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Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Dave Doneson of the Weizmann Institute of Science Stepped Up To Make A Difference During The Covid19 Pandemic

Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Dave Doneson of the Weizmann Institute of Science Stepped Up To Make A Difference During The Covid19 Pandemic

This crisis has shown me just how fragile our social systems are — from the ways we do business to the ways we interact with family and friends. We’ve seen our world change at a pace we couldn’t have envisioned before this pandemic struck. As a result, I’m more sensitive to how quickly the fabric of our lives can be disrupted. And I’m more keenly aware of how important it is to find solutions before the next major disruption happens. Whether we’re attempting to address climate change, the global energy crisis, or another emerging virus, scientists will, once again, be instrumental in charting the path forward.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Doneson. He has been CEO of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science since 2018. His previous roles include Chief Development Officer at the American Technion Society (ATS) and Director of Development for the University of Michigan Health System. Prior to earning a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Michigan, he served as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces as a Sergeant, Armored Corps.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I was born in Lansing, Michigan, as the second of three children of two New Yorkers who had moved to the area for graduate school. I spent most of my youth in the area before attending boarding school at Phillips Academy. After graduating, I attended Yale College for a year — during which I spent most of the time wishing I had deferred and spent the year in Israel. So, after completing that year, I followed my yearning, took a leave of absence, and traveled to Israel. I ended up staying and making aliyah. I was eventually drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where I served for more than two years as a member of an operation tank unit in the Armored Corps, based in the Golan Heights. After finishing my service, I came back to the U.S. to finish my degree, earning my BBA from the University of Michigan Business School.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There are so many, but one that surely stands out in terms of impact is For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I think it affected me so much as a young man because it had such an irresistible combination of beautiful, sparse prose that wove together politics, war, mortality, and romantic love, in a way that felt real and connected to the human experience. And it has so many memorable scenes … Just talking about the novel kindles my interest in reading it again.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes, which I recently shared with our entire staff, comes from business leader Peter Drucker. He said, “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.” Drucker’s point is that no matter how carefully we act, we cannot always avoid making mistakes. Since risk-taking tends to produce higher rewards than risk-avoidance, it’s often better to take risks than not.

I’ve found this to be true both in my personal and professional life. For example, as mentioned above, when I was 19, I decided to take a break from college and move to Israel. This turned out to be a formative experience for me. Today, I have the privilege of leading an organization that supports one of Israel’s greatest gems, the Weizmann Institute of Science. This small but mighty institution is consistently ranked as one of the top scientific research centers in the world. One of the main reasons Weizmann scientists have made so many remarkable breakthroughs is that they are unafraid of taking risks, following their curiosity, and failing many times in their experiments before they achieve success.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Several months ago, when the pandemic struck, the Weizmann Institute rapidly shifted its focus to combat COVID-19. Within a matter of weeks, the Institute mobilized its scientists and cutting-edge laboratories to fight the coronavirus on multiple fronts: developing treatments and a vaccine; improving testing; predicting the spread of the virus; and creating models to safely reopen the economy. Now, there are more than 65 coronavirus-related research projects on campus — and they have attracted worldwide attention.

We at the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science have been so moved by the Institute’s swift, heroic response. Our job is to develop philanthropic support for the Institute, so we joined the effort to advance this critical research. The Weizmann Institute has a community of dedicated supporters in the U.S. and around the world, and they have been eager to help accelerate this urgent and vital work.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I think a hero is someone who possesses the courage to take personal risks for the benefit of others or for a higher purpose. As a former soldier in an operational combat unit, I’ve witnessed acts of heroism firsthand. But to me, someone who is valorous in combat is just one type of hero. I believe heroism is accessible to all of us, if we’re willing to act in the face of fear and put other people’s needs ahead of our own.

A hero can also be a visionary who has the ability to look at a problem with new ideas. In my work, I’m inspired by the many scientists I’ve encountered who are working to solve some of the greatest challenges facing humankind — in health and medicine, the environment, and much more. They consistently question old ways of thinking and offer novel perspectives, which often pave the way to discovery and innovation.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I believe some people are driven to become heroes because they have the capacity to think beyond themselves. Everyday heroes often acknowledge that they took a massive risk they never thought they were capable of because they simply had to help. It’s instinctual. Research also suggests there’s a neurological component. Several years ago, Weizmann brain researchers conducted an experiment showing how courage looks from inside the brain. The scientists scanned subjects’ brains while they completed a task that made them fearful. They found greater activity in a certain region of the brain when subjects acted courageously, while another region became more engaged when they succumbed to their fears. So, when there’s strong enough motivation, the “courage centers” of our brains may be able to quiet our fear response.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

The catalyst for the Weizmann Institute to take action was the understanding that the solutions to this crisis will ultimately come from science. Weizmann scientists recognized that they had the resources, technology, and expertise to make a difference in this global fight. The Institute is renowned for its collaborative, multidisciplinary environment, so it was natural for its researchers in virology, immunology, computer science, and more to partner with one another in their quest for answers. The initiative has really come from the scientists themselves, not from leadership in Israel or here in the U.S. Weizmann focuses on what we call “blue-sky” or “fundamental” science, meaning that the research is curiosity-driven rather than outcomes-driven. Its philosophy is to hire the most brilliant minds in science — and then give them the freedom to follow their interests. This “bottom-up,” rather than “top-down,” approach has been a key factor in Weizmann’s rapid, campus-wide response to the pandemic. The Institute’s ethos not only enables its scientists to be agile and adaptable but also promotes the greatest leaps in human knowledge. As my colleagues in Israel often say, investing in the best people leads to the best science.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Today, my heroes are those who are on the frontlines of this pandemic: the doctors and nurses who are working tirelessly provide comfort and save lives; the grocery store workers who ensure we can continue to feed our families; and many other essential workers who’ve shown remarkable bravery and resilience in the face of these unprecedented challenges.

I believe scientists at Weizmann and other research institutions around the world are also heroic in their tenacious, relentless search for solutions to this virus. While there is typically a healthy competition and a desire to be the first one to publish results, we’re now seeing the international scientific community come together for a common purpose. For example, Dr. Nir London at Weizmann is leading an extraordinary online, crowdsourcing effort, in which chemists and drug design experts across the globe are working to develop an effective anti-COVID-19 drug candidate. They’re sharing data in real-time — a true “open science” collaboration. By partnering across borders and disciplines, scientists are accelerating the pace of discovery.

Let us talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

What frightens me most is that a previously unknown virus has so profoundly impacted our lives. Our country and our world have faced many crises in modern history, from the Cold War to acts of terrorism, but the toll of this pandemic is arguably even greater. The fact that COVID-19 has altered the way we live and work so quickly and fundamentally is something I never would have imagined. Beyond the health and economic ramifications, we don’t know when we’ll be able to take part in some of the pleasures of life again: congregating with family, traveling, or enjoying cultural attractions like concerts, museums, and theater. The uncertainty about when “normal” life will resume is deeply unsettling.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

I have the honor of working on behalf of an organization that is shaping a better world for people everywhere through its mission of “science for the benefit of humanity.” Beyond its efforts to fight the current pandemic, the Institute continues to make important breakthroughs in fighting cancer, advancing technology, protecting our planet, and many other areas. One particularly inspiring initiative is Weizmann’s new Institute for Brain and Neural Sciences, which will bring together more than 40 world-renowned research groups dedicated to investigating the most pressing topics in neuroscience. This flagship project on campus will advance our understanding of the brain and point the way to new therapies for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. The more I learn about the Institute’s pioneering investigations and get to know the scientists behind them, the more hopeful I feel about the future.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

This crisis has shown me just how fragile our social systems are — from the ways we do business to the ways we interact with family and friends. We’ve seen our world change at a pace we couldn’t have envisioned before this pandemic struck. As a result, I’m more sensitive to how quickly the fabric of our lives can be disrupted. And I’m more keenly aware of how important it is to find solutions before the next major disruption happens. Whether we’re attempting to address climate change, the global energy crisis, or another emerging virus, scientists will, once again, be instrumental in charting the path forward.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

One change I would like to see is greater appreciation for the importance of science and scientific research in our daily lives. When a vaccine and treatments become available — hopefully sooner rather than later — it will be because of the ingenuity and determination of the scientific community. I hope the public will recognize the role science has played in ending this crisis — and feel motivated to learn more about what research entails. I would love to see more young people inspired to pursue careers in STEM. One of the Weizmann Institute’s core values is to increase science literacy among both children and adults. Its Davidson Institute of Science Education hosts myriad programs, both in-person and online, for schoolchildren of all backgrounds to encourage their love of science. In fact, the Davidson Institute recently launched a new website called Stuck at Home?, which offers a suite of remote-learning activities for the entire family. I hope we’ll see more students studying STEM subjects in college and beyond, because the world needs scientists now more than ever.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I’m very close with my seven-year-old nephew, and I often think about the world he and his generation will inherit when they reach adulthood. I believe we should all strive to leave our planet a better place than we found it. I’m fortunate to have a career that enables me to do just that. I also get to work with people who are equally passionate about creating a brighter future. It gives me tremendous fulfillment and deep personal satisfaction to help advance such a worthy mission.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d love to start a movement to increase both public and private funding for fundamental scientific research — not only for the Weizmann Institute but for like-minded institutions around the world. From life-saving medications to life-changing technologies, scientific advancements have had the greatest impact on moving humanity forward. It would be inspiring to see a groundswell of support for science as the pathway to human progress.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

One of real pleasures and privileges that accompanies my work with the Weizmann Institute is getting an opportunity to see what the future might look like before it actually develops. Having conversations and meetings with some of the most curious, intrepid, and creative scientists in the world — who are tackling the toughest questions in the world — is invigorating and addictive. From that perspective, I have always wanted to meet someone like Elon Musk, who shares many of the characteristics that fuel the investigators at the Institute. Through his entrepreneurship, he is creating a series of possible futures for humanity. I am captivated and intrigued by this sort of future-oriented, curiosity-driven intellect. And sometimes — if you catch them at the right time — you actually do get to glimpse the future before it happens.

How can our readers follow you online?

We encourage readers to learn more about the Weizmann Institute’s important work by visiting our website, and by following @WeizmannUSA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!