updated 9/19/2006 8:13:22 AM ET 2006-09-19T12:13:22

A doctor treating children with genetic diseases in Pennsylvania's Amish country, a freshwater turtle expert chronicling the wetlands of New England and a former child math prodigy from Australia are among 25 people chosen to receive this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

The $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognize people in a wide array of fields.

Other fellows include Josiah McElheny, 40, a master glassblower from New York; Edith Widder, 55, a deep-sea explorer from Florida; Regina Carter, 40, a classically trained jazz violinist from New York, and Matias Zaldarriaga, 35, a Harvard University professor from Argentina who is working to uncover the early history of the cosmos.

"These awards are about more than money.  They carry an affirmation not only of individual creativity but also are a mark of respect for a whole field of endeavor," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.  "These are activities that society doesn't always give proper due or comment to."

Among the latest fellows is David Carroll, who was 8 years old the first time he wandered into a Connecticut wetland and came face-to-face with a turtle.  The naturalist, author and illustrator — now 64 — has spent decades recording the ecology of the northeastern New England states, especially around his home in central New Hampshire.

"It's such an affirmation," Carroll said of the fellowship.  "To be able to look ahead and know that I have a period of time to focus mainly on creative efforts and not the daily staying afloat that most of us have ... it enables my concentration on expanding my creative efforts."

Each fellow got a surprise call recently telling them they had been chosen for the grant by an anonymous 12-member selection committee and the foundation's board of directors.

"I couldn't believe it, I thought it was a prank caller," said Kevin Eggan, 32, a developmental biologist and principal faculty member at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. "Shock, amazement, disbelief, gratitude — all those things come to mind with a surprise of this magnitude."

Eggan is an expert in embryonic stem cells and somatic cell nuclear transfer, otherwise known as therapeutic cloning. Eggan said he values the pat on the back from the foundation, which has named 732 fellows since 1981.

"This is a field that has been much discussed. Its legitimacy, its importance have all been matters of public debate, and I think that a thoughtful nod from a group like the MacArthur Foundation sends a nod of support," Eggan said.

Another fellow, D. Holmes Morton, 55, is a pediatrician who studies inherited disorders in rural Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Along with his wife, Caroline, Morton founded the nonprofit Clinic for Special Children, which has reduced child mortality in Lancaster County's Amish and Mennonite communities.

"My work during the MacArthur fellowship will help assure the future of the clinic, including patient care and case studies," said Morton, who is originally from Fayetteville, a tiny town in southern West Virginia.  "But beyond such obvious goals, I would not want the direction of my work over the next five years to be entirely predictable — that would be uncharacteristic of me or my life."

Several of the recipients have recently received other high-profile accolades, although Fanton said the foundation tries to find people that are "not already so recognized that the fellowship is kind of icing on the cake."

For Australian Terence Tao, 31, the fellowship comes weeks after the UCLA professor won the Fields Medal, often described as the "Nobel Prize of math."

"It's completely unexpected, I didn't have any inking at all, which is quite a contrast to the Fields Medal, where you hear rumors here and there," Tao said.

Among the other new fellows are author and illustrator David Macaulay, 59, and aviation engineer Claire Tomlin, 37, both originally from Britain; German-born artist Anna Schuleit, 31, who uses flowers, grasses and music to bring historic institutions to life: Shahzia Sikander, 37, a Pakistani-born painter whose works merge the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary styles, and computer scientist Luis Von Ahn 28, who was born in Guatemala.

New York playwright Sarah Ruhl, 32, was a finalist last year for a Pulitzer Prize for the play "The Clean House." She said the fellowship will give her the freedom to pick projects she is passionate about.

"You don't go into theater expecting to have this kind of money," Ruhl said.  "I was just kind of flabbergasted at the goodness of the universe, it's amazing."

Most recipients said they have only had a few days to think about what they will do with the money, which is distributed quarterly over five years.

"I'm just deeply grateful," said Carroll, the naturalist. "How wonderful this will be for me to be able to share with people who supported me."

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