When David Stevens, ’15, came to the University of Richmond, he knew he wanted to study abroad in Israel to explore his Jewish heritage.
He started early. His first year, he spent 10 days in Israel through Birthright, a program designed for young Jewish people to strengthen their identity and connection to Israel. After his sophomore year, he lived with a host family in Ashdod for a month while learning Hebrew.
Those experiences strengthened Stevens’ desire to spend a semester abroad in Israel. But he didn’t anticipate he would also get the chance to continue his chemistry research in a lab at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
That research also began his first year in Carol Parish’s chemistry lab, and has continued throughout his time at Richmond. “I study HIV-protease, an enzyme that is critical to the maturation of the virus,” he says. “Our goal is to understand how the enzyme works, so that scientists can someday create better inhibitors to the HIV-protease enzyme.”
Stevens knew he had found a great fit with Parish as his mentor when, shortly after joining her lab, he learned that she had received a Fulbright study grant, and would be spending a year studying valence bond theory at Hebrew University in Israel.
Parish returned to the U.S. with numerous connections to scientists and researchers in Israel. When Stevens was planning his semester abroad, one of Parish’s colleagues, Sason Shaik, offered a rare opportunity for him to spend the semester working in his lab at Hebrew University.
“When I think about my study abroad experience,” Stevens says, “the word that best describes it is opportunity.”
He took advantage of Hebrew University’s unique course offerings: “I took a class on world religions where we studied how Judaism relates to other religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Through cultural interactions, different rabbis started to integrate ideas from other religions, and it was interesting to see how that occurred,” he says.
Stevens also worked daily in Shaik’s lab, which he describes as “very different from Dr. Parish’s lab, which helped expand my perspective of looking at chemistry.” His lab colleagues were primarily from India, so rather than speaking Hebrew, he found himself learning Hindi.
He also had to adjust to a new mentor’s approach. “Dr. Parish encourages us to work as a team and guides us when we need it, while Professor Shaik is very hands off, which taught me to be an independent researcher and thinker.” He feels that having both types of experiences will help him as he considers graduate school.
Stevens was living and researching in Israel when tensions flared with Gaza, and was able to see firsthand how people react to the adversity that they face. “The first time I heard an air siren, my heart jumped and my adrenaline went up,” he says. “I’m an EMT and my first response was to go to the door to go outside to help, but my Israeli friends pulled me back inside our apartment, into the safe room.” As a large group of students began to gather in the safe room, Stevens noted a variety of reactions, from nonchalance to fear. But in the end, the group decided that they would pray together for peace.
“Hearing sirens going off was a little disconcerting,” Stevens says, “but for the Israelis, it is a part of their lives. I learned from my experience that you have to continue on, you have to live life, and you have to be resilient.”
After an early return to the U.S., Stevens is re-acclimating to life stateside, and continuing his HIV-protease research, which he is preparing for publication. And while he reflects fondly on his time in Israel, he’s happy to be back at Richmond, and in Parish’s lab. “I feel like my lab is my family, my community, and I always feel 100% safe there,” he says.