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USM Professor Ira Levine awarded prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Chair

LEWISTON — Only hours after USM awarded Professor Ira Levine a year-long sabbatical, the U.S. Department of State awarded him with the biggest prize of his career.

And suddenly, his year away got a whole lot busier.

The aquaculture expert's previously planned work, to continue cultivating algae study at community colleges across the country, will go forward. But it will be scheduled around a four-to-six-months-long tour of India as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair.

"I'm deeply grateful," said Levine, who teaches in the Natural and Applied Sciences Program at USM's Lewiston-Auburn College.

Levine specializes in the growing and harvesting of algae and seaweed. And he already has experience with both the Fulbright program and India.

In 2009 and 2010, he served as a Fulbright New Century Scholar with scientists at the University of Delhi. He worked to develop algae as a cost-effective, clean source of fuel.

Six years later, with gasoline prices falling, turning either algae or seaweed into a competitive fuel source is a tough goal, Levine said. But he and his colleagues are working on both long-range fuel creation plans and short-term projects that create a wide variety of products, from foods and chemicals to ingredients in cosmetics.

"It's a $7 billion per year industry," Levine said. "The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world."

The initiative to turn that around by working with community colleges is being funded with a $1.5 million Department of Energy grant to the Algae Foundation. Levine serves as the foundation's president and chair.

"It's about teaching the next generation of aquaculture workers," said Levine. He hopes to do the same in India, where the need is astonishingly high.

"I could have applied to other places," he said. "I just thought my mission was more well-developed and certainly more significant in India. My ability to penetrate the country is far more significant."

He felt needed there.

On an earlier trip, he recalled driving through an area forested by windmills. But rather than directly helping the people in nearby villages, the electricity was feeding the tech industry in a nearby city.

"People would emerge from their homes carrying kerosene lanterns," he said. Such contradictions are startling but common.

"India is the richest place in the world and the poorest, and they can be 100 yards from each other," he said. "it is an incongruence that is so difficult to understand."

But the people are extraordinary.

"They're so open and so warm and so giving, in terms of philosophy and time," Levine said.

His first Fulbright resulted in his co-authoring of a book, "Porphyra, Harvesting Gold From the Sea," and his leadership in the creation of Professors Beyond Borders. That organization led him to the Galapagos Islands, where he worked on the remote archipelago's naturally acidic water supply, too harsh to either bath in or drink.

In 2010, he also worked on post-earthquake efforts in Chile.

On some level, the gray-bearded professor applied for India to have one more adventure. His application for the distinguished chair, Fulbright's most prestigious honor, was nearly an inch thick and included essays, invitations and a detailed medical assessment.

"It's normally sort of a lecture tour around the country, disseminating your experience," he said. "I proposed in my application to share with people advances in algal-based education and the preliminary results from the Department of Energy Grant."

But he's hoping it will be more than a lecture tour.

"At this stage in my life, what's the next great thing I can do?" he asked.