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Zafra Lerman: ‘I used art, music, dance, drama, poetry, animation, anything’ | Opinion

Zafra Lerman: ‘I used art, music, dance, drama, poetry, animation, anything’ | Opinion
Written by Noah Roy

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

I knew I was going to be a scientist from the age of two. Nobody can answer any of my questions. I would stand in the mirror and ask, “What am I doing there?” I didn’t know the word scientist, but I knew I wanted to know more about things like that.

I’ve looked at the effects of secondary isotopes. One of my discoveries about the temperature dependence of secondary isotope effects started other people working on it. But the world was getting more and more complex and I thought I could do more good by teaching minorities that would never take up science, and teaching non-science majors so they could understand the science articles that appear in the daily newspaper.

Mike Alexandrov had a vision of a university with open admission, So that people in difficult economic situations can get a higher education. When he took over the administration of Columbia College in Chicago in the 1960s they had no knowledge because the people there were very progressive. They said that science caused all the problems, so why study such a terrible subject? But he wanted someone who was a good scientist, a good educator, engaged in disarmament, arms control and human rights. My name appeared everywhere, and gave me absolute freedom to do what I wanted, how I wanted.

Much depends on which teacher you have, So I taught chemistry in a completely different way. I’ve used art, music, dance, drama, poetry, animation, anything. A group of theater students did a play to show their knowledge about chemical bonding. They took Romeo and Juliet and changed everything to sodium and chlorine. Years later I went to a real Shakespeare play and the actor said something with intonation that sounded in my head like “I’m sodium.” I went backstage and it was the same student. “I have long forgotten everything I studied,” he told me, “but the periodic table and the ionic bond I can’t get out of my head because I acted on it and understood it so well.”

It was funny when [former US vice-president] Al Gore produced his own video on the environment [An Inconvenient Truth] He received an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. My students were so outraged: “Look at our videos that were better than his! Delivering the exact same topic! Nobody ever gave us an Oscar. And they did it years before he did.”

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

I taught homeless children at night in a dance studio. The organizers of the Gordon Conference on Scientific Visualization once asked me, Can you bring 20 of these kids to show us how they understand. And they came and introduced the chemical bond through the dance, the depletion of the ozone layers through the dance, and the audience all stood up and shouted “Bravo, bravo!” The audience was unfortunately Lily White and these kids were all African American.

I have been telling children for a long time that they are going to spend five days with distinguished scholars, And they will stay together, they will eat with them and interact with them. What I neglected to say was that Gordon’s conferences are in overcrowded dormitories. In their minds, they were heading to a five-star hotel. When they arrived, someone called me and said “there is a rebellion here”. So I came and said, “What happened?” And they said: I said we will stay with the scholars. These are dirty dormitories. Why are we not with the scholars? So I said to them ‘Yes the scientists will be in the rooms next to you. They all stay here. You can learn from that – the type of hotel is not important to these scientists, what’s most important to them is what they do to the world. But the dormitories were really bad. The temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit at night and didn’t There was no air conditioning.

Then I told the children that there was a room with soft drinks and snacks. Go there, and you will be able to interact with all these scholars as I promised you. So they went, and when I came later I was very perplexed, for there were at least three scholars about every one of these children, pouring Coke for them. I said this is really strange. Something happened here. So I said to the kids, “Oh, I see the scientists are very nice to you.” They said ‘Yes – when we came they saw 20 African American teenagers and they said we don’t belong here. We said the password we said Dhafra’. You told the scientists you just learned that you can’t judge a person by the color of their skin.

It was a very good experience for both scholars and students. The children were homeless, but a large number of them went to university and two went on to earn their Ph.D. So that’s what chemistry did! But it was taught the way they could understand it.

I persuaded my committee to do everything that is almost impossible to do

She has chaired the American Chemical Society Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights for 25 years, From its inception until it was dismantled. I persuaded my committee to do everything that is almost impossible to do. It forced the US government to give us licenses to go to Cuba and give lectures, and was able to get visas for Cubans to participate in the 2002 American Chemical Society meeting in Florida.

9/11 event And I told my subcommittee I think we should focus now on the Middle East. Then, at a 2002 meeting, the ACS said we wanted to get a big idea out of the box. I suggested that we organize a conference in which we bring scholars from all over the Middle East, who will all stay in the same hotel and eat together, and 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 so. You could hear people breathing – it was a shock. But the ACS really supported it from the start, and we set the first Malta conference in December 2003.

On my subcommittee was Stanley Langer, He worked at the RSC International Office. He said right away, I think we have to involve the RSC, and eventually he convinced them to co-sponsor. Then we called the executive director of the German Chemical Society, and they joined, and we called the IUPAC and the IUPAC joined. From the beginning, UNESCO has been a great sponsor and supporter as well.

We held our first conference in Malta during the uprising. Our goal has always been to have the same amount of 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 that getting there was so complicated that it wouldn’t make sense for the terrorists to come. I must admit we had security throughout the first conference, but only me and the organizer knew that.

I had intended to hold one conference to prove that Mission Impossible could be a feasible one. This has been proven. At the end people were crying, hugging and kissing each other, it looked like a family reunion. “We want to continue, we have formed relationships of cooperation and made friends,” the participants said. So we took a vote and they voted unanimously for a second vote.

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

My husband and I always had season tickets to the opera, To the symphony, ballet and theatre. Now, because of my husband’s death, I take the students or ex-students with me because I don’t like going anywhere on my own.

I still work in the field of human rights as well. Education is still going on, and he is still working on peace. Still trying to make the planet a better place for humanity.

About the author

Noah Roy

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