to be rated for the next Olympics, in Tokyo. The Rio games are closed.

Do you travel a lot?

Rotem: Usually five, six times a year, but because this is an Olympic year, the focus is on Rio. That’s the hierarchy of the sport. Nitzan, help me. I’m getting in over my head here!

Nitzan: This year the effort is being put into the A team, and we’re the B team. They get a bigger budget and we are the training partners. So mostly we’re waiting for this year to end.

How long have you been doing judo?

Nitzan: For 12 years. I went to a trial class and it grabbed me. As a girl, it gives you a lot of confidence.

Rotem: I started taking ballet, but it didn’t work out. I needed to release energy, so I was taken to judo and stayed there.

Do you think it’s important for girls to learn martial arts?

Rotem: Yes, or any other field of sports.

Nitzan: It’s good for self-confidence and for a healthy way of life.

Rotem: That way you won’t die after running for two minutes, like the other girls in your class.

What’s your combat style?

Nitzan: I work with a lot of movement.

Rotem: I use a lot of strength. Nitzan will try to move her opponent and find her weakness in order to bring her down, but I stabilize my opponent and then move in.

Nitzan: Rotem doesn’t like to be moved.

Rotem: That’s why it’s good to train with a team – there’s a range of athletes.

What’s training like?

Nitzan: We do it twice a day, and also study and work. I’m studying phys-ed, doing a teaching certificate and teaching judo to kids.

Rotem: I’m studying political science and international relations, and I waitress on weekends. You squeeze it all in because you have to. You have to fly and pay for all this. We only get partial funding now. It’s easier when you’re on a team that’s funded. 

Are you nervous now?

Rotem: At the moment we’re relaxed, but tomorrow evening there are the draws, and then pressure. I want a medal.

Nitzan: Competitions are the greatest. Lots of matches, tough competitors. That’s the test.

Is there anyone you’re afraid of having to fight?

Rotem: There’s no one specific about whom I say, “Anyone but her.”

Nitzan: An athlete who says that isn’t mentally ready for competition. I go to a sports psychologist. It’s like a regular psychologist but you talk a lot about competition and how to cope with the surroundings, with other athletes.

Rotem: Did you talk to him about me?

Nitzan: Of course! My main problem is the other athletes, not to define someone as a person I can’t stand up to. You have to take it one match at a time. Not to panic about encountering someone in the semifinal and then losing the first match because of it.

Rotem: I just talk to myself and say, “Take it easy, it’s only a tournament, it’s not life-and-death.” 

Have you ever had occasion to use judo in real life?

Nitzan: I don’t know how much I’ve used it ...

Rotem: It’s rare. How many girls get into fights?

Have you fought each other?

Rotem: Lots of times, obviously.

And against men?

Nitzan: When I started I was among boys all the time, but then I didn’t think about it.

Rotem: When you’re in fifth grade, it’s more fun to throw a boy on his head.

What do guys say when you tell them you’re judokas?

Rotem: They don’t care.

Nitzan: They usually don’t have a problem.

Rotem: A lot of times they say, “I’m going to keep my distance from you.”

Nitzan: That’s standard!

Rotem: And then there’s always, “You know, I took judo, too.” – “What was your teacher’s name?” – “I don’t remember.” – “What kind of moves did you learn?” – “I don’t remember. Maybe you know Yarden? He had a yellow belt.”