In 1978, the North Shore Jewish community welcomed a family of Soviet refugees. The Levins’ first home in America was an apartment on Estes Street in Lynn – near the Swampscott line and Route 1A – fully furnished and stocked by members of the local Jewish community, who greeted the Levins when they arrived at Logan Airport. The family joined Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
The youngest member of that family, 9-year-old Michael, had an early interest in science. He was asthmatic, and his father Benjamin learned that it was important to keep him occupied so he would not become nervous about his breathing. Benjamin came up with a novel means of distraction: He and his son would take apart the boxy TV sets of the era to see how they worked.
That experience left an impact on Michael Levin, who has grown up to become a researcher in an innovative aspect of biomedicine. Levin is exploring the role of electrical signals in determining the growth of an organism, such as the possibility of regenerating body parts that have been lost. Experimenting with flatworms and frogs, he sees his work as having groundbreaking ramifications for science, medicine, and life as we know it. His research has been spotlighted in a TED talk and a profile in the New Yorker earlier this month.
“We had some stories like [the New Yorker profile] before in the past, but this is sort of maybe the biggest one,” said Levin, who lives in Beverly with his wife and two children. “It’s great. I think I’m principally interested in the science, bringing new knowledge out of research and into health care and all of that. Part of that is communicating with the public to get people excited about that.”
Proud father Benjamin describes his son as “a very smart guy” with an “interesting ability” to think outside the box.
“His most important ability is, he works and works and works. He starts his workday before 5 a.m. He always works. It’s how his head functions, analyzing and looking.”
Levin, who earned his doctorate at Harvard, now serves as director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.
The possibilities of his work seem revolutionary, as he discussed in his TED talk. He showed footage of tiny planaria, or flatworms, that he works with in his lab at Tufts. As he explained, planaria can be cut up into pieces, with each piece growing into a full-size flatworm. He found that he can use electrical signals that are naturally found within them to create flatworms with two heads or no heads instead of their usual one head.
“They’re completely happy, I think,” Levin said in the TED talk, although “[the] two heads don’t cooperate all that well.” But “if we crack the secret of regeneration, which is not only growing new cells but knowing when to stop … if you can continue to exert this really profound control over the three-dimensional structures that the cells are working towards, you could defeat aging as well as traumatic injury, things like this.”
Levin said he doesn’t have much spare time between work and family – he and his wife have two children and they all live with Levin’s parents in the same house in Beverly. When Levin can afford a moment, he goes kayaking or explores photography. His parents also have varied interests: His mother was a fashion designer on the North Shore whose styles were on the cover of Vogue magazine, before switching gears and going into alternative health care. He calls her “a huge influence on me – watching her shift careers between a concert pianist to a knitwear designer to a holistic health practitioner gave me profoundly important examples of creativity, resilience, multidisciplinary, spirituality, and kindness that I try to incorporate into my work [and life] every day.”
As shown by those days taking apart TV sets, his father found that he had a talent for teaching. Benjamin Levin ultimately transitioned from working in computers to teaching computer science and math, including at Salem State, and also wrote a book, “This Crown is Mine,” about a challenging period of Russian history in the early 17th century following the death of Ivan the Terrible.
Michael Levin expressed thanks to members of the North Shore Jewish community who helped his family settle here: Jerry and Arlene Silverlieb, Lynne and Arthur Zolot, Morris Rapoport, Rabbi Myer Strassfield and his wife Ruth, former Jewish Family Services of the North Shore director Bernice Kazis, and Phyllis and Harold Zimman.
Michael Levin has come a long way from taking apart TV sets, but he’s still thinking about how complex structures work.
“We’ll try to address birth defects, injury, cancer,” he said. “Science in the short term is set in the number of years, not months. We hope to advance medicine in these kinds of problems. In the long term, I think it will begin to address very basic, very big questions of life.”