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Alumnus Uses Science Background to Benefit Society

Leon Esterowitz ’56YC, director of the biophotonics program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), shows no signs of slowing down or reducing his work schedule at age 75. If anything, Esterowitz considers himself more productive now, in a way, than he was during his long career working for the federal government.

While in government, Esterowitz worked in military laboratories developing night vision devices and surveillance and guidance systems for our national defense. Now, he is using that same technology to improve human health. At NSF, Esterowitz is employing his encyclopedic knowledge of lasers and optics to identify scientists and engineers who are engaged in breakthrough health care research, and then providing funding for their efforts to develop low- cost, minimally invasive medical diagnostics and therapies. Some of the NSF-funded projects targeted by Esterowitz involve work by researchers at universities who are developing unique tests to provide early warning signals for the occurrence of colon, lung, pancreatic, ovarian and prostate cancers, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives.

“I would do this for free,” said Esterowitz. “My mother died of pancreatic cancer, my younger sister had ovarian cancer, and there have been other members in my family who had cancer. If we are able to detect the presence of these cancers before they actually occur, it would be a tremendous advancement. This is a huge motivation to keep me going.”

Brian Cunningham, a professor of biomedical imaging and engineering at the University of Illinois, has received NSF funding through Esterowitz for the development of biosensors to detect proteins in the blood that can tell if someone has cancer. Cunningham said that a tumor today has to be big enough to show up on an X-ray, but he explained that the new test will show as many as 30 different cancer proteins at one time before any tumors have actually developed or are visible.

Cunningham said Esterowitz brings extensive knowledge and understanding of complex research, and is a forceful advocate inside the National Science Foundation for this type of work.

“Leon knows the technical areas very well and everything that is going on in the field,” said Cunningham. “He is not just an administrator, but someone who knows the challenges first hand and has a broad view that he has developed over time.”

Esterowitz’s education and career began at Yeshiva University, where he attended the high school, MTA. Esterowitz was born in France in 1941 and escaped Nazi Europe with his family, ending up in Cuba for a time, which was then under the rule of Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Esterowitz spoke several languages, and when he arrived in America, he wanted to learn English as quickly as possible. To that end, he began going to the library and reading a book a day, and then another one each night.

“The librarians loved me,” recalled Esterowitz. “Thanks to my reading at least a book a day, I learned English right away and developed a terrific reading vocabulary.”

When he arrived at Yeshiva College after graduating high school, Esterowitz had no idea what he wanted to study for his major. He naturally became an English major thanks to his mastery of the language, and when it came time for the necessary science requirement, he looked for something that involved as little memorization as possible. “I took a physics course and immediately became enamored with the subject,” said Esterowitz, who then racked up as many physics classes as possible, though he graduated two courses short of majoring in it.

Columbia University allowed him to take those two courses during the summer before accepting him, and after advanced training there, Esterowitz completed his PhD at NYU and a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University.

Esterowitz fondly remembers his time at YU, both high school and college, as having a warm and friendly atmosphere. “There was a lot of work at YU, owing to the double curriculum,” said Esterowitz, “but there were so many extracurricular activities that I always found time to participate in some of them, as well as spend time with my friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with to this day.”

Esterowitz, who currently lives in Springfield, VA, said if he could speak to current students at YU considering a career in the sciences, he would tell them to make sure that what they are doing not only interests their minds but also benefits society as a whole. “Initially, I just liked learning physics and obtained satisfaction from making new discoveries,” he explained. “Now, my satisfaction is deeper than ever because it comes from knowing that I am using my knowledge to help people. That’s why I’m still working and didn’t retire ten years ago. As long as I’m productive and working to benefit society, I will keep going.”

YU runs in Esterowitz’s family. His grand-nephew, Simeon Botwinick, is the current editor of the YU Commentator and will graduate YC this spring; Simeon’s brothers, Noah and Joshua, are a junior and sophomore, respectively. Their youngest brother Ephraim, a senior at SAR High School, hopes to attend YU.

(Article adapted from the Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service.)

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