As Rivka Carmi, the new president at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, takes on the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent to her institution, she is able to draw on her own personal experience.

Thirty years ago, Rivka Carmi herself was a young medical student at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical School weighing an offer to do her internship at BGU’s Soroka University Medical Center. One problem – she had never been to Beersheva, where the university and the hospital are located.

“At the time, the Negev was something extremely far away. I had passed through Beersheva on the way to Eilat, but never stopped there,” she told ISRAEL21c.

As she debated whether to accept the offer, “It occurred to me that I was thinking throughout my life in an idealistic way, and I saw real opportunity here to turn idealism into action. I told myself that I should practice what I’d been thinking and talking about for so many years – making a difference in people’s lives. I’d heard good things about the young medical school at BGU, I really liked the idea of a community-oriented medical school, which was the opposite of the approach I’d experienced at Hebrew University. So I decided to fulfill my ideals and come.”

Moving to Beersheva was indeed considered a radical and idealistic move for a young doctor at the time: very few of her classmates were interested in practicing medicine anywhere in the Israeli periphery and particularly, in the Negev.

“All of my friends from medical school stayed in the center of the country. Those of us who came south shared a conviction that we wanted to make a difference by improving the health of the Negev’s underprivileged population.”

Not only did she help achieve that goal, but the decision turned out to be a good career move as well – Carmi’s steady rise through the ranks at BGU has made her a role model for Israeli women in academia and medicine. She is the first woman in Israeli academia to serve as university president – following her two-time election to head BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, where she was the first female dean of a medical school in Israel.

The two top jobs cap an impressive resume. Following completion of her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in neonatology at Soroka, Carmi left Israel for two years for a fellowship in Medical Genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School. At the end of that stint, she was offered a tempting offer to remain at Harvard, but once again chose to return to the Negev.

Promoted to full professor in 1995, she is the incumbent of the Kreitman Foundation Chair in Pediatric Genetics with laboratory research focused mainly on the delineation of the clinical manifestations and molecular basis of genetic diseases in the Negev Arab-Bedouin population.

She has published over 100 articles in the field of medical genetics, and has personally identified 12 new genes and delineated three new syndromes – one of which is known as the Carmi Syndrome. She took a proactive role in the Bedouin community by initiating projects to stem the spread of hereditary diseases. She won a life achievement award by the Yated organization for children with Down Syndrome and an achievement in Medicine Award by the Beersheva municipality.

All the while, she climbed the administrative ladder at BGU, serving as director of the Genetics Institute at Soroka and holding additional important academic administrative positions in the Faculty of Health Sciences, before she was elected dean.

Her first term as dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences began in 2000, and following a successful term was re-elected. Between 2002 and 2005 she was also the Chairperson of the Israel Association of Medical Deans.

“I view becoming dean of the medical school as my biggest challenge and in some ways, a bigger achievement than being named university president,” she reflected. “That is because the world of medical academia is very traditional. It wasn’t just based on merit – I had to campaign, I had to sell myself. It was very difficult and took a lot of work and effort.”

Asked whether the fact she was the first woman to seek such a post in Israel contributed to making it so difficult, she replied, “Certainly, during that time, there were sexist innuendos – nothing overt, but just the words and phrases people chose to use.”

Being elected president of BGU president was much less of a struggle, particularly considering the circumstances. Her predecessor, Prof. Avishai Braverman left the job in a sudden, public move, making the decision to throw his hat in the ring as a candidate for the Labor Party in the recent elections.

Had a long search process for an outside candidate ensued, it would have left a problematic vacuum of power. Braverman had been slated to leave at the end of the year, and it is possible that under normal circumstances, a more comprehensive search might have ensued. But Carmi was by far the strongest candidate, and she was asked by the university’s Executive Committee acting on behalf of the Board of Governors to take on the position.

“They were wise enough to know that what the university really needed was somebody who already knew the university well, who could hit the ground running in such a situation – where the former president literally left overnight, and there was no time for the usual transition period,” said Carmi.

She has been pleased and surprised by the reaction to the fact that she was elected to the job.

“It is quite something. Women come up to me – not just academics – but from all walks of life, and write me emails, telling me how proud they are of what I have achieved.”

“I feel that I am a role model and I am going to use that position to address issues which I feel are important. I know there are some women who, when they get to top positions, purposely refrain from dealing with gender issues and women’s issues, because they don’t want to be perceived as too much of a feminist. I don’t feel this way. I think I understand the problems that women face – I more than understand them. And I think that along with my other responsibilities, I should really commit myself to improving the situation of women.”

Pioneering is in her blood. Carmi was born in Israel to young parents who had immigrated to the country in the early ’30s. She grew up in Zichron Yaacov, on the southern part of the Carmel mountains, and served in the IDF for three years as an officer, including a long period of reserve duty during and after the Yom Kippur war, where she helped to establish the special unit for locating soldiers who were missing in action, before she dedicated herself to medicine.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of her new job as BGU president is the fact that she no longer has daily contact with the health care field, to which she had committed so much throughout her adult life.

“Oh,” she exclaims in mock anguish when asked about the transition to life away from medicine. “Now that is a painful subject. It is very, very difficult for me. Even though I haven’t been practicing medicine proper for a while, even while I was Dean, I had a clinic once a week that kept me connected to medicine. I don’t have that anymore, and I really miss it.”

Following in the footsteps of a popular and charismatic leader and successful fundraiser like Braverman won’t be easy, particularly in an era when the competition for funding, both from the government and private donors, has grown tougher.

She acknowledged the challenge ahead of her in her speech at the ceremony where she was elected president. She declared that “the next decade will be about excellent research that will place BGU among the best universities in the world. We have good research in many areas. But if we want to compete in order to achieve excellence and meaningful scientific impact, we have to focus on our strengths and uniqueness.”

Those strengths include areas which are attracting world interest at the moment: desert and desertification research and related water technologies, arid zones agriculture, solar and bio-energy, environment, and biotechnology.

With 2006 declared by the United Nations as the year of combating desertification, BGU has a unique opportunity on the world stage in November, when for the first time ever, a conference under the auspices of the UN will be held in Israel, on its Sde Boker campus.

Another future development that Carmi and the university is looking forward to is the implementation government’s Negev initiative which includes plans to transfer various elite units of the IDF to the Negev, making the university an important resource for the military.

In order to make that groundbreaking research happen, Carmi must continue the momentum that Braverman began, in convincing top talent to head south.

“Look, I am very realistic,” she says candidly. “2006 is not 1982 – the year that I came to Beersheva. While there is still ideology, people are looking for some comfort and quality of life and don’t want to sacrifice too much. You have to at least match other offers.”

Under those circumstances, she believes, young academics will be willing to make the same choice that she made – and reap the same rewards.

“We can attract young Israelis returning home from their post-doctorate training at the top universities in the United States and Europe,” she told the audience at the ceremony where she officially took on her new job. “This is because we offer them open-mindedness, enthusiasm, excitement, commitment, collegiality and a warm atmosphere that others may have lost, but which we have succeeded to nurture and maintain. It is contagious, invigorating and it marks a future.”