Ulrich Pöschl, PAS Academician

Commemoration of Mario Molina

Many thanks for this honor of paying a tribute to Mario Molina from the perspective of his former students and collaborators.

In addition, let me also please convey the very best regards and wishes from Paul Cruzten and his wife Terttu to all of you. They also feel very saddened about the loss of Mario as a friend and valued colleague.

As you probably are aware, Mario passed away right after the first part of our recent session and seminar on Covid-19. I was so happy actually to see him attending as a guest back then, and on the next morning a former student of mine, being a professor at UC Irvine, wrote to me, “Have you heard that Mario passed away?”, and I had not heard the news that day yet and was really stunned and saddened.

Our sadness about Mario’s passing though is is mixed with a great thankfulness for his great academic achievements and contributions to scientific and societal progress. Mario was a genuinely kind person and an outstanding scientific researcher, teacher and mentor. 

Based on his studies and expertise in chemical engineering and physical chemistry he addressed and resolved key questions of environmental research, with major implications for human well-being.

In the early 1970s Mario, together with his postdoctoral advisor Sherwood Rowland and with Paul Crutzen, found that human-made chemical substances severely threaten the stratospheric ozone layer that protects life on earth from solar UV radiation. Against heavy pressure and personal attacks from industrial lobby groups, they were able to attract the attention of fellow scientists, politicians and the public to their important findings and dire implications.

When the ozone hole was discovered more than 10 years later in 1985, the scientific community led by Mario, Sherwood and Paul was able to provide conclusive scientific evidence and guidance for an unprecedented political process, global collaboration and rapid societal progress leading to the Montreal Protocol as early as 1987, so only two years later, and further international agreements that ended the production and release of harmful chemicals and led to a recovery of the ozone layer.

For this hard-earned achievement and unique feat Mario and his colleagues won the 1995 Chemistry Nobel Prize.

After saving humanity and the biosphere from catastrophic ozone laws, Mario addressed further issues of air pollution and its effects on climate and public health. He understood very well that similar but much larger efforts would be required to overcome the challenges of climate change and global warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, Mario passionately engaged in the international exchange and collaboration urgently needed to mitigate the release of carbon dioxide and related greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustions and other economic activities. Again, he teamed up with colleagues and academic institutions, including Ram Ramanathan, Paul Crutzen, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Molina Centers for Energy and Environment in San Diego and Mexico City, to provide scientific knowledge and guidance to the public, as well as politicians and leaders of faith around the world. I think this interaction with leaders of faith is really something that he did closely together with Ram and with all of you in the Pontifical Academy.

So we will dearly miss Mario’s active engagement, but for the future we still have the blueprint of his past engagement and success in environmental research and protection for the benefit of humanity. 

Before I close, let me emphasize that Mario was not only an outstanding scientific researcher, scholar, communicator – and educator, I might add, coming back to what Joachim found as a red line through today’s very nice presentations – but also a great mentor and role model for the students and postdocs in his own group, as well as countless other junior researchers in the fields of environmental science and technology.

Many of his past students and postdocs have become senior scientists or faculty members at leading universities and research institutes around the world. To describe Mario’s lasting influence on the scientific research and success of his mentees, let me read a few quotes from some of those colleagues:

“A supervisory lesson i learned from Mario was to be close to the data. I recall numerous occasions of him asking students or postdocs to show the data, not just the final product. His dedication to doing science well has always had an impact on me and I think really that in these days of alternative facts and post-factual arguments that we face all the time in real life, I think this is really a high value in science that we all should keep up high”.

“I quickly learned that Mario was an outstanding scientist and outstanding human being. I was always amazed at his caring and kind nature, his ability to make everyone feel important, his unselfish commitment to helping others, and his ability to ask all the right scientific questions. Even today, almost 20 years after working with Mario, when facing a difficult problem I will often ask myself, ‘how would Mario handle his problem?’, and then attempt to solve the problem based on Mario’s guidance”.

“I was also amazed at Mario’s love for science, even though he was extremely busy with other important responsibilities. Mario would always make time to discuss science and visit his laboratory to hear about the newest experiments. Any new finding or discovery would always bring a twinkle to his eyes”.

To these remarkable testimonials I can only add what I had personally expressed at the scientific symposium honoring Mario at UC San Diego a few years ago.

“Dear Mario, many thanks for your personal kindness and hospitality, your scientific achievements and inspiration, your societal and political engagement, and your readiness and ability to deal with critical issues”.

I hope and feel that this spirit continues to thrive in the Pontifical Academy and I thank you for attending to this tribute to Mario Molina.