Heini, a personal recollection and appreciation


I was Heine Eisenberg's first doctoral student. How this happened was a little unusual and perhaps worth telling. I had come to Israel in 1961 after completing my undergraduate studies in London. I spent close to a year on a kibbutz and towards the end began to look for a job that would help me pay my way back to continue my studies. Looking back I am surprised I had had the good sense to ask my mentors for letters of introduction to scientists in Israel just in case I should want to study there. All four letters were addressed to members of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. My chemistry professor, Charles Vernon, had provided me with letters to some very distinguished scientists. Aharon Katzir was head of the Polymer Department and later became the Minister for Education before he was tragically struck down by a terrorist. Ephraim Katzir, Aharon's brother, was head of the Biophysics Department which was situated on the floor above the Polymer Department; Ephraim was to become the fourth President of the State of Israel. Another letter was addressed to Israel Dostrovsky, head of the Isotopes Research Department and later to be President of the Weizmann Institute, the last letter was addressed to David Samuels, Dean of the Chemistry Faculty and the grandson of Lord Herbert Samuels, the first High Commissioner during the period of the British Mandate.

Naively, without first contacting anyone, I went to the Weizmann Institute thinking I would meet one or more of these scientists, hand them the letter and hopefully be offered some kind of job. None of these illustrious scientists was on the campus -they were all away at meetings. I left my letters with the various secretaries and returned to the kibbutz. A few weeks later I got a call from the Polymer Department inviting me to come for an interview. My letter to Aharon Katzir had been circulated in the department and Heine asked to meet me. Heine was apparently impressed by my first class honors degree in Biochemistry from University College and offered me a position as a technician. In retrospect, he was perhaps more impressed by my English than my credentials. Although I had become fairly proficient in Hebrew at the kibbutz, from the first day I stepped into Heine's lab we always spoke English. The salary of a technician was abysmal, and Heine suggested I switch to becoming a doctoral student. On occasion I have wondered where my career would have taken me if any of the other three scientists had been the first to answer my letter. Doctoral students were treated well and there was a strong feeling of camaraderie amongst them. Several became good friends and made outstanding careers, including Robert Blumenthal who is presently Head of the Center for Cancer Research Nanobiology Program at the National Institutes of Health, and Ada Yonath who was later to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Among the frequent visitors to Heine's lab, I formed a warm and lasting friendship with Bill Carroll, from the National Institutes of Health, and his wife Bunny.

Heine was a generous and thoughtful supervisor. He was first and foremost a superb experimental scientist, and he instructed me in performing rigorous experimental research. This was still a time when scientists might make their own instruments and I was much impressed when Heine built a Couette flow viscometer to study DNA molecules. In particular, I remember the long hours working with him as we calibrated the Sofica light-scattering machine with which we analyzed the molecular properties of short DNA fragments. In those days, when restriction enzymes had not yet been discovered, we used a sonicator to shear high-molecular weight calf thymus DNA into smaller fragments. Performing light scattering and viscosity measurements on these fragments led to us to achieve some valuable insights into the flexibility of DNA molecules. Another project, which was necessary for interpreting the scattering data, was the measurement of the partial specific volumes. This we did using an ingenious device, the Lindstrom-Lang Cartesian diver. Many were the evenings, after everyone had left the lab, when I would spend hours monitoring the droplets of DNA solution as they moved to their equilibrium positions in the gradient and Heine would sometimes come and keep me company. We measured the partial specific volumes in a variety of different salt solutions, Na, K and Cs as part of an investigation to see whether the physical properties of DNA - its radius of gyration, intrinsic viscosity and sedimentation coefficient – were affected by the nature of the salt, to resolve a controversy in the literature. Years later Heine proudly told me that our data on partial specific volumes, reported in the Landolt Börnstein Database, was still the best data in the literature.

My research took an unexpected turn as a result of a visit to the Weizmann Institute by Harold Scheraga. Harold was very interested in understanding the molecular structure of liquid water in terms of the flickering cluster model of Frank and Wen, and he and Heine devised the idea that light scattering might be a tool to investigate its molecular structure. Consequently, I spent a good part of a year purifying, to a very high optical degree, water, D2O and several organic liquids, and measuring their light scattering properties as a function of temperature. The work was reported in the Journal of Chemical Physics entitled ‘Light Scattering of Water, Deuterium Oxide, and Other Pure Liquids’ where we showed that the light-scattering properties of water and other pure liquids as a function of temperature were in excellent agreement with the predictions of the Einstein density–fluctuation theory. The fact that I had validated Einstein's equation more than compensated for the realization that no significant new information on the molecular structure of water could be derived from the dependence of light-scattering on temperature. One amusing outcome from that study was that because of my expertise in the optical purification of heavy water I would get invitations to attend meetings on nuclear energy.

Heine was an attentive and friendly supervisor. He took an interest in my private life and he was instrumental in helping me find a place to do my postdoc. If I had any complaint about Heine's supervision of my research it had to do with the writing up the papers for publication. Heine wanted to write the papers himself, although he did allow me to write the experimental section and of course to check the English. Heine was influential in my future career being the catalyst in my shifting to work in molecular biology. Did I have any influence on Heine's research? I think so. Before I joined Heine's lab his research was exclusively in the field of synthetic polyelectrolytes. My joining his lab generated the opportunity to branch out into biological macromolecules. We occasionally ran into one another in later years, and I feel that he and I both recognized that there was something quite special about the relationship we had had, he as my supervisor and I as his first doctoral student.