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Mostafa El-Sayed recounts “The good breaks in my life”

2016 Priestley Medalist credits his late wife, family, and research students for his success

by Mostafa A. El-Sayed
March 14, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 11


The good breaksin my life

I believe that everyone gets a few good breaks in his or her life. The lucky ones are those who recognize them and change their lives accordingly. Like most of us here tonight, I did. From the day I was born in a small village by the Nile Delta in Egypt until today, I have recognized a few good breaks that helped me to be able to stand in front of you here tonight. They brought me to the U.S. for my Ph.D. at Florida State University and helped me to marry my late wife, Janice, who raised our lovely and successful family and encouraged me to do what I wanted to do in my career. These breaks also helped me to be able to do postdoctoral work at Yale, Harvard, and Caltech, which enabled me to have a wonderful academic career, first at UCLA followed by Georgia Tech, where I did my nanotechnology research and where I have always received the help of my excellent research students who did it all. Below I will discuss some of these good breaks in more detail.

First break: The right college came to me

In Egypt, grades received upon graduating from high school determine what college and profession you can pursue. To be admitted to a school of medicine requires top grades. My grades were high but not high enough. I could have repeated the last high school year, but I decided to go to an institute for science teachers and secure a high school teacher position in chemistry after graduation. With my grades, they paid me a monetary allowance, and after four years, I would have been appointed to teach chemistry in a high school.

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Decades of studying laser-driven chemical processes leaves El-Sayed feeling right at home in laser labs like the one shown here at Georgia Tech.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Decades of studying laser-driven chemical processes leaves El-Sayed feeling right at home in laser labs like the one shown here at Georgia Tech.

On my first day at the institute, many students decided not to go to the lecture hall, challenging the government to change the name of our degree from a diploma to a B.Sc. We had a genius minister of education, Dr. Taha Hussein, who visited us and solved the problem by combining all the high-level institutes in Cairo, creating a new university. Our institute became the Faculty of Science in the new Ain Shams University.

I gave renewed attention to my studies, realizing that the new university would need demonstrators, also known as teaching assistants. The teaching assistant position in an Egyptian university follows the British system and is a permanent faculty position. I worked very hard, and indeed, after four years, I was selected to start my academic career in Egypt!

Credit: Courtesy of Mostafa A. El-Sayed
President George W. Bush honored El-Sayed with the 2007 National Medal of Science at the White House ceremony shown here.

Another important break: “Coming to America”

During my first month working as a demonstrator, I made an arrangement to pick up a friend of mine to go out. As usual, time is never fixed in Egypt: Six o’clock could be 7:00 or even later. My friend was not ready when I went to pick him up. While I was waiting for him in his living room, I found a newspaper (which I normally never took the time to read). I started looking at the headlines, and the word “America” caught my eye. It was an announcement from a professor at Florida State University, Ray Sheline, advertising graduate positions for two Egyptians with academic backgrounds that well matched my own. I applied, got accepted, and came to the U.S.

My best break: Meeting Janice

After finishing my cumulative examination at Florida State, I was invited to join my roommate, Bill, who asked me to join him, his girlfriend, and her friend Janice at the homecoming football game at Florida State University (which did not have a football team at that time—if you can believe it!) I did not understand what was going on, but thanks to Janice, she explained each play to me, which was very hard for me to follow as my English was not well enough polished to follow the football vocabulary. However I was enthralled because it kept our conversation alive. The rest is history, thanks to U.S. football!

My host professor is leaving: Another break

Around my fourth and fifth years of graduate school, professor Ray Sheline announced that he was going to the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark to become more specialized in nuclear physics. I had taken a course in molecular spectroscopy with the late professor Mike Kasha, who was also on my Ph.D. committee. I discussed my situation with him. He saw what research I had accomplished and told me to write my thesis and defend it while he kindly supported me. Janice and I decided to get married, and she was planning to come back with me to Egypt and get a job at one of the English-speaking foreign companies that paid high salaries. As fate would have it, just as we were considering moving back, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided to nationalize all foreign companies, replacing the foreign owners with Egyptians. He asked all foreign owners to leave Egypt just as we were considering moving back.

Postdoctoral breaks

Mike Kasha was given an opportunity at that time to spend a year at Harvard as a visiting professor, with a stipend for a postdoctoral fellow. He kindly asked me if I was interested in joining him. Janice and I, and our firstborn, Lyla, joined Mike in Cambridge. After that, I successfully applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology. I was lucky to receive the fellowship and joined Wilse Robinson’s lab.

Academic career: The UCLA break

While I was working in Wilse’s lab at Caltech, a professor from UCLA, Kenneth Trueblood, stopped by. He asked me about my research. After I explained our work, he invited me to give a seminar at UCLA. Shortly after my seminar, I received an offer to join the school’s faculty. The faculty at UCLA was very supportive. Janice was very encouraging while I worked hard to get tenure, which I received in three years. Three years later, in 1967, I became a full professor. At UCLA my research was mostly in electronic energy relaxation in molecules in the gas phase, solution, and solids. It was around this time I formulated what is now known as El-Sayed’s rule to describe such relaxation in heterocyclic aromatic molecules. We enjoyed our life around UCLA very much with its delightful and friendly faculty and our friendly West Los Angeles neighbors.

Credit: Courtesy of Mostafa A. El-Sayed
In 1959, Mostafa and Janice honeymooned in Niagara Falls. This photo was taken as they waited for a boat ride under the falls.
Credit: Courtesy of Mostafa A. El-Sayed
In 1959, Mostafa and Janice honeymooned in Niagara Falls. This photo was taken as they waited for a boat ride under the falls.

Family life in Southern California

We lived in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood, within 7 miles of the Santa Monica beaches and 10 miles from UCLA. Our family grew larger in size and number. Janice got the children involved in many activities, from piano lessons to ice-skating to attending science classes for young children at a Los Angeles museum. She became involved in the UCLA women’s club and was their news media writer. Our children, who are here tonight with their spouses and some of their children, worked hard and were raised well, thanks to Janice, who dedicated her life during this period to the development of their future.

The nanotechnology break

In the early 1990s, I got interested, like many scientists, in research on the nanoscale. This required special instrumentation that UCLA did not have at that time. In 1994, I was fortunate to be approached by Georgia Institute of Technology and by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Janice and I liked Georgia Tech because Atlanta was near Janice’s family in northern Florida. Our children were all married by that time, raising their wonderful children, so it was easy to move our three dogs and two cats to Atlanta. Georgia Tech was very generous in supporting my new nanoscience research. I built up my group very rapidly with several UCLA postdoctoral fellows and graduate students following me to Georgia Tech. Dr. Li Song was instrumental in putting the lab together. We worked first on semiconductor nanoparticles, then moved to metallic (mostly platinum, palladium, gold, and silver) nanoparticles.

Family life in Atlanta

Janice and I had fun during the first 10 years in Atlanta. We were able to invite our children and their families to the gulf area of northern Florida and to join Janice’s family reunion held near DeFuniak Springs. During the second 10 years, this wonderful arrangement was interrupted when we learned that Janice had breast cancer. For five years, Janice and I frequently visited her doctor’s office at Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. I read a lot about cancer; learned a great deal from her doctor, Ruth O’Regan; and exchanged with Dr. O’Regan review articles about the disease.

Cancer research: The scientific break

Credit: Ahmed S. Abdoon/National Research Centre


Credit: Ahmed S. Abdoon/National Research Centre


Not long after undergoing nanoparticle-based photothermal cancer treatment to destroy breast tumors (top), this cat was healthy enough to give birth to kittens and nurse them.

During this same time, my group and I began examining the photothermal properties of gold and silver nanoparticles. We hoped to find a gold nanoparticle that would absorb near-infrared light (which penetrates deeply into the body) and heat up, “melting” nearby cancer cells. Professor Naomi Halas of Rice University indicated correctly that gold nanospheres are not useful for this purpose because changing their size does not shift the gold nanoparticles’ absorption wavelength to the near-infrared region. She successfully used silica core-gold shell nanoparticles for the treatment. Professor Cathy Murphy and her group at UIUC made nanorods that we showed could have their absorption band in the near-infrared region if we changed their aspect ratio and, furthermore, could destroy cancer cells in vitro and in vivo (in mice). All these results were obtained during Janice’s final treatment, but sadly not soon enough to be useful.

However, it made me committed to fight this disease and strengthened my resolve to continue in that direction with the talent and hard work of my students.

At the same time, I was approached by the Egyptian National Research Centre and Cairo University researchers to direct their research; they would receive full research support from Egypt if I could do so. This I have done. These two groups have done an excellent job and were both able to cure many cats and dogs with our experimental photothermal therapy method using gold nanorods and near-infrared light (J. Nanomed. Nanotechnol. 2015, DOI: 10.4172/2157-7439.1000324).


The good breaksin my life

The researchers at Cairo University and I have recently received more government funding and encouragement from the Egyptian minister of health to continue our work with a cancer surgeon (Hussein Khaled) who was the head of the National Cancer Institute in Cairo. In dedication to the memory of my wife, Janice, it is my hope to see this therapy successful in human clinical trials.

I am honored to be the recipient of the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal, which I would like to share with my late wife, my family, and my research students, who made it all possible.  

The Priestley Address of 2016 Priestley Medalist Mostafa A. El-Sayed, given at the 251st ACS National Meeting, San Diego, March 15, 2016.


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Yahia hamada (March 27, 2018 12:13 PM)
What a wonderful story of chemical/scientific/personal/family Success. Keep up the good work. I was inspired by this article when i first read it, 2-years ago to the date, it was in March 2016. Best of regards, Hamada

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