Zafra Lerman

The chemistry of diplomacy


Date: March 29, 2015
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 7

After Prof. Zafra Lerman received her PhD in chemistry in 1970 in the lab of the late Prof. David Samuel, a chemist and neurobiologist, she embarked on a career marked just as much by bringing people together through science as by synthesizing chemicals.

She was a distinguished professor at Columbia College Chicago who founded and was the head of its Institute for Science Education and Science Communication, where she advanced creative methods of combining science with drama, music, dance and other art forms. Much of her work has taken her beyond her own lecture halls. From 1986 to 2010, she was the chairperson of the Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights for the International Activities Committee of the American Chemical Society (ACS). In that context, she worked with dissident scientists from the former Soviet Union, China, and other countries to help them move to the West.

However, it is her work bringing together scientists throughout the Middle East that recently won her the recognition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), bestowing on her the 2014 Award for Science Diplomacy last month.

Her initiative began in 2001, after 9/11, when the ACS subcommittee turned its attention to the Middle East. She launched the first biennial Malta Conference to reduce animosity in the region and to provide opportunities for scientific collaboration. The conference, which has since been held in different locales, is attended by scientists from Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Israel.

What’s her secret for drawing dozens of scientists from so many countries, for a five-day event—attended by Israeli scientists? First, each event is attended by a handful of Nobel laureates—individuals who don’t usually frequent many of the scientists’ home countries. Second, the conference provides forums to develop ideas and strategies on topics requiring regional cooperation, for instance water quality, chemistry safety and security, alternative energy, and - perhaps the most relevant to all parties - science education. Third, she says, “These are people who are eager to collaborate and learn and create global networks. In some cases, the Israeli scientists they meet are the first Israelis they have ever met, and they say the experience challenges all the preconceived notions they have been taught.”

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The second intifada broke out when the first of the Malta conferences was being planned in 2003, and many scientists were hesitant to take part because of the backlash they expected to receive in their home countries should they participate in a conference involving Israelis. That’s when Prof. Lerman’s idea to invite Nobel laureates surfaced - and the respective governments allowed the scientists to participate for this reason. She chose Malta for security reasons, as it takes at least two flights (typically a stop in Europe) to get there from most Middle East countries. Since then, the conference has been held in Istanbul, Amman, Paris, and again in Malta; the next one will be held in Morocco in November 2015.

Several Weizmann Institute scientists are involved: Prof. David Cahen of the Department of Materials and Interfaces; Prof. Lia Addadi of the Department of Structural Biology; and the husband- wife pair of Prof. Ron Naaman of the Department of Chemical Physics and Dr. Rachel Mamlok-Naaman of the Department of Science Teaching. Additionally, Nobel Laureate Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute participated in Malta VI and will participate in Malta VII.

“The close friendships that have formed as a result of the Malta Conference gatherings are one of the most valuable results,” says Prof. Naaman. Last year in his lab, he hosted Prof. Hasan Dweik, a chemist from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem (and Executive Vice President of the university) for a full sabbatical year; the two continue to collaborate and they and their spouses have become close friends. A diverse group of scientists is working on a major project assessing the quality of drinking water and another group is designing a science curriculum.

Prof. Lerman says she wouldn’t have had the career that she has had without her education at the Weizmann Institute, where, she says, “I was exposed to a culture of science and science education and an open-minded worldview that emphasized collaboration and freedom of thought, unhindered by artificial boundaries.” She continues, “I am extremely proud to be a Weizmann Institute alumna.”