Black Women in STEM: Dr. Lilia A. Abron
Lilia Ann Abron was born on March 8, 1945 in Memphis Tennessee. She was raised in the segregated South, but her family was confident that education was the key to a bright future.
Growing up in a family of academic achievers, both her mother and father earned advanced college degrees, and her sister was attending graduate school.
She knew she was headed off to higher education, but she did not yet know that conservation would be her focus.
Birth of Preservation and Conservation Ideals
Abron was determined to become either a doctor or a chemist until she read the historic environmental science book Silent Spring by American marine biologist, author, and conservationist, Rachel Carson.
After reading Carson's book, she realized environmental engineering was her calling, at that time, environmental engineering was known as sanitary engineering.
Sanitary engineering is a field that seeks to utilize engineering methods to improve communities by upgrading sanitation via the removal and disposal of human waste and increasing the safe water supply.
Academic Pursuit of Environmental Engineering
At the age of 21, Abron earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from LA Moyne College, which is a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Memphis. This was at a time when there were little to no other black women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—in fact, at that time, there were very few women in STEM at all.
Two years later, Abron earned a Master of Science degree in Sanitary Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, she accomplished this goal while being one of only two women in the graduate engineering program at the time. In the fall of that same year, she began her Ph.D. studies at the renowned University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass).
She completed her doctoral degree at the University of Iowa (UI), allowing her to join the ranks of the handful of other black female scientists with advanced degrees.
After her college days were over, Abron took on engineering professor positions at Tennessee State University (TSU), and prestigious Vanderbilt and Howard Universities. Then in 1978, Abron decided to try her hand at entrepreneurship when she founded and became the CEO of the engineering firm, PEER Consultants, PC.
Abron has remained at the helm of PEER Consultants, PC ever since. With the establishment of PEER, she is one of the first engineering professionals to suggest and actually demonstrate that sustainability initiatives can rapidly advance the condition of impoverished people all over the world.
Conservation in Action
In its 30 plus year history under the direction of Lilia Abron, PEER has completed many projects focused on upgrading aging infrastructure, but one of its greatest accomplishments is the transformation of the South African community of Witsand.
Witsand is a small coastal town located on the Breede River in Western Cape, South Africa. The town is known today for its nursery for calving Southern Right whales, bountiful fishing, and unusually large bull sharks. Despite the presence of bull sharks, Witsand is also known for spectacular kite-surfing and windsurfing.
However, there is a time in the town's history when it was both economically and environmentally depressed, Lilia Abron and PEER came to help.
The transformation of the community of Witsand began when PEER Africa started its iEEECO™ housing program, which was fueled by the Gore-Mbeki Binational Commission.
The Gore-Mbeki Binational Commission is an agreement for U.S. companies to provide housing aid to impoverished South African communities, such as Witsand. The agreement was helmed by U.S. Vice President, Al Gore and Deputy President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, and it was supported by both presidents, Bill Clinton, and Nelson Mandela.
With the aid of PEER, under Lilia Abron, Witsand has grown from a shantytown with over 2,000 run-down shacks and no access to basic human services, to a thriving community where over 2,600 families reside in comfortable and affordable, single-family, multi-family, and mixed-use, energy-efficient passive-solar homes.
Once the community was able to recover from depressed conditions, the coastal town was free to grow into the beautiful tourist attraction it is today.
The Witsand project is just one of many programs that reflect the fact that Abron is achieving her life-long ambition to improve communities and create a better environment on a global scale.
Lilia Abron: Well-Rounded & Grounded
On a more personal note, Dr. Abron is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta. Delta Sigma Theta (ΔΣΘ; sometimes abbreviated Deltas or DST) was founded in 1913 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
The organization is a non-profit Greek-lettered sorority of college-educated women who choose to dedicate their work to public service, with an emphasis on programs that focus on the African American community.
Delta Sigma Theta sorors include United States Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, United States Senator, Carol Mosely Braun, NAACP Emerita Chairman of the Board, Myrlie Evers (also, wife of slain civil rights activist, Medgar Evers), and acclaimed Hollywood actress and civil rights activist, Ruby Dee.
At the time this article was created, Abron was 72 of age, and she has three grown sons. Abron plays the handbells in the Angelus Bell Choir at her church. She holds steadfast to her lifelong belief that "Humans and the physical environment are fully compatible and co-exist to mutually benefit one another."
Dr. Lilia Abron is an inspiration to all black women in STEM, to hopeful female scientists and to anyone seeking a career in engineering; Well done, Dr. Abron.
AEESP Environmental Engineering Career Stories: Lilia Abron
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Please Know that graduate scholarships for women, minorities, and people with low incomes do exist, particularly if there is an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
For more information on STEM scholarships for minorities and/or STEM scholarships for women, please visit the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).
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© 2017 Rachelle Williams