Nobel Laureate and Researcher Mario Molina Passes Away at 77

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Mario Molina delivers a speech
Photo courtesy of Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego Publications

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Mario Molina, UCSD Professor and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, died at the age of 77 on October 7 in Mexico City. Molina won the Nobel Prize for discovering the damaging effects chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have on Earth’s ozone layer.

Molina’s work and research on harmful chemical compounds found in hair sprays and refrigerants was an early finding which helped lead to public awareness of growing environmental problems. His efforts led 150 counties to sign the Montreal Protocol, one of the most significant international environmental agreements that helped reduce the use of CFCs.

According to spokeswoman Lorena Gonzalez at the Centro Mario Molina, a non-profit environmental institute founded and operated by Molina, his death was caused by a heart attack.

UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla mourned the professor’s death saying, “he was like a star around which planets circled” and claiming, “he was an attractor who helped bring a group of scientists here. He had a sense of gravity, and gravitas.”

Hours before his death, Jennifer A. Doudna of UC Berkeley and German researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier, both fellow chemists, received this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This is the first time that two women jointly won the award.

After joining the faculty at UCSD in 2004, Molina continued devoting his time to researching how aerosols and pollutants affect the environment, especially in countries with disparate resources.

During his time at UCSD, he gave lectures for various classes and summer research programs in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, focusing efforts on his research and climate change. Professor and Chair of the department Vicki Grassian adds that Molina studied air pollution and its relationship with particulate matter in cities like Beijing and Mexico City.

Molina began his career at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1965 and later a doctorate in physical chemistry at UC Berkeley.

Working as a postdoc for UC Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland led him to study the ozone layer. Shockingly, they uncovered the hole in the ozone layer was a result of CFCs causing UV light to reach Earth’s surface in abnormal and harmful amounts. The research was met with skepticism from chemical manufacturers, but nonetheless propelled the passing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Molina’s contributions to the field of atmospheric chemistry changed the attitude and policies impacting the environment at an international level. His death is a loss felt by faculty and staff at UCSD, who expressed he was passionate about science and a protector of the planet.

Grassian expresses this sentiment by saying “as chair of the department, I can say that we will miss him greatly as he was a true hero in our field as he showed the way on how to effectively connect science and public policy.”

Alba Reyes is a Staff Writer for The Triton. You can follow her here.