Some say chemistry is a mature science, that it is passé, and everything that could be done in the field has been done. But based on all the beautiful chemical discoveries I’ve seen in my life and the ones my research group continues to make in the lab, I know this is not true. Chemistry is a wide-open frontier, and your imagination is the only limit. We can make trillions of new substances and materials never made before, possessing interesting and unique properties, some having practical applications.
We moved from Cuba to Puerto Rico when I was almost 10 years old, when my father sensed the political changes that were happening in Cuba. The move was hard on everyone because in Cuba my father was a famous comedian, which meant we were very affluent, kind of “spoiled rich kids.” We had maids and even air conditioning—in the 1950s!
In addition to the drastic adjustments my family made financially, the move was also challenging because the school system in Puerto Rico was not as advanced as Cuba’s at the time. Based on test results they put me in 6th grade, skipping 4th and 5th. I was good at many things, but science was my favorite. In high school, a few teachers began telling me I was a gifted student and that I should go to the United States for school. But in an all-Hispanic environment in Puerto Rico, and my father not into academics, neither he, nor anyone else, were in a position to guide me to apply to top U.S. universities. In those days, most Puerto Ricans didn’t go to the United States for school.
After high school, I went to the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. I rushed through my undergraduate chemistry degree in three years and then completed a PhD in three additional years, publishing nine academic articles along the way. Although I was a successful chemistry student by every measure, for a long time I thought my success was based on luck. I kept thinking, “I am just a lucky guy.” I had some encouragements, but very little guidance or mentorship at the time.
Leaving Puerto Rico after my PhD was perhaps the hardest transition of my life. I got a postdoctoral offer at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While I loved my experience at the university, living in one of the coldest parts of the United States was hard. One morning I woke up and it was -27 degrees Fahrenheit! I kept thinking, “This is not right; it’s just too cold!” I was shaken, not just from the cold, but my confidence was also faltering. Here I was, the little Cuban from Puerto Rico—would I be able to compete with the best of the best in the U.S.?
At one of my lowest times, I finally experienced an important mentoring moment that made all the difference in the world. George Rubottom, one of my former PhD thesis committee members was spending the summer in Madison, so it was comforting to have someone there whom I knew and respected. We had a conversation one day, and I expressed my anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t be able to succeed there, that I would fail, a reflection of my deep-rooted insecurity. I remember what he said to me as if I am hearing it today: “Echegoyen, hear this carefully. You are as good as or better than most of the people here and you will do as well as you did in Puerto Rico.” Just that one phrase changed everything for me. I went home that night with renewed confidence and had an incredibly successful year, publishing many high-impact articles in the following months. I realized that mentorship doesn’t have to be lifelong or complicated or involve a lot of effort: just one phrase said at the right time can be crucial to propel a young scientist forward. At that point, I started to realize that my success thus far had little to do with luck; it had to do with who I was as a person, my knowledge, passion, and work ethics. It was me succeeding—not just luck.
Throughout my career I have worked in industry, government, and academia. But actually doing chemistry has always been the most exciting and rewarding work for me. Now, as the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso, my research group does physical organic chemistry. In marrying physical and organic, we make compounds that never existed before and measure their interesting properties. As I tell my students when they succeed in preparing the first few milligrams of a new compound, “You’re holding the world’s supply of that compound!” It’s a wonderful feeling of having created something that does not exist in nature and has never been prepared by anyone before.
My team works mainly with carbon, a common element, to create new compounds—particularly for solar energy and lighting devices—hoping to increase the efficiencies. But my research relies heavily on a discovery made in 1985 by a team of scientists at Rice University. Using a laser vaporization system with graphite resulted in carbon atoms clustered in groups of 60 or 70, forming incredibly stable cage-like fused ring structures. Only later did they realize that one of the new molecules identified, C60, was an identical replica of a soccer ball, 1 nanometer in diameter!
The structure, known as a buckminsterfullerene, or a buckyball, launched a revolution in our understanding of carbon, and the scientists won the Nobel Prize in 1996. Buckyballs led to the discovery of carbon nanotubes and later to nano-onions, concentric multilayer buckyballs. A nanotube is just a graphite sheet rolled up to form a tube, but it is 100 times stronger than stainless steel and extremely light. Depending on how the carbons are aligned, some nanotubes act like metals and conduct electricity. They have become important materials of the nano revolution and have applications in anything and everything, especially materials science and electronics. But the discovery of C60 also has potential biological applications, such as anti-HIV drugs and many others.
Amazing how you can create a scientific revolution serendipitously! Before 1985, textbooks stated that carbon existed in only two forms, diamond and graphite. But we now know this is not true! There are many forms of carbon and even more are waiting to be discovered. The Rice team’s discovery truly opened up the wonderful world of carbon.
I am enamored with the symmetry of carbon chemistry and the different properties you can create. In my lab, we have stuck to working with buckyballs, but we put different molecular clusters inside the balls, essentially making buckyball nano-maracas. These clusters change the properties of the carbon cages, generating materials that are potentially useful in solar energy applications.
Young scientists need to keep their eyes open to serendipity—amazing discoveries sometimes happen by chance. Often the people in my lab will try something and fail to achieve the desired outcome. They tell me the experiment didn’t work. But I tell them, if a reaction occurred at all, then it did work, you have something new, even if it isn’t what you were originally looking for! That is how the first buckyball was found, accidentally. Young scientists need to be open and ready to interpret something they are not expecting, to be ready for those serendipitous discoveries! How many unexplained experimental results are sitting in drawers that could be life changing or even Nobel Prize winning?