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Vol. 25 No. 5
September-October 2003

IUPAC Wire | News and information on IUPAC, its fellows, and members organizations
See also www.iupac.org/news

Mostafa El-Sayed Celebrates 70th Birthday

On 23 May 2003, hundreds gathered on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta for Mostafa El-Sayed's 70th birthday. The symposium in his honor included a scientific program and a dinner banquet with his whole family present, including all of his children and grandchildren. Among the speakers were Ahmed Zewail (California Institute of Technology), George Whitesides (Harvard University), Edward Solomon (Stanford University), Chad Mirkin (Northwestern University), Fred Hawthorne (UCLA), Ken Eisenthal (Columbia University), Charles Lieber (Harvard University), Sunney Xie (Harvard University), and Michael Kasha (Florida State University). Also present (but still achieving notoriety!) was Stephan Link who recently graduated from the El-Sayed group and who was one of the recipients of the 2001 IUPAC Prize for Young Chemists. CI asked Stephan to give us his take on the event and his experience at Georgia Tech.

by Stephan Link

Each of the previously noted speakers not only presented their current research efforts to a packed lecture room, but also shared memories of their interactions with Mostafa El-Sayed, both as the editor in chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry and as a scientific collaborator, mentor, and friend. His dedication to science and teaching was highlighted at the banquet, during which several guests took the opportunity to thank him for sharing his passion of science and for being a great leader both in the physical chemistry community as well as in the chemistry departments at UCLA and Georgia Tech. El-Sayed attributed much of his success to his loving wife Janice and said that "once I don’t enjoy teaching [freshman] chemistry anymore, I know it’s time to quit." It appears that this is not going to happen any time soon. In fact, El-Sayed is looking forward to his 80th birthday bash!

The symposium included a gathering of El-Sayed's current and former students, postdocs, and visiting scientists for brunch at his house the following day. To his surprise and joy, many of his former coworkers were able to arrange a trip to Atlanta, even if that meant coming from as a far away as South Korea, as was the case for Professor Arnim Henglein who was delighted to interrupt his retirement in the Black Forest in Germany. Indeed, the international character of his research family is something of which El-Sayed has always been very proud. He reminded everyone that "science itself is the same everywhere in the world." His students have come from all over the world and among the countries of his most recent students are such places as Tanzania and Iran.

El-Sayed's involvement in the advancement of science on the international level can be clearly seen from his recent role as organizer of the first IUPAC Workshop on Advanced Materials (WAM) on Nanostructured Systems in July 1999. That first WAM was driven by Prof. Jortner's vision that IUPAC should identify, characterize, and recommend novel research directions by organizing conferences–with the involvement of scientists throughout the world–on New Directions in Chemistry. Jortner was then IUPAC president, and he cochaired the workshop with Prof. El-Sayed. Together, they were able to assemble everyone involved in nanoscience–from Europe, the Americas, and Asia–in one location, Hong Kong, something that is rarely seen.

For someone who is so busy attending meetings, considering departmental policies, and serving as editor in chief for one of the leading journals in physical chemistry and materials science, it seems impossible that El-Sayed would have much time to prepare a lecture or mentor students. But, in fact, one of his most amazing qualities is that he always has time for an undergraduate student seeking help on a homework problem, someone asking for advice or a letter of recommendation, and most of all for his graduate students. He literally stops everything at any point in time to sit down and discuss interesting new research results even if it turns out at the end of the discussion that some results are simply experimental artifacts and require more experiments. "Results are always good news and there is no such thing as bad results!" is one of his favorite ways to cheer up a frustrated and slightly embarrassed graduate student. Being involved and staying on top of all of his students' research projects and having an "open door" at any time, together with his excitement for new results, are among El-Sayed's best qualities as a teacher and mentor. And that will never change, even at 70 years young!

When asked about teaching and the role an advisor plays, Prof. El-Sayed had the following to say:

How important do you think your relationship with your advisor Michael Kasha has been for your career?

He was exciting and he created an atmosphere in his group which encouraged everyone [to] always [talk] with each other about research. We had beer and orbital theory seminars at Mike's house. This time taught me the importance of having peers in your research.

What specific things did you learn from Michael Kasha that you have used in your career?

I always liked Mike's very intuitive perspective on a phenomenon. He taught me the importance of looking for the big picture. (Note: This is a principle El-Sayed has certainly always cherished when figuring out scientific problems and one he has taught to his students.)

How do you see your role as a teacher with respect to students?

I enjoy the role as a teacher and advisor by simply doing science together. You can see how a person becomes independent. You can always tell when they have matured because they start saying "No" in a discussion.

How important is teaching chemistry courses?

No doubt about it, teaching gives you instant feedback that you can build on. When you give a good lecture, the whole day feels satisfying. But also, a bad lecture can make you feel bad and then inspire you to work harder. This way you are learning a tremendous amount yourself. The day I stop being interested in teaching, that is the day I know I have to retire.

In June 2003, Stephan Link moved from Atlanta to Austin, where he joined Paul Barbara ’s group.


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