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  • Lilia Abron

    Alumna Lilia Abron, PhD, is recognized as America’s first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in chemical and environmental engineering. In honor of her contributions to industry, Abron was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2004. (Andres Alonso)

Alumni Feature

Engineering Better Lives for Others

Environmental engineer Lilia Abron, PhD, founder of PEER Consultants (www.peercpc.com/) and PEER Africa, approaches physical environments as human environments, helping others build not only houses but sustainable communities.

by Kristin Tennant

It was just a book — ideas put into words on pages — but when Lilia Abron, PhD, got her hands on it, the course of her whole life was indelibly altered.

The book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962, when Abron was transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Abron was hardly alone in her response; in fact, many credit Carson’s book with setting the environmental movement into motion.

Not long after reading Silent Spring, Abron saw a notice about scholarships for students getting graduate degrees in sanitary engineering. “I was so intrigued,” she says, “that I had to find out what it was all about.”

“My sisters and I were raised with that ethic — that we are our brothers’ keepers. We have a responsibility to help others,” Abron says.

What sanitary engineering “was all about” happened to tie together many of the things Abron herself was “all about,” from her love of the physical sciences and the environment to her strong, inherent desire to help people and make the world a better place.

“My sisters and I were raised with that ethic — that we are our brothers’ keepers. We have a responsibility to help others,” Abron says.

Educational influence

Growing up in Memphis in the 1950s was a completely segregated experience, but Abron says her childhood was different from what people might imagine.

“Black kids growing up in my time period in the South knew that their way out and up was through education,” she says. “It was highly valued in our household and community.”

Both of Abron’s parents had graduate degrees, and her oldest sister was already in graduate school. Abron herself had been “hell-bent on becoming an MD or chemist,” until she found out about environmental (then called “sanitary”) engineering. After earning her bachelor’s degree, Abron entered graduate school at Washington University, the first school she had ever attended that was not all black.

“In school we were concerned about physical environments, but by the time I graduated, I realized we were dealing with human environments,” Abron says. “Many social justice issues were involved.”

At WUSTL, Abron was one of only two women in the graduate engineering program. However, all the students had one thing in common: They were supported by government grants. Water, wastewater, industrial waste and air pollution were the big issues they were being trained to tackle.

“In school we were concerned about physical environments, but by the time I graduated, I realized we were dealing with human environments,” Abron says. “Many social justice issues were involved. For example, we realized early on that municipal dumps and wastewater facilities were typically put on the poor side of town, where the black people lived — since during that period we were the only identifiable minorities in town.”

According to Abron, the environmental engineering profession, therefore, started looking at how to design and build these facilities to impact people less.

After earning her master’s degree in 1968, Abron went on to earn a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Iowa, then taught for a few years before deciding she wanted to impact the environment more directly.

“It was the heyday of the environmental engineering movement,” she says. “So much had happened — the Love Canal incident and the river in Cleveland that had caught fire. I wanted to be out there solving problems.”

In 1978, she founded PEER Consultants, P.C., a full-service environmental engineering consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. (www.peercpc.com/). PEER currently has five offices in the United States, focused on helping people and communities negotiate infrastructure issues and deal with change. Every change, Abron says — from a new public transportation system to new development — raises environmental issues.

“I became very good at helping people negotiate, work through, understand, and accept a variety of environmental issues and solutions,” she says. “I’m really a community organizer with a very keen, well-trained understanding of the environment.”

International impact

In the mid-’90s, with her firm well-established in the United States, Abron, PE, BCEE, began looking for international opportunities. She ended up focusing on South Africa after newly elected President Nelson Mandela in 1994 asked U.S. President Bill Clinton if some of America’s black engineers could help rebuild his country after apartheid. In attendance at this particular gathering, Abron, without hesitation, said “yes.” PEER Africa was established in 1995, during a time and in a place overwhelmed by complex environmental issues.

“Once again, many social issues were involved. Because the poor were using dirty fuel and open flames for cooking, heating water and heating in general, they suffered endemic upper-respiratory diseases, such as asthma or bronchitis,” Abron says.

For every problem she and her business partner identified, there were other problems working their way under Abron’s skin.

“It bothered me to see people living without any power to change their lives, and government funds being wasted by construction companies just trying to make money. I told my business partner, ‘I know how to solve this.’”

“I was in South Africa marketing pollution control and abatement but kept getting flashes of these poorly built houses — ones being constructed under the South African government housing subsidy program. In essence, they were nothing more than concrete shacks. And people deserve better,” Abron says.

“It bothered me to see people living without any power to change their lives, and government funds being wasted by construction companies just trying to make money. I told my business partner, ‘I know how to solve this.’”

Bolstered by the Gore–Mbeki U.S.–South Africa Binational Commission — a U.S. cooperative initiative supported by presidents Clinton and Mandela — PEER Africa started its iEEECO™-housing program. The concept unites energy efficiency and sustainable housing construction along with economic development, creating what Abron calls more “holistic communities,” or sustainable human settlements. PEER Africa built its brand program using a consultative approach, creating solutions based on the particular needs of those in the community.

“We approached Secretary [of Energy] O’Leary for support to help with the development of a passive solar home in Northern Cape province,” Abron says. Today, passive-solar, energy-efficient and renewable-energy concepts are incorporated into all aspects of the iEEECO houses.

Further, individuals in the communities, not outside construction companies, build these homes. “Our role is to get people organized in the planning and the rebuilding of their own communities,” Abron says.

To date, PEER Africa’s iEEECO-housing program has directly helped build about 5,000 homes, and it has influenced the building of another 5,000.

As she looks ahead, it is clear Abron is not ready to rest on her laurels. Besides her involvement in the lives of her three children and six grandchildren, Abron is working hard to grow PEER Consultants in the United States. She also wants to establish an iEEECO-housing program in Haiti, but says that country’s problems are even more complex than South Africa’s.

“There’s just no fluid cash in Haiti,” she says. “We’ve learned that you have to focus on economic development first, before you can even think of building communities with houses in them.”

Abron states that her career in sustainable economic development in developing countries involves a lot of uncertainty. “I definitely have dark days,” she says. “But when I’m frustrated, I think about the results: the number of houses built, the number of lives changed, the number of children educated.”

And speaking of results, Abron still believes, more than ever, that education is the “way out and up.”

“When I started my company, I was a single mom — a single female head of household — with three black boys to raise in Washington, D.C. The only thing separating me from the majority of black women in D.C. with the same statistic was my education.”

Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Ill.

For more information, visit www.peercpc.com/.

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Engineering Better Lives for OthersEnvironmental engineer Lilia Abron, PhD, founder of PEER Consultants and PEER Africa, helps others build sustainable communities.

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