"I Like Doing Basic Science":
A conversation with MacArthur genius Brooks Pate
By Tanya Stanciu

It’s like winning the lottery. Except that it’s based on good work. When 36-year-old University of Virginia chemistry professor Brooks Pate picked up the phone on a Thursday afternoon in September, he was asked if it was a secure line. "I thought, oh no, did I forget to file a grant application or something?" says Pate. But it turned out that Pate had received one of 23 MacArthur fellowships awarded this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Popularly known as a "genius award," the $500,000 fellowship is paid out over five years to talented people whom the foundation sees as having "extraordinary originality and dedication to their creative pursuits."

The call was a "real shock," says Pate, who calls the MacArthur an "ideal award—you don’t have to do anything, someone calls you up from out of the blue." The no-strings-attached award requires no grant application. Candidates are nominated anonymously and are not told they are being considered. And there are no follow-up reports or evaluations after the award has been granted. MacArthur recipients can use the money for whatever they want. They can even radically change direction or switch fields if they like. The program was established to encourage individuals who are doing independent, challenging work that could have a far-reaching positive impact on society.

Since the 1980s, the MacArthur Foundation has handed out twenty to forty prizes each year. Some of the recipients have become well known. Others have continued to carry on their work in relative obscurity. All of them have pursued established fields from new angles or explored avenues outside the norm. Past recipients have been as diverse as jazz musician Ornette Coleman and poet Joseph Brodsky, gospel singer Marion Williams and filmmaker John Sayles, zoologist Stephen Jay Gould and performance artist Meredith Monk, writer Cormac McCarthy and photographer Cynthia Sherman, novelist Thomas Pynchon and Children’s Defense Fund director Marian Wright Edelman. Over the years, the foundation has supported hundreds of writers, artists, scientists, and advocates for social change. This year’s recipients include several writers, a papyrologist, a 29-year-old political scientist, and a concert pianist.

Pate says he feels "a little guilty for being a scientist receiving this" because scientists generally have more means of financial support than people involved in various kinds of social and cultural pursuits. Nevertheless, says Pate, "this is the best time that it possibly could have happened for my group." Much of his work involves developing machines to make precise measurements, and the development of a single machine can cost from $350,000 to $450,000, a sum that can take years to raise. The money from the MacArthur Foundation will give Pate’s group a "five-year jump" on developing their next piece of equipment, enabling them to push ahead in their research.

Pate specializes in a branch of physical chemistry and spectroscopy. He watches and measures how atoms behave in high-energy reactions. Chemistry majors often dread required courses in "p-chem" because of the formidable math involved, but Pate revels in it. "Pate blasted through technical and conceptual hurdles previously thought insurmountable to reveal new insights into chemical reactions of excited molecules," says the MacArthur Foundation. In essence, Pate is trying to find new ways of watching chemicals react.

Pate said the award was truly unexpected because "there are very few people who know about what [my group is] doing or understand it," and it has sometimes been difficult to get his work recognized. When asked about practical applications of his research, he answers that his work is "definitely on the basic side," which doesn’t mean that it is easy, but that it is science in its purest form. Yet, he says, "that's what I like about chemistry. There's everything from basic research to practical applications. My group does some application work. Sometimes we have to—it’s our bread and butter—but it's often not as interesting. I like doing basic science, testing basic ideas. And eventually [doing basic science] can have a large impact."

Pate received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1987 and his doctorate from Princeton five years later. He returned to teach at the University of Virginia in 1993, and, although when I spoke to him he was preparing a talk to give the next week in Japan, he admitted that he had spent very little time outside of his native surburban Maryland before he left high school for college.

After he received the call from the MacArthur Foundation, he called his father to tell him the news. He said it was "nice but difficult" because he would have liked to have shared it with his mother, who died of breast cancer earlier this year. Still, he says, the news is a "real pleasure," and "it’s a validation of the work my students have done."