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MacArthur Foundation awards ‘genius grants’

An evolutionary geneticist in Germany, a Nigerian-born writer, and an architectural historian who studies ancient bridges are among 25 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."
/ Source: The Associated Press

An evolutionary geneticist in Germany, a Nigerian-born writer and an architectural historian who studies ancient bridges are among 25 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

The $500,000 fellowships were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Recipients may use the money however they wish.

Kirsten Bomblies, 34, a plant evolutionary geneticist in Tuebingen, Germany, said the money will allow her to expand her research.

"Maybe try to explore some slightly riskier options that maybe I otherwise wouldn't be able to get funding for," said Bomblies, originally from Colorado. "We rarely have that opportunity. I think I might write a book at the end of it all, a scientific book ... just to get some of the ideas that we have on paper."

Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Adichie, who lives in Maryland, received an award for her work exploring ethnic conflicts inspired by her native country.

Dr. Regina Benjamin said the money will help rebuild her rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., which serves 4,400 patients. It was rebuilt by volunteers after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, only to burn down months later.

Clinic gets new lease on life
"The patients came by and they were crying," said Benjamin, 51, remembering one woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to rebuild. The new clinic is about half built, she said.

"If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest," Benjamin said. "The patients I treat have their own disasters. Hopefully this grant will help them in some way. It will be as much theirs as it is mine."

John Ochsendorf, an associate professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he at first didn't believe the news that he'd received a grant.

"I had to sit down. I had tears running down my face. I had a hard time breathing," Ochsendorf said. "It changes everything. This is validation."

Ochsendorf, 34, uses engineering and architecture to explain the ancient world. His research team studies Incan suspension bridges that cross gorges of the Andes Mountains.

The MacArthur Foundation names the fellows, who are recommended to the foundation's board by a 12-member selection committee.

Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said he makes several calls a year to recipients — including at least four this year — and winners are usually shocked.

A phone dropping experience
"Generally, there's a pause and expressions of disbelief," he said. "I've had people drop the phone or say they need a minute because they feel weak."

Seven previous MacArthur grant recipients went on to receive Nobel prizes, Fanton said.

"Giving support to exceptionally talented people allows them to develop their talents, and society is better for the work they do," Fanton said.

Other winners of this year's fellowships include an inventor of musical instruments, an urban farmer, a saxophonist, a stage lighting designer, an astronomer who studies the geometry of the universe and a critical-care physician who studies how to avoid human error in clinical practices.

Daniel Socolow, who directs the MacArthur Fellows program, said the foundation looks more at recipients' future promise than their past performance.

"It's not a particular thing they've done, it's a sense of the person," Socolow said. "There's something unusual about this person. These people have a distinctively creative approach to the field they're working in."

Violinist sees new freedom to experiment
One of this year's recipients is Leila Josefowicz, 30, a solo violinist based in New York who travels the world performing with orchestras and conductors. The native Canadian made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 and said she finds excitement in playing pieces from modern composers.

"If I'm not worried about playing the circuit just for financial reasons, this can give me a buffer," Josefowicz said. "I'll spend more time studying and listening out there and choosing the composer I want to work with. I'm so grateful to work with composers to bring more concertos to the violin repertoire."

Rachel Wilson, a 34-year-old neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School, said her grant will help pay for experiments she might not otherwise have been able to afford. Wilson studies electrical activity in the brain, and her findings may affect treatments for Parkinson's disease and deafness.

"As scientists we're kind of trained to try to keep ideas in pace with funding," she said. "It's difficult to think about experiments that aren't in your price range, so to speak, and maybe that crushes the creative process."