July 23-Sept. 2, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 14
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Under One Roof:
New Children’s Medical Center planned
Musical: Ticket to Heritage season success
MacArthur Fellows ‘transcend boundaries’
Digest
Fall leaves turn to ‘black gold’ in summer
Credit Union turns 50
‘Out of Country’ exhibit features Queensland art
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Students Experience Spain

 

MacArthur Fellows ‘transcend boundaries’

By Elizabeth Kiem

Brooks Pate
Brooks Pate works in one of the most fundamental areas of chemistry. He characterizes it as studying the “arrangement of atoms in space.” But when he was able to demonstrate a set of molecular spectra with a dramatically different energy level, people took note.

What would you do if you were given $500,000, no strings attached, to pursue your own “creative, intellectual and professional inclinations?”
Some might buy a Tuscan villa, in which to sit and contemplate. Others might buy a yacht, to sail around the world.

But that’s not how two U.Va. professors, whose research has netted them each half-a-million-dollar awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, have spent their money.

Brooks Pate works in one of the most fundamental areas of chemistry. He studies spectroscopy and isomerization reactions, which he explains as “really just the arrangement of atoms in space.” The field, Pate said, “has been around for so long, it’s sort of lost its glamour.” But when he was able to demonstrate a set of molecular spectra with a dramatically different energy level, people took note.

“After 60 years of work in that field, they had missed a whole big area where you could get to learn about how long it takes molecules to change their shape,” said Pate, a 1987 U.Va. graduate who has served on the chemistry faculty since 1999.

Janine Jagger’s endeavors are equally pioneering, but grounded as much in innovation as in basic research.

“We are bringing together injury control and infection control and marrying them in a unique way,” said the director of the International Health Care Worker Safety Center. Jagger has spent most of her career studying the prevention of blood-borne pathogen transmission in health care settings. Her most visible contribution to medical safety is one of the first needle-stick protective devices patented by her and her colleagues.

Janine Jagger
Janine Jagger has spent most of her career studying the prevention of blood-borne pathogen transmission in health care settings. Her most visible contribution to medical safety is one of the first needle-stick protective devices patented by her and her colleagues.

What the two scholars have in common, beyond dedication to their fields of study, is the prestige of having received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Selected after a highly secret review of the nominees’ accomplishments, the award is intended as an investment in the recipient’s future potential. As the foundation’s Web site attests, it is an award “in support of people, not projects.”

“It’s something you don’t ask for or even dare to hope for,” said Jagger of the no-strings-attached $500,000 gift. She said the program director who called her in September 2002 promised to “send you money and get out of your life.”

Pate said that promise was fulfilled. Since being named a fellow in 2001, he has had no contact with the foundation and little interaction with other recipients. Instead, the validation of his research conferred by the award has stepped up the attention from his colleagues in his field of expertise. “You can argue with a MacArthur fellow,” he laughed, waving to the piles of peer reviews on his work following his award.

Jagger recently attended a gathering of fellows and was impressed by the range of disciplines they represented. She noted a preponderance of artists and other people in the humanities, and found professional synergies with an environmental conservationist who monitors the U.S./Mexico border habitats by plane. Because Jagger is involved in a project in that area promoting the use of brick kilns for clean incineration of medical waste, she hopes their meeting will lead to collaboration.

GENIUSES?

While most people describe MacArthur Fellows like Janine Jagger and Brooks Pate as geniuses, the MacArthur Foundation shies away from the description.

“We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess,” the foundation’s Web site states.

“The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend
traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”

To learn more about the MacArthur Fellows Program, visit
www.macfdn.org/programs/
fel/fel_overview.htm
.

Jagger and Pate, both academics in scientific fields, represent a small slice of the 659 recipients awarded between June 1981 and October 2003. Jagger is one of a dozen fellows in public health; only nine chemists join Pate in the list of recipients. In comparison, there are more than 30 fellows in each of the fiction, history and visual arts categories.

Pate said the disparity is reasonable.

“On some levels the scientists need it least. [The financial award] is on a much smaller order than a federal grant,” he said.

Jagger agreed that the monetary prize, which as a personal gift is taxable, is more like seed money for a medical researcher but may be crucial to the survival of a struggling artist. But she said the unconditional nature of the funding is invaluable.

“The way we work is generally novel and not guided by the programs that provide funding,” she said. “We don’t operate by following the money trail. [The MacArthur Fellowship] helped us continue choosing our path in a less traditional way.”

In particular, Jagger spoke of a new program to bring medical safety devices to Africa, where blood-borne disease transmission in the health care setting could be reduced by introducing devices like blunt-tip suture needles in surgery and increasing the availability of procedure gloves. She said these simple protective strategies have not been included in programs that have poured “billions of dollars into Africa for the prevention and treatment” of HIV/AIDS.

Over in his lab across from Scott Stadium, Pate can put his hands on the tool his MacArthur money helped construct.

“We needed to build a new spectrometer and didn’t come up with the money we really needed to do it,” he said of the $500,000 custom-built machine he designed over three years. “So the MacArthur money came in at a time that just pushed us over the top.”

But perhaps most valuable, agreed both fellows, was the sense that their life’s work was being recognized as legitimate and important.

“My academic existence has been somewhat on the fringe,” said Jagger. “This has given me external validation that what I have done has value.”


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