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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 05 | Mar. 8, 2001

Rock and soul

A mission accompanies singing mining professor

by Bruce Mason staff  writer

Twelve minutes before class, students rush to a few remaining seats, fighting their way through faculty, staff and assorted fans lining the hallway outside the engineering lecture theatre.

Up front, Marcello Veiga, an assistant professor of Mining and Mineral Process Engineering, consults his notes -- musical notes.

He paces, tuning a small four-string guitar to the harmonica held around his neck as he passes out tambourines and other percussion instruments.

Cale Dubois, a fourth-year student, picks through a chord progression on the guitar he has brought to the Mining 519 lecture to jam with the professor.

Feet tap, and faces smile as infectious bossa nova and samba rhythms fill the air. The duo sing Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" from hand-written lyrics propped up on the podium.

Veiga's classically trained voice soars above the rest, clear and clean as the streams he envisions, solid as the earth he wants to protect. It is the voice of an experienced performer with something to say.

"Music encourages my students to get to class on time and helps me capture their undivided attention," says Veiga, a world authority on mercury pollution. He will bounce a ball off  walls if he senses he is losing his students, he says. An orchestrated series of wisecracks, cartoons and skits make that highly unlikely.

"What really sets Marcello apart from many professors is his obvious passion for teaching and his natural sense of humor which is never far away," says Dubois.

A bell is barely audible over a rousing version of The Eagles' "Hotel California." Hoots and applause signal the start of another lecture in Mining and the Environment.

When the music stops, the lecturer doesn't miss a beat and the message starts, delivered with the same full measure of gentle intensity and good humour. If Veiga has his way, the perceptions of every student will be altered in the hour-long lecture.

"My responsibility to students is to get them thinking about ethical behaviour, which has been sadly lacking in the history of engineering," says the Brazilian-born Veiga. He spent more than a decade in the mining industry after earning a metallurgical engineering degree from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and a master's degree in environmental geochemistry from Federal Fluminense University.

"It's essential that the profession address the conflict our work often causes in communities."

The great-grandson of the former president of Brazil and the grandson and son of cabinet ministers, he sensed something wrong with an industry that was not aware it affects the lives of billions of people worldwide, during and after operations.

His concern led to serving on United Nations missions in various South American countries and to UBC where he earned a PhD in 1994. He joined the faculty three years later.

"Approximately 13 million miners in 55 countries are involved in artisanal mining, using mercury to recover gold," he says. "Entire families depend on it for their very survival. Daily life for many women and children includes separating poisonous mercury from gold with their bare hands."

He has photographs, hundreds of them, transferred to electronic images. They seem like visions from other worlds, virtually impossible to comprehend as they flicker across a computer screen.

"What is lacking most in Canadian education is a deep understanding of poverty, which is the main cause of environmental problems of the planet," says Veiga, who delivered a special lecture -- Mercury in the Andes: An Appalling Tale of Misunderstandings and Blunders -- at Green College last month.

"Because most of UBC's mining graduates will most likely work in areas such as South America, Africa and Indonesia, they must be fully aware of how powerful a motivator poverty is," he says.

"They must learn that people respect the environment in different ways. It is not enough to just say, `Stop doing that!' This is just one of many, many cultural issues and sensitivities," he explains.

A cartoon of the legend of Pocahontas with a cast of an army of miners wreaking havoc on the environment illustrates Veiga's approach. It is not just another cartoon he tells his classes as he assigns an analysis of the portrayal of villainous miners as homework.

He also asks them to sift through the media for stories about the negative impact of their chosen profession and to play miners or environmentalists in skits in class.

"This is real. It's serious. And I have lived the stories I tell," says Veiga, who was given a piece of a net, removed from the waters around Minamata, Japan in 1997, in recognition of his ongoing work there.

For more than 20 years the net held back mercury-infested fish which caused horrific human suffering in the '50s and '60s. He is regularly called to Peru and other places to monitor mercury spills.

Veiga also acts locally.

Canadians have an ambivalent attitude to mining, but consume 10 tonnes of mineral products each every year.

The release of selenium from this country's coal mines is one area of his research and he formed the Centre for Responsible Mining to encourage students to tackle such issues as corporate responsibility for the tragic impact of closures in Canada's mining communities.

He takes his work and the university home.

His wife Sonia, a former student, earned a PhD in Metallurgical Engineering in a joint exchange program between UBC and the University of Sao Paulo. Daughter Mariana is a first-year UBC Biology student and son Victor is a student at University Hill Secondary, where Veiga sometimes gives presentations.

And he assumes his share of the university's role in the community. A past president of Vancouver's Brazilian Community Association, he organized soccer matches between local Brazilian teams and colleagues and students in his department under the team banner, "The Rest of the World."

When global attention began to focus on the burning of the Amazon rainforest, Veiga sounded an alert in an article in Nature magazine about the dangers of mercury contained in trees, which was being released into the atmosphere. It was front-page news in Brazil.

He also warned that jewellers working with gold were polluting the air with mercury.

Veiga is one of 30 researchers from 10 departments in UBC's Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals and Materials. The group is close to helping to solve a terrible Canadian mining pollution problem at Britannia Beach where 600 kilograms of copper and zinc has leaked into Howe Sound every day since 1974.

An innovative 1,000-year plug devised by the team will hopefully seal the mine permanently this summer.

Typically Veiga's role is unorthodox and inventive. He is experimenting with earthworms to determine metal bioaccumulation and how far pollutants move up in the food chain.

Music is essential to his own life. It paid for his education and he spent a full year trying, in vain, to make a living from performing at weddings and other venues.

Self-taught on the harmonica since the age of 10, he learned to play guitar with his mother at 14, and now wants to spend more time playing and singing with other musicians. He practices daily on instruments such as the stringed cavaquinho and continually expands his repertoire.

"I love all music. It is a powerful means of communication," he says, "but I have learned not to sing opera to my students. It puts them to sleep."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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