Jorge Gardea-Torresdey of the University of Texas-El Paso received the 2009 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans.
Did you have a career-defining moment?
My paternal grandfather owned silver and gold mines in northern Mexico. I started going with him to the mines when I was five, six, seven years old and I fell in love with the mining process.
I asked why the different minerals were different colours and why they were shiny. That got me interested in chemistry.
What challenges did you encounter in your career?
Growing up as a Mexican American I faced much discrimination. My classmates used to call me 'dumb Mexican' even though I got straight As. My professors used to say, “Why do you think you're so smart?”
But the United States is changing, and in Texas, where there is a large proportion of Hispanics, I see the new future. We are accepted now more than we were in the past. I just received this beautiful award, and I am really pleased about it.
Did your family accept your career choice?
I grew up in a very wealthy business family that was involved in many types of business – mining, furniture stores, real estate. I am the oldest of ten kids and it was expected I would go into the businesses. But I used to hide out and read books on chemistry when I was supposed to be watching the employees in one of our furniture stores. Eventually, I told my father and grandfather that I wasn't going to be a businessman, and they were very upset.
Have you ever thought about leaving Texas?
I was considered for head of the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles; other opportunities were for federal posts. But I stayed here in Texas because I want to be valuable and helpful to Hispanics.
My goal is to see the completion of our new chemistry and computer-sciences building on campus in about a year.
What was your most important scientific discovery?
In 2002 my group discovered that alfalfa plants will take up gold from gold-enriched soil, forming gold nanoparticles inside their tissues.
Our finding is important because gold nanoparticles can be heated to 427 °C and burn cancer cells. Harvesting these particles from plants could help us develop a cure for cancer.
What's your biggest career satisfaction?
Mentoring students. They are the future of the United States, and it is more satisfying to me than research. I produced some of the first Hispanic scientists in my field, and several now work for the US Environmental Protection Agency – one is an environmental scientist in Dallas and another is an environmental engineer along the US–Mexico border. They are doing good for the environment.
Interview by Karen Kaplan.