• January 28, 2015

MacArthur 2008 'Genius' Winners Include Urban Farmer and Rural Health Worker

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in Chicago, has named 25 new MacArthur Fellows.

The fellowships, commonly referred to as the “genius awards,” recognize individuals from wide-ranging disciplines who show creativity, originality, and the potential to make important contributions in the future.

Fourteen women and 11 men won this year’s awards; they range in age from 30 to 76. Each fellow receives $500,000 over five years, with no strings attached. Seventeen of the new fellows work at academic institutions or other nonprofit organizations.

Among them: Regina M. Benjamin, who founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama in 1990 to provide high-quality medical care in the Gulf Coast fishing village, which has about 2,500 residents.

“The people in the community work for a living, and they work hard” says Dr. Benjamin. “But many of them don’t have insurance.”

The last decade has been difficult for both Bayou La Batre and the clinic. Water damage from Hurricane Georges in 1998 closed the office for two years, although Dr. Benjamin still saw patients by making housecalls.

The clinic was devastated again in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina — but this time many residents lost their homes as well. So the organization provided medical care at evacuation sites. It is still rebuilding the clinic and operating out of a temporary space.

After so much adversity, receiving the MacArthur fellowship means a lot, says Dr. Benjamin.

“It’s actually humbling to know that others have paid attention,” she says. “I used to think I was out there by myself trying to do this — and I realized that I’m not.”

Following are the 2008 fellows, along with their institutional affiliations and a summary of how the foundation describes their accomplishments:

Chimamanda Adichie, 31, novelist, Columbia, Md. Her novels and stories explore the circumstances that lead to ethnic conflict in her native Nigeria.

Will Allen, 59, founder and chief executive, Growing Power, in Milwaukee, Wis. An urban farmer, he is developing new methods to cultivate and deliver healthy foods to underserved, urban populations.

Regina Benjamin, 51, founder and chief executive, Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, in Alabama. A rural family physician, she delivers high-quality medical care to diverse population in an underserved region.

Kirsten Bomblies, 34, plant evolutionary geneticist, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, in Tübingen, Germany. She is shedding light on the mysteries of how new species originate.

Tara Donovan, 38, sculptor, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her sculptures transform ordinary materials into visually arresting works reminiscent of geological and biological forms.

Wafaa El-Sadr, 58, infectious disease physician at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, in New York. She has introduced multi-pronged treatment strategies for pandemics that often strike people who have the least access to good health care, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Andrea Ghez, 43, astrophysicist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her research uses novel, ground-based telescopic techniques to identify new star systems and illuminate the role of super-massive black holes in the evolution of galaxies.

Stephen Houston, 49, anthropologist and epigrapher at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. His interpretations of hieroglyphic inscriptions and figural art illuminate the intellectual and emotional life of ancient Mesoamerican peoples.

Mary Jackson, 63, fiber artist, Charleston, S.C. Her art translates practical designs into intricately coiled vessels that preserve the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry and push the tradition in new directions.

Leila Josefowicz, 30, violinist, New York. She captivates audiences with her technically precise and emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary works.

Alexei Kitaev, 45, physicist and computer scientist, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. He explores the mysterious behavior of quantum systems and its implications for developing practical applications, such as quantum computers.

Walter Kitundu, 35, artist-in-residence, Exploratorium, San Francisco. An instrument maker and composer, he has invented instruments inspired by experimental and traditional musical forms to produce electroacoustic works that navigate the boundary between live and recorded performance.

Susan Mango, 47, developmental biologist, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Her research combines approaches from genetics, genomics, ecology, and embryology to study how organs are formed.

Diane Meier, 56, geriatrician, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. She has worked to make treatment for the seriously ill more humane and effective.

David Montgomery, 46, geomorphologist, University of Washington at Seattle. He is making fundamental contributions to the understanding of the geophysical forces that determine landscape evolution and of how our use of soils and rivers has shaped civilizations past and present.

John Ochsendorf, 34, structural engineer and architectural preservationist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. He restores structures from the distant past and identifies ancient technologies for use in contemporary constructions.

Peter Pronovost, 43, critical care physician, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Md. He has developed clinical practices that improve patient safety in hospitals.

Adam Riess, 38, astronomer, Space Telescope Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. He designs experiments and devices to advance science’s understanding of the geometry of the universe.

Alex Ross, 40, music critic, The New Yorker, New York. His writing offers both specialized and casual readers new ways of thinking about the music of the past and its meaning for the future.

Nancy Siraisi, 76, medical historian, Brooklyn, N.Y. Her research describes the profound impact of medical theory and practice on Renaissance society, culture, and religion.

Marin Soljaèiæ, 34, optical physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. His research demonstrates that power can be transmitted wirelessly, potentially leading to a range of electrical devices that can operate without batteries or wall connections.

Sally Temple, 49, scientific director, New York Neural Stem Cell Institute, in Albany, N.Y. She is a developmental neuroscientist who traces the mechanisms by which embryonic progenitor cells divide into highly specialized neurons and support cells.

Jennifer Tipton, 71, stage lighting designer, New York. Her distinctive, internationally recognized designs have redefined the relationship between lighting and performance.

Rachel Wilson, 34, experimental neurobiologist, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Her research combines electrophysiology, neuropharmacology, molecular genetics, and anatomy to measure the activity of neurons in the brain of the fruit fly.

Miguel Zenón, 31, saxophonist, New York. His music draws from a variety of jazz traditions and the indigenous music of his native Puerto Rico to create a new language of complex

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