Brooks Pate headshot
William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Chemistry

I am a first-generation scientist.  When I was young, I loved learning about how Nature works and this is still one of the biggest joys in my life.  There is nothing like walking around the first few days after discovering something new about the way the natural world works and appreciating the beauty of it all.  However, when and where I grew up there was no concept of becoming a scientist.  If you were good at science in school, you were going to be a medical doctor.  This situation is somewhat understandable.  The idea of a career in “basic research” is a uniquely American idea that has only been around since about 1950.  I am amazed that I stumbled into a career that has placed me into a worldwide community of creative people who are driven to understand the molecular-level workings of Nature and to explore ways to use this understanding to improve people’s lives.  I am excited to join the Engagements series because it provides a unique opportunity to discuss the truly important issues in science and society that are largely absent from the undergraduate curriculum.  Science has a privileged position in universities because the public directly (and generously) supports our research.  The basic research system rests on a foundational American idea:  Give individuals the freedom to pursue their best ideas, but with a responsibility – perhaps obligation – to use this freedom for the good of their fellow citizens.  This balance of freedom and obligation influences the way that scientists choose problems to study, shapes the choice to pursue commercialization of new ideas, and impacts the business models used to bring the best of these advances to the public at large.  Ethical quandaries abound as the fields of science, business, law, and government collide and universities sit at the epicenter of it all.