Mostafa El-Sayed

Mostafa El-Sayed is an internationally renowned Egyptian-American physical chemist and a leading nanoscience researcher. A long time teacher, Professor El-Sayed has recently turned his attention to developing new approaches to cancer treatment.

Born in 1933 in the small village of Zefta in Egypt, the youngest of seven children, Mostafa lost both his parents when only ten years old. Nevertheless, he remembers a childhood full of love, raised in the family of his older brother Mohammed and his wife.

El-Sayed attended primary and secondary school in the village. He graduated with a BS from the Faculty of Science at Ain Shams University in 1953, and began a career as a teacher in the faculty, where, he said, he used to spend entire days at the university teaching and conducting experiments in the laboratories. Noticing quite by accident one day a newspaper ad for fellowships in his field at Florida State University, he applied, and soon found himself in Tallahassee taking course equivalency exams, all of which he passed, to the amazement of his examiners, as he was the first foreign student to do so.

After receiving his PhD from Florida State University in 1958, El-Sayed returned to Egypt, but soon found it impossible to support his wife and children on his Ain Shams monthly salary, so he returned to the United States and embarked on a series of one year post-doctoral research positions at prestigious American universities: Yale, Harvard, and the California Institute of Technology. Later, in an Al-Ahram Weekly interview, he recalled, “Each university offered me the best facilities in terms of labs, finance, and salaries.”

In 1961 he joined the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he taught until he joined the Georgia Institute of Technology Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1994. He is currently the Julius Brown Chair and Regents Professor at Georgia Tech, where he also heads the top-ranked Laser Dynamics Laboratory.

Much of El-Sayed’s research is carried on with his group in the Laser Dynamics Laboratory at Georgia Tech. The laboratory was ranked in March 2011 number 17 among chemistry research labs worldwide during the decade ending in 2010. In this period the lab published more manuscripts than any other labs ranked in the top 20. According to El-Sayed’s Research Group website, the laboratory houses the most recent lasers and laser spectroscopic equipment for time-resolved studies in the femto-to-millisecond time scale.

Professor El-Sayed and his group conduct research in nanoscience, making and studying the properties of nanometer materials: “the ultrafast electron-hole dynamics in semiconductor nanoparticles and composites, the shape-controlled synthesis and stability of metallic nanoparticles, and enhanced absorption and scattering processes, electronic relaxation, and photothermal properties of gold and silver nanocrystals of different shapes.”

In the area of nanotechnology, the group conducts research on the potential use of nanoparticles in nanomedicine, nanocatalysis, and plasmonics.

Professor El-Sayed’s research in nanomedicine has a personal dimension. In the Al-Ahram interview he spoke of the death of his wife from cancer in 2005 after a five-year struggle with the disease. He said he had worked in nanotechnology since graduation, “but it was only after the death of my beloved wife that I started to think seriously of using it in treating cancer.”

After El-Sayed and his team of 70 researchers had labored for two years, they “developed an effective treatment for skin cancer using “gold nanorods.” The treatment was first (2009) tested on animals and some human cells and was found to “kill cancer cells that appear under the microscope as light spots, leaving healthy cells unharmed.”  El-Sayed says that the treatment, which has to undergo a lengthy approval process by the US Food and Drug Administration, “could be available sooner in China, as most of the researchers are Chinese.”

One of El-Sayed’s five children, his son Dr. Ivan H. El-Sayed, has been working with him on cancer research. With two other authors they published together a study in Nanomedicine in 2007:  “Gold nanoparticles and nanorods in medicine: From cancer diagnosis to photothermal therapy.” Other such studies involving the father-son team have been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Cancer Letters, and Nano Letters.

El-Sayed’s early research has formed a fundamental basis for the study of photochemistry. Working in the 1960s on intersystem crossing, one of the processes which occurs when light interacts with matter, El-Sayed formulated what have come to be known as El-Sayed’s rules, now found in most photochemistry textbooks, as they are “useful in understanding phosphorescence, vibrational relaxation, intersystem crossing, internal conversion, and lifetimes of excited states in molecules.”

Throughout his career El-Sayed has been awarded honors and awards almost too numerous to mention. Chief among these are the King Faizal International Prize in the Sciences-Chemistry (considered by some the Arabian Nobel Prize) in 1990 and in 2002 the Langmuir Award presented “to recognize and encourage outstanding interdisciplinary research in chemistry and physics.” He received the 2007 US National Medal of Science in Chemistry “for his contribution to . . . understanding of the electronic and catalytic properties of nanostructures and nanomaterials.”  In 2009 he was awarded the Ahmed Zewail Prize in Molecular Sciences “for his seminal contributions to the understanding of the electronic and molecular dynamics and properties of systems with different length scales ranging from molecules to nanoparticles to biomedical systems,” the Glen T. Seaborg Medal, and the Medal of the Egyptian Republic-First Class.

Early in his career he was already winning fellowships. From 1965 to 1971 he was a Sloan Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1967-68. He was elected Alexander von Humboldt Senior Fellow in 1982, member of the Third World Academy of Sciences in 1984, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986. In 2000 he was elected fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. In 2009 he became an honorary fellow of the Chinese Chemical Society.

Professor El-Sayed has been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but in the Al-Ahram interview, noting that he had nominated Ahmed Zewail (Doctor of Humane Letters, AUB, 2005) for the 1999 Nobel Prize, he said that he himself “had not thought of being nominated for or receiving the prize. ‘I am working hard for human beings and not for a Nobel Prize, which [I think] should be given to those that discover the genetic causes of cancer.’”

Speaking frequently of education in both the United States and Egypt, Professor El-Sayed “believes that spending money on scientific research is an investment in the future because it will improve social and economic conditions in the long run. ‘Industries in Egypt will never improve if we do not improve our scientific research,’ he says. ‘We have to provide a reasonable budget for scientific research immediately, particularly because the population is increasing and resources are decreasing.’”