Though Mohtar survived this and other trials, not everybody had such luck. In early 1984, a year before Mohtar completed his master’s degree in agricultural engineering, President Kerr — a widely respected Beirut-born American educator — was shot dead while walking to his campus office. The assassination shocked and saddened the student body, especially Mohtar, who personally knew Kerr and his commitment to Lebanon, to teaching, and to working toward overcoming bias and ignorance.
One gets the sense, however, that Mohtar is unlikely to share such stories unless pressed. In listening to Mohtar recount past hardships, it becomes clear that for him, the most dramatic aspect of such trying experiences is not the danger he was in, or the fear that he must have felt; it is, rather, the positive lesson he has invariably taken away.
His students attest that Mohtar has a natural gift for teaching. He takes time to ensure that everybody understands the concepts and the importance of the material covered.
“He encourages us to take a deeper look at the subject and not be satisfied with the quick and easy answer,” says graduate student Joe Mallory. Mohtar also keeps class interesting by discussing the real-world impact of subjects covered. “In learning about dam designs, we spent an entire lecture discussing the levees around New Orleans and what caused them to fail during Hurricane Katrina,” Mallory recalls.
Mohtar has had a lot of practice teaching, having mentored 15 doctoral and master’s students and more than 100 undergraduates since his arrival at Purdue in 1996. But long before donning gold and black or winning his department’s teaching award a decade later, he had a few good teachers of his own.
On weekend visits to the family farm in the mountains outside Beirut, Mohtar’s father, Hassan, and grandmother, Gharra, would lead him around to teach him about the olives, grapes, figs and other plants they grew. It was there that he learned to love the outdoors and began to long to know more about the intricate patchwork that made up the farm: the plants and animals, the soil and water, the people and how they interacted with it all. To Mohtar’s family, the land was sacred; besides providing them with food, income and shelter, it was their home.
After Mohtar completed his master’s degree in 1985 at Beirut, he returned to the countryside for his first job managing a large family farm in eastern Lebanon. In charge of irrigation, fertilization and cultivation, Mohtar oversaw 50 to 250 workers and learned a lot more about production agriculture.
One difficulty was managing plants at different altitudes, as the farm stretched from 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) to sea level. “You start with walnuts and apples on the tops of the mountain, go down to peaches and pears, then down to olives, and all the way down to oranges and bananas.”
But Mohtar still desired further education, so after a couple years he applied for and was awarded the Hariri Fellowship. This allowed him to pursue further study in the U.S. where he figured he would be best able to achieve his goals. He attended Michigan State University, where he completed a master’s in civil and environmental engineering and a PhD in agricultural systems management. After a stint as a researcher at Penn State, he came to Purdue in 1996.
Mohtar has compiled an impressive record, publishing 52 peer-reviewed journal articles and 11 books and book chapters and giving 57 presentations in 11 countries. He has organized 30 international workshops and more than 80 technical sessions in the U.S. and abroad, besides raising $5.5 million in research funding.
A large part of Mohtar’s work involves developing land-use models designed to help teach students and professionals about the dynamics of the land.
Mohtar’s models have been used around the world. European scientists currently employ one to complete the continent’s largest agricultural modeling project. In Tunisia, Mohtar helped develop a model that has allowed several farmers to reduce levels of salt and nitrogen leaching from their property, says Hatem Belhouchette, a scientist at the research institute Montpellier SupAgro, in Montpellier, France.
One of Mohtar’s signature achievements, GRASIM (GRAzing SIMulation model), was the first comprehensive model to link all the components of grazing systems. It predicts water flow and the amount and nutritional quality of plant matter, effects of different human activities, and levels of leached nutrients.
“As anyone who has written computer programs and models can attest, it takes almost as much time to make a model accurate as it does to make it usable to those unfamiliar with its development,” says departmental colleague and professor Don Jones. “At present, GRASIM is used by researchers, farmers, advisers and county educators across the U.S. and in several foreign countries.”
Mohtar also developed a model that uses a unique paradigm to better understand the flow of water, nutrients and contaminants across different spatial scales, a model expected to significantly influence future scientific and agricultural policy, Jones says.
Mohtar’s various international efforts are geared toward the conservation of environmental and natural resources and toward promoting sustainable activities. He currently leads an effort to establish an environmental research center in Qatar, has done extensive work with water conservation in Tunisia, and has led major water and natural resources initiatives in India, Jordan, France, and the Palestinian regions of Gaza and the West Bank.
The man behind the accomplishments is “an incredible people person who manages to bring people with various interests, experiences and backgrounds together,” says Adriana Bruggeman, a hydrologist with the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas based in Syria.
Senior Anne Dare concurs. “He arranged for my senior design group to travel to Jordan to present our senior design project to the Palestinian Hydrology Group,” a trip for which Mohtar secured funding and arranged lodging. “Even throughout our stay, Rabi was in contact with us via text message and would relay information on to our parents. He has encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree at Purdue and keeps me informed of opportunities to better myself,” she says.
Indeed, Mohtar “understands that there is more to life than academics,” as Mallory attests. It is, for example, important to have fun. As an adviser to Purdue’s Tango Club, Mohtar manages to kick loose while characteristically engaging others.
“When I hear music, I can’t help but dance,” he says, as if he had no choice but to go above and beyond the call of duty.
On second thought, though, that appears to be exactly the case, and helps explain how he can be at once renowned but humble: Rabi Mohtar genuinely believes that we have no choice but to live each day to its fullest.
“For some of us, it’s a blessing to just be alive.”
Contact Mohtar at firstname.lastname@example.org