In 1985, the Weizmann Institute patented a novel molecule invented by microbiologist Dr. Talia Hahn which would subsequently be incorporated in the production of medications used to fight autoimmune diseases. While the achievement would be significant for any researcher, it becomes particularly wondrous when taking into account that the doors of every research institute in Israel were once closed to Dr. Hahn.
Two Tiny Children
Both Dr. Hahn and her younger sister were born with a bone developmental disease that affected their genes and impeded their growth significantly. Interestingly, the two sisters reacted differently to their challenges. “When I was seven, I was as tall as a four-year-old,” recalls Dr. Hahn. “I hated school, got bad grades, and had very few friends,” she says. “But my sister was different: she didn’t care about her size, laughed at life and had plenty of friends!”
The girls’ mother, Rose Cohen, a bookkeeper of European descent, took pride in her daughters and made sure that they were always well-dressed and neat. With an eye to the future, she encouraged the girls to be independent. “Everything at home was regularly sized with no leeway made for the challenges we faced. Instead, my mother taught us to find solutions: she made us special sticks that we used to switch on the lights and turn on the faucets. And since she worked out of the home, we were also expected to help with the housework like dishwashing,” says Dr. Hahn.
Throughout her childhood, Dr. Hahn lived in two worlds: at school she was taunted, while at home she was doted upon. “My mother was one of nine children. At every family gathering, one of my uncles would sweep me up and whisper, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the room,’” she recalls in a film that won first prize in an Israeli film festival in 2008.
In 1959, Dr. Hahn was part of a group of Bnei Akiva high school students who went to Kibbutz Yavne in Israel where they studied and worked for a year. “The others went back, but I stayed and, at my mother’s urging, began to study for a Bsc in microbiology and biochemistry at Bar Ilan University – even though I’d never heard of the subjects before I signed up,” says Dr. Hahn. She then went on to complete her Masters.
Let Me Work
Despite her excellent qualifications, Dr. Hahn had trouble finding employment. “Available positions weren’t advertised in those days,” she explains. “It was a matter of mouth to ear… and the moment I tried to get an appointment, I was rebuffed. One professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rechovot, one of the best science institutes in the world, refused to let me into his office.” In 1970, Dr. Hahn heard of an opening at the Kaplan Medical Center in Rechovot. She approached Professor Stanley Levine, then head of the Pediatrics Department which was at the time affiliated with the research center in the hospital. Over the next few years, Dr. Hahn worked on developing testing techniques in children’s immunology. She collaborated with Professor Yabrov, a microbiologist from the USSR, who was doing research on interferons, a new product in the area of virology and immunology. Interferons, naturally-occurring proteins that are made and secreted by cells of the immune system, modulate and boost the response of the immune system to viruses, bacteria, cancer, and other foreign substances that invade the body. Says Professor Yigal Barak, former head of the Pediatric Department, “We had to clip her wings.”
In 1980, when Dr. Hahn, already a mother to a beautiful daughter, received a grant from the German government towards her research, she decided to pursue her PhD. This time, the doors to the Weizmann Institute opened to her. Professor Michele Revel, head of the Virology Department, said, “No one would be more proud than me for you to do your PhD in my department.”