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An Interview with Aftim Acra
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences

As MainGate co-editor Lynn Mahoney discovered, interviewing Professor Emeritus Aftim Acra in New York was a most enlightening experience, pleasurably enhanced by the presence of his wife Nadia. One of AUB’s most loved and esteemed faculty members, the Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences shares his memories of AUB, discusses his environmental research, and tells us about his prized collection of Lebanese amber.

When did you arrive at AUB?

Professor Acra: I came to AUB in 1941 and enlisted as an undergraduate student in Pharmacy. The program in those days was known as pharmaceutical chemistry, and I graduated in 1946 with distinction. I had always been at the top of my class, all through school and at the university level.
Mrs. Acra: I graduated from the AUB School of Public Health as a public health nurse in 1953. I then worked at the Social Health Center, which was established by the Lebanese Health Association with funds from USAID (known then as Point Four). The program was intended to train students of medicine, nursing, and public health to acquire some knowledge about the living conditions and health affairs of families through home visits. My appointment covered a period of about 30 years.

Professor Acra: She was a pioneer in her field.

When did you start teaching at AUB?

Professor Acra: I started working at AUB in 1949 as a senior technician, though I had an undergraduate degree in pharmacy. You should know what my monthly salary was then—311 Lebanese pounds and 63 piasters! I told them, I accept the 311 pounds, but what do I need the 63 piasters for? They said, it is all calculated and we have to be exact and just.
I was a diligent and hard worker. There was no “elevator to success” in those days. I climbed the steps, one step at a time, until eventually I was promoted and became a full professor. I retired with the title of Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science; it was certainly an honor for me.
I always loved AUB and teaching at my alma mater. In 1954 I started teaching medical laboratory technology in what was then called the School of Public Health, which was the first of its kind in the region. In 1956 I went to the United States and studied for my Master of Public Health (MPH) in Environmental Sciences on scholarship at the University of North Carolina, where I later returned for postgraduate studies. When I got my master’s degree, I returned to AUB and started teaching environmental health, which was how I served as a midwife for the creation of the Department of Environmental Health. I was there from day one.Mrs. Acra: You were the only one in Lebanon and in the Middle East working in that field at that time.
Professor Acra: Later my students followed in my footsteps and went all over the world with what they had learned at AUB. At that time we had students from 60 different countries – a mix of Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Greek, Indians, Iranians, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, among many others.
Mrs. Acra: I remember we had a party for an Iranian student couple who got engaged at our house.

Tell me about some of the awards you earned.

Professor Acra: I received the National Cedars award in October 1972. The University of North Carolina, where I graduated in environmental sciences, honored me as a distinguished alumnus in May 1990. My biographical record was included in the Marquis Who’s Who in the World (15th Edition, 1998).

What is the biggest change you’ve noticed at AUB?

Professor Acra: Compared to my student days in the 1940s, I notice how many more buildings there are on campus. I also see a noticeable increase in environmental awareness at AUB. I remember that in 1966 on the occasion of the University’s centennial year, I became concerned about the piles of rubble and trash behind buildings and, with the consent of President Samuel Kirkwood, arranged to undertake a campus clean-up campaign. By the time this was done, we had cleared over 40 truckloads to be carried to the dumpsite at the Karantina. I also learned that there were a number of make-shift incinerators on campus, more than were needed, so I made arrangements to discontinue all of them except one.
I also remember that during my student days in pharmacy, we had students from so many different countries, including Jewish students from Palestine. A number of them were my classmates. We were friendly and never had any quarrels about politics. Another thing I recall was that there were not many girls studying at AUB, and when we had dancing parties we would try to “borrow” some nurses from the Medical School. But the MD students would intervene and not let the nurses go to our parties. But then God was merciful and sent 30 beautiful Polish girls to the School of Pharmacy [laughing]. Now came our turn—the medical students wanted them to come to their dances and we said, “No way.”Wh

at do you think students remember most about your classes?

Professor Acra: I think my students liked me; not that I am boasting, because I was a good teacher. My lectures were delivered in a simple language and were very factual. I was able to knock the material into the heads of every single student. I don’t remember that I failed anybody. I was determined to find out which students were weak and push them harder. My motive was to teach them to pass.
One other thing my students will certainly remember about me was that I was a dedicated teacher. I was paid to teach and the classes were limited to 50 minutes, as you know, but the students knew I would not stop my lecture at the end of the period. I taught them how to remind me that it was time to end the class—by noisily rubbing their shoes on the ground [he laughs].
Mrs. Acra: Some of his students would come home to get help with projects and stay for hours.
Professor Acra: I loved it, but it was done at the expense of my family.
Are you still in touch with your former students?
Professor Acra: Oh, yes. One of them is now working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia and we are in touch weekly by e-mail. I remember reviewing the draft of the doctoral dissertation of a former student who was getting his PhD in Australia—making suggestions or changes, because his adviser could not see him often enough to give him the help he needed. The draft document would be mailed by him from Australia to me in Tucson, Arizona.

When did you leave AUB?

Professor Acra: After I retired from the Faculty of Health Sciences in 1992, I worked voluntarily in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering until 1997. I continued advising students on graduate research programs and, of course, also developing my many research ideas, on which some of the professors or graduate students collaborated in implementing. I have also been producing a good number of publications. Thanks to the people who invented e-mail, I still communicate with my former colleagues at AUB on the research ideas that cross my mind in Tucson, Arizona, where I now live. Some of the successful ones are published jointly.

What do you think are the most pressing environmental issues in the United States and Lebanon?

Professor Acra: Since the US is so huge, the problems differ from city to city. In Tucson, Arizona, for instance, we cannot rely on the water supply. So, what we do is fill transparent, plastic bottles with tap water and put them out in the sun for solar disinfection. I developed the technology of having the ultra-violet rays kill the bacteria, and two of my booklets on the solar disinfection of water were published by UNICEF. A Swiss scientist who came to Lebanon and learned the technology from me went back to Switzerland and raised enough money to introduce the solar disinfection technique in some of the countries in Latin and South America.
In Lebanon, there are so many issues, but I would like to concentrate on the coastal waters. One of the major problems is solid waste collected in Beirut and hauled all the way to the Karantina area, where it is dumped by the shore, truck after truck, so that it almost looks like a hill. The bulldozers come and compress the surface layers to make room for more fresh trash, and often push some into the sea. This pollutes the sea; and because the main coastal current runs from south to north, the lighter material does not sink but is carried by the current northward, and the waves then push this material onto the shore. The same thing also happens in the other port cities of Jounieh, Tripoli, and Sidon. This is one of the major marine pollutants in Lebanon, but not the only one.
There is also the matter of sewage. In Beirut there are some 15 to 17 sewer outfalls into the sea that extend not more than 20 meters into the sea, which
is not enough. So, wherever they discharge, they pollute the coastal seawaters. Another study I undertook with the help of one of my graduate students was the determination of the oil content in seawater along the coast of Lebanon. We took samples of seawater from about 25 locations and tested them for petroleum oil. We discovered, of course, that the oil content was high in the port cities due to the discharged oily bilge water by the ships. However, we also found that the oil concentration in the waters far north of Tripoli was great, and concluded that there could possibly be petroleum deposits underneath the coastal shelf in that area. I published my findings in the AUB Bulletin in 1972. As a consequence, Syria contracted an American company to survey its coastal waters for oil; and the Lebanese authorities, I understand, have hired a British company to do the same in its northern waters.
But one has to drill before one can find out if the oil is commercially adequate.

Tell me about your research on Lebanese amber.

Professor Acra: It started as a hobby and ended up as a scientific project. I was lucky, really. In 1962 I offered to guide the students and professors of geology to Furzol in the Beqa’a Valley in a search for fish fossils that could
be found there, as I was informed by my friend Sami Atiyyeh. My companions and I stopped at Dahr Al-Baida to collect some crustacean fossils that abound there. It was then and there that I saw a piece of brownish material that looked like brown broken glass, and I wondered what it was. Upon asking my companion, Professor Young, what he thought it was, he took out his cigarette lighter, burned the edge of it, and said it was amber. That was the only piece we could find there. I went back a couple of weeks later, this time accompanied by Raif Milki, and collected more of the same material in an adjacent lot. And when we started surveying that area and found more, my interest was triggered.
Later, guided by information given to me by Professor Edgel of the Department of Geology, we found quite a substantial amount of amber in Jezzine in the south, which we collected. My son Fadi and I started our own collection and began studying the pieces for their fossil inclusions. I then contacted Professor Paul Whally at the British Museum in London, who was most willing to undertake a study of these fossils. He later published some papers on certain moth fossils and named one after me (Parasabatinca Aftimacra).
What is unique about the amber of Lebanon is that it is definitely the oldest found anywhere in the world, going back to the Lower Cretaceous Period (110 to 135 million years ago).

What impact has AUB had on your life?

Professor Acra: I became a different person really, in the sense that I learned to think freely, be liberal in my ideas, thoughts, and actions. At the same time, to do my best, to be creative and determined in achieving my goals.

Tell me about your children.

Professor Acra: We have four children. All studied at International College and some went on to AUB. Our youngest studied chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and after getting his BS came to AUB for his MD and graduated with distinction. He went to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, for his residency and is a specialist in pediatric gastroentology. Reem is a highly successful bridal and eveningwear fashion designer in New York. She is an incredibly hard worker and we are very proud of her. Fadi, who lives in Pittstown, Pennsylvania, studied the art of
jewelry-making and is now a jewelry designer.

Mrs. Acra: All of our children are happy and successful, thank God and thank AUB!