Mexican chemist Mario J. Molina fell in love with science when he was a young child.
“When I was a kid, I used to read first novels in general; but then (I read) biographies of scientist and I got fascinated,” said the 74-year-old Molina during the 11th annual California Hall of Fame Red Carpet on Dec. 5.
Molina, an atmospheric chemist, was one of the nine “legendary” Californians inducted into the 11th class of the California Hall of Fame.
The Nobel Prize-winning scientist was in good company with entertainer Lucille Ball; bioscientist Susan Desmond-Hellmann; native artist, healer and activist Mabel McKay; quarterback Jim Plunkett; poet & environmentalist Gary Snyder; filmmaker Steven Spielberg; musician Michael Tillson Thomas; and, vintner Warren Winiarski.
The California Hall of Fame honors state residents who embody California’s spirit of innovation and achievement and have made a mark on history.
“This is wonderful honor, a big surprise for me of course to be inducted to this marvelous hall of fame. It’s great,” said Molina.
Born in México City in 1943, Molina earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley; has worked at UC Irvine, UC San Diego and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Molina is one of the world’s top scientists in the field of atmospheric chemistry. In 1974, he and Frank Sherwood Rowland co-authored an article correctly predicting that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would cause the breakdown of the ozone layer which earned them the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Molina’s work led to a worldwide ban on CFCs, the first international treaty to effectively address a human-caused global environmental threat.
Molina said he didn’t have many role models in the science field when growing up.
“Not at the very beginning,” he said, “but I had an aunt that was my father’s sister who was a chemist and she did help me to carry out the real experiments, so that was fantastic.”
With the help of his aunt Esther Molina, he continued with more challenging experiments.
“I started doing experiments when I was ten, eleven years old; felt fascinated with science,” Molina said.
Over his 50-year career, Molina has held teaching and research positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; UC Irvine; and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Molina also has focused on the chemistry of pollution in the lower atmosphere, collaborating with other experts to confront the problem of air quality in urban areas. Recently he has focused primarily on science-policy issues related to climate change, promoting sustainable development as inclusive of vigorous economic growth.
As a Latino and as Mexican, Molina is now a role model for many young Latinos not only in California but also in the United States and México who wants to follow his footsteps in the field of science.
“(It is) fantastic, I think it is very important because we show that all we can contribute to society,” Molina said of his recognition at the state Capitol early this month.
Currently, Molina is a professor at UC San Diego and heads the Centro Mario Molina in México City, which focuses on strategic studies on energy and the environment, particularly climate change and air quality.
With the push to encourage more Latino students, especially Latinas to go into the STEM field, Molina said there is a need for more role models so students can see themselves in those fields.
“We totally need more and more of course, but we try to do our best,” Molina said.
Molina is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, El Colegio Nacional de México, the Mexican Academy of Science and the Mexican Academy of Engineering, among others. He served on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Molina has been recognized with 29 honorary degrees as well as many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Knight of the Legion of Honor from France.