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Dr. Aaron Ciechanover’s long and distinguished career in science culminated in 2004, when he and two colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But like all great accomplishments and great careers, Ciechanover’s journey started simply, when he was a boy in his native, and freshly created, Israel. As he told an auditorium filled with students and faculty from 18 Charlotte-area high schools April 5, “I think my secret was that I never took anything for granted.”
Meaning, he didn’t merely accept that trees and grass were green instead of blue or red. He asked why. (Chlorophyll.) He didn’t merely accept that the human body generally works the way it’s supposed to. He asked why. (It’s complicated, but, basically: Proteins.)
Through it all – a stint as a physician in the Israel Defense Forces, an early-career switch from medicine to laboratory science, the Nobel – Ciechanover, 63, has held fast to a basic lesson: “Never get stuck with something you don’t like … Do what you want to do. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, change it.”
He had an attentive audience. About 600 students gathered in the auditorium of William A. Hough High School outside Cornelius to hear him speak; he’d been invited by The Echo Foundation, the Charlotte educational nonprofit, which organizes an annual “Voices Against Indifference Initiative.” The initiative brings to Charlotte programs and speakers to discuss global challenges and responsibilities, and engages area students in Echo-sponsored curricula.
For 19 years, Ciechanover has been a biochemistry professor at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. The Nobel Prize that Ciechanover shares was awarded for his work in illustrating the long-mysterious process by which cells dispose of certain basic proteins, and what the process can tell us about immunological and neurodegenerative diseases, preventions and cures.
But he’s also a visible and vocal advocate for human rights and education, and those were the topics most of the students wanted to ask him about. Several, in one way or another, asked Ciechanover, a Jew, how he reconciles faith and science. By the sixth similar question, he was annoyed: “Didn’t I make myself clear in the answers to the other five questions?”
He had. To him, religion is a wonderful way to bond families and preserve distinctive cultures; he grew up in an Orthodox household in Haifa, and he said he treasures the rituals of the Holy Days.
“But when it starts to take a sword to its hand, then we are in a problem, and you face that here in the United States,” he said. Religion is fine as the basis for a moral code, “but I don’t think you have to be religious to be a moral human being … I don’t have to believe in someone who sits there with a joystick and controls our lives.”
And acceptance of Darwinian theory, in his view, is utterly incompatible with religious belief.
If the goal was to get students thinking, the event succeeded spendidly.
“His insight was really different from my own,” said Laura Carroll, 18, an East Mecklenburg High senior who thinks there’s room in one mind for both science and religion. “But I see his perspective, and it’s inspired me to do some more thinking for myself.”
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