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Mario Molina

Interview: Mario Molina
Nobel Prize in Chemistry

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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Professor Molina, you were honored with the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for your work dealing with the depletion of the ozone in the Earth's atmosphere. It appears you were always motivated by curiosity about nature, but how did you first become involved in this particular subject?

Mario Molina: When I finished my Ph.D., I moved to Irvine, one of the campuses of the University of California, working with Sherry Rowland. Professor Rowland had a group doing very basic science at that time. But as a postdoctoral student -- that's how I joined his group -- we decided to move into a new field for us, which was the chemistry of the atmosphere. And again, it was a question of originating just with curiosity. We knew that there were certain industrial compounds that were being released into the atmosphere. The type of chemicals that were being released were similar to those that we were studying from a very fundamental point of view -- chemical properties, and so on. How the reactions take place. But something new happened at that time that I had not done in my earlier stories, which is looking at the natural environment. Looking at the way the world functions as a whole. In other words, we became interested in environmental issues. So it was a new field for me at that time. But it was this basic drive, basic curiosity, to find out how things work. In this case, not how it works, but what is the consequence of society releasing something to the environment that wasn't there before. Could you do any damage? Perhaps not, but we thought it was important to find out anyhow. So that's how we got started in that problem, and of course eventually realized that there's not something we were expecting at the beginning, but we did realize that there were important consequences from this apparently harmless human activity of releasing these gases which are not toxic at all, but eventually they decompose and indeed can affect the ozone layer in very significant ways. So it's again, just that drive of understanding how things work -- in this case, what are the consequences of certain activities of society -- that motivated us to solve these problems.

Your findings were not immediately embraced by the rest of the world. You eventually succeeded, but what kind of obstacles did you meet along the road?

Mario Molina: In terms of this issue of these industrial gases affecting the environment, at the beginning the road was not easy, because we were suggesting that society had to change, that industries had to do something different than they were doing at that time. And of course, initially we did not meet with a good reception to these ideas from industry. And even from the scientific community -- even though our ideas were well received in the small group of specialists in what we were doing -- it was not necessarily well received by the scientific community at large. So we really had to continue doing as good a science as we could, and at the same time trying to well communicate our conviction that it was something important, something that had to change in the way society was functioning.

Once you made this discovery, did you feel a responsibility to get the word out that the world was endangered because of manmade chemicals?

Mario Molina: Yes, it was very important.

It's a conscious decision that Sherry Rowland and I did, not just to communicate our findings to other scientists, but to actually try to do something about it. In some sense that was taking a risk. Of course, the signs of the ozone layer and the effects of industrial chemicals was not nearly as well established at that time as it is now. We were just convinced that it was very important to find out. On the other hand, we were taking a risk, in that it's not a normal role expected of scientists. Our peers were perhaps questioning whether we were just seeking publicity or not. But again, we thought it was not important enough just to preserve our image in the scientific community, compared to what we really thought we had to do, which is to find out more about the problem and let the governments know more about it, so that eventually some action could be taken. And that's indeed what happened.

Did you feel you needed to defend your integrity after receiving this criticism?

Mario Molina: Yes, that was a very important aspect.

It's easy to exaggerate problems as well, so we have to be very cautious. We have to always preserve our integrity as scientists. Even though we were advocates in terms of trying to get society to do something about it, we had to continue with honesty, in terms of how to express these fears, for example, to the news media. It's easy to try to exaggerate the problems just to get more attention. So for me, it was very clear that the best way to deal with that was to do the best science that I was capable of doing. Furthermore, to try to distinguish clearly when I was talking as a scientist, in contrast to talking just as a person with value judgments, in terms of thinking that society should do something about it, but that's not necessarily the scientific issue. That's more a conviction issue.

Mario Molina Interview Photo

Did you ever have any doubts about your work or any worry about failing?

Mario Molina: Shortly after we realized the potential implications of our findings in terms of environmental effects, we were not entirely sure that we were right. We just thought that it was sufficiently important that we had to find out more about it. So that's the nature of scientific discoveries. When you first sort of get into a new problem, you're not sure what the outcome is going to be, so you're always taking risks. In this case, the risk was even larger, because we were suggesting that our findings had to lead to some changes in industry. So that was a big risk, but we thought it was certainly necessary to take it, and again, it was just a conviction of the problem was serious that led us to continue doing good science. And of course, I should point out it's very important that it's work that we did with the rest of the scientific community, a small group of scientists, all working in this field. We eventually all worked together, and this community really succeeded in -- to do first-rate science, and to establish very clearly that the problem indeed is a very serious one.

Can you recall the moment when you first realized that the ozone layer was threatened? Did it feel anything like the joy a child feels, discovering the world of science for the first time?

Mario Molina: It was indeed something that happened suddenly. Because we had realized that these compounds would actually reach the stratosphere, that they could decompose there, and in fact I even knew without too much trouble that these compounds could actually affect ozone to some extent. But I remember clearly one day -- actually doing calculations, finding out how much of these compounds reaches the stratosphere, and comparing that with some natural processes -- that I realized that the problem was really potentially very serious. So it seemed, in a sense, a moment of discovery. But it was different from the earlier ones I had as a child, because I was also very worried. It was not also, in this case, the scientific discovery, but also a discovery about something that could damage the environment. So it all seemed to be bad news at that time, and that's why it has been very rewarding much more recently, not just to have discovered that there was this potential danger, but also to have realized that society can actually do something about it. And so that's why I sense that, believe it's really a success story. Very different from that day in which I got very worried, because now essentially the international agreements recognize the problem and call for completely stopping the production of these chemicals that can harm the environment.

Was there a particular calculation you made that led to this conclusion?

Mario Molina: It was, indeed, just putting together all the information that we had, and putting it in context, and realizing that it's just the way one sets off a scientific hypothesis, a sequence of steps with these very serious consequences. So it's really just a moment when you put all this information together and realize that you have something important in front of you.

How did you determine that these particular compounds -- the chlorofluorocarbons -- were threatening the ozone layer?

Mario Molina: It really started asking the question, "What happens to these compounds once released to the environment?" Our starting point was that these compounds have been measured to be throughout the atmosphere. Not just close to cities, but in the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere. That was just a starting point. These compounds are very stable. They are non-toxic, you can even breathe them. So the assumption was that there was no worry, because of the presence of these relatively small amounts -- parts per trillion amount -- of these compounds in the global environment. So that was just the starting point. The rest was just scientific research. We were asking the question, "What happens to these compounds?" We realized that they would eventually diffuse to the stratosphere, because nothing else would destroy them. In the stratosphere they would be destroyed, but that was not the end of the question. We had to pursue it several steps more. So what? And we had to follow what happens to the decomposition products from these compounds, and that's of course where the effects on ozone begin. So it's really taken a complete -- an overall -- picture of the problem that led us to our discoveries.

Was perseverance very important, sticking to this project to achieve the goal of this discovery?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: Perseverance is very important, because things don't always work at the beginning. First of all, you really have to define a goal, a goal that is attainable. But with perseverance, you keep working at this. If you realize the potential importance of what you're doing, that keeps you going. It's a drive that one needs to really achieve important research results, in most cases.

Your 1974 paper created enormous attention. We'd like to find out more about how you overcame the criticism you encountered, and the vindication you received when your findings were confirmed.

Mario Molina: What we did initially was communicate with other scientists, like it's normally done, to find out whether we were making some big mistake or not. Actually, our ideas were very well received in the small community that were experts in this field. It was more in terms of the implications of these findings that we had problems, and it was very clear that what we had to do is to continue learning more about this hypothesis that we initially had come up with. After all, we did not have much information in terms of actual measurements in the atmosphere to begin with. So what we saw as an important aspect of our role at that time was to make sure that the scientific community, as well as the government, take the problem seriously enough to put enough resources to find out more about the problem. And we succeeded with this effort -- again with the help of many other colleagues -- so that eventually many experiments could be carried out, to either verify or disprove this hypothesis that we were thinking of initially.

You were able to predict the existence of a hole in the ozone layer as early as 1974, but it wasn't until 11 years later that the hole was actually discovered. Were you at all nervous about that, before the hole was actually found? What was your reaction to that discovery?

Mario Molina: Of course, we were not sure. We realized that the atmosphere is very complicated and that we didn't know -- certainly by far -- everything that there is to know about it. On the other hand, pieces of evidence began to come for measurements. Experiments were carried out, and we know that these gases were indeed reaching the stratosphere -- the CFCs. We know that the composition products were indeed there, but it was very difficult to measure these actual effects on ozone, because the ozone amounts in the stratosphere fluctuate. On the other hand, we actually did not predict that ozone would be depleted specifically over Antarctica. We just made a very general prediction that these -- the composition products -- could affect the ozone layer in general terms. So it actually came as a surprise that this large effect was happening in this coldest place on earth. On the other hand, with all the scientific research that had been carried out before the Antarctic ozone hole was found, it was just a matter of a few years for us and the rest of the scientific community to understand -- with experiments in the laboratory as well as in the atmosphere -- very clearly why is it that specifically Antarctica was the place where this hole appeared. And the reason, of course, is that it's very cold there, and clouds can actually form over Antarctica that do not form anywhere else in the stratosphere that are sufficiently cold to promote a new type of chemistry that we then investigated in the laboratory. So in other words, what happens is even though our predictions were not very specific, we lay down, together with our colleagues, a foundation and an infrastructure to really understand on a very rapid time scale the nature of all these effects once they became clear.

You faced intense opposition from many sectors, especially industry. Can you recall for us some of the harshest criticism you faced, and how you reacted to that?

Mario Molina: I remember in some scientific meetings, again, arguing about the uncertainties of the problem. And there was not that much disagreement in terms of the science itself with our industry colleagues. It was more either in the public relations arena, or else in terms of whether to advise society to do something about it or not. I remember very well my attitude at that time was that, at the very least, industry should do some research on potential replacements for these compounds. At the same time, of course, we had to know more about the atmosphere, but we had to begin thinking about the possibility of regulating these chemicals. And that's of course what industry was opposed to do at the beginning, because they wanted more scientific evidence. But eventually we came together on what the scientific evidence indeed was. Very clear. We started to work in a collaborative mode, and that's what made it possible to reach these international agreements, the Montreal Protocol and so on, on a very short time scale.

Is that aspect the most satisfying for you, to see those agreements come about because of your work?

Mario Molina: Yes, indeed. Two aspects. One is that they were reached with collaboration among all these different groups. And the second aspect is that they are working, that all the industrialized countries are actually following the Montreal Protocol. It's not perfect. There are some problems here and there, but overall it's indeed the case that these compounds, these CFCs, are no longer being manufactured. It's also an important aspect of this problem, this precedent that industry and society can be very inventive. They were able to come up with technological solutions, so that we still have refrigeration, we still have spray cans, we have plastic foam. All the important uses of these compounds are still with us, and yet with these technological solutions, one could do that with compounds that are less damaging to the environment.

Are you satisfied with this achievement, bringing the world together on this important issue?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: Well, it's certainly very rewarding to see that indeed the world has responded, and that the nations of the world are doing something about this problem. To me, it's a very important precedent. In this case, we had some very specific chemicals which were being made by a relatively small number of industries, so the problem could be solved. It was by no means easy. But to me it's a very important precedent. I'm an optimist, so that shows to me that even for these much harder problems that we have, such as the use of energy worldwide, it is not going to be as easy to come up with an agreement. But nevertheless we know there's an example out there that worked. So that means that we can also work to a solution of these other very challenging problems.

You and your colleagues made a discovery that may have literally saved the world. Do you think about that?

Mario Molina: What I really think is that it was the effort of the whole scientific community. Perhaps we started thinking about this problem, but the way I see it is having worked with an excellent group of colleagues. They all did excellent work. We, all together, planned experiments, showed in very clear ways, with very good science, that the effect is real. We eventually worked not just in the scientific community, but with economists, environmental organizations, lawyers, and certainly with industry itself. So for me, that's what is very rewarding, to see that all these sectors of society, some of which we were fighting with to begin with, that we all came together and it's indeed possible in this collaborative mode to come up with solutions to these problems.

Let's talk a little bit about your background. Where are you from, and how you did you get started?

Mario Molina: I was born in Mexico City. I was born and raised in that city. I went to school -- to college -- in Mexico, eventually studying chemical engineering. But long before I went to college, I was already fascinated with science. I can remember playing with chemistry toys and microscopes and so on. So since I was a child, I really became very interested in science, and had as a goal to become a scientist and to pursue scientific research as a career. So eventually, when I finished college in Mexico, to become a researcher, I decided to go abroad. So first I spent a few years in Europe, and then eventually came to the United States, doing a Ph.D. at Berkeley in chemistry. That was the way in which I could actually achieve my goal of doing research for a living.

You mentioned that you were already interested in chemistry as a child. What fueled that interest in chemistry?

Mario Molina: I remember, as a very young child -- just natural curiosity, I guess -- just trying to find out how toys work, taking them apart and so on, and eventually doing the same thing with chemistry sets. So it was really before entering high school that I realized that chemistry and biology -- at that time it was not very clear for me which of the two -- but it was something fascinating for me. I began to read biographies of famous scientists. I also liked mathematics at that time, so I realized that I could combine this sort of natural curiosity to see how nature functions, with a creativity in terms of trying to quantify the way nature works. It was really, for me, just a natural development, I believe, just to keep this interest, this natural curiosity alive, which sometimes -- through the natural process of going to school somewhere or other -- it dies, or so. But for me, it was an obsession, and I was able to continue with it.

What do you think turned that childhood curiosity into that obsession? What drove you to achieve such greatness in this field?

Mario Molina: In order to really pursue research -- if you want to -- in order to really find new things, you have to be very motivated, and I was. Just having had experiences with discoveries, even things that had been discovered previously, but finding out for myself, for the first time, how something works, is really an enormous driving force. So to me it was, well, really liking very much what I was doing. And eventually, I saw an evolution in this passion to do science, that at the same time it could be something valuable for society. So there's no conflict in this. To me, it was marvelous just to realize that I could actually be doing the things I like and at the same time getting paid for it and earn a living that way. But even once one step beyond, that this knowledge that one can acquire through research could actually benefit society. Of course, science itself is not good or bad. It can be misused, but developing the proper responsibility to society and so on, I could see ways in which one can actually use this knowledge to benefit the people around.

Were you a gifted child?

Mario Molina: Well, I had no problems in school. In school, I believe I was practically always the first in my class, so it was relatively easy for me. In fact, one of the problems is that it often was rather boring and I found some of the routine classes uninteresting. So early on I did not have as a goal just to get good grades. And in fact, in college I really took off and studied mostly on my own, and not always went to class. But in fact the point is, the important thing for me was to learn, to pursue knowledge and research, and that was what motivated me.

You mentioned some books already that you read early on. What books did you read when you were young that especially inspired you?

Mario Molina: It was probably a series of biographies of scientists like Pasteur, or even earlier ones -- Leeuwenhoek inventing the microscope and Madame Curie. I forget how many others, but it was really just, for me, a fascination to learn about these great heroes. At that time, of course, they were totally inaccessible, almost non-human, to me. It became very interesting to me.

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina Interview Photo

Are there particular scientists that you especially admire and look up to?

Mario Molina: Well, there are really very many. Again, as a child, it was obviously those scientists which had lived in the past that had made such an important mark in science history. But later on, there were really many others, and I got to know some of them eventually. I remember as a student in Berkeley, for me, the thrill it was to be able to meet so many Nobel Prizes. And perhaps the most important contact with scientists for me was my mentors, some of them. A mentor in my Ph.D. studies, Professor Pimentel, was really a marvelous person that really helped me out and formed me as a scientist. So there were a number of people that I was very close to that had an enormous influence on my career.

Can you recall a particular encounter you had, as a student, with one of the Nobel Prize winners that particularly inspired you?

Mario Molina: I don't recall very specific names or instances, but just to see how open-minded the scientists were. They were really looking at the big picture. They were ready to tackle large problems, and they were also ready to admit that they didn't know everything that there was to know. Those aspects of their attitude made a very big impact on me.

While we're on the subject, now that students are approaching you as a Nobel Prize winner, what do you tell students to interest them in your field?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: First, I explain to them that doing research is indeed a fascinating activity. But I clarify that it's not always easy. It's sometimes frustrating. You carry out many experiments, not all of them work, and so you have to be patient. But in the end it's extremely rewarding. I also try to explain this other aspect that it can be very rewarding when you realize that as a consequence of what you do in science, you can benefit other people. It's really a very important aspect of the work we do, which I see through teaching. When I have students that work with me, and I see the progress they make, I see how I affect their lives. That's a very important aspect of doing research.

Thinking back now, which teacher most challenged you, or opened up new possibilities for you?

Mario Molina: I had a number of very good teachers in high school, in fact. Some mathematics teachers that perhaps allowed me the freedom to go beyond the normal routine of the class and to explore some more advanced areas. The same thing happened in college. I was able to communicate with a few of my teachers and professors, and go beyond the normal expectations. And then, as I mentioned before, Professor Pimentel, my mentor for graduate studies, was really influential in terms of the influence that he had for me.

Was there any other person who inspired you when you were young?

Mario Molina: When I was very young -- after I became interested in the chemistry sets -- I had an aunt who was a chemist, and she really helped me with more sophisticated experiments, so we went well beyond the chemistry sets. Even in my first year in high school, I remember, we did experiments that were really college level. For me, that really opened up my eyes, that in principle I could do these other things as well.

What kind of experiments did you do in those days? Like many kids, making smoke bombs and that kind of thing?

Mario Molina: I started doing those, but I really moved fast into experiments with analytical chemistry, trying to find the chemical composition of all sorts of things around us. There were some very systematic ways of doing that. Perhaps that's when I first realized how fascinating research can be. Finding out, sometimes through hard work, what sort of chemicals are in various things that we use. That was an awakening for me.

Was there any other experiment or experience that was a revelation to you, that further motivated you into pursuing this?

Mario Molina: Perhaps the earliest experiences that I had -- I can think of -- where I realized the beauty of science, is playing with toy microscopes and discovering that I could get some water and let this rot, very bad smelling things. But the fascination of finding things moving there, and then discovering all the paramecia, and all the life that you cannot perceive just with your naked eyes -- but then going beyond that, and actually trying to follow and see how these small living things reproduce, what they eat, and so on -- it was just fascinating for me. It was not accessible with your naked eyes. It's something that you have to do something about to learn.

What did you think about when you made these discoveries as a child, when you looked through the microscope for the first time?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: For me, it was just a thrill. I just remember thinking at that time, this is the sort of thing I would like to do, if I could. I did not come from a family of scientists. My father was a lawyer, my older brother was a lawyer. So for me, that was a world that I did not know about. Just to realize that there were people out there in the world that were doing this all the time, as a profession, was something that I couldn't believe as a child.

What did your parents think of you pursuing this career?

Mario Molina: Well, they certainly supported very much my career, in spite of not having a scientific tradition. Furthermore in Mexico -- in Latin America, perhaps -- the science tradition is not as well established as it might be in either Europe or the United States, so it's not as common for children to become interested in this topic. I managed somehow or other to have friends just like everybody else, but for this hobby, for these activities, I was sort of on my own. It was not something I was sharing with other friends, but I certainly had support from family and teachers and so on.

Looking back, is there a moment you see as the first big break in your career?

Mario Molina: For me, moving from Europe to the United States was a very important step. I had gone through college in Mexico in an engineering field, but what I really wanted to do was scientific research. The reason I did that in Mexico is that I did my mathematics, physics, and for me that was the way to combine these, combine my scientific curiosity with mathematics and with chemistry at that time. But later, I realized I really had to switch to chemistry as a science. So coming to the United States, doing a Ph.D. in chemistry in Berkeley, it was at the beginning a difficult thing for me to do. I really had to sort of learn much of basic science that I had not learned earlier on, but I was able to do that with some hard work. Eventually, I saw that I could actually master all these subjects, get very good grades, and indeed start doing new research. We started finding out new ways in which molecules function, new ways in which chemical reactions take place. And again, that was really the sort of thing I was looking forward to work with since I was a child.

You left Mexico and traveled extensively to pursue higher learning. Do you think it's important for students to leave their home countries, as you did, and travel through Europe and the United States?

Mario Molina: I think it's very important to take advantage of the fact that the scientific community is really international. It's very open. Certainly for environmental issues, this is the case, where information is freely exchanged. That's why it's important to communicate with the rest of the world. That's why it's important for students at some stage to go to different universities. It's best perhaps if the excellent students are the ones that have opportunity to go abroad. The hope is that they go back and benefit their own countries. But in the end, much of the science that we do, because it's international, we do it as a large group. There's another important aspect that there's some local problems for which you need a local perspective. And you need this combination of having access to the best there is in science, with the realization of what your local problems are, your local perspective. That's what one needs to solve a variety of problems.

Could you tell us a bit about your studies in this country and in Europe?

Mario Molina: When I first went to Europe after finishing my college degree in chemical engineering, I went to Germany. At that time I was in transition between engineering and science. I was studying polymerization kinetics, something to do with plastics, not with the atmosphere. But I realized that it was going to be easier or better for me to come to the United States, because the graduate system was -- it's easier here to start again. And I felt I really had to, to become a scientist, to have the opportunity to take more courses, to take a little bit more time. It was really a definition time for me, again, a career of science. I spent some time in France before I came to the United States, mostly studying on my own. It was an important time for me. Not so much because of the science. I had a wonderful group of friends, and we discussed all sorts of problems facing society. Politics and what have you. Perhaps it's those years that formed me in terms of social responsibility, if you want. So it's important to have an overall view of the world as well. And then eventually, of course, getting a Ph.D. in Berkeley was pretty time consuming. I had to work very hard. But at the same time, those were very interesting times. A student movement, of course, was very much alive at that time. People's Park in Berkeley was a big issue, so I could see around me all these changes that were going on in society. So this opportunity I had to live in many different places, I think, turned out to be important in terms of having a perspective of these big problems that society faces.

Do you think all this traveling gave you a global perspective on the great problem that you ultimately solved?

Mario Molina: That's right. I now have the notion that it's very important for this communication -- not just between scientists, but in many different sectors of society -- this globalization. It's very important. These problems that we have, have to be tackled not just by one country, or by one group of people, but they have to be tackled by everybody together. So this internationalization of science is an essential aspect of the field.

How did you manage the language difficulties, studying abroad?

Mario Molina: I remember, of course, I had great difficulties when I first went to Germany. German's a difficult language, and just knowing Spanish was not particularly helpful, so I actually spent quite a bit of time with the language. I eventually became very proud of being able to participate even in discussions about politics with my German friends. Then eventually, I spent some time in France. French was a lot easier. In fact, I remember also in Germany that the first language I learned was Italian, because it was so much easier for me, and I have some Italian friends, although I forgot most of it now. So by the time I came to the United States, of course I knew English only from high school, and from text books, but I certainly couldn't speak it. But I didn't devote nearly as much energy learning English as I did learning German. I guess I was lazy after that much time with the other languages! But it was so much easier, I guess. So I still regret not having spent more time, in first becoming a graduate student in the United States, with the language itself. But it was so time-consuming to keep up with the science that I just picked up whatever came in terms of the language.

What advice do you give your students about language acquisition and its role in science?

Mario Molina: What has happened is that English has become, as a matter of fact, the international language of science. So it's really essential for scientists all over the world to master English as a language. It used to be the case, perhaps earlier in the century, that German or French were the languages that one had to know about, but that certainly has changed, and even language examinations here in the United States are no longer required to obtain a Ph.D. In some sense, I believe something has been lost here in the U.S. by not learning other languages, because one really needs to know how other cultures function, and the language is an important part of that. But certainly to scientists abroad, a very important piece of advice is to learn not just to read English, but to actually communicate very well, because that's essential for this internationalization of science that we were talking about before.

Was there a particular person who gave you your first break? Could you tell us what he or she saw in you?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: Perhaps it started in high school, with these teachers that I mentioned a little while ago, that allowed me the opportunity to go beyond the normal curriculum, to pursue some more complicated problems. But it was really in college. That's the nature of a Ph.D. thesis, to try to find something new and then to find encouragement from your peers, and in thse days, my Ph.D. advisor, Professor Pimentel, really encouraged me to pursue this line of thinking, to try to find new things, to look at the overall picture of how the world functions and go to more and more important problems.

Were you always confident that you were destined to be an achiever in this field? Were you hoping to make this kind of revelatory discovery?

Mario Molina: Well, my motivation was not really to get prizes or so forth. It was the nature of the work itself. I was always motivated to discover new things, and at some stage combine them with things that affect society. So it's this combination that was important for me. But perhaps it was natural then, that indeed, if the discoveries were important, if the impacts to society were important, that would be an additional dimension. I did not really consider it explicitly at the beginning.

How did your studies contribute to this understanding?

Mario Molina: One of the important aspects of scientific research is this attitude of learning continuously. In fact, the problem that we tackled -- it has to do with the way chemicals function in the environment -- is very interdisciplinary. So an aspect of solving this problem is to be ready to learn new fields. We have to learn how the atmosphere functions. So it's a continuous learning, a continuous questioning also. So that's where, of course, the biggest preparation that I had was very important. Of course, one needs a very solid preparation -- in my case it was fundamental chemistry -- but I had to learn many other things along the way.

In addition to a passion for discovery, you feel a very strong passion for benefiting mankind with your work. Can you talk about that for a moment?

Mario Molina Interview Photo
Mario Molina: Yes. I think it is pretty important to realize the consequences of these activities -- on the one hand of myself as a scientist, doing research, how it can be used, but on the other hand, the consequences of all the way that society is evolving. I think we have some very challenging problems ahead of us. Population is growing at a tremendous rate. Developing countries are of course developing, and they need to achieve better standards of living. But that means that we're going to face some very serious problems, particularly next century, as all these activities begin to have even more and more effects on the environment. So for me, it's a very important drive to try to do something to make sure that society moves in the right direction, to make sure that our kids, future generations, have the same options that we have now. It's just something that I'm convinced needs to be done.

On a global basis?

Mario Molina: On a global basis. I'm worried about two types of problems that we have. In terms of effects on the environment, one is very easy: pollution in cities. There are many large cities now, all over the world, that are highly polluted, and you just have to visit the cities and see what the problems are. If you take that pollution together with pollution coming from the burning of forests, for example, it's beginning to be on such a large scale that it is becoming a global problem. And it's only going to get worse as developing countries continue with their economic growth. And then we have a second set of problems, like the ones dealing with the ozone layer that I was involved with, that are not as visible. It's not as obvious that they are happening. And that has to do with consequences on the global environment, effects that can occur far away from the places where the emissions occur. But if you take a combination of these two, that just means that the society has to move in new directions -- again, to make sure that we can facilitate progress everywhere in the world, but not in the same way that it has happened in the past. Developing countries cannot develop in the same way that the industrialized nations of the West have done. There's just no room for that much pollution in our planet, which after all, is not that large, considering how many people are coming on board.

Are there things you saw in your native land, Mexico, that inspired you to pursue this?

Mario Molina: When I was a child, nobody really worried about pollution in Mexico in general. It was something that, I remember thinking that it's not something Mexico has a luxury to worry about. There were other more important worries. What's really happened is that the pollution in Mexico City, for example, is so notorious, it's so bad that it is very much a local worry. It is not a matter of not having the luxury to do that, but it's essential to worry about it to prevent damage to the health of very many people. So there has been a very large change in attitude, certainly in Mexico, and in many other developing countries, that it's not a luxury to worry about this, but it's very important, because otherwise it costs a lot more to repair the damage. If you anticipate all these problems that can happen, you can achieve higher quality of life, higher standards of living, at a much lower cost. And of course, we have the example of the former Soviet Union and Eastern countries, where again, for them the environment -- environmental effects -- were very low priority. And of course, we've seen the enormous damage that many cities and many places have, and how terribly expensive it is to repair it now. So the message is that it's not a luxury, it's really essential to incorporate the environment as an integral part of the economy, as an integral part of what we require as quality of life.

Did the air pollution in Mexico City motivate your interest in this area?

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Mario Molina: As a child, when I was living in Mexico, it was not something that I noticed very strongly, but more something that evolved when I was finishing my Ph.D. It was then, looking at what was happening in the world, that I realized I could actually combine this passion that I had to do scientific research, to do "pure science," as we called it at the time. Now of course I call it "fundamental science." It need not be pure in that sense. It could be applied. It could do some benefit for society. So it's quite possible to do first-rate science, and at the same time, very applied in terms of solving actual problems, problems that society needs to get solved. So that's an important conclusion that I arrived at much later. I didn't have that vision when I was a very young student, this possibility of combining scientific research and finding solutions to problems at the same time, doing some benefit for society.

What vision did you have at that time, and how has that changed as you've increased your discoveries?

Mario Molina: Well, early on I simply had the vision that finding out new things, finding out how nature works, discovering new aspects of knowledge that had been previously thought of, that that was important. I still think that, indirectly, that can only benefit society and mankind, particularly if it is not misused. Science itself may not be good or bad, but if it's properly used we simply have more options to solve these difficult problems. But again, initially I did not make that close connection between discoveries and benefit to society. The change was to realize that there are so many important problems that we have, that it is essential to really try to solve them head on. To try to use some of our best minds to anticipate some even more serious problems that we might have next century, to ease the road for future generations.

What mystery would you like to explore now? What would you like to achieve that you have not quite reached yet?

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Mario Molina: I certainly want to continue trying to understand how the global environment functions. The earth as a system is a very complicated one. And to understand it, we need very many disciplines, very many different scientists working together. I want to continue working with my specialty, which is chemistry, with the atmosphere. There is still much to learn about chemical reactions that occur out there in the air, in the atmosphere. So one of my projects now is to really learn more about this pollution that occurs in cities and that is spreading more through the globe. To learn it in enough detail so we can better tackle it, we can better come up with new ways of using energy, for example, that are not so damaging to the environment.

Many people have brains and potential. Why do you think you succeeded where others did not?

Mario Molina: Perseverance is part of it. Much of it is perhaps luck. I was lucky to be able to pursue this passion that I had to do scientific research, and to have some very good colleagues, very good mentors. That's why I also have a passion for education, to work with students -- with my students, and others as well -- and to try to make it possible for them to also have some great findings that will benefit us all.

The German poet Goethe's last words were: "More light." After a long life, as one of the great writers and thinkers of his day, he seemed to be calling out for more information, more enlightenment. Did you get that same feeling after making these discoveries? That you yourself wanted more light, more information?

Mario Molina: Very much so. One of the frustrating aspects of being a scientist is that you want to learn more and more. There's just no time, unfortunately. We can't do it all. But I wish I could really continue learning how the world functions. Perhaps that's why I try to do it through my students. I try to get an overall feel for the big system, for it's a very complicated one. That's why it's essential that we collaborate among scientists and also with people outside the scientific world.

How do you inspire students to follow in your footsteps, to achieve this higher enlightenment?

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Mario Molina: Perhaps one way is really just by example. We do research together. We find out some aspects of nature, some aspects of chemistry, that are unknown. And it's perhaps through example, by actually doing research, that I can best communicate this. And of course, lecturing. I also try to communicate the importance of these problems. In the end, of course, we have to keep in mind that it's important to do very high-caliber science, and to preserve our integrity as scientists -- honesty and all these qualities that we like to communicate to students. So there's no single, simple recipe, but perhaps just by example is one of the best ways to do it.

What personal characteristics do you think are most important for success, regardless of what field someone chooses?

Mario Molina: I think you need to have a commitment, a passion to do whatever you are doing, as an activity that really consumes you. It has to be something important, something also that you enjoy, so that you can keep doing it. Something that transcends your own small world and has repercussions for all the people that surround you. But in my case, it's a true commitment to scientific research, finding out new things and hoping that they will benefit other people as well.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for the 21st century?

Mario Molina: I think the greatest challenge will be to maintain the world population that is growing in such a way they will continue developing without damaging the environment to such an extent that the quality of life will be degraded. So the greatest challenge is to somehow or other be able to keep a stable world, a stable world population, increasing the standard of living of so many people who are gaining in ways that are different from what we have done in the past. That will take a lot of creativity, and a lot of work for many groups to be able to achieve.

Looking back on your own successes and failures, and what you've learned over the years, what advice would you give young people just starting out in your field?

Mario Molina: The advice that I would give is try to find something that you like. Try to devote your energies to being very good at it. Try to achieve excellence. Don't necessarily have as a goal success or getting prizes or whatever, but just doing very good work. And work hard. Keep working at it. Be patient. Realize that you don't always see the benefits of what you're doing, short-term. But in the end, the activities that I do, for example, scientific research, can be extremely rewarding. It's really a very fascinating career.

May we ask, what does the American Dream mean to you?

Mario Molina: What the American Dream means to me is that it's really a world of opportunities. I came to the United States, of course, as a foreign student, but you really have the same opportunities as any other student that was born here or not, and have the opportunities to access whatever was available in the system, and to participate in the functioning of the society here. For example, at the moment I'm a member of PCAST, which is a presidential committee of advisors on science and technology. So it's a group of people from the scientific world and from industry, and we advise the administration as to science policy and technology and so on. So it's something that I can do, even though I was born in Mexico. As a foreigner to begin with -- but of course very much so -- I was part of the American Dream, if you want, of actively participating in the way the society functions in this country. So it's really just a marvelous opportunity, this really openness, that the opportunity's out there, you just have to work hard. And of course, part of it is local, so you have to have some love to be able to achieve. But at least you know that it's open to everyone.

What do you know about achievement now that you didn't know when you were younger? Did you ever picture this accomplishment?

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Mario Molina: Certainly not. As a young child, I remember just dreaming about the Nobel Prize, but that was just a dream. It's not something I would have ever thought was possible for me. So achievement, to me, is something that just comes with this attitude of doing your work the best you can in a passionate way. It's not something that you have to expect. It's something that's a consequence of what you do, but it's certainly important. We talked about perseverance, hard work, motivation, and the realization that you are working together with other people, not just yourself. For it is the collection of efforts from groups of people that makes all this possible.

Could you share with us your thoughts on the day you actually received the Nobel Prize?

Mario Molina: I remember just going to work in my laboratory at MIT and receiving a call from Sweden. I didn't know what it was about, and so they told me about the Nobel Prize. I guess my first reaction was disbelief. I was not prepared for that. But I have a good colleague in the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden who also was on the phone and talked to me, so I realized it was for real. And of course I was very happy for me and my colleagues, and for the fact that the Nobel Prize could be given also in the environmental sciences. Of course, we were showing that one could do first-rate science and at the same time in a new field, a field that had not been singled out for Nobel Prizes in the past. So it was, of course, just a wonderful day for celebration with my students and with other colleagues.

Did you go to Sweden to receive the award?

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Mario Molina: Yes, yes, and in Sweden it's an incredible experience. It's over a week of partly celebration, partly participating in discussions, round tables and formal dinners, but also parties with students. So it's really an extraordinary event, almost like a fairy tale.

What did the award mean to you?

Mario Molina: Well, I see the award as carrying with it some responsibility. I see that I have to really motivate young people, to strive to do very good work, and to motivate people in the environmental sciences. They can do very good science there. Furthermore, motivate people in my country of origin, Mexico and also in Latin America, that everything is possible. You can do very good science and achieve the highest levels, doesn't matter where you come from. So it is a new responsibility that I feel, to try to communicate all these important aspects of being a scientist.

Have you gone back to Mexico and given back to your community?

Mario Molina: Yes.

On my way from Stockholm, before coming to the United States, I spent a few days in Mexico. And just a few weeks ago, I went back once more to Mexico to initiate the scholarship program which is targeted to students from Latin America to do research, particularly in the United States, so that they come and then go back. And it was really initiated partly with some of the Nobel Prize money that I received, but I was very pleased to also see a large increment to be seed money from the Mexican government, as well as from Mexican industry. So they are very eager to help, and to get these sort of programs started, because there are very few scientists in developing countries that can tackle these very large problems that we were talking about before. So I think it's important to facilitate the formation of even more of them. So these type of programs I see as potentially very important ones.

The U.S. and Mexico cooperate on many issues. Mexican astronaut Rodolfo Neri flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its maiden flight in 1985. Are you pleased with this development, seeing the U.S. and Mexican scientists working closely on global concerns?

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Mario Molina: Very much so. I think it is very important that we have cooperation, Mexico and the United States. Sharing the border, it's very important, obviously, for problems at the border. But it's also important for global problems. It's important not just with Mexico, in this case, but with the rest of Latin America, to have this cooperation, to begin to think about these very big problems that we have. And again, I see it as a good sign, this interest that the young people have. In fact, I see these environmental issues as a type of issue where young people all around the world are united. It's something that unifies them, and that they see that it's going to be very important to take care of the planet, and for that they all have to work together. That's why I'm an optimist. In spite of the magnitude of these problems we have, there's some hope that the new generations will try to solve these problems even more vigorously than we have in our own generations.

We have just a few more questions for you. What one book would you select to read to your grandchild?

Mario Molina: Oh, that's a difficult question! There are so many books that I would like to think of that I would be hard-pressed to select just one book. Perhaps I would just do what motivated me as a child, to read them some biographies of the great scientists, to try to communicate this enthusiasm of trying to find out new things, trying to find out ways that you can actually do some good things for people around you.

What advice would you have for students? What studies should they undertake? What's the essential foundation for achieving greatness in your profession?

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Mario Molina: The advice I would give is, first of all, to find a field that you like. If you are good at mathematics and physics, then you can move in that direction. Physical chemistry, for example. But it's important to have a very good foundation if you want to do scientific research in one of the basic sciences. But at the same time, the advice that I would give is that -- in parallel to that very basic foundation -- to also learn about some other aspects of science, and aspects about the way society functions, the humanities and so on. In other words, to tie together a broad liberal education and a solid foundation -- in my case, in one of the sciences. I understand that's a challenge. But it's important not just to do science and only science. It's also important not to try to learn about everything, and then not be good at any one particular aspect of knowledge. One has to achieve the right balance between these two goals.

Is there any other advice you have for students, general advice?

Mario Molina: Oh, the general advice is really to try to keep working hard, to care about your communities, care about the world, and care about other people, how everybody lives, and to try to give everybody the opportunity to achieve the higher qualities of life.

Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.

Mario Molina: You are welcome. It's a pleasure.

This page last revised on Aug 25, 2010 03:29 EST