American chemist Zafra Lerman speaks about her pivotal moments

is an American chemist, educator, and humanitarian. She is the President of the Malta Conferences Foundation, which aims to promote peace by bringing together scientists from otherwise hostile countries to discuss science and foster international scientific and technical collaboration. She has been nominated for and received so many prizes that we gave up trying to list them.

Lerman recently spoke with CICNews editor Sharon Oosthoek in advance of her plenary presentation at IUPAC CCCE 2021 in August.


Zafra Lerman sits with her right hand resting against her cheek.You’ve said science diplomacy can overcome cultural, religious, and political boundaries that other forms of diplomacy cannot. Can you give me a specific example as it relates to chemistry?

The division between chemistry, biology and physics are man-made divisions and it’s time to break them down – it’s antique and I don’t separate them in my work. So, I’m going to talk about science diplomacy.

During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, there were the Pugwash Conferences. In the 1950s, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, came up with a manifesto calling on both sides to put aside their nuclear weapons and urged the scientists from all sides to get together to discuss the issue. Linus Pauling signed on immediately.

So, the Soviets and the Americans got together and started talking. They agreed scientists had an obligation to save the world. It became a very famous conference for the scientists’ efforts around nuclear disarmament. Its executive director, Joseph Rotblat, a physicist, and the Pugwash Conferences jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

How did you develop this belief in science diplomacy? Where did it come from?

When I came to the U.S. for a post-doc working on isotope effects, I came to work with a very famous chemist and he was a member of the American delegation to Pugwash. His name was Frank Long, from Cornell University. He was on the scientific advisory committee to Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. He was very, very involved in science diplomacy and that’s how I got involved.

When I first applied to work with him, Long said he would love to have me, but he would have to say no. He had been nominated to be the director of the National Science Foundation – back then the scientists chose the director and not the politicians.

But when Frank Long went to Washington to be sworn in, Richard Nixon blocked his nomination because of his activities. The whole scientific community was up in arms and a huge article was published in Science about it. Frank Long came back to Cornell and two days later he got a phone call from Nixon inviting him to come back to Washington to be sworn in after all. But being Frank Long, he said ‘Thank you Mr. President, but no.’

Therefore, for many years, I used to start my lectures with a big thank you to Richard Nixon. And people who knew my politics thought I was out of my mind. But when Frank answered no to Nixon, he answered yes to me. This is how my career started in science diplomacy. I worked with not just a scientist, but a person who seemed to be involved in everything in the world.

Can you tell me a bit about one of your more memorable human rights missions?

In the 1980s, I was very involved in human rights in the Soviet Union with the people called Refuseniks. These were scientists who wanted to leave the Soviet Union and were refused and fired from their jobs. Many of them were arrested and sent to Siberia.

I met with Russian nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov in the U.S. who told me it would be best to learn Russian if I wanted to work there because translators are not people you want to take with you. So, I took a crash course in Russian and went back.

I was taking part in science conferences, but after midnight I would go out to dark alleys where one or two Refuseniks were waiting for me. We would go together to some dark attic – by that stage there would be maybe 50 Refuseniks there – and I would give them a science lecture and distribute scientific material because at that time, they were deprived of any of this material.

The most important thing is that I would bring back their CVs to help bring them out of the Soviet Union. And they would give me the CVs of those arrested so we could also work on their behalf.

Every night before I left I would find somebody brave among the U.S. chemists in my group – it was usually a woman, because women are brave. I would tell her if I’m not here tomorrow at breakfast, call the American Embassy and don’t ask me any questions.

I think your work is something many scientists would admire – you’ve even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! You must have a less flattering side? Can you share something about yourself that you’re working on improving?

What, am I applying for a job? This sounds like a job interview question. And what makes you think I have an unflattering side? I’m saving the world! Maybe you should just tell people I have a charming accent. (Editor’s note: she is laughing)

Okay, alright, I’m a very picky eater. I don’t eat animals because I want to protect them, and they are nicer than many people I know. I don’t eat vegetables either, so I have a big problem. My mom used to say if someone wants to ruin their appetite, they should eat with me.