Zafra Lerman: “I used art, music, dance, theater, poetry, animation, anything” | Opinion


Zafra Lerman is President of the Malta Conferences Foundation, which brings together scientists from across the Middle East to foster collaboration and promote peace in the region. In addition to her work in science diplomacy, she has won numerous international awards for her innovative methods of teaching science through the arts.

I knew I would be a scientist when I was two years old. No one could answer any of my questions. I would pose in the mirror and ask, ‘What am I doing here?’ I didn’t know the word science, but I knew I would like to know more about things like that.

I researched the effects of secondary isotopes. One of my findings on the temperature dependence of isotopic side effects got other people working on it. But the world started to get more and more complicated and I thought I could do more good by teaching minorities who would never take science, teaching non-science majors so they could understand scientific articles published in the daily newspaper.

Mike Alexandroff had a vision of a university open to admissions, so that people in difficult economic circumstances can pursue higher education. When he took over Columbia College in Chicago in the 1960s, there was no science because the people there were very progressive. They said science caused all the problems, why should we teach such a horrible subject? But he wanted someone who was a good scientist, a good teacher, involved in disarmament, arms control and human rights. My name came out everywhere, and he gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted, how I wanted.

It all depends on the teacher you have, so I taught chemistry in a completely different way. I used art, music, dance, drama, poetry, animation, anything. A group of theater students performed a play to show off their knowledge of chemical bonds. They took Romeo and Juliet and changed everything to sodium and chlorine. Years later I went to see a real Shakespeare play and the actor said something with the intonation that in my head sounded like “I’m sodium”. I went backstage and it was the same student. He said to me: “I forgot everything I studied a long time ago, but the periodic table and the ionic bond, I can’t get out of it because I played it and I I understood it so well”.

It was funny when [former US vice-president] Al Gore produced his environmental video [An Inconvenient Truth] and he won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize for it. My students got very angry: “Look at our videos which were superior to his! Communicate exactly on the same subject! Nobody gave us an Oscar.’ And they did it years before he did.

I used art, music, dance, drama, poetry, animation, anything

I taught homeless children at night in a dance studio. One year the organizers of the Gordon Lecture on Science Visualization asked me, can you bring 20 of these kids to show us how they understand. And they came and they introduced chemical bonding through dance, ozone depletion through dance, and the audience stood up and shouted ‘Bravo, Bravo!’ The audience was unfortunately lily white and these children were all African-American.

I had been telling the children for a very long time that they were going to spend five days with eminent scientists, and they will stay together, they will eat with them and interact with them. What I forgot to mention is that Gordon lectures are held in crowded dorms. In their mind, they were going to a five star hotel. When they arrived, someone called me and said “there is a mutiny here”. So I came and said ‘what happened?’ And they said, ‘you said we’d stay with the scientists. These are dirty dorms. Why are we not with the scientists? So I told them ‘yes the scientists will be in the rooms next to you’. All stay here. You can learn from this – the type of hotel is not important for these scientists, for them what they do for the world is more important. But the dorms were really bad. It was 100°F at night and there was no air conditioning.

Then I told the kids there was a room where there were soft drinks and snacks. Go there, and you can interact with all these scientists as I promised you. So they went, and when I arrived later, I was very puzzled, because there were at least three scientists around each of these kids, pouring coke on them. I said that was really weird. Something happened here. So I said to the kids, ‘Oh, I see the scientists are so nice to you. They said “yes” – when we arrived they saw African American teenagers in their twenties and said we didn’t belong here. We said the password, we said ‘Zafra’. I told the scientists you just learned you can’t judge anyone by the color of their skin.

It was a very good experience for both scientists and students. The children were homeless, but a large number went to college and two pursued doctorates. So that’s what chemistry did! But it was taught the way they could understand it.

I convinced my committee to do everything that was almost impossible to do

I chaired the American Chemical Society’s Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights for 25 years, from its creation until its dismantling. I convinced my committee to do everything that was almost impossible to do. I forced the US government to give us licenses to go to Cuba and give lectures, and I managed to get visas for Cubans to attend the 2002 American Chemical Society meeting in Florida.

September 11 has arrived and I told my subcommittee that I think we should now focus on the Middle East. Then, at the 2002 meeting, the ACS said that we would like to have a big idea outside the box. I proposed that we organize a conference where we bring scientists from all over the Middle East, they will all stay in the same hotel and eat together, they will not be separated for five days. I said I would bring six Nobel laureates. The Cubans said they thought a bomb had fallen in the room when I said that. You could hear people breathing – it was such a shock. But the AEC really supported it from the start, and we scheduled the first conference in Malta for December 2003.

On my subcommittee was Stanley Langer, he worked in the international office of the CBC. He immediately said, I think we need to get the CBC involved, and in the end he persuaded them to be co-sponsors. So we approached the executive director of the German Chemical Society, and they joined, and we approached IUPAC and IUPAC joined. From the start, UNESCO has been a major sponsor and supporter as well.

We had our first conference in Malta during the Intifada. Our goal has always been to achieve as much peace and stability in the Middle East, as this will help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The council asked me, why Malta? And I said it’s so complicated to get there that it wouldn’t be worth the terrorists coming. I must admit that we had security throughout the first conference, but only the organizer and I knew about it.

My intention was to have a conference to prove that mission impossible can be mission possible. And I proved it. At the end people were crying, hugging, kissing, it felt like a family reunion. The participants said: “we want to continue, we have made collaborations, we have made friendships”. So we took a vote and they voted unanimously to have a second one.

In December we were supposed to have Malta X, with a big birthday party. But Malta has very strict Covid regulations. People from countries on Malta’s dark red list cannot even dream of entering it. Five of our countries were dark red. Next, Malta only approves Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines. Countries that had the other vaccines could not enter. So 50 out of 100 people couldn’t attend. We had to make the horrible decision to postpone at the last minute. People were devastated. But it’s not a conference you can do virtually, and it’s not a conference you can do hybrid. The conference needs interaction.

My husband and I have always had opera subscriptions, to the symphony, the ballet and the theatre. Now, because my husband passed away, I take students or former students with me because I don’t like to go anywhere alone.

I still work on human rights too. Education still continues, still working on peace. Always trying to make the planet a better place for humanity.

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