UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 05 | Mar.
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
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
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
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
"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
"It's essential that the profession address the conflict our work often causes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."