The Massachusetts science community is celebrating another Nobel Prize for one of its own.
MIT professor Moungi Bawendi is one of three scientists who won the prestigious award in chemistry Wednesday for their work with tiny particles, called quantum dots, that emit different colors when lit up. The particles have led to advances in multiple fields, including aiding the diagnosis of liver disease and making television screens brighter.
Bawendi said he was still asleep early Wednesday morning when he received a call notifying him he won the award.
“I wasn’t sure if it was true, and I was trying to wake up and my wife was telling me, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’” Bawendi recalled. “And then I realized it’s true.”
The award comes days after a Lexington native won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work that helped lead to the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine. MIT officials said Bawendi is the 101st alumni, staff member or researcher from the school to win a Nobel.
Bawendi has been an MIT professor since 1990 after earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard and PhD from the University of Chicago. He said the Nobel shows he’s come a long way since his freshman year at Harvard when he thought he didn’t need to study for tests, then proceeded to fail his first chemistry exam.
“I got 20 out of 100 [questions]. It was the lowest grade in the class,” he said. “After that, it was 100s on every exam. I figured out how to study.”
He shares the Nobel Prize with Louis Brus of Columbia University and Alexei Ekimov of Nanocrystals Technology Inc. Ekimov and Brus are credited with creating quantum dots independently of each other. Bawendi developed a method to use them in technological applications like LED screens and medical imaging.
Bawendi said that when he first started working with quantum dots, he wasn’t thinking of the potential uses for them. He merely wanted to study them, but in order to do that, he had to create dots that were of high quality. Once he did that, their benefits became more clear.
“Quantum dot-making is easy. Making good quantum dots is incredibly hard,” said Lea Nienhaus, an assistant professor at Florida State University, who previously worked with Bawendi when she was a postdoctoral researcher.
Nienhaus said she's trying to impart on her students the knowledge of quantum dot-making she gained from Bawendi.
Colleagues and former students added that Bawendi deserves recognition for more than his brilliance. MIT professor Vladimir Bulovic recalled attending a conference with Bawendi where they both sat on a panel. Someone asked Bawendi how he avoids falling into slumps.
“I’m thinking, ‘My gosh. You’re asking the most prolific man I know about slump,’” Bulovic remembered. “He humbly answers and he’s like, ‘I feel like I’m in a slump all the time. I go to conferences like this, and I get blown away by what you guys are doing.”’