Bessie Lawrence US delegation

The 21-student U.S. delegation to the International Summer Science Institute on the Weizmann Institute campus in Rehovot, Israel included Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz of Boca Raton (second row, third from right).

This summer, budding scientists Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz of Boca Raton and Luke Horger of Fort Pierce spent four weeks on the Weizmann Institute campus in Rehovot, Israel.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is one of the world's leading scientific research institutions, with nearly 4,000 researchers making a global impact in areas ranging from health and medicine, to alternative energy, to space exploration.

Cepeda Diaz and Horger were among 21 talented teens from the United States selected to participate in the Weizmann Institute's annual Dr. Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI).

This prestigious program – which accepts only 1 in 5 applicants and provides full scholarships to all participants – affords students the opportunity to conduct research with world-renowned scientists in biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science.

This year's American participants joined some 60 other young, future scientists from around the world in experiencing the challenges and rewards of working alongside top scientific researchers and learning about life in Israel.

Cepeda Diaz, a co-valedictorian of Boca Raton Community High School who is now in her freshman year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., called her month at Weizmann "a once-in-a lifetime experience."

Cepeda Diaz said: "The lab environment was friendly and welcoming, but at the same time intellectually challenging and enlightening. Israel was hands down one of the most amazing, beautiful countries I have ever visited with an outstandingly rich culture and history."

Horger, a Lincoln Park Academy graduate who is now attending the Burnett Medical Scholars Program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, added: "I was empowered to learn that as a high school senior, I was able to assist my mentor – a PhD student – in conducting neuroscience research. I also was enlightened to learn about many fascinating traditions of Israeli culture."

Cepeda Diaz heard about the institute from Montita Sowapark, a student at Boca High who had gone the previous summer.

Cepeda Diaz said: "Montita spoke wonders about the program. I looked it up and immediately fell in love."

She continued: "I love scientific research, so I was looking for an opportunity to go back to the lab in the summer. But, at the same time, going to Israel had been one of my long-time dreams. This program wasn't just an opportunity in the sciences – it was a dream come true."

Cepeda Diaz is not Jewish, but she says for some years now she has had a fascination for Judaism and Israel.

She said: "Israel is an outstanding country; it never ceases to amaze me. Not only is it stunningly beautiful – the desert is a place like no other, hands down one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to – but it also has such diverse peoples who are so welcoming and open to sharing their experiences.

"This creates more than an intellectual experience; it is also cultural and spiritual. From the academic excellence of the Weizmann institute, to the landscape of the desert, to the history of the people that we met in our journey, Israel has proven to be a unique, awe-inspiring country."

Cepeda Diaz says the ISSI program provided her with the best summer of her life.

She said: "I gained lifelong friendships, valuable scientific enlightenment and a newly expanded horizon. I walked out of Israel with new memories, new friends, and new dreams and aspirations. ISSI was a thoroughly transformative experience – I don't think anyone came out the same."

Cepeda Diaz said that the ISSI program definitely changed the way she approached going into college.

She said: "The program helped me realize the infinity of opportunities that are out there – that I don't have to choose now what I want to do for the rest of my life. ISSI gave me a thirst to travel and explore the world.

"I learned that it is OK to feel lost, it is OK to wander, to take risks and push the boundaries of the unknown – but most importantly, to always be open to learning, because learning often comes from unexpected sources.

"These lessons have allowed me to take better advantage of the opportunities Harvard provides – from attending Harvard Hillel for Shabbat dinner, to attending a political debate about Iran's nuclear deal, to taking Beginners Arabic as one of my classes."

Cepeda Diaz said the ISSI staff was absolutely spectacular, commenting: "They work so hard to make this summer possible and they are a key piece in making this experience what it is. Meeting every single one of them was a privilege."

To learn more about the ISSI program, visit www.weizmann-usa.org (and click on the links for "About Us" and "Education"), or contact Rebecca Serber at r.serber@acwis.org or 212-895-7906.

The deadline to apply for the 2016 program is March 1, 2016.