2008 MacArthur "Genius" Grants Announced

A violin virtuoso, an architectural historian who studies ancient bridges, and a family physician who rebuilt an Alabama health clinic after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina 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.

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 Katrina, only to burn down months later.

"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, a West Virginia native and an associate professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., 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.

"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 from Milwaukee, a saxophonist, a stage lighting designer, an astronomer who studies the geometry of the universe, a novelist who writes about ethnic conflict and a critical-care physician who studies how to avoid human error in clinical practices.

One of this year's recipients is Will Allen, 59, of Milwaukee, who provides healthy food to underserved and urban populations using low-cost farming techniques.

Another is Leila Josefowicz, 30 (left), 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."

Kirsten Bomblies, 34, a plant evolutionary geneticist in Tubingen, 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 Castle Rock, Colo. "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."

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."

List of 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellows

The following 25 fellows each will receive $500,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation:

The Arts

  • Chimamanda Adichie, 31, fiction writer, Columbia, Md. Using events inspired by her native Nigeria, Adichie explores ethnic conflict in novels and stories.
  • Tara Donovan, 38, sculptor, Brooklyn, N.Y. As an artist, Donovan transforms ordinary materials into sculptures that mirror geological and biological forms.
  • Mary Jackson, 63, fiber artist, Charleston, S.C. Jackson has preserved the craft of sweetgrass basketry.
  • Leila Josefowicz, 30, violinist, New York, N.Y. A solo musical performer, Josefowicz specifically looks to work with modern composers to broaden the violin's repertoire.
  • Walter Kitundu, 35, instrument maker and composer, San Francisco, Calif. Kitundu looks to both traditional and experimental music to create new instruments and produce electro-acoustic works.
  • Alex Ross, 40, music critic, New York, N.Y. As a critic, Ross offers new ways of thinking about music.
  • Jennifer Tipton, 71, stage lighting designer, New York, N.Y. Tipton uses lighting to evoke mood and accompany dance, drama and opera.
  • Miguel Zenon, 31, saxophonist, New York, N.Y. Zenon creates new sounds using his native music of Puerto Rico and a variety of jazz forms as inspiration.


  • Will Allen, 59, urban farmer, Milwaukee, Wis. Allen provides healthy food to underserved and urban populations using low-cost farming techniques.
  • Regina Benjamin, 51, rural family physician, Bayou La Batre, Ala. With her Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, Benjamin delivers medical care to rural and underserved areas of Alabama.


  • Wafaa El-Sadr, 58, infectious disease physician, New York, N.Y. El-Sadr works to find treatments for pandemics like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
  • Diane Meier, 56, geriatrician, New York, N.Y. Meier develops more humane and effective treatments for the seriously ill.
  • Peter Pronovost, 43, critical care physician, Baltimore, Md. Pronovost devises new clinical practices for hospitals that improve patient safety and avoid human error.
  • Nancy Siraisi, 76, medical historian, Brooklyn, N.Y. Siraisi studies the impact of medical theory and practice on Renaissance society, culture and religion.


  • Kirsten Bomblies, 34, plant evolutionary geneticist, Tubingen, Germany. Bomblies researches how new species originate.
  • Andrea Ghez, 43, astrophysicist, Los Angeles, Calif. Among Ghez's accomplishments are identifying thousands of new star systems and researching black holes.
  • Stephen Houston, 49, anthropologist and epigrapher, Providence, R.I. Houston's specialty is researching Mesoamerican people by interpreting their hieroglyphics and art.
  • Alexei Kitaev, 45, physicist and computer scientist, Pasadena, Calif. Kitaev studies quantum physics and quantum computing.
  • Susan Mango, 47, developmental biologist, Salt Lake City, Utah. By using genetics, genomics, ecology and embryology, Mango researches how organs are formed.
  • David Montgomery, 46, geomorphologist, Seattle, Wash. Montgomery studies ecological consequences of Earth surface processes.
  • John Ochsendorf, 34, structural engineer and architectural preservationist, Cambridge, Mass. Restoring structures from the distant past and identifying ancient building technologies allow Ochsendorf to develop more efficient contemporary construction methods.
  • Adam Riess, 38, astronomer, Baltimore, Md. Riess designs experiments and creates devices that would explain the geometry of the universe.
  • Marin Soljacic, 34, optical physicist, Cambridge, Mass. In an effort to create electrical devices that operate without batteries or wall connections, Soljacic studies how power can be transmitted wirelessly.
  • Sally Temple, 49, neuroscientist, Albany, N.Y. Temple researches more effective treatments for central nervous system damage.
  • Rachel Wilson, 34, experimental neurobiologist, Boston, Mass. Using electrophysiology, neuropharmacology, molecular genetics and anatomy, Wilson studies brain neurons.
    By Associated Press Writer Caryn Rousseau; the AP's Michael Tarm in Chicago and Matt Moore in Berlin contributed to this report