"I hope I can find a way to use this to help," said Chyba, the 41-year-old co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 23 award winners Wednesday. Among them are two acclaimed writers, an expert on human rights in China, a Kenyan naturalist, a concert pianist, a pilot who researches Mexico's wildlife and a scholar on punishment in classical Athens.
"These are people who provide the imagination and fresh ideas that can improve people's lives and bring about movement on important issues," said Jonathan Fanton, the foundation's president.
The MacArthur Fellows will each receive the no-strings-attached funding over the next five years. The announcement of the winners was delayed from Sept. 19 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sandra Lanham, the pilot researcher from Tucson, Ariz., said she was surprised to receive the award and doesn't consider herself a genius.
"Not one of my qualities. In my case, it's subgenius," said the 53-year-old founder of Environmental Flying Services. "My friends would all laugh."
Lanham often flies her 1956 Cessna over Mexico for four to six hours a day, gathering research on marine and desert ecology. Her work, used mostly by the Mexican government or U.S. nonprofit companies that work in Mexico, helps protect endangered species.
Rosanne Haggerty, 41, founder and executive director of Common Ground in New York, renovates old hotels in Manhattan into housing for homeless and low-income adults. She isn't sure how she will spend her money but plans to use it to continue her work.
"It's a wonderful problem to have," Haggerty said. "It's a lot to live up to."
Other winners include Baltimore psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, 55, who used examples in her own life to write about depression, suicide and other mood disorders in such books as "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" and "An Unquiet Mind."
An award also went to Jean Strouse, 56, of New York, who has written acclaimed biographies of Alice James, the younger sister of William and Henry James, and legendary Wall Street financier J.P. Morgan.
The youngest fellow this year is Danielle Allen of Chicago. At 29, she holds two doctorates and has written a book about the theory and practice of punishment in classical Athens. She wants to use some of her grant money to write a book about citizenship.
"It's pretty staggering," said Allen, an associate professor at the University of Chicago. "It's very exciting, there's no question about it."
Grant winners are nominated anonymously. A 12-member selection committee then makes recommendations to directors of the foundationwhich began the fellows program in 1981. The foundation does not require or expect specific projects from the fellows, nor does it ask for reports on how the money is used.
Lanham, the pilot, said she plans to use the grant to continue her work monitoring species that are endangered or in need of protection.
"This just takes an enormous (financial) weight off of me," she said.
The other MacArthur Fellows are:
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