Skip to main content

Scientists Honored with MacArthur 'Genius Grants'

Astrophysicist Sara Seager is one of 24 recipients of the 2013 MacArthur Fellowship. (Image credit: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

The 24 recipients of this year's MacArthur "Genius Grants" were named on Wednesday (Sept. 25), and several scientists are taking home the prestigious prize.

Over five years, each of the 2013 MacArthur Fellows will recieve a $625,000 stipend to spend however they please. In video statements, many of the scientists spoke about how the grants will help them take risks in their research, start clinical trials, forge collaborative efforts with other researchers, and support their home life so that they can work.

The awardees include Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist at Cornell who is investigating how the brain processes information to make more sophisticated prosthetics, like artificial eyes that can see; David Lobell, 34, a Stanford University agricultural ecologist who is examining how climate change will impact crop production and global food security; and Kevin Boyce, 39, a paleobotanist at Stanford University, who is looking for links between the fossilized remains of ancient plants and present-day ecosystems. [7 Science Careers You Never Knew Existed]

Boyce explained that scientific inquiry often entails being constantly uncomfortable, slightly terrified and feeling like you're in over your head.

"But that's when you're most likely to make interesting connections," Boyce said in a video discussing his research, though he added that the risk of running into a dead end can be a major deterrent.

"I think what the MacArthur provides is the opportunity to take those risks and to remain comfortably uncomfortable," Boyce said.

Carl Haber uses physics to develop new technologies to preserve inaccessible and deteriorating sound recordings. (Image credit: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Carl Haber, 54, an audio preservationist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was also named a MacArthur Fellow. Using experimental physics, Haber has helped restore some of the world's oldest sound recordings, including the only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell's voice.

Another awardee, University of Michigan researcher Susan Murphy, 55, is using new statistical methods to evaluate courses of long-term treatment for patients with chronic diseases, such as ADHD, alcoholism, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. Murphy said she had to sit on the floor when got the news that she was chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow.

"The first thing I thought was, 'This can help us form the collaborative relationships we need with clinicians and computer scientists so that we can really develop these just-in-time adaptive interventions,'" Murphy said in video.

The recognition that comes with the award is often just as significant as the funds.

"There are still far too few women in the physical sciences," MIT planet-hunter Sara Seager said in a video. "I think being a MacArthur Fellow will open up doors for me and give me a platform to speak to the world."

Seager, 42, is exploring the possibility of life on Earth-like alien worlds outside the solar system. She said the award came at the perfect time financially.

"All of the money will go toward childcare, household help and quality of life on the home front," Seager said. "And by doing that, as a single mother, this will actually enable me to still do my job and excel at my job."

Grants were also given to social scientists, including Angela Duckworth, 43, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies how intellectual strengths and personality traits influence educational achievement, and Colin Camerer, 53, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology, who blends neuroscience and economic theory to understand how people make decisions.

Other 2013 MacArthur Fellows include MIT computer scientist Dina Katabi, 42, who is working to improve the speed and reliability of wireless networks; Phil Baran, 36, an organic chemist at the Scripps Research Institute; Ana Maria Rey, 36, an atomic physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Julie Livingston, 46, a Rutgers public health historian and anthropologist; and Jeffery Brenner, 44 a primary care physician in Camden, N.J., who has created a model for delivering effective health care to high-risk patients in the nation's impoverished communities.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation created the fellowship in 1981 to award "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." Since 2002, the stipend had been $500,000, but the prize money was raised to $625,000 this year.

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Megan Gannon
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.