MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Recipients Get $625,000 to Do Whatever They Want

Nine scientists and engineers among MacArthur Fellows

Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Boston Children's Hospital, is among the 2015 MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipients. (Photo: MacArthur Foundation/Creative Commons)

Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Boston Children’s Hospital, is among the 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipients. (Photo: MacArthur Foundation/Creative Commons)

This morning, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its 2015 fellows. The 24 recipients of so-called “Genius Grants” receive unrestricted $625,00 fellowships, paid in quarterly installments over four years, to pursue their research.

There are several cultural figures on the list, including Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and two visual artists. But the group also includes lesser known scientists and engineers, working in fields like technology and conservation to change the world in innovative ways.

The nine scientifically oriented MacArthur Fellows are:

  • Kartik Chandran, a professor of environmental engineering at Columbia who is using ecology, biology and engineering to turn wastewater from a pollutant to a valuable resource. He uses a combination of microbes to remove nitrogen from waste while minimizing the release of nitrous oxide. He put his plan into action by helping two villages in Ghana turn toilet waste and sludge into biofuel.
  • Gary Cohen, an enviromental health advocate from Reston, Virginia who is trying to reduce hospitals’ impact on the environment. His organization Health Care Without Harm has helped reduce the use of mercury and carcinogen-emitting incinerators around the world. He guides hospital systems in implementing environmentally responsible, safe procedures.
  • William Dichtel, an associate professor of chemistry at Cornell who researches the use of covalent organic frameworks (COFs) in polymers. COF structures can absorb visible light and be connected to electrodes, and show the potential for polymerization at two or three dimensions.
  • John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago who uses data visualization to research genetic sequencing and ancestry. He studies the genetic origins of disease between parents and offspring, as well as the role of natural selection in human genetics.
  • Christopher Ré, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford who created an inference engine called DeepDive, which analyzes unprocessable data to extract relationships and infer facts. DeepDive uses big data to analyze everything from drug facts to human trafficking figures.

    Environmental engineer Kartik Chandran is among this year's recipients of a MacArthur "Genius Grant." (Photo: MacArthur Foundation/Creative Commons)

    Environmental engineer Kartik Chandran is among this year’s recipients of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” (Photo: MacArthur Foundation/Creative Commons)

  • Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Boston Children’s Hospital who analyzes the removal of synaptic cells during brain development. This pruning, which is done by microglial cells, ensures that the brain has the most efficient wiring. Ms. Stevens’ work suggests that diseases from autism to Alzheimer’s may be the result of abnormal brain pruning.
  • Lorenz Studer, a stem cell biologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who is researching the use of transplanting neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease. The cells produced by Mr. Studer’s method integrate into the brain and take the place of cells that are killed by Parkinson’s. His findings could also be used to treat other neurological diseases.
  • Alex Truesdell, the founder of the Adaptive Design Association, which creates low-tech tools and furniture for children with disabilities. She collaborates with individual families to optimize the device’s effect in the home. Among her products is a set of steps, customized with superhero designs, which allow a young boy to climb in and out of his wheelchair without assistance.
  • Peidong Yang, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley who studies the application of small nanowires in fields such as artificial photosynthesis and the conversion of waste heat into electricity. His team was able to artificially convert carbon dioxide into methane, showing natural gas can be efficiently converted into solar energy.

Notable scientists who have received “Genius Grants” in the past include paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and surgeon/author Atul Gawande.