This week, two press releases from the Institute:
The first was on the sequencing of the woodland strawberry genome (unfortunately, in the same week the cacao genome was sequenced). The Institute scientists who participated in the project contributed in the computational analysis of genes encoding flavor- and aroma-related proteins.
This wild cousin of the cultivated strawberry is a member of the rose family, along with fruit trees including apples, peaches, cherries and almonds. In other words, this small annual plant is sure to become a useful experimental model for plant and agricultural research.
It does, of course raise the question of gene transfer: If we could put the flavor and aroma that we’ve bred out of cultivated strawberries back in, should we do so? After all, woodland strawberries (along with their DNA) are perfectly edible, and those “dangerous” genes that might escape into the wild will cross with what? Woodland strawberries?
The second was of more local interest, but the questions it raises are no less relevant. To make the Israeli high school math team to next summer’s International Mathematical Olympiad more competitive, a new program is being instituted that includes online lessons tailored to each potential team member — complete with individual coaching — several week-long training camps and intense competition for spots on the team in a ruthless winnowing process that began with 350 participants in the national math Olympiad and will end with seven.
We will just note here that in 2008, the Israeli team won one gold, one silver and two bronze medals plus two citations in this competition. The last two years, apparently, the team from our tiny country has not done as well. While the hand-wringing that seems to have led to the new program may or may not be justified, the question remains: Should math be a “sport” — like Olympic swimming or basketball? Should kids have to begin early and practice rigorously in order to compete? Is this what we have to do to remain in the game with the ultra-disciplined teams from countries like Korea or those from China, where the pool of potential math geniuses is approximately 150 times the size of Israel’s? Or, is it just possible that there really is some added value from this sort of intensive immersion in a single discipline – one that will pay off at some point in the future in the ability to compete (nationally and individually) in the global arena?