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U.Va. Chemist Brooks Pate Named Macarthur Fellow

October 23, 2001-- The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has named Brooks Pate, a University of Virginia professor of chemistry, one of 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Fellowships. He will receive $500,000 over five years of "no-strings-attached" support.

"The announcement of the MacArthur Fellows offers an opportunity to focus on the importance of the creative individual in society," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the foundation. "Whether working alone or within an organization, these are people who provide the imagination and fresh ideas that can improve people's lives and bring about movement on important issues."

There is no application or interview process for the MacArthur Fellowship. Notification comes in the form of a phone call from the foundation. "It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life-changing," says Daniel Socolow, the program's director.

Pate, 36, is a physical chemist who is using lasers to redefine scientists' understanding of molecular structure. He says a new chemistry is being born, where chemists will be able to take over the structure of molecules by manipulating their atoms. "Our work is showing that the models of molecule structure of the past 40 years need to be rethought. The work has implications for many areas of chemistry, including efficient methods to make specialty molecules like pharmaceuticals that minimize chemical waste."

He plans to continue to teach and 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," Pate says, "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 probes molecules spectroscope (a laser instrument that measures molecules) to tease out their basic reactive properties. Although spectroscopy is a relatively mature methodology, Pate blasted through technical and conceptual hurdles previously thought insurmountable to reveal new insights into chemical reactions of excited molecules.

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 customized molecules for a variety of purposes.

His results represent important steps toward a better understanding of high-energy chemistry, but much progress remains to be made. By revitalizing this branch of physical chemistry, Pate's research brings us closer to realizing the long-anticipated promise of laser technology for unprecedented control of chemical reactions.

Pate received a B.S. in 1987 from U.Va. and a Ph.D. in 1992 from Princeton University. He was a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. before joining U.Va.'s Department of Chemistry in 1993. Since then, he has received the Camille and Henry Dreyfus New Faculty Award (1993), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (1996), the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award (1998), and the Coblentz Award (1999) for outstanding young molecular spectroscopists.

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

The list of nominators for the Fellows Program, numbering several hundred over the course of a year, continually changes. These nominators, who serve anonymously, are chosen for their ability to identify people who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their work. A 12-member selection committee, whose members also serve anonymously, makes recommendations to the foundation's board of directors. While there are no quotas or limits, typically between 20 and 30 fellows are selected annually. Including today's group, a total of 611 fellows have been named since the program began in 1981. They have ranged 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 held a MacArthur when he joined the faculty in 1983.

Contact: Fariss Samarrai, (434) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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