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Nobel Chemistry Laureate Failed His First Chemistry Exam in University

When the Nobel Prizes are announced each year, many university students have an idealised picture of the winners’ careers, yet most laureates refer to the troubles they have had to overcome and the perseverance that required.

Moungi Bawendi, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is no exception.

After the award was announced on October 4, the American scientist with French and Tunisian roots recounted how he had failed his first chemistry exam at university. The incident “could have destroyed him”, Bawendi said, but instead taught him a lesson in perseverance.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Bawendi and two other scientists based in the United States for their work on quantum dots. These tiny, nanoscale particles are widely used today to create colours in applications ranging from computer and television screens to medical-imaging devices. Adding colour to light from light-emitting diode (LED) lamps can help surgeons see blood vessels in tumours, among other uses in biochemistry and medicine.

Bawendi’s co-winners are Louis Brus, a professor at Columbia University, in New York, and the Russian-born Alexei Ekimov, a former chief scientist at Nanocrystals Technology Inc., in New York.

“You have a setback, but you can persevere and overcome this and learn from your experience, which obviously I did.”

Moungi Bawendi, Nobel Chemistry laureate in 2023

Bawendi, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, told a news conference that he had excelled at science during his school years and had become used to not preparing for exams. That changed after an experience during his first chemistry exam at Harvard.

“I looked at the first question and could not answer it. The same thing with the second question. I tried to answer all the questions,” he said. “I got 20 out of 100, it was the lowest grade in the class, and I thought, ‘Oh no, this is the end of me, what am I doing here?’”

According to Agence France-Presse, the 62-year-old chemist then realised the importance of preparing well for exams. Bawendi said that this experience could have “destroyed” him, adding: “I could have just decided this wasn’t for me, but I liked what I was doing, and so I learned how to become successful as a student.”

Bawendi advises today’s students to be open-minded and maintain curiosity, “which is the key to knowledge.”

He added: “You have a setback, but you can persevere and overcome this and learn from your experience, which obviously I did.”

Childhood in France and Tunisia

Moungi Gabriel Bawendi is not the first scientist of Arab origin to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Elias James Corey, a Lebanese-American, won it in 1990. So far, the only Arab to win the award is the Egyptian Ahmed Zewail, in 1999.

Bawendi was born in Paris in 1961 to a Tunisian father, the mathematician Mohammed Salah Baouendi, and a French mother, Hélène Bobard. Bawendi spent his childhood between Paris and Tunisia before the family emigrated to the United States when he was 10 years old.

Bawendi is one of the most cited chemists of the past decade. He is a member of two of the oldest learned societies in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006, he received the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award, given by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Since 2008, he has been a professor and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When told he was a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Bawendi said he was “shocked and honoured”. He had not expected the Swedish Academy’s call, which “woke him from a deep slumber”, he said.

The award that Bawendi, Brus and Ekimov will share is worth about one million dollars. The three will receive the award from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.


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