Nov. 2-8, 2001
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Brooks H. Pate

Chemist Pate named MacArthur Fellow

By Fariss Samarrai

The phone call came out of the blue for Brooks Pate, a professor of physical chemistry at U.Va. The voice on the other end came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, notifying Pate that he was one of 23 scholars nationwide to be named a MacArthur Fellow, an honor that comes with $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years. Pate said he will put his windfall back into his work, which he said is at the forefront of a “new chemistry.”

Pate is one of nine scientists selected this year to receive the so-called “genius grants,” and the only Virginian among the 23 recipients in total, whose ranks also include musicians, artists, novelists and historians.

He is using lasers to redefine scientists’ understanding of molecular structure, and creating a process whereby scientists will be able to take over the structure of molecules by manipulating their atoms. Pate probes molecules with a spectroscope (a laser instrument that measures molecules), teasing out their basic reactive properties. Although spectroscopy is a relatively known technology, Pate has blasted through technical and conceptual hurdles previously thought insurmountable. He also has revealed new insights into chemical reactions of molecules excited by high-energy light.

“Our work is showing that the models of molecule structure of the past 40 years need to be rethought,” he said. “The work has implications for many areas of chemistry, including efficient methods to make specialty molecules, like pharmaceuticals, that minimize chemical waste.”

Pate who will continue to teach, said he plans to use the award to develop more specialized equipment for his studies and for salary support and fellowships for his graduate students.

“I love working in the classroom as well as in the lab,” he said, “and it was a wonderful surprise for me and for my students to win this fellowship. We have worked very hard in this lab to produce important and novel findings, and this award confirms that our work is being noticed.”

Pate’s team is finding that molecules do not exist in the seemingly fixed form previously believed. It now appears that the atoms are in a constant state of flux at any given moment, which may mean that chemists will be able to make alterations in their structure, possibly resulting in the ability to customize molecules for a variety of purposes.

“Pate’s research brings us closer to realizing the long-anticipated promise of laser technology for unprecedented control of chemical reactions,” the MacArthur Foundation said in its announcement. “His results represent important steps toward a better understanding of high-energy chemistry.” The foundation added that Pate has “revitalized” this branch of physical chemistry.

Pate received his B.S. in 1987 from U.Va. He earned a Ph.D. in 1992 from Princeton University, then became a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. He joined U.Va.’s chemistry faculty in 1993.

His awards include a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (1996), the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award (1998), and the Coblentz Award (1999).

There is no application or interview process for the MacArthur Fellowship.
Notification comes via a phone call. “It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life-changing,” says Daniel Socolow, the foundation’s fellows program director.

An important underpinning of the program is the foundation’s confidence that the fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of their awards. The foundation neither requires nor expects specific projects from the fellows, nor does it ask for reports on how the money is used.

Including this year’s group, 611 fellows have been named since the program began in 1981, ranging in age from 18 to 82.

Two former U.Va. faculty members have held MacArthur Fellowships. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer James Alan McPherson was a member of the English faculty in 1981 when he received a MacArthur fellowship. The noted philosopher Richard Rorty was already a MacArthur Fellow when he came to U.Va. in 1983.


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