Renana Gershoni Poranne, a doctoral student in the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, explains why she gave up a career in music, why she doesn’t define herself as an “applied scientist,” and why there is no relationship between aromatic substances and air fresheners
This year Renana Gershoni Poranne will be completing her tenth year at the Technion – a decade that began in 2004 with her B.Sc. studies in Molecular Biochemistry and continued with her M.Sc. in Organic Chemistry. She graduated summa cum laude for both degrees and is now studying for her Ph.D. under Prof. Amnon Stanger.
For me this has been a wonderful decade, because I really feel at home here. I love saying that we are a “Technion family” – my father is a Technion graduate and a professor in the PhysicsDepartment, my mother earned her M.Ed. in science education at the Technion, my older sister did her B.A. and M.A. here, and my husband completed his Ph.D. in Computer Science at the Technion last year. I also have a younger sister who is studying graphic design in Holon. I have a wonderful dynamic with Amnon – we even perform together – and I have a great relationship with the rest of the faculty, acceptance, understanding and generous economic support.
Renana Gershoni Poranne lives in Kiryat Tivon with her husband and their two children. She was born in Kibbutz Ramot Menashe, but moved with her family to junior faculty housing on the Technion campus when she was three months old. Several years later her family traveled abroad (her father’s post-doctoral work), and when she returned to Israel, she settled in Tivon. Renana graduated from Ort Greenberg High School in Tivon, with extra credits in physics, chemistry, math and English, of course, but also with external matriculation credits in singing. “I studied classical singing from age 13, first at the conservatory in Tivon, and then I sang with the IDF choir during my army service. Even now, I haven’t given up singing.
Renana’s B.Sc. included a research project with Prof. Ehud Keinan, who later advised her on her M.Sc. project, too. “Following the completion of my M.Sc., I decided to expand my research to include computational studies, because I find them more challenging to me than pure synthesis.” Thus she began working with Prof. Amnon Stanger, also from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, and embarked on her Ph.D. thesis. “My situation is quite exceptional, as I am the only student in my project, which is rare in organic chemistry studies. Although I miss the group dynamics sometimes, I enjoy an excellent relationship with my advisor, and have learned much from working alongside him and from the independence he gives me. About a year ago a post-doctoral student named Anuja joined the project, and she has a background in programming. She helps me a lot with technical problems. Based on the findings of Amnon’s previous research projects and our joint projects, Anuja and Amnon wrote an automated (and free) computer program that provides users with a simple way to implement our methodologies.”
Was giving up a musical career painful?
I am at peace with that decision. I have no doubt that I made the right choice for me, and this also concurred with the advice I received from my music teacher about making music an enjoyable hobby rather than a source of income. I chose an academic career because I felt that this is the place to advance using my intellect. Here there is a direct yield on the investment – particularly in the B.Sc. studies. In addition, I felt I could combine music with my research career, but not the opposite, and the thought of giving up the intellectual challenge was even more painful. In any case, you will always hear music playing on the speakers in my office.
What is your continuing involvement in the music world?
Twice a month I go to Tel Aviv for a music lesson, and at the Technion I perform at ceremonies, usually singing solo. These ceremonies, produced by Dalit Yaron of the Public Relations department, often take me away from classical music, my comfort zone, and force me to experience new things. This year I also began to appear with a pianist in the Haifa area and the surrounding Krayot region, in varied programs that include classical music as well as Hebrew and light American music.
Let’s return to science. What are you researching?
Aromatic systems and the production (synthesis) of new aromatic substances.
So you produce perfumes and air fresheners?
No. Aromatic does not mean fragrant. Aromaticity is the property of compounds with cyclically conjugated bonds and which have an interesting variety of physical properties such as light absorption and electrical conductivity. When such substances are put in a magnetic field, induced ring currents develop, and these are the focus of my current research. At present there is no precise qualitative definition for aromaticity, and compounds are usually compared to benzene, which is the “king” of aromatics, but even in comparisons to it we have no precise quantitative scale.
Can you give a few examples of aromatic substances?
Aromatic substances, or substances that contain aromatic groups, are everywhere. In nature we find them in DNA, in proteins and in enzymes. In the hemoglobin in our blood, for example, there is an aromatic group, which is responsible for binding the iron to which oxygen binds, and without which we could not live. In industry, compounds with aromatic groups are used in solar panels, LED lights, transistors and as pigments. Thus these substances have important applications
Does this mean you are involved in applied research?
No. I work in fundamental research. This is what interests me, and I believe this type of research is what leads to applied and theoretical breakthroughs. For example, the scientists who invented NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) never thought that one day it would be used for body scans (MRI), and the researchers who invented optic fibers never dreamed that one day they would be an essential part of Internet infrastructure. To be exact, they never even knew that one day there would be such a thing as Internet.
But why not research a specific application?
First of all, because I think that we, as researchers, should focus on understanding the world around us. Of course that understanding can lead to the development of new technologies, but fundamental understanding should be our first priority. Second, researching a specific application limits the directions of the research, which depend on the purpose of the predefined final application: a new type of light bulb, a kind of steel with specific properties, etc. When you conduct fundamental research, the research itself leads you in different directions, some of which have applications. Of course I don’t discount applied research in industry, but academia should, in my opinion, focus on fundamental research.
What exactly do you do as a “fundamental scientist?”
Our group is researching aromatic molecules in two ways – computational and experimental. In our experiments we design new materials that will have specific physical properties such as light absorption or electrical conductivity. The computation aspect of the research involves developing new formulas for identifying and assessing aromaticity. In simple terms, we use programs that calculate (approximately!) the wave function using quantum mechanical methods. These calculations provide us with information on a molecule’s properties: geometry, energy, charge density, chemical shift, etc., and based on this information we can estimate the magnetic field that the induced ring currents create around the molecule, search for correlations between this field and the other properties and build aromaticity scales for substances from various families.
Do you already have results?
We recently discovered a correlation between the intensity of the ring currents in a molecule and the stability of the compound in two different families of molecules. We figure that in those families, the stronger the ring currents, the more stable – less reactive – the molecule. In addition, we have developed methodologies for identifying ring currents in complex systems. This method is very valuable, as the compounds are used widely in industry, and being able to predict their physical properties will make it possible to design molecules for specific purposes and will save a lot of resources.
What are your plans for the future?
I probably won’t look for a job in industry. At the moment I am gearing towards the next step: a post-doc abroad. When I return I will gladly join a university program as an independent researcher or to provide computation services – a field that is developing all over the world.
Of course I will always be happy to continue teaching chemistry at the university level. Whatever happens, it is very important to me that any path I choose allows me to focus on my family and continue with my music.
“It is important to me that any path I choose allows me to focus on my family and continue with my music.” Renana Gershoni Poranne
Benzene molecule with the “sensor atoms” that are used for calculating the magnetic field.
Molecule from the phenylenes family and the ring currents calculated for them.