As a youngster in central Mexico, Miguel García-Garibay discussed nature, plants and insects on mountain hikes with his father, who was an elementary school teacher. By middle school, García-Garibay excelled at biology and mathematics.

As an undergraduate, he joined a chemistry research laboratory group in his sophomore year and conducted research for three years, with the goal of discovering new natural products in plants. He collected plant specimens — many used in traditional medicine — and brought them back to the laboratory to identify their components.

Now a renowned scholar and chair of the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, García-Garibay has been selected as dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences, effective July 1, Scott Waugh, UCLA executive vice chancellor and provost, announced today.

Waugh praised García-Garibay as a passionate scholar whose research group has earned worldwide recognition in the fields of organic photochemistry, solid-state organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry.

In his research, García-Garibay studies the interaction of light and molecules in crystals. Light can have enough energy to break and make bonds in molecules, and his research team has shown that crystals offer an opportunity to control the outcome of these chemical reactions. He is interested in the basic science of molecules in crystals. His research has applications for green chemistry that may lead to the production of specialty chemicals that would be very difficult to produce by traditional methods due to their complex structures. His research group has also made advances in the field of artificial molecular machines and amphidynamic crystals, a term García-Garibay invented, referring to crystals built with molecules that have a combination of static and mobile components.

UCLA has a tremendous faculty and many of the best students in the country, García-Garibay said; these students will become future leaders.

UCLA’s physical sciences division is extremely well-regarded worldwide — the best among all public universities in the country, according to some respected rankings. The academic departments in the division are very influential, and the quality of the research “is mind-boggling,” García-Garibay said.

William Gelbart, a former chair of chemistry and biochemistry and a member of the search committee for the new dean, said, “One of Miguel’s highest priorities as chair has been to raise the international profile of our department by showcasing its exceptional research and teaching activities.”

What will García-Garibay’s main goal be for the physical sciences? “To maintain the highest level of research with the highest-quality education and the best experience for our students,” García-Garibay said.

Undergraduate education has long been a priority of his. As chair of chemistry and biochemistry, he started a successful program to bring prominent alumni in such fields as medicine, biotechnology, business and law to campus to speak about their career paths and meet with students. He would like to encourage more such interactions, he said.

García-Garibay said he is proud of UCLA’s diversity and will work to enhance it in the physical sciences. “UCLA is among the top universities in the world to graduate students who are the first in their families to go to college,” noted the scientist, who served as diversity advisor for the division of physical sciences from 2009 to 2012.

“Indeed, from his earliest days at UCLA, Miguel has always been a champion and superb role model for diversity in the department and the university,” said Gelbart, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Clearly, we will all benefit still more from this important stance of his throughout his tenure as dean. It’s wonderful as well to see the energy and vision he devotes to enhancing the sense of community and range of opportunities for our undergraduate students.”

This is an exciting time to do science, García-Garibay said, with science becoming so interdisciplinary, drawing from many fields.

“There have never been so many tools to answer important scientific questions, and we have such high-quality instrumentation and methods,” García-Garibay said. “To analyze and make sense of complex data, researchers need novel and sophisticated mathematical models, from the nano scale to the astro scale, and UCLA is home to the best.”

How does this compare to his own undergraduate years? García-Garibay laughed. Recalling his undergraduate years, he said, “I used to go to the library, look for index cards, look for the volumes and the pages; sometimes they were there, sometimes not.”

He plans to maintain his research and laboratory. Much of his research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

García-Garibay has been a member of UCLA’s faculty for more than two decades.

He has won many honors for his research, including selection as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as numerous honors from the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society. He is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute, Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and Royal Society of Chemistry, among other scholarly organizations.

“Chancellor Block and I are confident that the division of physical sciences will continue to thrive under Miguel’s capable leadership,” Waugh said in his announcement. He also thanked Physical Sciences Dean Joseph Rudnick for his distinguished leadership of the division since 2006.