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Scientific Exploration

Hispanics have made significant advances in science and space exploration. Here are four leaders:

  • In 1990, Ellen Ochoa , a top scientist in her field, became the world’s first Hispanic female astronaut to log nearly 1,000 hours in space.
  • Dr. Mario J. Molina conducted groundbreaking work on the effects of everyday chemicals on the Earth’s ozone layer. His research won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995.
  • Baruj Benacerraf is a Hispanic-American Nobel Prize winning medical researcher, born in Venezuela.
  • Born in San Francisco to parents of Cuban and Mexican descent, Luis Alvarez won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968. 

Ellen Ochoa  

Born and raised in California, Ellen Ochoa was a devoted student, graduating at the top of her class at San Diego State University with a bachelor of science degree in physics. She followed that by completing a master of science degree and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

While studying at Stanford, Ochoa specialized in designing optical systems that analyze and draw conclusions about the objects they "see." Upon graduation, she continued this work at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. Ochoa’s contributions at the lab led to patents for three optical devices: a system that inspects objects, a system that identifies objects and a system that minimizes distortion in the images taken of an object. She soon branched out from optical devices to developing computer systems designed for aeronautical expeditions while supervising a staff of 35 fellow scientists.

Ellen Ochoa was at the top of her field, which caught NASA’s attention. In 1990, she was selected by NASA, and one year later, Ochoa became the world’s first Hispanic female astronaut. She has logged nearly 1,000 hours in space. Throughout her career she has received numerous awards including the Outstanding Leadership Medal (1995), Space Flight Medals (1993, 1994, 1999 and 2002) from NASA. She has also received the Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award and the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award. In 2007, Ochoa was named deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Ellen Ochoa embraces her position as role model for students and frequently visits schools, encouraging students to study hard and to not be afraid of success.

Shuttle Missions
Maintained by NASA, this site provides links to information on each shuttle mission. Find out what astronauts worked on in space and view launch video. Ochoa took part in missions STS-56, STS-66, STS-96, and STS-110.

Mario Molina  

Mario Molina was born and raised in Mexico City, where his father was a successful lawyer and diplomat. Molina was fascinated with chemistry at an early age, and his aunt, chemist Esther Molina, encouraged and mentored him to carry out more advanced chemistry experiments.

Molina earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. It was at the graduate study program at the University of California at Berkeley that Molina began to find his place in science and in life. Although Molina loved chemistry, he began to realize that there is a negative side to this field of science: chemicals can be dangerous.

After earning his Ph.D., Molina joined Sherwood Rowland’s research team at the University of California at Irvine as a postdoctoral researcher. It was there that Molina and Rowland began to explore the effect of the chemical chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). CFCs were then widely used in consumer products such as plastic bags and hair sprays, and Molina wanted to know what happened to these chemicals when they entered the environment. Molina suspected that the use of these chemicals might impose a negative impact in the atmosphere, although they posed no danger to humans in their original form.

As Molina investigated the CFC, he realized that it was accumulating in the upper levels of the atmosphere. At high altitudes, the CFC molecules were breaking apart, and the resulting chlorine atoms were destroying an important part of the atmosphere called ozone. Molina and Roland published their study about the ozone layer in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until several years later that the destruction of the ozone layer became big news. It was then that Molina became a spokesperson, calling for limits and controls on the production and use of CFCs. After years of hard work, Molina’s research had been successful. In 1995, Molina was awarded the most prestigious award of all:  the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Molina is one of the world's most knowledgeable experts on pollution and on the effects of chemical pollution on the environment. He has received many awards for his research on atmospheric pollution, has served on a number of committees to investigate air pollution and has been a member of several organizations dedicated to the advancement of science. Today, Molina is part of a research group in San Diego, investigating chemical properties of atmospheric particles. His goal is to better understand the effect of these particles on clouds and climate.

Stratospheric Ozone
Maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this site monitors the earth’s ozone layer and includes charts, data and other information about the ozone layer, including how scientists measure the ozone layer and use the data.

Read a brief autobiography written by Molina after winning the Nobel Prize. The site includes links to resources on Molina's work on the ozone as well as a transcript of his Nobel lecture.

Baruj Benacerraf  

Baruj Benacerraf is a Hispanic-American Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher, born in Venezuela. After moving to the United States, Benacerraf studied at Columbia University and received a bachelor's of science degree. Despite his excellent grades, he was rejected from countless medical schools because of his Venezuelan roots and Judaic religious views. Thanks to a family friend however, Benacerraf was finally accepted to the Medical College of Virginia, where he earned his medical degree.

After medical school, Benacerraf was drafted into the Army and served in the Army's Medical Corps. After returning to the United States in 1947, Benacerraf drew inspiration from the fact that as a child, he suffered from severe asthma. He thus decided to pursue a career in medical research of immunology. While researching, Benacerraf earned the position of professor of pathology at New York University. Then, in 1968 he was awarded the prestigious position of director of the Laboratory of Immunology of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, leading to his 1970 acceptance of the chair of pathology at Harvard, where he continued his studies.

In 1980, his work on the genetic regulation of the immune system earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His findings led to the understanding of the immune system's ability to respond to antigens, as well as taking strides toward better understanding auto-immune diseases.

Today, Benacerraf is the president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Institute, which is part of Harvard Medical School.

Having grown up exposed to prejudice both for his Hispanic heritage and his Jewish roots, Benacerraf serves as an inspiration to students who have faced adversity based on their cultural identity but manage to fight through and succeed.

Read a brief autobiography written by Benacerraf after winning the Nobel Prize. The site also includes a link to a transcript of his Nobel lecture.

Luis Alvarez  

Born in San Francisco to parents of Cuban and Mexican descent, Luis Alvarez won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968. He received his bachelor's of science from the University of Chicago in 1932 and his Ph.D. in 1936.

Alvarez played a huge part in the Allies' victory of World War II. He developed three different radar systems employed by the American military, including a blind landing system that helps both civilians and the military land planes primarily from the ground when visibility is too poor for pilots to see. Additionally, Alvarez developed the detonators for setting off the plutonium bomb that finally put an end to the war. He flew as a scientific observer at the Hiroshima explosion, one of the most influential events in the history of the world.

After the war, Alvarez researched cosmic rays, and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 for the discovery of a large number of resonance states associated with this field.

Alvarez died in 1988, but his scientific innovations live on. If not for his advancements, planes would not be able to land in storms, and the Allies may not have won World War II. His accomplishments should serve as an inspiration to all.

This site includes Nobel Prize Foundation's biography on Alvarez, links to his Nobel lecture and Nobel banquet speech.