After his senior year of high school, Kyle Polen could have used his summer to take a well-earned break before starting his first semester at Arizona State University. But Polen decided instead to study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
Polen, 19, joined the institute’s Dr. Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute program, which takes in 80 high school graduates from around the world to experience scientific research firsthand.
“It was a program that I applied for in December of last year and I was fortunate enough to be one of the representatives from the United States,” Polen said. “I really developed a passion for scientific research later in high school. It was an incredible learning experience for me.”
However, its prestige wasn’t the only reason Polen found himself drawn to study at the institute. He had been to Israel once before during a summer trip through Camp Stein and he was hoping to go back. Even though this wasn’t specifically a Jewish program, he found it a great way to combine two of his passions.
And his previous experience in the country allowed him to help his fellow students experience the Jewish state better.
“Most of the students at the Weizmann Institute were not Jewish and I kind of felt like a representative, in a way, having been to Israel already,” Polen said. “They’re memories that I look back on very fondly, I got to experience Israel a second time while all these students got to see it for the first time.”
The summer science program offers students training in subjects like biology, chemistry, physics and computer science. It also gives students the chance to use sophisticated lab equipment such as electron microscopes, advanced computers, a high-energy particle accelerator and lasers.
The month-long program started in 1969 and has been going on consistently since then.
Polen said he always clicked with technology, science and math in the classroom, but his passion for those subjects grew when he started volunteering at a hospital and got hands-on research experience.
When he initially arrived at the institute, Polen was open to any subject of research work he could be a part of, and that flexible mindset brought him to study a subject that he had never considered before.
“My research focused specifically on immunology in a lab group of four people with a mentor,” Polen said. “It was focused on multiple sclerosis treatments on a small, cellular level. We were working with human blood and cells to apply a treatment that we had seen work for mice.”
Polen said that the opportunity to learn about immunology — the study of the immune system — expanded his understanding about medicine. At ASU he is studying biochemistry in the life sciences program. His focus is on pre-medical sciences because he wants to become a physician.
Before attending ASU, he studied at Chaparral High School and was one of 20 Arizona students selected as a Flinn Scholar. The scholarship gives students a full ride to any state college.
He received the call from the Flinn Foundation while he was brushing his teeth in Switzerland on a travel abroad program. Polen admits that it was all a hectic time for him, but it was also an incredible experience.
“I think being able to have that work ethic and understanding helped me make it through those difficult application processes and help me get to where I want to be,” Polen said.
A member of Congregation Beth Israel, Polen said that many of his opportunities came from being so involved with the Jewish community. Having that community to rely on and the same friends from his Sunday school and camp have always provided him great motivation to continue forward.
Attending the Weizmann Institute was an experience he thought could not have happened without the support of the Jewish community.
“I really was not expecting to get it, because like I said, I didn’t have as much research experience before,” Polen said. “But, I think it’s important not to get discouraged. But, I knew that this was too important, and even though I didn’t think that I had a great chance, I still applied myself and it worked out in the end. I’m so grateful that it did.” JN