Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS-IL on 8 July, 2024

‘Groundbreaking’ Crop Research Cut Short By War, Fallen Soldier Receives Ph.D

Human Interest By Sveta Listratov • 8 July, 2024

Jerusalem, 8 July, 2024 (TPS) -- The modest memorial sits in the laboratory at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Cereal Crop Improvement. A photo of a smiling man. Next to the photo is a plaque. “Researcher of Wild Israeli Wheat, Reserve Sergeant Major, Dr. Zechariah Haber.” The plaque is brand new, as is the title, “Dr.”

Doctorates of Philosophy are rarely awarded posthumously because if the candidate dies, the degree cannot be awarded for incomplete work. And Haber, 32, was killed while fighting in northern Gaza on January 16.

But Dr. Nir Sade, a senior lecturer at TAU’s School of Plant Sciences and Food Security — and Haber’s research supervisor — decided to push for Haber’s posthumous Ph.D on the day of his death.

“I thought, we’ll do whatever we can in his memory. I didn’t know if I would be able to complete it, and the fact that it ultimately led to the Ph.D is an incredible relief for me. He deserved it,” Sade told The Press Service of Israel. Haber was the first Ph.D student Sade had ever supervised, and through their four years of work together, the two formed a close relationship.

“It was like therapy for me, it helped me cope with the grief,” Sade confessed.

Haber’s thesis, titled “Systems Biology Approach for Stress Resistance and Yield Traits in Crops,” sought to understand how global changes affect wheat growth and how to maximize food production based on it. Sade, with help from his colleagues, organized and submitted Haber’s data to secure the posthumous Ph.D and continue his research.

On Thursday, Haber’s family will receive Zechariah’s diploma.

‘It’s Going to be Groundbreaking’

Dr. Davinder Sharma, an academic from India and a close collaborator of Haber, played a significant role in completing the four-year-long research. Sharma worked alongside Haber in the lab and said he valued Haber’s meticulous approach.

“When I saw his picture on the news, without even reading the text I knew something terrible happened,” said Sharma, with tears in his eyes. “On that day, I cried for the first time in five years I’ve been in Israel. I was so connected to him. He was not just a colleague; he was a friend.”

Despite the war, Sharma chose to stay in Israel to continue the work on the researches he saw as crucial. Loosing his research partner was extremely painful for him.

“He was amazing. The selection of genes he provided for my lab work was so good it worked nicely in the lab,” Sharma recalled. “He also used to assist me in the lab, although he worked more on the computer. He did things so nicely and precisely. He was always so polite and kind, never complained about working too hard. He made me feel like I should do more for him.”

Sharma insisted Haber’s research will one day influence global food production, especially for developing countries reliant on wheat as a staple food, such as his homeland.

“Wheat is the main food in cereals in the world. For India, a developing country, it is number one,” Sharma stressed. “With this yield research, in the future we can alter wheat production. So, it’s going to be groundbreaking.”

‘Someone Has to Go to Combat’

Being a man of exceptional intellect and unwavering dedication, Zecharia’s family believed he would excel in anything he set his mind to. However, he chose an ambitious field, which, despite its challenges, had the potential to yield the most significant results, family members told TPS-IL.

“His aim was to help people by solving a global problem,” Zecharia’s widow, Talia, said. “His awareness of the global importance of agriculture and food production basically drove his research.”

She noted that while serving his country was important to him, his research was his greatest aspiration. Zecharia was inspired, by the movie, “Interstellar.” The 2014 film is about Earth suffering a catastrophic blight and famine, prompting astronauts to search for a new planet where humans can live.

As a teenager, Zecharia’s intellect opened the doors to the Israeli army’s elite Unit 8200, which specializes in signal intelligence, code decryption and cyberwarfare, among other things. But he chose to join a combat unit, saying, “All the smart ones go to intelligence. Someone has to go to combat,” Zecharia’s father, Aharon Haber told TPS-IL.

“He was the tank loader. He loved the physical, mechanical work of the tanks,” Aharon recalled with a smile. “And the camaraderie. You get very close to your team, sitting together in a tank.”

Despite the emotional toll of the war, Zechariah managed to balance his family time with his research duties on the breaks he had from the army missions. Zecharia is survived by three children, ages 1-5.

He also leaves behind larger legacy of food security that will become apparent in later years, both in future research and practical applications.

“The significance of this research, due to its holistic approach, is that it has potential applications in many additional research directions, and we are only beginning to touch on this,” Sade stressed. “The Ph.D is just the beginning; many more articles and related studies will follow based on this research.”