Tel Aviv U’s Interdisciplinary Approach


Tel Aviv University recently opened a School for Neurosciences that incorporates seven of the university’s nine faculties. The university’s extensive use of interdisciplinary research and teaching has given it a unique place among Israeli universities.

“It is something that comes naturally among scientists and if there is encouragement from the top, it only helps,” said Joseph Klafter, the university’s president and himself an award-winning chemist.

He said the School of Neurosciences offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a doctorate on issues relating to the brain. It incorporates so many different departments, Klafter said, in order to create the best possible conditions for productive interdisciplinary work. For instance, in addition to covering the psychology of a person, the department merges biology, medicine, physics, math and chemistry “to give you more accurate tools by which to manage and analyze” the individual.

“When you work on Alzheimer’s disease, chemistry comes into play and should there come the need to plant small nanoparticles in the brain to modify behavior, then engineering and the whole nano world come into play,” Klafter said. “So having unique interdisciplinary umbrellas gives us the ability to have an impact on students by educating them about the brain from different points of view.”

Another example of interdisciplinary research and teaching can be found in the Porter School of Environmental Studies, which he said encompasses all nine faculties “because the environment touches every aspect of our life.”

“We deal with ecological problems, environmental laws, along with the arts and the environment, geography and so on,” Klafter said. “The building for the school is being built and it will be the last word in green buildings.”

Also new at Tel Aviv University is a Supercenter for Renewable Energy that includes a combination of physics, chemistry and engineering. It also includes business courses so students will be “prepared for strict regulations on such things as the uses of fuels in cars.” In addition, it deals with wind and solar power and is attempting to “develop something unique – a regenerative fuel cell that turns wind and solar into a chemical and then into electricity when needed.”

The university, which was founded 55 years ago, is one of Israel’s youngest institutions of higher learning and is also its largest with 29,000 students — about half of whom are undergraduates. It also has a faculty of nearly 1,000.

Klafter, 66, was elected in April as an honorary member of the 2011 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the only Israeli to receive the honor this year. A member of the university’s faculty since 1988, he formerly chaired the department of physical chemistry and holds the Heinemann Chair of Physical Chemistry. In 2009, he was appointed president for a five-year term.