News and analysis
September 19, 2011

Public-Interest Lawyer and Choral Director Among MacArthur 'Genius’ Prize Winners

Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Marie-Therese Connolly specializes in the rights of elderly people for Appleseed, a Washington advocacy group.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today announced the 22 recipients of its annual MacArthur Fellows awards. The prizes, commonly called the “genius awards,” come with a no-strings-attached prize of $500,000 over five years. The latest crop of fellows named by the Chicago fund includes 12 men and 10 women ranging in age from 29 to 67. Twelve of the winners work for universities or medical schools; two are poets; three are musicians. One fellowship each went to a visual artist, an architect, and a journalist.

Three of the winners are associated with nonprofits that are not higher-education institutions: Jab Abumrad, cohost and producer of the public-radio show “Radiolab”; Marie-Therese Connolly, a lawyer who specializes in the rights of elderly people for Appleseed, a Washington advocacy group; and Francisco Núñez, artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

Following is more information about each of the 2011 MacArthur Fellows, including summaries of how the foundation describes their accomplishments.

Jab Abumrad, 38, a co-host and producer, “Radiolab,” WNYC Radio, in New York. He “engages a new generation of listeners with audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions that recreate the thrill of discovery.”

Marie-Therese Connolly, 54, director, Life Long Justice, Appleseed, in Washington. Ms. Connolly “draws on a blend of legal, policy, and legislative skills to combat the largely hidden but immense problem of elder abuse and mistreatment.”

Roland Fryer, 34, professor of economics, Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. He “is an economist illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality in American society.”

Jeanne Gang, 47, principal and founder, Studio Gang Architects, in Chicago. Ms. Gang, whose work includes the 82-story Chicago skyscraper Aqua, is “challenging the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form in a wide range of structures.”

Elodie Ghedin, 44, assistant professor, department of computational and systems biology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Ms. Ghedin “is a biomedical researcher who is harnessing the power of genomic sequencing techniques to generate critical insights about human pathogens.”

Markus Greiner, 38, associate professor, department of physics, Harvard. He “is an experimental physicist who is advancing our capacity to control the spatial organization of ultracold atoms with the aim of revealing basic principles of condensed-matter physics.”

Kevin Guskiewicz, 45, professor, department of exercise and sport science, University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. Mr. Guskiewicz “is a researcher and athletic trainer who has made major advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sports-related concussions.”

Peter Hessler, 42, journalist, in Ridgway, Colo. Mr. Hessler, whose work has long appeared in The New Yorker and National Geographic, “is a long-form journalist whose three books and numerous magazine articles explore the complexities of life in Reform Era China as it undergoes one of the fastest social transformations in history.”

Tiya Miles, 41, professor, department of history, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Ms. Miles “is a public historian who explores the complex interrelationships between African and Cherokee people living and working in colonial America.”

Matthew Nock, 38, professor, department of psychology, Harvard. A clinical psychologist who studies suicide and self-injury in adolescents and adults, Mr. Nock “has made significant breakthroughs associated with the very basic question of why people harm themselves.”

Francisco Núñez, 46, artistic director and founder, Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Mr. Núñez, a conductor, pianist, and composer, “is shaping the future of choral singing for children.” More than 1,000 children currently participate in his group’s choruses in inner-city public schools.

Sarah Otto, 42, professor, department of zoology, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. She “is a theoretical biologist whose research focuses on fundamental questions of population genetics and evolution, such as why some species reproduce sexually and why some species carry more than one copy of each gene.”

Shwetak Patel, 29, assistant professor, department of computer science and engineering, University of Washington, Seattle. Mr. Patel “is a computer scientist who has invented a series of sensor technology systems for home environments with the goal of saving energy and improving daily life through a broad range of applications.”

Dafnis Prieto, 37, jazz percussionist and composer, in New York. Mr. Prieto is a musician “whose dazzling technical abilities electrify audiences and whose rhythmically adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies.”

Kay Ryan, 65, poet, Fairfax, Calif. Ms. Ryan, who published her first of eight books of verse at age 40, is a poet whose “mode of expression is a disarmingly clear and accessible style, characterized by concision, rhyme, wordplay, and wit.”

Melanie Sanford, 36, professor of chemistry, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Ms. Sanford is “a chemist reviving and enhancing approaches to organic synthesis previously set aside because of their technical difficulty.”

William Seeley, 39, associate professor of neurology, Memory and Aging Center, University of California, in San Francisco. Dr. Seeley “is a clinician-researcher who integrates microscopy, magnetic-resonance imaging, and clinical examination to explore the structural, functional, and behavioral aspects of human neurodegenerative disease.”

Jacob Soll, 42, professor, department of history, Rutgers University, in Camden, N.J. Mr. Soll “is a historian whose meticulously researched studies of early modern Europe are shedding new light on the origins of the modern state.”

A.E. Stallings, 43, poet and translator, in Athens. Ms. Stallings is “mining the classical world and traditional poetic techniques to craft works that evoke startling insights about contemporary life.”

Ubaldo Vitali, 67, founder, Ubaldo Vitali Inc., in Maplewood, N.J. Mr. Vitali is “a fourth-generation silversmith, conservator, and scholar who draws upon a deep knowledge of past and modern metalworking techniques to restore historical masterworks in silver and to create original works of art.”

Alisa Weilerstein, 29, cellist, in New York. She is a musician “whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition.”

Yukiko Yamashita, 39, research assistant professor, department of cell and developmental biology, University of Michigan Medical School, in Ann Arbor. Ms. Yamashita “is a developmental biologist exploring the biochemical, structural, and molecular genetic mechanisms that regulate stem cell division.”