Remembering R’ada Massarwa
Prof. Benny Shilo, Department of Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science
On September 5th 2020, R’ada Massarwa passed away, after a long and courageous struggle with disease. R’ada’s outgoing and unique personality had a deep impact on the many people she encountered throughout her career. I will present my recollections from 17 years of intensive interactions with her.
R’ada grew up in the Israeli-Arab town of Baqua el Garbia, and was surrounded by a closely knit and caring family. After finishing high school, her decision to move to Rehovot to study at the Faculty of Agriculture meant that she would be on her own, in a new and unfamiliar social setting. In 2003 R’ada was accepted to the MSc/PhD program at the Weizmann Institute, and approached me for a rotation. This was the beginning of our long-lasting interaction. From the outset, it was clear that there was something special, unconventional and different about her. R’ada was a force of nature. Many times we did not agree, but it was still both challenging and fun to argue with her. Her total uncompromising approach was also manifested in the brave way with which she fought the disease over the past few years, coming to the lab and actually regarding work as the best cure or distraction for her medical problems.
Besides the science, R’ada’s other passion was directed towards educating young Arab students, and encouraging them to aim high in their education, projecting herself as a role model and inspiration. She displayed this approach not only towards her many nieces and nephews, but towards Arab high school students at large. Her projects with these students had a long-lasting impact on the career decisions of the brightest ones. Her ambitious long-term plan, which she did not get a chance to implement, was to develop a large-scale scientific education and research program for high schools in the Arab sector.
With her unlimited passion, R’ada showed a fulltime commitment to Science from the outset. It was clear to me that I would be responsible not only for guiding her scientific development to realize her potential, but also for her personal wellbeing. This obligation was also taken up by Eyal Schejter, who co-supervised R’ada, and by Shari Carmon, who provided the social cushion from that first encounter until R’ada’s last days. R’ada had her own special way of seeing the world. She was a person of totality and extremes. Throughout the years, my contribution was to try to provide a somewhat softer viewpoint, and to encourage her to find ways of balancing research work with life outside of the Institute gates.
R’ada’s PhD thesis opened two new research areas that provided long-lasting research directions for the lab. She identified WIP, a regulatory protein of the branched actin nucleator WASp, as a crucial element in muscle cell fusion in the fly embryo. Her analysis provided a detailed mechanism for the involvement of actin nucleation in the fusion between muscle founder cells and myoblasts. In a second project, R’ada identified the role of the linear actin nucleator, Dia, in creating tracks for vesicle secretion in a broad range of epithelial tissues in the fly embryo. Both of these projects were characterized by a total commitment to scientific excellence, a rigorous and critical scientific approach and outstanding technical capabilities. “Uncompromising” is perhaps not strong enough a word to convey R’ada’s style of work. Countless overnight shifts, processing dozens of samples simultaneously, and an almost magical capability of obtaining outstanding and extremely informative images on the confocal microscope that told the story.
R’ada’s scientific maturation during her PhD was accompanied by personal growth. Despite the cultural differences between the Weizmann Institute and the more traditional society at Baqua, R’ada learned how to merge the two worlds, and her family reciprocated by accepting her as she was. For her outstanding work, R’ada received the Kennedy Prize at the PhD conferment ceremony in 2009, the highest award for a PhD thesis at the Weizmann Institute. It was particularly moving to hear her say that during her period at Weizmann she gained not only the Weizmann family but also regained her original family.
R’ada received the prestigious HFSP fellowship and went on to Denver, Colorado, to carry out her post-doc studies with Lee Niswander. Moving from flies to mice was a big jump. In Boulder, R’ada did what she knows to do best- develop novel live imaging technologies for mouse embryos. These studies allowed to see, for the first time, the dynamic process of neural tube closure. Towards the completion of her post-doc studies, R’ada reached the decision not to pursue an independent academic career, but rather find avenues where she could continue to be directly involved in executing challenging microscopy projects.
Upon returning to the Weizmann Institute in 2012, R’ada was instrumental in the purchase and implementation of the first Lightsheet microscope at Weizmann. In the lab of Yaqub Hanna she pioneered culturing and imaging of developing mouse embryos for extended time periods. Finally, in her last years, she worked again in my lab, returning to an extension of one of her PhD research topics on the regulation of actomyosin during secretion by large vesicles. Particularly memorable were two intensive weeks that Eyal and I spent with her at the Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, utilizing the Lattice Lightsheet microscope to image secretion. R’ada exhibited there her full wizardry in operating this complicated and sophisticated microscope, to obtain the best possible images.
One great insight we gained from R’ada was a window to the Arab sector in Israel. Her deep rooted connections and appreciation for her origins educated all of us. Because of her warm and personal approach, all the political hurdles we are continually faced with seemed irrelevant, when people can simply relate to each other directly on a personal basis. The only times when the politics of the real world entered was when R’ada had to undergo the extensive security checks at the airport, every time she flew out of the country.
R’ada will be deeply missed by all those who knew her, she was one of a kind.