I first met Yael in the dimly lit computer room of the electron microscopy unit at the Weizmann Institute. I was sitting with Prof. Avi Minsky and doctoral student Nathan Zauberman, staring at the computer screen on which was displayed, as if in three-dimensions, part of “Mimivirus,” a giant virus that we were investigating by transmission electron microscopy. At the edge of the picture was a star-like structure, and we were racking our brains trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out what it was. Yael, who was a beginning M.Sc. student at the time, entered the room, sat down next to us, and after a moment said decisively: “This is the vertex of the virus.” The silence in the room deepened, we peered again at the image, and it was clear to us that Yael was of course right.
This encounter was only one example of Yael’s extraordinary ability to use static images from the electron microscope to fathom the dynamic scientific story that gave rise to them. Yael had extensive knowledge and an extraordinary understanding of biological systems, which are inherently complex and include numerous variables and endless possibilities. She could draw from the ocean of information she had acquired during her education precisely the right bits to make new connections and drive her research forward. Although the study of cellular processes using electron microscopy is relatively slow compared to other approaches, Yael’s intelligence and skills allowed her to prove her hypotheses in a short time.
Beyond Yael’s outstanding aptitude as a scientist, she was, above all, an extraordinary human being. Despite her many talents she was very modest and talked to everyone at eye level. She had a rare sensitivity to people, to injustice and inequality in society, and yet she had a sense of humor that was reflected in her look and captivating smile. During walks alongside Yael on campus, she would wave greetings to people and engage in short conversations with those who passed by her– cleaning staff, students, and faculty. Yael was always happy to share her knowledge and to help anyone in need. Yael unfailingly cared for those around her. Even when she was already very ill, she contacted some of us at the institute and asked us to check up on the conditions of friends, whom she knew were in distress. Her mind did not rest until she knew that these friends were taken care of.
Despite the time that has passed since she was taken, much too soon, Yael Mutsafi’s absence still pains many of us at the Weizmann Institute. Perhaps the only way to reduce the ache is to remember Yael as she was – biblically wise, strong-minded without being opinionated, kind-hearted, funny, and encouraging – and to be inspired by the great light that Yael Mutsafi was.
Weizmann Institute of Science
Former Secretary (2009-2013) and Chairperson (2013-2017) of the Israel Society for Microscopy
(Translated to English by Debbie Fass, Weizmann Institute of Science)