For Richard Zare, part of chemistry's first allure was its forbidden nature. His father, once an aspiring chemist himself, kept chemistry textbooks scattered around the house—but discouraged his son from reading them out of concern that they could only lead to frustration. A child's chemistry set was also taboo—but the young Zare managed to circumvent that restriction through an arrangement with a local pharmacist, who willingly supplied all the ingredients necessary to create gunpowder and, subsequently, fireworks, in the family's basement.
Today, Zare is a professor of physical and analytical chemistry at Stanford University. A pioneer in the field of laser chemistry, Zare has developed fundamental techniques that permit researchers to use laser beams to detect and analyze tiny amounts of chemicals and the reactions they undergo. He and his students have used the approach to study all manner of subjects, from the extraterrestrial—analyzing organic molecules for signs of life in a meteorite from Mars—to the effervescent, such as the study of bubble movement in beer as it's poured into a glass.
Zare has taught an introductory chemistry class every year since arriving at Stanford in 1977. Not only does he relish the opportunity to foster young students' curiosity and interest in science, but, he said, teaching is a "secret weapon" that enhances his own research. The core of successful research, he said, is a questioning of the most fundamental assumptions - and introducing new concepts to his students forces him to do just that.
Teaching this course has also helped Zare realize the value of getting students actively involved in research. "I was impressed by how much students took from the lab component of that class, and it made me want to do more," he said. "No one has ever chosen a career based on a great exam or homework problem. You've got to get students into the lab, where they can use their minds and their hands."
That's exactly what Zare plans to do as an HHMI professor, by building a two-part, hands-on lab course that explores the complex relationship organisms have with light. Students will study "everything from photosynthesis to eyesight," said Zare, combining physics, chemistry, and biology to learn how organisms use light in multiple ways. In addition to one lecture per week, students will be encouraged to pursue their own questions about the link between light and living organisms.
Zare has authored or co-authored more than 700 publications, written four books, and holds 50 patents. He has received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Chemistry and the National Medal of Science, among other awards. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of The Royal Society. He has also been actively involved in national science policy, serving for six years on the policy-setting board of the National Science Foundation.