Leadership Profile: Alon Chen

Weizmann Institute President Prof. Alon Chen is Breaking the Mold
By Ami Aronson of the Bernstein Family Foundation

From a very young age, Prof. Alon Chen knew that he wanted to dedicate his life to science.
Today, he is a renowned neuroscientist who has served as President of the Weizmann Institute
of Science since 2019. The 11th person to hold that office throughout the Institute’s rich history,
Prof. Chen is building on the Weizmann Institute’s legacy of bold leadership and scientific
discovery on the global stage.

Born and raised in Israel, Prof. Chen completed his Bachelors in Life Sciences at Ben-Gurion
University before pursuing his Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute. Shaped in large part by his
experience serving in an elite paratroopers’ unit in the Israel Defense Forces, he was
determined to study the brain mechanisms of stress. After four years of postdoctoral work at
the Salk Institute in San Diego, CA, he returned to Israel at the age of 35 to receive a tenuretrack position at the Weizmann Institute.

Prof. Chen spoke to us recently about Weizmann’s extraordinary impact on the world and how
his personal career path led him to head one of the world’s most prestigious scientific research
institutions.

Ami Aronson: Tell me about the Weizmann Institute and what makes it unique.
Prof. Alon Chen: Our philosophy is that we pursue excellence in basic scientific research, with
our eye on how it will benefit humanity. Excellence is the singular criterion we look at when we
recruit new scientists. We have a concept of “open call”—meaning, we never publish our open
positions; postdocs and other scientists know they can always approach us. From our side, we
recruit not according to open positions in a particular field. What we most care about is that
scientists excel in whatever field they are pursuing—that they are top in their field and have
creative ideas about solving the challenges in that field.

Furthermore, the Weizmann Institute is not structured in a hierarchical way. We expect the
scientists to break existing molds—to be bold and to ask outside-the-box questions. Academic
freedom is at the heart of everything here, and the boundaries between departments and
faculty are superficial; scientists can easily reach across those boundaries to collaborate with
colleagues from other disciplines and that’s how amazing cross-pollination of ideas happens.
We tell our scientists to “go with their dreams.”

The campus itself enables this collaborative, multidisciplinary environment which fosters
excellence. Most of our scientists live on campus in close proximity to their research labs, and
to one another. I remember as a student here taking my kids to the playground—and I would
meet my colleagues there, from different fields, and we’d start talking science. People here live
science 24/7, which is a wonderful and unique aspect of Weizmann. It feels like a close-knit
family. We have daycare facilities, a gym, a preschool—everything is on campus, which is a very
green, beautiful, and safe space. So we truly create this ecosystem around science.
Weizmann Institute scientists are also focused on generating transformative knowledge. We
start with trying to understand why things in nature work as they do—the why and how of
science: Why does the brain behave in the way it does? Why does the Universe function as it
does? And then we develop possible answers and solutions.


Q: That philosophy seems to reflect an inherent personal and cultural predisposition to be
curious.

Prof. Chen: This last year with COVID has proven the Weizmann culture of curiosity very well.
Our scientists are uniquely daring. They’re not taking things as written proof. They display
courage and agility. The young scientists here want to pursue and explore everything
imaginable.


Q: How does your personal leadership approach set the Weizmann apart?
Prof. Chen: My style of leadership is very much informed by my own personal experience. I was
born and raised in Israel; my parents emigrated here at a very young age from Morocco; and I
am (with my siblings) the first generation in my family to attain higher education. That was
enormously important to my parents; they did everything they could for us so we could have
that opportunity.

The three years I spent in the Israeli army was also a very difficult time, during which I was
exposed to experiences of extreme stress that put me in situations where I had to respond to
traumatic incidents. Those experiences contributed to my decision to study neuroscience, and I
still think about them often in my research on the brain.


Q: How do you manage your time?
Prof. Chen: I’m a very balanced person; it’s all about balance. Extremism is not good in any
area—in eating, in exercising. I will work very hard, but I will always have my balance. I will
always have my family. Three or four times a week, I wake up at 5:45 AM and go to the sea, and
by 6 AM I’m in my kayak; by 8 AM, I’m heading back. I never skip this. This is my drug—my
ability to cope with what can be a stressful life, though I genuinely love what I do.


Q: What do you and your colleagues at the Weizmann need to maintain that balance and
continue to operate on all cylinders?

Prof. Chen: A critical point I’ve learned is that in order for the system to work at its greatest
capacity— to produce data and discoveries and generate publications—we need to maximize
the internal communication. This is a complex organization. If communication is disrupted
between the various individuals who comprise this place—professors, technicians,
administrators, gardeners—and everyone is not aligned with the common mission, then we
won’t be nearly as successful as we could be. I have an open-door policy. Anyone can approach
not only me, but all the vice presidents.

And while the bylaws of the Institute centralize all the decision-making with the President, that
is not how I want to manage. I’m very collaborative and so are my colleagues, which is unique
to the Weizmann Institute. Major decisions will always involve a bottom-up process as opposed
to being top-down. That creates a very collegial atmosphere that has become even more
evident during Covid.

One recent example of this occurred when we were forced to work at 15-20% capacity of
human resources during the pandemic. Nobody lost their jobs, but people had to go home and
start using their vacation days, and our 250 principal investigators and many key administrative
people donated their vacation days to a collective pool. Then we redistributed those days to
people who didn’t have any vacation time so nobody at the Weizmann Institute lost a single
day’s salary during that year-and-a-half period.


Q: There’s a universal thread we’re finding in the people we’re investing in from our family—a
deep sense of responsibility to serve the people who are serving you. What is your dream—
your vision—for the next 10 years?

Prof. Chen: Ideally, the goal is to identify specific fields of research that have a huge need, and
invest there. One of them is the brain; we have 40 research groups doing brain research, each
led by a scientist who is a world leader in his or her field. There is a clear consensus today that
we need people coming not just from the medical field, but from physics and computer science
and different disciplines to study this complex organ.

Having people like you, as philanthropists, on the team—making the right connections—is one
of the things I want to do in order to expand the circle and reach more and more people. If you
talk to scientists in the U.S., everyone knows the Weizmann Institute. If you talk about
Weizmann in the general public, it’s a different story. It’s hard to increase the visibility of a
small institution like this, but it has to be done in order to increase the circle of support.


Q: Do you have a mantra or favorite quote?
Prof. Chen: “It’s all about balance” is something that resonates with me. As I go through my
day, you’ll see this is how I live. I often tell students: “Always see the big picture.” People have
the tendency to look narrowly, only at the “now”, and I’m always saying, “Zoom out! Look at
the big picture.” This will make life much easier.

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