I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was 24 years old. I was in Argentina with my family, while my mom was waiting for a liver transplant operation. We arrived in Buenos Aires in December 2005, expecting to wait two months for the organ donation. Instead, it took six months. Suddenly I found myself, in the middle of my life, with lots of spare time.
I was young, and Buenos Aires was good to me. There were juicy steaks and fresh empanadas on every corner; grungy bars run by dreadlocked hippies; old people shuffling through tangos in San Telmo. I spent the first month getting to know every inch of the city. But after a while, inner voices started to come up: what was I doing? What did I want to do? What was my passion?
I grew up in a small place called Sdei Avraham, in the southern part of Israel, near the border with Gaza. My parents were immigrants from Argentina. They started their life in Israel as farmers. It was their spiritual quest. For me it was heaven, a place where I could walk around in the desert, pick up fresh tomatoes from our greenhouse, go to the playground and play soccer with my friends. I grew up seeing lots of wild animals — snakes and lizards, barn owls, bats, foxes. Each day felt like an adventure. We moved to the city — Be’er Sheva– when I was ten and when my mom got seriously ill.
Ever since I could remember, I hadn’t known what I wanted to do as a grownup. It always bothered me. I had hobbies, like soccer and playing the guitar. I volunteered a lot in the community, working with adolescents from rough neighborhoods and teaching old folks how to use a computer. I liked hiking, and jogging, traveling — but how would I make a living?
I envied people who knew what they wanted. My brother was like that. A gifted kid, top of his class in elementary school, middle school, high school and university. He wanted to travel the world. He studied software engineering at the best department in Israel, earning a high salary at a high tech company, which allows him to travel as much as he wants. In fact, he was joining us in Buenos Aires fresh from his first around-the-world trip.
Both the Buenos Aires Zoo and the Botanical Garden were located just near our hotel. I found myself spending more and more time there, fascinated by the giant condors, the elephants, the tigers. Sometimes I would just sit and read a book on a bench under a tipa tree. I also got hooked on the Natural Geographic channel. I spent hours watching shows about the savanna in Africa, big cats, monkeys.
One day, my brother approached me. This was unusual, as he doesn’t talk a lot, at least not with me. He was asking, “You know Gil, you are watching all this Natural Geographic… maybe you should study that in the University?” I was surprised. “I can do that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s called Zoology.”
My mother had her liver transplant a couple of months after that. We got a phone call in the morning right after Passover. After the transplant and one year of interferon treatment, she was completely cured of hepatitis C. After living almost 30 years with the virus, she said that in that Passover, she felt like she was passing from slavery to freedom.
When we returned to Israel, I met my future wife, who was Israeli but born in Buenos Aires. I was doing everything I could to get accepted to do a B.Sc. in biology. During my first year at the University, I felt like I was breaking a long fast. I wanted to ask questions, and to seek for the answers. This was my spiritual quest. I wanted to become a researcher.
Gil Eshel is a postdoc at the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at NYU. He studies the evolutionary history and underlying genetics of plant adaptation in extreme desert environments.