I am headed to UCSD tomorrow to join generations of previous graduate students, post-docs and research collaborators of Mario J. Molina to celebrate his 71st birthday, and his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 (Mario Molina Symposium).
Mario was my Ph.D. advisor at MIT from 1998-2003. Mario’s contributions to science earned him the Nobel Prize in 1995. He, along with Sherry Rowland and Paul Crutzen, discovered the fast chemical reactions in the stratosphere that were destroying the ozone layer. And then worked tirelessly to prohibit the use of CFCs by industry, leading to the passing of Montreal Protocol that banned the use of ozone depleting substances. He was the first Mexican-born citizen to receive the Nobel Prize.
My Ph.D. work with Mario focused on phase transitions in atmospheric particles, and heterogeneous chemistry that affected the troposphere. Climate models (that are used to predict global warming) carry uncertainty due to their inability to predict indirect effects of aerosols in the atmosphere (cloud albedo etc), and my work focused on understanding when, where and how cirrus clouds form, and how global warming inducing carbon soot particles are washed out of the atmosphere.
Some of the work we published together:
- Heterogeneous freezing of aqueous particles induced by crystallized (NH4) 2SO4, ice, and letovicite
- Heterogeneous nucleation of ice in (NH4) 2SO4‐H2O particles with mineral dust immersions
- Hydrophilic properties of aged soot
- Processing of soot in an urban environment: case study from the Mexico City Metropolitan Area
- Aerosol composition and source apportionment in the Mexico City Metropolitan Area with PIXE/PESA/STIM and multivariate analysis
- Microphysics of atmospheric aerosols : phase transitions and cloud formation mechanisms
My time spent with Mario is among the most memorable in my life. I didn’t just learn chemistry from him…he was a role model on how science (and engineering) was critical to solving some of the most important problems facing the world. He was a strong supporter of environmental causes, but his views were not based on philosophy – he was a student of science and rational thought. He was a lead author on the IPCC reports, and we frequently discussed the benefit of such outreach beyond the scientific community. He took his role as an ambassador of science and environment very seriously, and worked tirelessly (including sometimes sleeping overnight in his office). We published technical papers together, I read and commented on drafts of his book on pollution in megacities, debated whether governments or industry would be first to take action on environmental causes, discussed science and engineering more broadly for developing countries, and traveled to Mexico together for several months on an international field campaign to understand air pollution in Mexico City. He was also instrumental and very supportive of my decision to not purse academia as a career after my Ph.D. and convinced me to spend some time at a DOE national lab (PNNL) before I began my career outside the academia.
There is a funny side-story about me becoming a member of his lab. After admission in to MIT’s graduate program in chemistry, I reached out to several faculty members to learn about their research interests. I was entering MIT after an undergrad degree at a liberal arts college, and my grasp of chemistry was rather basic. MIT faculty profiles were not just impressive, they were intimidating. Some faculty members had distinguished memberships into national academies, others were founders of companies, and some were advisors to major corporations, institutions and Presidents of various countries. Back in 1998, Mario had a short web profile that probably some IT guy had dug up and put online. It had no mention of any of his accomplishments, but just his research interests in aerosols and chemical kinetics. I thought “here is this nice guy from Mexico, another developing country. He doesn’t seem to have many awards etc either. I should join him because unlike other faculty, he might actually have time and attention to give it to a lowly student like me”. I sent him an email indicating my interest in joining his group and asked if he would please point me to some of his publications so I could read up. Mario’s reply was essentially “I apologize I am not very internet savvy. I don’t have a website. But somebody has posted some of my publications online and you can go here to find them.” And the link he sent was something like www.nobel.se/…. I was flabbergasted when I got that mail. In my search for a not-yet-as-accomplished advisor, I had somehow landed in the lab of a Nobel laureate! He was a superstar in the chemistry department. I guess Nobel laureates don’t have to advertise the awesome work they do. He was humble, awesome…and loved hosting gatherings at his house. He was generous with me, his family met my wife before my own family did, and he even wrote a letter to the US State Dept to encourage them to give me a residency permit so I could stay in this country and start my company. In fact my startup conducted our early experiments in his lab with his students’ help.
Thank you Mario, for continuing to be an inspiration. We follow in our teachers’ footsteps.