Conversation with Dr. Blau

By Naamah Plotzker
On November 17, 2011


In both the Judaic and secular departments, the teachers at SCW have great stories to tell. But, unless we ask our professors, we may never have the opportunity to hear their stories. I feel privileged to have been able to sit down with Dr. Lea Blau, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, to discuss her history, teaching, and research experience. 


OB: Dr. Blau, how old were you when you moved to Israel from Romania?

LB: I was 14 when I moved from Romania. I left with my parents. It was a communist country, and Jews, when they were allowed, were leaving for Israel. I was discriminated [against] because, before Communism, my parents were relatively wealthy, during the Communist days they were no longer, but still I was discriminated [against].  Being Jewish was not a good social origin.


OB: What kind of discrimination did you experience? Who were the perpetrators?

LB: [The Communists] closed the Zionist youth organizations, and they had this communist youth organization, but they didn't accept me, because, I don't know…either because my parents were richer than average… Long before that, my friends went to these organizations, had a social life, and I sat home. But luckily it was not long after that that we left for Israel.


OB: What did you need to do in order to get out? Did you have to apply for special visas or something like that?

LB: […Y]ou apply for the visa, and then you wait for a lifetime. For instance, my aunt and uncle got out ten, twelve years later and they applied at the same that we applied.


OB: When you arrived in Israel, how did you feel about being in a new country?  Did you like being in a Jewish state?


LB: For sure! Even when I was little and sat in the class and I'd look at the students, I thought, "these are really Romanians, and this is their country. This is not my country."  Well, let me tell you [the persecution] was nothing compared to the persecution of Jews during World War II in Poland and Hungary. In that part of Romania where we were, my father had forced labor, but he was around, he came home at night.  It was not so bad.


OB: Why did you move to America after Israel, and why did you choose to teach at Stern?

LB: [E]verybody from Israel goes abroad for a post-doctoral position. Israel is little…actually, after I finished my PhD, I stayed one more year in Israel, and after that I applied for post-doctoral positions, and I obtained one in Rutgers, which is in New Jersey. Then I met my husband, and we married. He lived in Queens, so I moved to Queens, and I got a position in Queens College, where I was for ten years. [It was] too long because I didn't advance there very much, so I looked for a position [somewhere else], and Yeshiva is the best from two worlds – both science and Judaism – so I was lucky to get the position.


OB: And you've been teaching here for how many years now?

LB: More than thirty.


OB: How did you decide to study chemistry? Did you always love it, or did you decide in college or afterward that this was what you wanted to go into? 

LB: My father started to study chemistry, and when he was growing up that was Hungary, that part of Romania. [H]e was thrown out because there was a certain number of Jews they accepted, so he was above it, so he could not continue. So my mother was so set on that I should be a chemist that she kind of drilled it into me, and I liked chemistry. I see my pictures from elementary school – in Romania they taught chemistry – and I always was next to the chemistry teacher.


OB: Did you do any research in other types of chemistry or other types of science?

LB: I did most of my research in physical biochemistry. I did my PhD in organic chemistry, and then I switched to things that were biologically related.


OB: Is the curriculum taught in an introductory organic chemistry college course pretty much the same as that of when you were in college, or is it substantially different, since more information has been discovered?

LB: What you learn is very, very basic – there is a lot of advancement.  In biochemistry, [the course] has changed phenomenally from what I studied when I was an undergraduate. I still have the organic chemistry book [I used in college], and it's not very different. There are advances, new things, but in biochemistry [the advancement] is phenomenal compared to what was then. DNA was hardly discovered when I was a student. I wanted to show you I do have my notebooks from my undergraduate organic chemistry course. [Dr. Blau shows me the notes she took in her first organic chemistry course. They were written in Hebrew! Two ways to say "reaction" in Hebrew are reaktziah and teguvah.]


OB: It's definitely hard to imagine science before the pivotal discovery of DNA was made! Do you attend conferences to keep up with the latest developments, and have you ever made a presentation yourself at conference?  What did you present?

LB: I do go to conferences, and I speak at conferences.  [I spoke about topics] related to organic chemistry. I spoke about how to teach stereochemistry. I was invited once to a conference in Cuba that needed special permission[…]from the state department…I think I have a picture here. [Dr. Blau shows me a picture of her with other prominent and diverse chemists who attended the conference.] I presented in the Biophysical Society, the American Chemical Society about my research papers.


OB: There are many students in your class who are interested in going to graduate schools for advanced science degrees, and in particular, medicine.  Yet some of these students may find it real struggle to do well in orgo, or chemistry in general. How would you advise these students?  Would you tell them that if they continue to work hard, they will get it, would you tell them not to do their best and not worry about the grade, or would you advise them to drop the class altogether and give up pursuing a science degree?

LB: I rarely say to drop the class, but I realize that there are very few students who just cannot get it no matter what. But then there are other students that start with 40 on the first exam – I have a [former] student who constantly sends me emails – and then she picked up and she ended up with B+. You know, when I started [at SCW], there were twelve, fourteen students total in organic chemistry, now there are sixty….More jobs are available in science.


So for those students who were wondering what is "wrong" with them if they are not in love with science (see October 4 Observer issue, article by Chana Brauser), apparently neither is every science major. The prospect of a steady job is appealing enough to some to make them choose a science degree. But if you want to be like Dr. Blau and teach science for as many years as she has, you have really got to love what you do.

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