Mario J. Molina

Born: March 19, 1943 | Mexico City, MX

Mario Molina studied chemical engineering at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where he developed a chemical catalyst to blow polyurethane foam. He completed his master’s degree in polymer kinetics at the University of Freiburg. He completed his PhD and postdoctoral work in molecular dynamics at UC Berkeley. Molina moved to the UC Irvine, interested in industrial chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons and their movements in the atmosphere, discovering their affect on the ozone layer. At CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Molina did more hands-on experimentation on the Antarctic ozone hole. His work eventually led to the banning of CFC aerosols and ultimately the passing of the Montreal Protocol. Molina accepted a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turning his focus turned to the more complicated chemistry on the surface of the planet. He won the first Nobel Prize for environmental science. Molina moved to UC San Diego to do research and open the Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies on Energy and Environment in Mexico City. There he collaborates on research into particles in the lower atmosphere, working on air quality with Mexican government, and contributing to policy ideas about climate change.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0896
No. of pages: 92
Minutes: 343

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso and Jody A. Roberts
6 and 7 June 2013
The Mario Molina Center, Mexico City, Mexico

Abstract of Interview

Mario Molina grew up Mexico City, Mexico, one of eight children. His father was a lawyer and judge, his stepmother a teacher and housewife. Molina liked music and played the violin seriously. He also loved science, particularly chemistry; encouraged by a chemist aunt, he set up a home lab in a bathroom. He spent his middle-school years in Switzerland in order to learn German, and returned to Mexico for high school. He liked physics and math.

Molina studied chemical engineering at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). On his own he developed a chemical catalyst to blow polyurethane foam; with friends he established a monopolistic business in a garage. He did a master’s degree in polymer kinetics at the University of Freiburg, where he met Theodore Vermeulen and decided to apply to the University of California, Berkeley. Using lasers, he completed a PhD and did postdoctoral work in molecular dynamics in George Pimentel’s lab. He also married during this time.

Molina next moved to the University of California, Irvine, to F. Sherwood Rowland’s lab, becoming interested in certain industrial chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their movements in the atmosphere, discovering that the dissolution of CFC affected the ozone layer. This led to a publication in Nature of his ozone depletion theory and the recognition of ozone as chemically active. Molina moved to the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to do more hands-on experimentation on the Antarctic ozone hole, with particular attention to the relationship between chlorine and ozone. Reaction from the scientific community and the public was at first muted or even skeptical, but media publication and Congressional testimony eventually convinced everyone, including even E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, of the seriousness of the problem. CFC aerosols and coolants were banned; ultimately the Montreal Protocol, the first global attempt to limit harm to the atmosphere, was signed.

Wanting to return to academic life, to deal with policy issues, and to have more influence in the environmental chemistry field, Molina accepted a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His focus turned to the more complicated chemistry on the surface of the planet, especially in Mexico City. His work has improved the air quality in Mexico City considerably. He won the first Nobel Prize for environmental science and is one of only three Mexicans to have won the prize. He has established scholarships at MIT and in Mexico City. He was selected to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Wanting to continue in PCAST, to open the Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies on Energy and the Environment in Mexico City, and to do research – which he could not do while at MIT - Molina moved to the University of California, San Diego. There he collaborates on research into particles in the lower atmosphere, working on air quality with Mexican government, and contributing to policy ideas about climate change. He says the Montreal Protocol was relatively easy because it was focused on a small conclusion that all signatories could easily see and that was relatively inexpensive to alter, whereas climate change is much more complex and diffuse.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1965 Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México BS Chemical Engineering
1967 University of Freiburg MS Polymerization Kinetics
1972 University of California, Berkeley PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

1967 to 1968
Assistant Professor

University of California, Irvine

1975 to 1979
Assistant Professor
1979 to 1982
Associate Professor

California Institute of Technology

1982 to 1984
Member of Technical Staff, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
1984 to 1989
Senior Research Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1989 to 2003
Professor, Department of Earth, Athmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Department of Chemistry
1992 to 1997
Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies
1997
Institute Professor

University of California, San Diego

2003 to 2017
Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemsitry and Scripps Institution of Oceanography
2003 to 2017
President, Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies on Energy and the Environment

Honors

Year(s) Award
1976

University of California, Irvine, Alumni Association Special Recognition for Contributions in Basic Research

1976 to 1978

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow

1978 to 1982

Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar

1983

Tyler Ecology and Energy Prize

1983

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Award for Achievement in Science and Technology

1984

Council for Recognition of Hispanics, Science Honoree

1987

American Chemical Society Esselen Award

1987 to 1988

American Association for the Advancement of Science, Newcomb-Cleveland Prize

1989

NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement 

1989

United Nations Environment Program Global 500 Award

1990 to 1992

Pew Scholar on Conservation and the Environment

1993 to 2017

Member, National Academy of Sciences

1993 to 2017

Member, Institute of Medicine

1993 to 2017

Member, Academia Mexicana de Ingenieria

1993 to 2017

Member, Academia Mexicana de Ciencias

1993 to 2017

Member, Pontifical Academy of Sciences

1993 to 2017

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1993 to 2017

Associate Fellow, Third World Academy of Sciences

1994 to 1996

Max Planck Research Award

1995

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1995

United Nations Environment Program Ozone Award

1996

Walker Prize, Boston Museum of Science

1996

Titular Member, European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities

1997

Honorary Member, American Meterological Society

1997

Associate Fellow, Third World Academy of Sciences

1997

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, Yale University

1997

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws, University of Calgary, Canada

1998

American Chemical Society Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology

1998

American Geophysical Union Fellow

1998

Willard Gibbs Medal

1998

Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, Connecticut College, New London, CT

1998

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA

1999

UNEP Sasakawa Prize

2000

Doctor Honoris Causa, Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú

2000

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Perú

2000

Honorary Member, Sociedad Química del Perú 

2000 to 2017

Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican

2001

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de las Américas, Puebla, Mexico

2001

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, Trinity College, Connecticut

2001

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, University of Miami

2002

Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

2002

Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, University of Waterloo, Canada

2002

Honorary Degree, Florida International University

2002

Honorary Degree, Utah State University

2002

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de Pachuca, Mexico

2002

Medalla al Mérito Ciudadano, Legislature of the Mexico City Government

2002

John P. McGovern Medal, Sigma Xi

2002

Presea Ezequiel Montes Ledesma, Querétaro, Mexico

2003

National Hispanic Scientist of the Year, MOSI, Tampa, Florida

2003

Environment Award, Heinz Family Foundation

2003

Doctor of Science Honoris Causa, Tufts University, Massachusetts

2003 to 2017

Member of the Mexican National College (Colegio Nacional de México)

2003

Member of the International Council on Clean Transportation

2004

Doctor Honoris Causa, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla

2004

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico

2005

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico

2005

Award for Leadership in Science and Education, Merage Foundation for the American Dream

2006

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México

2006

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de Chile

2007

Honorary Member, Society of Toxicology

2007

Premio Nacional a la Excelencia Jaime Torres Bodet, Mexico

2007

Premio Nacional Benito Juárez García al Mérito Ciudadano, Mexico

2007

Doctor Honoris Causa, Colegio de Postgraduados (Institución de Enseñanza e Investigación en Ciencias Agrícolas), Mexico

2007

Honorary Degree, The City College of New York

2008

Máster de Oro, Spain

2008

Gran Cruz de la Orden de Isabel la Católica, Spain

2008

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Chile

2008

Presea Estado de México, “José María Luis Mora”, Mexico

2008

Honorary Member of Instituto Mexicano de Ingenieros Químicos, Mexico

2009

Honorary Member of Fundación Carlos III, Spain

2009

Doctor Honoris Causa: Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Mexico

2009

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Alfonso X El Sabio, Spain

2009

Honorary Degree, Duke University, USA

2009

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo

2010

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico

2010

Doctor Honoris Causa, Univesité libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

2010

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad del Valle de México, Mexico

2011

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Nacional de San Luis Potosí, Mexico

2011

Honorary Degree, Washington College, United States

2011

Honorary Degree, University of British Columbia, Canada

2011

Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau, Netherlands

2012

Doctor Honoris Causa, Whittier College, California

2012

Doctor of Science Honorary Degree, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

2012

Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

2013

Doctor Honoris Causa, The University of Manchester, UK

2013

Medal “San Ignacio de Loyola”, Iberoamericana University, Mexico

2013

Gold Medal of the President of the Italian Republic

2013

Presidential Medal of Freedom, United States of America

2014

Knight of the Legion of Honour, France

2014

University of California San Diego Medal

2014

United Nations Champion of the Earth Award

2014

Doctor of Science (Honorary Degree), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York University

2015

Doctor Honoris Causa, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts

2015

Doctor Honoris Causa, Texas A&M University, Texas

2015

Award "Salvador de la Capa de Ozono," Instituto Mexicano del Aerosol A.C. / CANACINTRA, Mexico

2015

Award for his Professional Career, Cámara Nacional de Fabricantes de Envases Metálicos, Mexico

2015

Primer Ejemplar de la Moneda Conmemorativa del 45º Aniversario del Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Mexico

2016

Award “Corazón de León”, Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico

2016

Award “Global Quality Gold” Elite Category, Global Quality Foundation, Mexico

2016

Received the “Keys of the City” of Ensenada, Mexico

2016

Doctor Honoris Causa, National University of Cordoba, Argentina

2016

Member of the National Academy of Science of the Argentinian Republic

2017

Doctor Honoris Causa, Boston University

2017

Doctor Honoris Causa, King’s College London, United Kingdom

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grows up in Mexico City, Mexico. Family background. Reads biographies of scientists. Learning chemistry from chemist aunt. Middle-school years in Swiss boarding school to learn German; back to Mexico City for high school. Musical interest. Likes physics and math. Field trips with entomologists.

College Years
12

Attends Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Majors in chemical engineering. Develops chemical catalyst to blow polyurethane foam. Begins business in garaje with friends. Thesis at Chemistry Institute. Master’s work in polymer kinetics at University of Freiburg. Theodore Vermeulen and admission to University of California, Berkeley. Some time at Sorbonne; French language, politics, culture.

Graduate School Years
25

Learning to speak English. Classes small, intense, demanding. Research into nature of chemical reactions in George Pimentel’s lab. Lab management, composition, mentoring. Working with chemical lasers; molecular dynamics. Charles Townes. Publishing. Gets married; wife also in Pimentel’s lab. Continues postdoctoral work at Berkeley.

University of California, Irvine
36

Meets F. Sherwood Rowland; different approach to similar questions. “Hot atom chemistry.” Funding; meetings; entering larger community, including Americal Chemical Society. CFCs and aerosols research. James Lovelock and electron capture gas chromatography. Impact of industrial compounds on atmosphere. Destruction and recombination of atoms; combining with ozone. Paul Crutzen and the natural cycle of ozone in stratosphere; comparison of natural processes with lab results; publication in Nature. Ozone depletion theory. Using planet as reactor. A. R. Ravishankara. Testifying in US Congress. Getting tenure.

Jet Propulstion Laboratory (JPL) at California Institute of Technology
54

Lab work only. E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company’s ceases manufacturing of aerosols. Mack McFarland’s influence. Du Pont becomes environmental company; developed replacements for CFC. Antarctic ozone hole. Joseph Farman. Ozone amount and movement in atmosphere’s functions. Susan Solomon; James Anderson; chlorine measurement experiments in Antarctica. Negative correlation between chlorine and ozone in atmosphere. Differences between JPL and Irvine. Results based on models instead of experimental verification. Instrumentation improvements allow measurement of small amounts of unstable chemicals. Glassblowing essential. Contrary results from JPL; proving original conclusions correct. Collaboration essential now; still likes to do experiments.

Montreal Protocol
71

First global attempt to deal with emissions. Annual meetings with report comprising experts’ results; different aspects, different countries. Sir Robert Watson; Mostafa Tolba. Instrumental in getting agreement. Set up Multilateral Fund; Mexico first to ratify. Precedent for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Early solutions relatively easy and cheap.

Moving to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
76

Wants more academic life and more influence in environmental chemistry field. Interest in more complicated chemistry on surface of earth, particularly Mexico City. Program to train students in economics and policy as well as their subjects. Winning Nobel Prize. Establishes scholarships both at MIT and in Mexico City. Member of President Clinton’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and Union of Concerned Scientists. Connection between climate change and air quality. Field studies in many disciplines in Mexico City; establishs his own center.

University of California, San Diego
86

Wants to continue in PCAST, open Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies on Energy and the Environment in Mexico City, and do research. Collaborating on research into particles in lower atmosphere. Working on air quality with Mexican government but also on climate change. Applications of work on housing and environment; including economic and social aspects. Public transport. Technical implications; climate change and politics/science. Big picture equals aggregate of small projects. Montreal Protocol focused; everyone able to see and support conclusions; climate change more complex and diffuse.

Index
91

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Jody A. Roberts

Jody A. Roberts is the Director of the Institute for Research at the Science History Institute. He received his PhD and MS in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech and holds a BS in chemistry from Saint Vincent College. His research focuses on the intersections of regulation, innovation, environmental issues, and emerging technologies within the chemical sciences.