Professor Wins 'Genius Award'

U.Va Chemist Gets MacArthur Grant

A 36-year-old University of Virginia chemistry professor who uses light to make molecules dance has won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award.

Brooks H. Pate and the 22 other award recipients will each receive $500,000 over the next five years, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced today. Pate was one of nine scientists and the only Virginia resident among the group.

Other winners include writer Andrea Barrett, concert pianist Stephen Hough, astrobiologist Christopher Chyba and Los Angeles artist/curator David Wilson, who runs the eccentric and esoteric Museum of Jurassic Technology.

"These are people who provide the imagination and fresh ideas that can improve people's lives and bring about movement on important issues," said Jonathan Fanton, the Chicago-based foundation's president.

Two previous U.Va. faculty members have held MacArthur grants. Writer James Alan McPherson was honored in 1981, and philosopher Richard Rorty brought his 1982 award with him when he joined U.Va.

Pate's research involves shining lasers at different molecules, using the light's energy to make them wiggle, changing the arrangement of their atoms. The light allows him to not only observe the molecule's atoms dance, but then to choreograph the dance steps he wants them to perform.

The laser probes Pate developed are helping to reveal the fundamental nature of molecules, how that nature changes in chemical reactions, and how atoms can be put together one by one to create material, such as designer drugs, with specific desired chemical properties.

"Brooks is just a magician at this," said Dr. George Schatz of Northwestern University, who until recently headed the physical chemistry division at the American Chemical Society. "He's leading the way in learning how to make molecules react in ways we can control."

"Pate blasted through technical and conceptual hurdles previously thought insurmountable to reveal new insights into chemical reactions of excited molecules," the MacArthur Foundation said. "Pate's research brings us closer to realizing the long-anticipated promise of laser technology for unprecedented control of chemical reactions."

The Maryland native learned about the award on Thursday. The announcement of the winners was delayed from Sept. 19 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It was a real shock," Pate said, adding that he was surprised that the foundation even knew of his work.

Pate said his interest in how light can reveal a molecule's nature began as a child, with his interest in building electronics. Later, while studying science at high school in Prince George's County, Md., he was told that there was no way to make sense of exactly how molecules behave in states of high energy.

He didn't take kindly to that and has made a career out of proving it wrong.

"I'm stubborn," he said.

Pate pursued his interest in physical chemistry at U.Va., getting his bachelor's degree there in 1987 and then moving to Princeton University for his doctoral research. He returned to Charlottesville in 1993, joining U.Va.'s faculty, and is now a professor in the chemistry department.

Pate's research in the past two years has taken him to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, where scientists use the high-powered beam of the Free-Electron Laser to accelerate chemical reactions.

Using the laser, Pate has recently begun experiments to discover more about the combustion process of hydrocarbons, a family of molecules "like the things in your gas tank." He wants to learn how combustion creates carcinogenic byproducts called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and to find ways to get rid of them.

"He has been very helpful with helping [the Jefferson Lab] develop unique applications of the Free-Electron Laser," said Fred Dylla, the lab's FEL program manager.

MacArthur winners are nominated anonymously. The foundation, which began the fellows program in 1981, does not require or expect specific projects from the fellows, nor does it ask for reports on how the money is used.

The fellows will begin receiving their no-strings-attached funding in January. Pate said he plans to use his award to develop more specialized equipment for his studies.