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Louis Brus ‘65 wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Courtesy Louis E. Brus

By Amy Li     10/17/23 11:24pm

Rice alumnus Louis E. Brus ’65 was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 4. Brus, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, shared the distinction with Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Alexei Ekimov of Nanocrystals Technology Inc. for research on quantum dots, which are semiconductor particles so small their size determines their properties.

Today, quantum dots have a wide variety of applications in nanoscience and materials science, ranging from quantum dot LED technology for computer monitors and television screens to guiding surgeons removing tumor tissue. However, when he first began research on quantum dots at AT&T Bell Labs in the 1980s, Brus said he had no idea his research might end up affecting the lives of people around the world.

“I’ve been amazed,” Brus said. “It’s been a long time now since 1982. Nobody and none of my collaborators in 1982 thought at all that the field would develop to this extent.”

Brus attributes his interest in research to his experience at Rice, emphasizing the influence of his courses in chemistry, physics and mathematics. Brus credits Zevi Salsburg, a chemistry professor who studied statistical mechanics and taught the physical chemistry class Brus took as a junior, as being particularly influential. Though he said Rice was difficult, Brus said that the education he received helped shape him into a budding scientist.

Brus initially attended Rice on a U.S. Navy scholarship and was commissioned upon graduation, and he said he was always interested in science and research. Despite this, he “never really thought [he] had the native ability to earn a Ph.D. or have a scientific career,” he said in a statement delivered when he received the 2008 Kavli Prize in nanoscience.

“I was always interested in research, trying to basically figure out how nature works,” Brus said. “You’re lucky if you can find a job that will pay you a salary in order to do that. And so I was lucky.”

Brus encourages students to pursue research if they enjoy it, and described his own enjoyment of research.

“As far as personal qualities go, it’s not necessary to be a genius … to do good research,” Brus said. “The more important thing is to work hard and to work persistently and not to give up … To be successful in research, science has to be your hobby as well as your job. It was a pleasure to go to work on Saturday morning because the building would be empty and other people would not be there and you could focus your mind on trying to accomplish what you were doing.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Rice in 1965, Brus earned a Ph.D. in chemical physics at Columbia University in 1969. He then served at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. until late 1972, when he joined AT&T Bell Labs.

Ramamoorthy Ramesh, Rice’s executive vice president for research, met Brus while working at Bell Labs. He echoes Brus’ sentiment that research is more about enjoyment than anything else.

“Research is fun,” Ramesh said. “Doing cutting edge research is really what’s exciting. And if you can change the world, that’s even better.”

Ramesh hopes that undergraduates will be inspired to follow in Brus’ footsteps as a Rice alumni. 

“I think Louis Brus getting the Nobel Prize … validates the fact that [Rice is] capable of doing the fundamentals or creating the people,” Ramesh said. “What you did … as an undergraduate here can have a huge impact on your career. Brus is not the only example. It’s amazing how many Rice undergrads have gone on to do spectacularly well. I think we need to be saying: Look, go aspire to change the world. You are being trained to change the world here.”

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