Whoever said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future,” probably did not have Mostafa A. El-Sayed in mind, but the half-dozen or so people credited with coining that witty aphorism might as well have been referring to El-Sayed.
Judging from his days as a youngster growing up in Egypt in the 1930s and ’40s, the bright-blue-eyed—some would say mischievous—young El-Sayed might not have been an obvious pick to one day become the director of Georgia Institute of Technology’s Laser Dynamics Laboratory.
It also might have been hard to guess back then that El-Sayed, now also a Regents’ Professor and the Julius Brown Chair at Georgia Tech, would go on to conduct nearly 60 years of groundbreaking chemistry research in photochemistry and nanoscience. Or that he would serve for 24 years as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry, increasing its impact and popularity so dramatically that it evolved into two prominent journals: the Journal of Physical Chemistry A and B. Or that he would take home in 2016 the Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor.
Yet all of those things have come to pass. So much for predictions.
Ever since he was a youngster growing up in Egypt, Mostafa A. El-Sayed has been enthralled with the inner workings of molecules. For decades, he has conducted high-impact research, elucidating molecular mechanisms at work in molecules, solids, and photobiological systems. At 82, he remains as productive as ever, developing nanoscale materials and using them in medicine, catalysis, and sensing. In recognition of his decades-long contributions to chemistry, El-Sayed is being awarded the American Chemical Society’s highest honor, the Priestley Medal.
It’s not that El-Sayed was naughty as a child. “I was just experimenting,” he explains with a wide grin. One of his earliest experiments was motivated by the first train rides he took with his father at about age nine. El-Sayed was captivated by the billowing clouds of steam the train produced as its powerful locomotive set the train in motion.
So together with friends from his neighborhood in Zifta, a town 80 km north of Cairo, the junior scientist set about making his own steam engine. The boys filled a metal barrel with water, sealed it tightly, and lit a fire underneath. “We were trying to make a lot of steam—hoping the barrel would fly away,” El-Sayed recalls with a hardy laugh.
The boys did make plenty of steam, but the lid blew off and boiling water sprayed everywhere. Luckily no one was scalded.
Around the same time, El-Sayed’s fascination with trains led him to collect spare wheels and wooden boards and build a version he could ride. Wheeling the little train up and down the long hallway in his family’s apartment building by itself wasn’t all that naughty.
The part that got him in trouble with his parents and neighbors was his train track’s “signaling system.” The spirited young conductor had painted the signals directly on the hallway walls, naturally giving himself the “green light” to zoom down the corridor without stopping.
Now would be the point in a famous chemist’s biographical sketch to assure the reader that despite showing a bit of youthful mischief, the star of the story did very well in school, especially in chemistry. Only it didn’t quite happen that way. El-Sayed actually failed his high school chemistry final the first time he took it.
times his two most popular papers have been cited
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children and grandchildren in science, engineering, or medicine
years served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry
“I really liked the subject and the teacher,” El-Sayed says. “So I was sure I would do well. But enjoying a subject like chemistry isn’t enough. You also have to study.”
With a big smile, El-Sayed, 82, explains his lack of preparedness: “One of my sisters was getting married at the end of the school year.” In traditional Middle Eastern style, family from all over Egypt came to celebrate, staying with the El-Sayeds for about two weeks. So at precisely the time he should have been sitting with his nose in a book, preparing for the year-end exam, El-Sayed was partying with his out-of-town cousins, aunts, and uncles.
At the end of the weeks-long festivity, El-Sayed finally cracked open the textbook. But frantic cramming the night before the big test didn’t help. “I looked at the exam and couldn’t understand a word,” he confesses. “I tried to make up some answers, but it was no use. Chemistry is not the kind of subject you can fake.”
Fortunately, students who failed the exam on the first sitting could repeat it at the end of the summer. El-Sayed did so and passed with flying colors. Getting excellent scores on exams—even if in this case it was the second time around—was actually the norm for El-Sayed as a high schooler. And he continued the trend in college, where he majored in chemistry.
Early on in his years at Ain Shams University, El-Sayed distinguished himself scholastically as a top performer. As a result, he was selected along with two other students to attend private lectures, mainly in physical chemistry. The students were being groomed to fill the role of mu’id, a lecturer or demonstrator with a permanent position equivalent to a teaching or research assistant.
Students in line to become a mu’id were encouraged by their professors to complete a Ph.D. degree. Egyptian universities advocated that their students go abroad to attain the degree, but naturally, the schools also wanted their students to return after completing their graduate education.
That was El-Sayed’s plan in 1954 when he learned of an opportunity to do sponsored graduate work at Florida State University. But after moving to the U.S. for the position, El-Sayed never returned to claim his place as mu’id.
“It was everybody’s dream to come to America,” El-Sayed states unequivocally. “Everybody here was so friendly to me,” he says, or at least he thinks they were, acknowledging playfully that he can’t be sure because he understood very little English when he arrived.
To the young Egyptian grad student, the U.S. in the 1950s seemed much like the place he had learned about in the Middle East from radio, newspapers, and American movies overdubbed or subtitled in Arabic. As he expected, he saw beautiful homes, manicured lawns, and an abundance of private cars.
But there were a number of things he was not expecting—such as American straight talk. In El-Sayed’s experience, Egyptians would use gentle euphemisms to criticize one another diplomatically. In contrast, he found that “Americans tell it like it is.” Not out of rudeness, he explains. They are just more open and up-front with emotions.
Also surprising was the high level of respect and independence accorded to children. In Egypt, youngsters didn’t freely offer their opinions to adults. And they were taught never to contradict their elders, even if the older person was clearly wrong. American kids, however, were quite comfortable speaking up. So much so that El-Sayed would later joke with his wife, Janice, whom he met at an FSU football game, “I lost at both ends.” He couldn’t speak his mind as a kid growing up in Egypt and had to let his own kids do the talking when he was an adult in the U.S.
El-Sayed quickly learned to adapt to the ways of his new home. But one unexpected fact of American life that bothered him deeply was segregation. “This was Florida in the 1950s,” he explains. During that period, black and white people were required to sit separately in public venues and use race-designated restrooms and water fountains.
El-Sayed learned about this “unfair way of life” early in his days in the U.S. On an outing to a local eatery, one of his grad school friends, an Egyptian young man, was singled out and told he was unwelcome because the manager assumed from the student’s facial features that he was black. “It was a very bad experience. Humiliating. We were not used to that kind of treatment in Egypt,” he says. “We all got up and left together.” Similarly, when they rode city buses together, the same student was told to sit in the back, El-Sayed recalls. “So we avoided the bus. We walked instead.”
In general though, “life in the U.S. was wonderful,” El-Sayed says, and the young researcher thrived in his studies. As he relates in the Priestley Medal Address, which follows this story on page 41, a number of turns of fate and lucky breaks shaped El-Sayed’s life during this period. He met and married Janice, started a family, and conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard University and California Institute of Technology. In 1961, he secured a faculty appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, and within six years was appointed full professor.
Always intrigued by physical aspects of chemical phenomena, El-Sayed devoted himself during this phase of his career to developing and implementing molecular spectroscopy techniques. As lasers became available, El-Sayed’s research group quickly specialized in using them to elucidate molecular mechanisms and dynamical processes in molecules, gas-phase clusters, organic and inorganic solids, and photobiological systems.
The group’s research on triplet-state dynamics brought El-Sayed international recognition early in his career. By using spectroscopy techniques that they developed, El-Sayed and his group verified experimentally a set of rules that govern electronic relaxation mechanisms in organic molecules.
This body of work has famously come to be known as the El-Sayed rules. Googling that term brings up a boatload of entries, testifying to the rules’ importance in spectroscopy circles. They account for the observed difference in relaxation and radiative properties of aromatic carbonyls and heterocyclic compounds.
The collection of spectroscopy techniques developed or broadened by El-Sayed reads like a big-city phone book. Testifying to the scope of these “extraordinary contributions,” Northwestern University’s George C. Schatz asserts that El-Sayed “developed many new and important experimental techniques for probing molecular processes.” Giving examples, he lists microwave-phosphorescence double-resonance spectroscopy, time-resolved laser-line-narrowing luminescence spectroscopy, picosecond and femtosecond time-resolved Raman spectroscopy, and a variety of laser mass spectrometry techniques for monitoring dynamics in ions and clusters.
A résumé with that many entries would qualify any scientist as “highly accomplished.” But that list doesn’t include any of El-Sayed’s most highly cited work, which is in nanoparticle science, his area of expertise since moving to Georgia Tech in 1994. In the past 20 years, El-Sayed’s research group has pioneered methods for preparing nanoparticles and using them in several applications, most notably to monitor cellular processes and treat cancer.
El-Sayed says that, like other researchers active in this area, he became interested in the unique properties of nanoparticles as soon as he learned about them. But unlike most nanoparticle scientists, his interest in their anticancer use was motivated, in part, by his wife’s breast cancer, from which she died in 2004.
Despite being well past retirement age, El-Sayed is busier than ever these days. He shuttles every few months between Atlanta and Egypt, where he manages research groups at Cairo University and the National Research Centre (NRC) of Egypt, also in Cairo. The teams there have been studying the efficacy of treating breast cancer by using gold nanorods and near-infrared radiation. The particles, which researchers synthesize at Georgia Tech, are functionalized to selectively penetrate breast cancer cells and heat up in response to near-IR light, killing cells only in the tumorous region.
Tests in cats and dogs, such as one published just a few months ago in the Journal of Nanomedicine & Nanotechnology with Ahmed S. Abdoon, a veterinary reproduction expert at NRC, show that the method is highly effective in destroying cancer while causing minimal side effects (2015, DOI: 10.4172/2157-7439.1000324). The successes have also been reported in the Egyptian press, El-Sayed says, prompting large numbers of cat and dog owners to request treatment for their sick pets.
So how does one scientist manage three research groups spread across two continents? “I Skype several times a week,” El-Sayed replies nonchalantly. “With technology, it’s like being next door.”
And as if to underscore the point, while sitting in his Georgia Tech office being interviewed for this story, El-Sayed receives a Skype call. Sliding aside journal papers and data plots sitting on his desk, he switches seamlessly to Arabic, greeting Abdoon, one of El-Sayed’s senior group members who’s calling about a paper they are jointly writing. Three minutes later, El-Sayed is back in Atlanta, picking up where he left off before the call.
And so goes the fast-paced research of Mostafa El-Sayed. No surprise then that since the beginning of 2016, he has already published seven papers, raising his total number of publications since the start of 2015 to more than 25.
When asked about his influences and motivations, El-Sayed names two—one from the recent past, and one from his youth. Reflecting on his late wife Janice’s sickness and her strength throughout the ordeal, El-Sayed says, “Cancer is a horrible disease. The patient suffers terribly, and so does the family.” He adds, “I plan to keep fighting to make this nanoparticle therapy work.” El-Sayed is optimistic that the treatment soon will enter human breast cancer clinical trials in Egypt.
Long before anyone ever heard of nanoparticles, El-Sayed’s life was being shaped by another family member, his older brother Muhammad. The children’s mother died when Mostafa was nine, and within a year and a half, his father died too. Muhammad and his wife raised El-Sayed. “I remember the night my father died, Muhammad laid with me in bed and told me not to be afraid, not to worry. He told me God would take care of me, and I wasn’t scared.”
Muhammad was a kind man, who practiced “religion with intelligence,” El-Sayed continues. “He taught me to see the goodness in people and treat everyone with respect.” People who know El-Sayed well affirm that he took those life lessons to heart, becoming the charismatic, kindhearted man he is today.
“Like the best athletic coaches, Mostafa has a way of bringing people together and drawing the best individual talents out of them to move the whole team forward,” says Lehigh University President John D. Simon, who worked with El-Sayed as a postdoc at UCLA in the early 1980s.
“We have stayed very close all these years,” Simon says. “Mostafa’s mentorship and ongoing interest in me has really made me who I am.”
Twenty years later, El-Sayed’s deep personal interest in his students had not waned, according to Rice University chemists Stephan Link and Christy Landes, who completed Ph.D.s with El-Sayed in 2000 and 2003, respectively. During those chemists’ doctoral years, El-Sayed kept a very full schedule because of chemistry department commitments and administrative responsibilities as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry.
Even so, “Mostafa was incredibly personable and made time to meet with all of his students individually,” Link says. In those days, the best time to catch El-Sayed was after 8 PM. “In the evenings, he was 100% focused on the students,” Landes notes. “He would gladly look at your data and figures and talk about your next experiments until you ran out of things you wanted to discuss.”
Now that she has had 10 years’ experience managing her own research group, Landes is amazed at how “enthusiastic and encouraging” El-Sayed was, especially when it came time for a student to write his or her first journal paper. With obvious admiration for El-Sayed, she says, “He made you feel special, like you were writing a paper for Science or Nature,” even when the paper was headed for a less prestigious journal.
It’s no surprise that Landes and other El-Sayed students talk about their mentor with great affection. “Everybody who has ever interacted with Mostafa loves him,” she says.