updated 9/20/2005 12:06:21 AM ET 2005-09-20T04:06:21

A lobsterman from Maine, an oncologist from Nigeria and the first woman to lead a major American symphony are among the 25 people chosen for this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” — $500,000 that recipients can use however they wish.

Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, 48, left Nigeria for Chicago as a young woman and became an international leader in breast cancer research, recently focusing on the molecular genetics of breast cancer in women of African heritage.

Now director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago Medical Center, she regularly returns to Nigeria to train doctors in the latest cancer treatments and research.

“To have an opportunity to leverage my position here to help underserved, underprivileged, understudied patients has really been my life’s mission,” Olopade said. “I’m blown away someone took notice.”

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation also announced Tuesday genius grants to a biologist who documents endangered plants and animals in Madagascar, a violinist who has been giving minority children greater access to classical music, and a history professor who focuses on sound.

Lobsterman studies fishery ecosystem
Lobsterman and fisherman Ted Ames, 66, another recipient, belongs to a family that has fished off the coast of Maine since before the Revolutionary War.

Disturbed by the threat to the fishery ecosystem from overharvesting, Ames conducts detailed scientific studies of spawning, habitat and fishing patterns — often starting with the anecdotal experiences of aging fishermen.

“What we’re really trying to do is not play the role of Luddite, but take the good part of fishing and help it adapt to the 21st century,” Ames said. “If the technologies we’re using are too efficient or too destructive for the habitats to survive, we need to figure out a way to rein that in and modify our strategies and processes.”

Among the other recipients:

  • Conductor Marin Alsop, 48, was named in July as the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She will be the first woman to lead a major American symphony.
  • Documentary filmmaker Edet Belzberg, 35, of New York is best known for “Children Underground,” about homeless children living in a Romanian train station.
  • Violinist Aaron Dworkin, 35, started the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization to boost the number of young minorities in classical music careers by providing them with instruments, training and performance opportunities. Three of his graduates joined U.S. orchestras in the past year.
  • Biologist Steve Goodman, 48, of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, spends most of the year documenting endangered plants and animals in Madagascar.
  • Author Jonathan Lethem, 41, of New York wrote novels “The Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” which won the National Book Critics Circle award.
  • Historian Emily Thompson, 43, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, said she might use the grant money to include a DVD with film clips in a book about the transition from silent to sound motion pictures, or to help restore an old film.

Whatever she chooses to do with her money, Thompson said, now is when “the fantasy kicks in.”

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