I was born in Mexico City, Mexico in 1951, and I have one brother who is ten years younger than me. My father is from Spain. My mother is from New York City, but her parents were from Austria. Neither of my parents ever finished high school, but there was always an admiration for music and art around our house; however, there didn’t seem to be anything to do with science. I found science to be very satisfying because it was a way of understanding the world around me. Being very curious about why things happen as they do, studying science was perfect for me.
In Mexico City where I attended two bilingual private schools until the ninth grade. For high school I went to a Jesuit military school. I was undecided about what I should do when I finished high school, at that time being equally interested in both philosophy and chemistry. I took a job as a truck driver in my father’s business, hoping to use the time to consider my options. In 1970, I entered the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in Mexico City as a chemical engineering student.
Chemistry opened up a whole new way of exploring the world, enabling me to understand it from a different level. I found that many of the professors in the chemistry department were rigorous and competent, possessing a profound love for the discipline they had chosen. Seeing the love that these professors had for chemistry, and the beauty of the material itself, I changed my major to chemistry after just one year as a chemical engineering student. In 1974, I received my Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry.
Though I had a degree in chemistry, I didn’t know exactly which direction to go when I graduated. I stayed in Mexico City and taught high school for a couple of years. Teaching high school students was a very rewarding experience, but I felt that I had to continue my education. I wanted to probe more into the depths that chemistry had to offer; and I knew that more schooling would need to be in my future to better prepare myself to be a scientist. When a cousin of mine, Sonia Lombardo asked met to help her carbon-14 date some of the pyramids in Cacaxtla, Mexico for part of her doctoral thesis, I discovered my true calling. Using chemistry to find out the age of something was a fascinating notion to me. In 1978, I was admitted into the University of Michigan where I eventually earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in geochemistry.
After I received my Ph.D. I was lucky enough to find a job right away as an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Then in 1983, I accepted a position at The University of Arizona in the Geosciences Department, where I am a full professor of geochemistry. I also served as head of the department; and in 2000, I was appointed Dean of the College of Science. As head of the department I made decisions that determined the direction the department would take in the future. I am very interested in higher education, and I want to open more opportunities for all students to get a good education in the geosciences. As a research professor my duties are completely different. In addition to teaching a variety of both undergraduate and graduate courses, I also direct a research operation where I oversee the research of postdoctoral and graduate students.
Of course, a geologist’s laboratory is the world, and I have had the opportunity to travel extensively as I have carried out my research. We are very interested in how the earth acts chemically. The chemistry behind the eruption of a volcano is certainly interesting, and understanding it could help us save lives and property. We are also interested in how the earth evolved chemically. Specifically, my research delves into why certain deposits of elements are accumulated in particular places on the earth. For example, in Arizona there is a high abundance of copper that you just don’t find in other places. What interests me most is when these deposits were formed over the course of the earth’s evolution, and I use chemistry to determine the age of rocks and materials near these deposits.
I think it is important to try and make a difference in the world, and I feel the only way to do this is to excel at what one does. Try to do something that has social impact, and push yourself to do well. Remember that what you do affects others, so try to do something that will enhance the well being of all of those around you.