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Israel’s maverick academic

Posted By Abigail Klein Leichman On October 26, 2009 @ 12:00 am In | No Comments

Not content to rest on the academic laurels he earned at an unusually young age, Ely Porat also uses his smarts to improve education in the sciences.

 

How do you become the youngest professor in Israel? Extraordinary smarts and a passion for academia certainly help – and it doesn’t hurt to earn a Ph.D. before you turn 21.

To be exact, Ely Porat was just one month shy of his 21st birthday when he received his doctorate in computer science from Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Understandably, the university’s leadership wanted him to stay.

“I never sent them a résumé,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “When you’re doing a master’s degree, you have the option to teach, and I did. Then one day they said, ‘You’re now a lecturer,’ and I went on to become a senior lecturer and then associate professor.”

This distinction won’t get him into the Guinness Book of World Records, which currently lists the world’s youngest professor as Alia Sabur, a 20-year-old American in the department of advanced technology fusion at Konkuk University in South Korea.

Ascending both academic and military ladders

However, unlike Sabur, Porat – now 30 years old – was not only climbing the academic ladder during the past nine years. He also ascended to a strategic position in the Israel Defense Forces that he is not at liberty to discuss even after finishing his tour of duty in July.

“I was the only soldier who got out of officer training to go to the university once a week to teach,” he says. “And I did all the research in my free time.”

Still working as a military consultant, Porat also teaches six or eight hours a week and spends many additional hours on research and mentoring graduate students. He teaches undergraduate managerial and complexity courses, as well as advanced complexity courses in the graduate computer science department’s algorithm track.

Simply put, Porat’s area of expertise is inventing new algorithms – sophisticated mathematical formulas – to tackle complex problems in time and space. There are myriad practical applications for his algorithms, including advances in DNA research and magnetic resonance imaging.

World-renowned expert in inventing algorithms

His reputation as a worldwide expert has him constantly in transit. Porat has lectured in the US more than 20 times, in the United Kingdom three times in 2009 alone, and in Germany, The Netherlands, Finland, Siberia, Chile and Argentina. His next stop is India.

“Each time, I speak on another algorithm I’m inventing,” says Porat. His newest area of interest is streaming algorithms, which he describes as facilitating “a lot of computation when you don’t have the material to do it.”

Streaming algorithms make it possible, for example, for network routers to process large volumes of constantly changing data despite little memory capability.

Porat’s lectures and many co-written papers are executed in English – not bad for a kid who claims that he nearly failed his English-language graduation examination in high school.

Whiz kid hopes to nurture others

Even before kindergarten, Porat was a whiz kid. Naturally he had his own computer. Encouraged by his mother, who teaches computers at a high school in Elkana – a Samarian suburb of Tel Aviv close to where Porat now lives with his wife, Yael – the young math aficionado won a coveted spot at AMIT Ginsburg Bar Ilan Junior and Senior High School. Its most promising students can take courses at Bar-Ilan University while still in high school.

Because most Israelis begin college only after two or three years in the army, Porat was earning his Ph.D. before most similarly aged peers were freshmen.

Convinced that advanced mathematical concepts are difficult to grasp before the age of 16, Porat devised a new 10th grade math curriculum now in use at several schools.

Equally convinced that computer science is best learned soon afterward, he advocates draft deferments for gifted computer science students so that they can enter the army fully trained in sophisticated digital problem solving.

“Computer science has a lot of difficult areas that younger people can learn more quickly,” explains Porat. And who would know that better than the country’s youngest professor?

 

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