Each summer, the Kupcinet-Getz International Science School offers outstanding undergraduate students from around the world the opportunity to spend two months conducting research at the Weizmann Institute. For Alice Chudnovsky, now a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, participating in the program was the opportunity of a lifetime. Here, Alice reflects on her transformative summer at Weizmann, her passion for Israel and mathematics, and her efforts to encourage women in her field.

How did you hear about the Kupcinet-Getz International Science School and why were you interested in applying?

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Alice Chudnovsky

Alice Chudnovsky: I heard about the program from a family friend who is a math professor in Moscow, and was immediately interested in the opportunity to do research abroad for the summer. Even though I had been involved with Israeli advocacy, I didn’t fully appreciate that this program would allow me to connect my interest in Israel and my love of math. But once I was accepted, I realized what this experience could mean. I feel lucky because for most Jewish college students, their first time in Israel is through Birthright or another organized trip for 7-10 days. However, by spending two months at the Weizmann Institute, I actually got to experience Israel from the inside, as a local.

What was it like to meet other budding scientists and mathematicians from around the world?

AC: This summer was absolutely incredible. The exchange of knowledge among the “Kupcinetos” was exactly what I was looking for in a summer research program. There were about 30 of us from at least 10 different countries, so while we were experiencing Israeli culture, we also got to share our own. From traveling all over Israel on the weekends, to going to Tel Aviv after work, to just sitting in our backyard and talking about science, I can’t possibly imagine learning more. By the end of the two months, we found ourselves with new bonds of friendship, inviting each other to visit all over the world.

“This summer was absolutely incredible. I can’t possibly imagine learning more.How would you describe a typical day in the program?

AC: We had a lot of freedom and our schedules varied. Students working in the life sciences might go to the lab around 8:30 in the morning and not leave till 7:00 at night. For me, since mathematicians don’t really have labs, I would go to the math library and utilize their resources. I’d have one-on-one meetings with my advisor, Prof. Vladimir Berkovich, as necessary. I also attended some of the faculty events, which gave me the opportunity to meet other professors in the department.

Around 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. everyone would be free. We lived in a gorgeous dorm in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Agriculture, a short walk from the Weizmann campus. Reisfeld was an international residence, so we got to intermittently meet scientists from around the world who came to the Institute for conferences and other activities.

Tell us a bit about your research project with Prof. Berkovich.

AC: Prof. Berkovich does research in the field of algebraic geometry, an area of mathematics that requires so much background knowledge it is usually reserved for graduate students and postdocs. After the equivalent of an introductory reading course, I decided to focus on an application of algebraic geometry: elliptic curve cryptography. It’s the encryption algorithm that the NSA [National Security Agency] recommended as a new alternative to RSA back in 1985, and what Edward Snowden publicized as the cause of the NSA being privy to confidential information.

While on campus, I accidentally came across the Weizmann Institute’s role in the development of the RSA algorithm, which has been used all over the world to secure Internet, banking, and credit card transactions. It was incredible to see the direct connection Weizmann had to my field of research. Now that I’ve been introduced to algebraic geometry and I’ve played around with cryptography a bit, I’ll probably continue researching these topics over the next year.

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Alice Chudnovsky in the Weizmann Institute's Mathematics Library

How would you compare studying mathematics in the U.S. to your experience conducting research at Weizmann?

AC: My research experience at Weizmann was a lot more sababa, or relaxed than in the U.S. The program was purposely unstructured, so that we could pursue science that intrigued us, rather than being told what to do. At the Weizmann Institute, you eat, sleep, and breathe science. You hear people talking about science in the streets, and even the decor of the buildings is inspired by science. That special atmosphere is what stimulates everyone there to pursue their research, not an advisor telling students to go to a website and look up points A through D. The Institute simply opened its doors and resources to us and treated us as adult researchers. It was incredibly liberating to learn to rely on myself academically, which is something I wish every undergraduate could experience.

“The Weizmann Institute opened its doors and resources to us and treated us as adult researchers. It was liberating to learn to rely on myself academically.”

How do you feel we can encourage more women to pursue math and scientific fields?

AC: In the U.S., the number of women pursuing STEM majors in college has gone up significantly over the past 30 years—in all fields except for mathematics, that is. In my department at the University of Illinois, specifically in the more theoretical classes, you will see two girls in a class of 30 people, at best. I think girls like to visualize their futures, and that’s a lot easier to do for engineering or computer science professions than mathematics. We can’t really consider a career if we don’t know what it is, which is why I started the undergraduate chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) at my school. This year, we’re hoping to start a seminar in theoretical math to spark the interest of college women and even high school girls. If it’s successful, we plan to organize a conference with other universities that will introduce students to female mathematicians, and hopefully, they’ll think about pursuing careers in the field.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

AC: Currently, my goal is to pursue a PhD in mathematics, hopefully in algebraic geometry, and then either to continue in academia or go into the intelligence units (the NSA, CIA, etc.). I definitely plan to stay in touch with the people I met at the Weizmann Institute and visit as much as I can—every time I'm in Israel. If I get accepted, I would love to attend graduate school there!

Kupcinet-Getz International Summer Science School students

Alice Chudnovsky (front row, center) on the Weizmann campus with fellow participants in the annual Kupcinet-Getz International Summer Science School

You’re very involved with Israel-related causes, but did your experience at the Weizmann Institute this summer give you a different perspective?

AC: I came with an open mind, but I was still extremely surprised. You hear statistics about the number of startups in Israel, but nothing can really prepare you for the level of innovation because it’s the country of the future. You have to see it for yourself. The Weizmann Institute is a phenomenal place with a strong sense of history and community. It was especially meaningful to spend time there because I was so interested in Israel as well as math and science. The entire summer, I felt like my life was finally fitting together.