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Molina Reflects on Prize-winning Research

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By Orli G. Bahcall
Associate News Editor

MIT faculty have traditionally enjoyed much success in winning Nobel Prizes; 12 current faculty members have won the award.

But when Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science Mario Molina shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, it marked the first time the Swedish Academy has awarded the prize for work on man's impact on the environment.

Molina shared the prize with two other environmental scientists, F. Sherwood Rowland at the University of California at Irvine and Paul Crutzen at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany for finding that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. That discovery has led to an international environmental treaty, which, by the end of this year, will have banned the production of industrial chemicals responsible for ozone depletion.

Discovery was far from expected

Molina recalls the first day that he came to understand the harmful nature of the compounds he was studying. "I looked at the numbers and calculations and realized suddenly that there was a problem of global proportions," he said in an interview this week.

His initial reaction was that he had made a mistake. "I was not really ready for a discovery of these global proportions. It did not make sense to me that the chemicals used in deodorants would cause such a global problem so I kept rechecking the data."

By showing for the first time that industrial activity adversely affected the atmosphere, he made a clear case for discussion of the issue globally. This helped to develop the public's "consciousness of the health [and the finite size] of the planet," he said.

However, Molina and Rowland's initial discovery came in the 1970s, a decade before the environmental movement reached prominence, and so the consequences of ozone depletion were not initially obvious to the public. The problem was just too esoteric at the time, Molina said. "The ozone layer and ultraviolet radiation was just not something people new about."

"Since we had uncovered a potentially serious problem for which there was no precedent," and since there was no established organization through which to advocate change, Molina realized that he and his colleagues would have to go beyond the conventional role of scientists. "We decided to do something personally by talking to the media," he said.

Politicians were soon asking Molina what policy he would suggest. "It was then that I realized I was no longer wearing my scientist hat," but was speaking as a concerned citizen.

Molina developed an interest in chemistry while playing with chemistry sets and microscopes as a child. For years, his goal was to do pure academic research. It was not until he left Mexico City and began graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley that he became interested in the more applied field of atmospheric chemistry.

While atmospheric chemistry contributes to fundamental research - the chemical reactions that happen in the atmosphere do apply generally chemistry - the field is uniquely applied in its direct dealings with society's problems, Molina said. He was especially drawn to it by an awareness that "society was not capable of managing the environment."

Environmental awareness pivotal

Environmentalism "is no longer a worry just for future generations - we already have a number of environmental issues upon us," Molina said. Currently, the quality of life in many large cities is affected by extreme pollution, and while many people still consider the state of our environment as someone else's problem, "the world is so connected that this is a problem affecting everyone."

As far as work on spreading that message goes, Molina is moderately satisfied with the extent of environmental consciousness today. But while on the whole there is a universal trend in the right direction, "it is by no means clear that the world as a whole is moving sufficiently rapidly in the right direction."

Earlier this year, Molina announced he would donate his share of the million-dollar Nobel Prize award to fund a scholarship to let Latin American students and scientists come to MIT to pursue studies in environmental issues. While it is a small program, "the hope is to focus on the global environmental problems that affect the developing nations so much, and for which there are so few resources," he said.

He also hopes the scholarship will encourage scientists in all developing countries to become involved with environmental science. Such countries will "all have to participate in international negotiations that will guide society as to how to develop in a sustainable way," he said. "The world has to work together, so that developing nations continue to develop in a way that doesn't damage the environment as much as it has done before."

The first person outside of Mexico to be inducted into that country's national academy of engineers, Molina regularly returns to Mexico and Latin America to try to promote interest in the sciences. "There are too few scientists in developing countries," he said. "I am hoping to contribute by being an example, or even setting up a scholarship, to simply entice more young people to get into these fields."

Key is to keep fascination alive'

MIT has realized that the environmental science will play an important role in the near future, and has developed a serious interest in instilling these concepts to students, Molina said. But a new frontier is opening in the study of earth and atmospheric science that unites interdisciplinary research into research ranging from pure science to applications to science policy, he said, one in which there are many opportunities for talented students to become involved.

This year, Molina is offering a new undergraduate seminar in atmospheric chemistry. The seminar, which describes the principles that govern the chemical behavior of terrestrial and planetary atmospheres, provides an opportunity for students to apply the basic logic they have learned in their biology or chemistry courses to something more practical and of definite consequence to society, he said.

His advice to young scientists is that success takes patience and perseverance. The key is in "keeping your fascination alive in spite of the system."

"What kept me going was my goal of really doing fundamental research as a main activity, and realizing that this wasn't incompatible with doing something beneficial to society," Molina said. "Doing the two together is a highly rewarding experience."

Molina to pursue research

Molina continues to research stratospheric chemistry at his MIT lab. "There are still some questions as to how the stratosphere will respond in the next couple decades, before these compounds disappear completely from the atmosphere," he said.

In order to make predictions about the likelihood that the ozone will be depleted in the next decade, Molina's lab is trying to better understand the nature of the chemical reactions involved in ozone depletion. It is also researching pollution chemistry, which involves analysis of why smog occurs in so many cities on a global scale.

In his research, Molina strives to "learn about the Earth as a system, hopefully to prevent or help prevent more damage and provide more options." While the environmental movement may lack progress because of regulations or the way society works, he believes scientific input is very important in choosing the best ways to bring pollution under control.