Physicist earns big prize for probing tiny worlds

Physicist earns big prize for probing tiny worlds

NJIT recognizes Israeli-born prof for nano research

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

An Israeli-born and -trained physicist has won the Excellence in Research Prize and Medal from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, its highest award for a faculty member.

Haim Grebel, professor of electrical engineering at Newark’s NJIT and director of its Electronic Imaging Center, was presented with the award on Oct. 6; it carries with it a $10,000 prize.

The honor recognizes his work in nanotechnology, specifically his work on lasers and on the identification of flu viruses and Anthrax.

Grebel, who has been on the NJIT faculty since 1987, was recruited from Israel in 1984 to set up an optics lab at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken shortly after earning a PhD in physics from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

“I thought, what the heck? One year can’t hurt,” he said in a phone interview. But three years later, he was recruited by NJIT.

“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the 59-year-old, who raised two children in Livingston, doesn’t think about returning to Israel and starting again.

“I’m very attached to Israel. My wife and I are sabras and we go back every year to visit friends and family,” he said.

Paraphrasing the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernikovsy, he said, “A person is but a template of their birthplace.”

Grebel’s current research involves attempting to attach a flu virus to an artificial membrane. The membrane sits on a layer of graphene, an atom-thick layer of graphite, the substance commonly used in pencils. At this size, he is in the world of nanotechnology.

“Nano” refers to a billionth of something; in the case of a nanometer, a billionth of a meter.

“To understand this,” Grebel explained, “consider a single strand of your hair. If you shrink it 100,000 times, that is about the size of a nanometer.”

Using an infrared spectrometer and appropriate receptors, he observes whether or not the virus attaches to the receptors; if it binds, it is a virus, if it does not, it is not. Such an approach would serve to distinguish a pandemic from a common cold.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

Regarding winning the prize, now in its fourth year, he said, “I felt honored. It was nice to get it.”

Grebel’s interest in optics and light, as well as his ability to observe the world from a unique perspective, comes straight from his late father, the Israeli modernist artist Joel Grebel.

“He was very keen on the effect of light and color,” said Grebel. “He taught me to look onto scenery in a different way — to isolate certain parts and amplify certain parts to bring out an idea.”

When he told his father of his career plans, his father said, “How will you make a living out of physics?” recalled Grebel. “The irony is, his father told him, ‘How will you make a living out of art?’”

The truth, he said, is that art and physics are not as different as they sound.

“Physics is sort of an art — it’s a gentleman’s job,” he quipped. “And that means it’s a useless job.”

He said his logical streak comes from his mother, who was a philosophy and history major in college, and a history teacher.

Grebel, who has lived in Livingston since 1989, was a member of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center there for many years, and is now part of the Chai Center at Short Hills.

Asked how he identifies himself religiously, he said, “We’re like most Israelis. We’re masorti,” meaning traditional.

He cancels classes for Jewish holidays, including Sukkot.

“Everyone is always happy to take off, especially during September and October. That’s when all my students become Jewish for a moment.”

Looking ahead, he grew philosophical. “I hope to stay at NJIT. And I will try to keep my curiosity intact. That’s my only wish for the new year.”

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