Mario J. Molina

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Nobel Prize Winning Chemist

In 1995, Mario Molina received the Nobel Prize in chemistry

for his work in atmospheric chemistry and the effect of

chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the depletion of the ozone

layer. He shared the Nobel Prize with F. Sherwood Rowland

and Paul Crutzen. This was the first Nobel Prize awarded for

research into the impact of man-made objects on the environment.

The discoveries led to an international environmental

treaty, which bans the production of industrial chemicals that

reduce the ozone layer. He was named one of the top 20 Hispanics

in Technology, 1998. He is one of the world’s most

knowledgeable experts on pollution and the effects of chemical

pollution on the environment.

Presently, he is a Professor of Environmental Sciences

at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to

Dr. Molina, “ Although I no longer spend much time in the laboratory,

I very much enjoy working with most graduate and

postdoctoral students, who provide me with invaluable intellectual

stimulus. I have also benefited from teaching; as I try

97

to explain my views to students with critical and open minds,

I find myself continually being challenged to go back and rethink

ideas. I now see teaching and research as complementary,

mutually reinforcing activities”

Mario J. Molina

It’s OK to Be Original

Don’t worry about doing something different. Just do it well.

Igot hooked on science at a young age. Growing up in Mexico,

I started reading biographies of famous biologists like

Louis Pasteur; later I read about Albert Einstein. I received

chemistry toys as gifts and became fascinated with them. The

day I got my first microscope, though, was probably a key

turning point. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the famous scientist

and inventor, had some great ideas. The microscope was by

far his best.

I remember sitting in my house with my new microscope

and dropping a little dirty water onto a slide. What I saw, the

movement of paramecia and bacteria, was the most fascinating

thing I could ever imagine. What amazed me was the

revelation that even if I couldn’t observe something with my

eyes, there was an instrument out there, right in front of me

that could help me see it.

My curiosity was always fueled by the desire to find out

how nature works. After high school, I attended the National

Autonomous University of Mexico, where I received a bachelor’s

in chemical engineering. Then came a turning point in

my life.

Source: Printed with permission from Professor Mario J. Molina.

For my master’s I decided to study in Germany. The transition

was tough. The people were much different, and the

language was difficult to learn. But I persevered through the

first year, a tough one, and eventually learned the language.

Ironically, I learned German before I ever learned any English.

In addition to having to learn German, learning the culture

was just as tough. Even the way they taught–it was almost

like they gave you a stack of books on the first day of your

first semester, told you to read them all and come back for

the last day of your last semester–was different from the North

American style. I had the distinct feeling—and they had the

unquestionable approach—that I was on my own. Eventually

though, I did receive my master’s in basic chemistry, and

it came time for another tough decision.

Where would I go for my PhD? What I was really looking

for now, even though my two degrees were in chemical engineering

and basic chemistry, was a place where hands-on,

basic science was taught. So I decided to move to the United

States and attend the University of California at Berkeley. It

turned out to be one of the wisest decisions I’d ever make.

The best lesson I learned at Berkeley was that science can

be more fun and productive when working as a member of a

team. Before Berkeley, my thinking was to do research on my

own because it was fascinating to me. I wasn’t thinking of the

contributions I could make to better the world. When I was

a kid back in Mexico, I had a lot of friends who didn’t have

the same ambitions I had. Many of them had what I would

call an antischool bias. Their general idea was that it wasn’t

fun to do homework, study, or go to class. They thought that

school just wasn’t fun. Now don’t get me wrong, I had fun with

them, but they weren’t thinking along the same lines as I was.

So as much as I loved research, I started understanding

that science is teamwork. You enjoy doing science more

when you share it with other people. Although it wasn’t my

immediate goal, I started realizing that the research I was

doing was beginning to push the frontiers of science. I was

starting to understand chemical lasers and how molecules

function–aspects of science that were new and could be applied.

That’s when I turned my attention to environmental

science–a science that could help benefit humanity as a

whole.

After receiving my PhD, I decided to learn how the atmosphere

functions. Before, as a chemist, I was simply looking

into the nuances of chemical reactions; now, I had found

a way to connect my life’s work with reality. I moved to Irvine

to team up with other scientists who were studying what happens

to certain industrial compounds (most notably CFCs, or

chlorofluorocarbons) once they are released into the atmosphere.

Previous research teams had concluded that the CFCs

were stable and thus would not be harmful to the environment.

We challenged those assumptions and found that they

would be destroyed in the stratosphere and eventually harm

the environment. The question in the back of all our minds,

“Will something happen to these compounds in the environment?,”

came into the forefront after our research. The answer

was yes.

Based on our findings, we predicted that the ozone layer

would be severely damaged. After international scientific research

was conducted to test our theory, the answer came

back. We were correct.

Of course, discovering something as potentially serious

as a high-end environmental problem can be bittersweet. It’s

not as if we wanted something to be wrong, but we set out to

find the facts, and we did. Now, steps are being taken to correct

the problems that we found so the situation doesn’t get

worse. But had we never discovered how harmful CFCs could

be, the hole in the ozone layer would still not be known.

The greatest piece of advice I can give anyone is not to be

afraid to think outside the box. It’s okay to be original. Don’t

worry about peer pressure. For me, science was and is great,

and I don’t mind being different. Don’t worry about being different.

Just do it well. When I think back to my childhood and

my time growing up, I wonder if I would have been so successful

had I not been different. My friends always thought

that anything pertaining to school was not worth going

through or working at or undertaking. For me, everything I

wanted to do had something to do with school. Thankfully,

I realized earlier that although my friends were important in

social situations, I couldn’t simultaneously succeed and succumb

to peer pressure. If I wanted to make it in what I desired

to do, I had to listen to my own heart. If I never followed

my heart and learned science, I would have never been able

to help the environment and the world. I never minded being

different, and that’s what has helped me succeed and achieve.