Summer Fun, Down to a Science

The 6th annual Asian Science Camp brings is being held in Israel this year. It's brought together some 250 of the continent's brainiest young men and women - though not from Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Even for some of the best and brightest minds on the planet, thinking out of the box can sometimes pose a challenge. So when several hundred of them gathered in Jerusalem the other night for a couple of hours of mind games and puzzle-building, the tension in the room was often palpable.

“Remember that every problem, even the most difficult, has a solution," their session leader reassured, “and sometimes that solution is much simpler than you think.”

They call it The Summit of Genius and this year, for the first time, it's being hosted in Israel. Roughly 250 young men and women, aged 17-21 and representing 21 different countries, are participating this week in the 6th annual Asian Science Camp in Jerusalem, jointly organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and ORT.

Forget about swimming, sports and other summer fun. At this camp, it's all about expanding the mind and exchanging ideas. Rather than sitting around campfires and toasting marshmallows, the participants at this particular camp attend lectures by Nobel Prize laureates and meet with distinguished scientists and innovators as they grapple with some of the major scientific questions of the day.

The largest foreign delegations attending are from China, India and Japan, but there are also smaller ones from Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia – a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. According to the organizers, invitations were extended to other countries also not particularly friendly to Israel, among them Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. The Iranians never bothered responding, and the Pakistanis and Malaysians politely declined.

Still, this is the largest number of participants ever to attend the annual science camp – held previously in Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, India and Korea – even though its location this year required most of them to travel much greater distances than usual.

“We can do it, guys,” shouts Rotem Stahl, a spunky 17-year-old Israeli with a mop of red curls, who has clearly taken charge of the group at her table. One of the youngest members of the 35-person Israeli delegation, Rotem, who hails from the southern development town of Yeruham, demonstrates to her peers from China, Taiwan, New Zealand, Japan and Vietnam how she put together one of the wooden puzzles lying on the table. Cheers erupt when it turns out their group has taken first place in the overall problem-solving competition.

It's already close to midnight, but the participants are not yet ready to break for the day. They begin congregating in small groups to work on their posters, which will be presented on the last day of camp. Even before they arrived in Israel, the participants were divided into groups and asked to choose a scientific topic that could be addressed in a digital poster.

“I'm amazed by some of the ideas I've heard,” remarks Tahani Mala'bi, a Palestinian woman from east Jerusalem who heads the Israeli delegation. Mala'bi, who also runs a program aimed at empowering young Arab women in the sciences, is completing a doctorate in organic chemistry at the Hebrew University.

Eighteen-year-old Elyse Hudson, a member of the Australian delegation, is pursuing a dual degree in mechanical engineering and business. “For me, this program is about establishing friendships and connections across borders,” she says. “Thanks to Facebook, I know that I'm going to stay in contact with many of the people I've met here. Even though we come from different countries, we all speak the same language of science, and I'm sure that the relationships we're forming here this week will lead to breakthroughs in the future.”

The topic of her group's poster is raising money to support research in protein folding. “It's important to know more about protein folding so that we can also know more about why proteins don't fold, and in that way, prevent all sorts of diseases,” she explains. “This is a huge topic.”

The Asian Science Camp is an initiative of several Nobel Prize laureates who wanted to create a platform that would help identify and nurture future generations of Asian scientists. According to Guy Krivetz, an official on the Asia desk at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the decision to hold the annual event in Jerusalem this year is a huge deal.

“We used to say that China and Asia were the future,” he says. “Today we say they're the present. In the world of science, this is the equivalent of hosting the Olympics.”

As he points around the room, Krivetz notes that not only does an event like this bring Jews and Arabs together around one table but also representatives of other world trouble spots. "We have participants from both China and Taiwan, and we weren't sure how this would work out, but I already know of two girls, one from China and one from Taiwan, who've become great friends.”

The Chinese, 20-year-old Zhen Qu, is a bit hesitant to discuss her newfound friendship, and in response to a question politely begs off so that she can get back to her work on her puzzles.

Vinsen (his full name), a 17-year-old high school student from Indonesia, says Israel is quite different from what he expected. “What surprised me most is that it's so hot here,” he says. “It's really hot in Indonesia, but I had always assumed that this place would be different and that it wouldn't be hot here. So I found out that the two places are not that different after all.”

Rotem, who hopes to engage in medical research one day, scours the room searching for the other members of her poster group. The topic of their poster is combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Meanwhile, she bumps into her new friend, 18-year-old Shruti Paranjape from India, who high-fives the Israeli to congratulate her on her team's victory in the problem-solving competition.

“There are many similarities between Israelis and Indians,” notes Paranjape. “But the biggest similarity is that both Israelis and Indians like showing off their countries.”