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“The most important attribute for success is to be curious”

Moungi Bawendi, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year for his fundamental research on quantum dots, the nanoparticles that hold immense potential for a wide range of applications. Nordic Life Science asked him about his life, career and how he felt after having achieved such a milestone.

Did you ever imagine winning a Nobel Prize?

“I didn’t really think that it would happen. I didn’t imagine it. It’s a surprise for the field of quantum dots, in which there were many people involved. We work in multidisciplinary teams, and this area I am in is extremely collaborative. We have people working from all around the world. When I got the call, I was a little bit confused, and it was not until a few days after that I started to get used to the idea.”

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“When I got the call, I was a little bit confused, and it was not until a few days after that I started to get used to the idea,” says Moungi Bawendi to NLS.

 

How did you first become interested in science?

“I wanted to be a policeman or a fireman, like every little kid, but once I got into school and started to learn I became interested in science. So I was pretty young, it was at the age of six or seven.”

So, I was surrounded by science. It was predetermined I would end up being a scientist too.”

“Also, education and science were part of my family. My parents were mathematicians. My maternal grandfather was a doctor and my grandmother a pharmacist, they both worked together during World War II as a team. On my father’s side, he was the oldest of eleven cousins and when he went off to university and got his PhD, all his cousins followed in his footsteps. So, I was surrounded by science. It was predetermined I would end up being a scientist too.”

If you had not studied chemistry, what would you have liked to do?

“I would have liked to work within physics maybe, or astronomy. It would have been science of some sort. I thought about going to medical school for a little bit and then I realized I really wanted to learn fundamental science.”

“When I was a kid, though, I used to play the violin. I started when I was four years old and picked up the flute when I was twelve. I was pretty good at both, but when I was in high school, I made the decision that I didn’t want to be a violinist, because I thought I was not good enough.”

You decided to start your postdoctoral training at Louis E. Brus Laboratory, Columbia University, in 1988. Why did you decide to study quantum dots?

“When I was still a graduate student, I got a fellowship to work with Louis and I discovered the world of ATT Bell Telephone Laboratories. I had never been exposed to that kind of research, the quantum dots that Louis had begun to study. They were just brand new, nobody had studied them before, so it was amazing. This area of science was completely open, and I fell in love with it. When I came back to do a postdoc, I went back to Louis’ lab to work with quantum dots.”

I had never been exposed to that kind of research, the quantum dots that Louis had begun to study. They were just brand new, nobody had studied them before, so it was amazing.”

“As it was fundamental science, I didn’t know anything about the potential applications quantum dots would have and I didn’t care at that time. That came later, in the late 1990s.”

You revolutionized the production of these nanoparticles. Can you explain how?

“We developed a very simple way of using basic concepts; nucleation and growth but applied to tiny particles. We used chemicals that were stable at room temperature and introduced them extremely rapidly into a hot solution. Upon contact with the solution these chemicals reacted with each other to form very tiny seeds of the crystal. It’s a little bit like when it snows, the clouds generate very small ice seeds. They fall to the ground and the humidity in the air aggregates more and more water around them and then the snowflakes grow. Snowflakes tend to be larger when the humidity is higher, and the temperature is slightly warmer. In contrast, when it’s dry and cold, the snowflakes tend to be much smaller. We have the same thing in crystal (nanoparticle) growth.”

What are you most passionate about in your work?

“I love my job. I find it rewarding working with students and supervising them. We couldn’t do anything without great students. I think the most important attribute for success is to be curious. So, to all the students and future generations, I tell them “Please be curious!”

Quantum dots are a fundamental building block that intersects with numerous other domains, like biology, medicine, energy storage, harvesting solar energy, and quantum computation.”

“I also find it rewarding discovering processes or finding out new applications for my fundamental research. Quantum dots are a fundamental building block that intersects with numerous other domains, like biology, medicine, energy storage, harvesting solar energy, and quantum computation. So, it’s extremely rewarding that they allow me to work in many other areas.”

 

“I think the most important attribute for success is to be curious. So, to all the students and future generations, I tell them “Please be curious!” says Moungi Bawendi to NLS.

 

Any examples of how can quantum dots benefit people’s health?

“One of the companies I started developed a system aimed at detecting residual cancer during cancer surgery. It doesn’t use quantum dots, but it uses the ideas that I learned and developed while working with them in the cancer field. This company is awaiting approval from the US FDA for its system in the next few weeks.”

What hurdles have you encountered along your professional path as a scientist?

“As a principal investigator I can say that the most difficult thing is getting enough money to do your research, and every fundamental scientist feels like it’s very tough to generate the funds. Fundamental science is not appreciated as it should be and it’s harder today to fund it than it was years before. It’s politically hard to sell. It’s easier if there’s an outcome that’s going to be clearly defined as something that will help society.”

As a principal investigator I can say that the most difficult thing is getting enough money to do your research, and every fundamental scientist feels like it’s very tough to generate the funds.”

“Fundamental discoveries cannot work that way because you don’t know what you are looking for. Having most of the funding mission or outcome oriented closes the door on the fundamental discoveries that are going to be the seeds for the next engineering or scientific revolutions.”

What are your future research plans after having achieved this milestone?

“I am just going to keep on going. Right now, our focus is on exploring whether quantum dots can have applications in quantum information that will either encrypt or speed up computation. Instead of using bytes that carry out one computation at a time, the laws of quantum mechanics allow carrying out multiple computations in parallel. That will provide more secure communication or faster computation.”

 

Moungi Bawendi (left) shares the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2023 with Louis E Brus (middle), Professor Emeritus, Columbia University, USA, and Aleksey Yekimov (right), Formerly Chief Scientist at Nanocrystals Technology Inc, USA. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

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About the author

Paula Pérez González-Anguiano, M.Sc. in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication, is a Science Journalist and Illustrator based in Barcelona, Spain.