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Genius, Hard Work, Pay Off

A doctor treating children with genetic diseases in Pennsylvania's Amish country, a New England turtle expert and a former child math prodigy who teaches at UCLA are among the 25 winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

The $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships, announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, recognized people in a wide variety of fields.

Other winners included a master glassblower from New York, a deep-sea explorer from Florida and a Harvard University professor from Argentina who is working to uncover the early history of the cosmos.

"These awards are about more than money. They carry an affirmation not only of individual creativity but also are a mark of respect for a whole field of endeavor," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "These are activities that society doesn't always give proper due or comment to."

Among the fellows is David Carroll, who was 8 the first time he wandered into a Connecticut wetland and came face-to-face with a turtle. The naturalist, author and illustrator - now 64 - has spent decades recording the ecology of New England, especially around his home in New Hampshire.

"It's such an affirmation," Carroll said of the fellowship. "To be able to look ahead and know that I have a period of time to focus mainly on creative efforts and not the daily staying afloat that most of us have ... it enables my concentration on expanding my creative efforts."

The grants are awarded by an anonymous 12-member selection committee and the foundation's board of directors. The foundation has named 732 fellows since 1981.

One of this year's winners is Kevin Eggan, 32, an expert in embryonic stem cells and somatic cell nuclear transfer, otherwise known as therapeutic cloning.

"This is a field that has been much discussed. Its legitimacy, its importance have all been matters of public debate, and I think that a thoughtful nod from a group like the MacArthur Foundation sends a nod of support," Eggan said.

Another fellow, D. Holmes Morton, 55, is a pediatrician who studies inherited disorders in rural Strasburg, Pa. Along with his wife, Caroline, Morton founded the nonprofit Clinic for Special Children, which has reduced child mortality in Lancaster County's Amish and Mennonite communities.

"My work during the MacArthur fellowship will help assure the future of the clinic, including patient care and case studies," Morton said. "But beyond such obvious goals, I would not want the direction of my work over the next five years to be entirely predictable - that would be uncharacteristic of me or my life."

For Australian Terence Tao, 31, the fellowship comes weeks after the UCLA professor won the Fields Medal, often described as the "Nobel Prize of math."

"It's completely unexpected, I didn't have any inking at all, which is quite a contrast to the Fields Medal, where you hear rumors here and there," Tao said.

New York playwright Sarah Ruhl, 32, was a finalist last year for a Pulitzer Prize for the play "The Clean House." She said the fellowship will give her the freedom to pick projects she is passionate about.

"You don't go into theater expecting to have this kind of money," Ruhl said. "I was just kind of flabbergasted at the goodness of the universe. It's amazing."

Here is the foundation's complete list of 25 genius grant recipients. Each will receive $500,000 over the next five years:
  • David Carroll, 64, naturalist, Warner, N.H. For more than 40 years the author of "Swampwalker's Journal" and "Self-Portrait with Turtles" has chronicled the lives of freshwater turtles and other wildlife around New England.
  • Regina Carter, 40, jazz violinist, New York. Although classically trained, Carter draws from Motown, Afro-Cuban, swing, folk and world music. She used a violin owned by Nicolo Paganini to record her 2001 album "Paganini: After a Dream."
  • Kenneth Catania, 40, neuroscientist, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Catania's study of insect-eating mammals, particularly the star-nosed mole, sheds light on how a mammal's sensory cortex responds to changing conditions.
  • Lisa Curran, 45, tropical biologist, Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Curran's research on the forests of Indonesian Borneo helps develop strategies to combat deforestation.
  • Kevin Eggan, 32, developmental biologist, Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Eggan's work on embryonic stem cell lines could lead to treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's and insulin-dependent diabetes.
  • James Fruchterman, 47, electrical engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Palo Alto, Calif. Fruchterman's nonprofit company is a launching pad for socially-oriented uses of technology. The Benetech Initiative's Bookshare.org, a web-based downloadable library, provides thousands of titles for people with visual or learning disabilities.
  • Atul Gawande, 40, surgeon and author, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Gawande, also a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of the "Notes of a Surgeon" column for the New England Journal of Medicine, examines ways to prevent human error in surgery. One of his innovations is a bar code on instruments and sponges to prevent surgeons from accidentally leaving them in patients.
  • Linda Griffith, 46, bioengineer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Griffith's latest experiments in tissue engineering, or creating living tissues and organs from cells, involve fabricating scaffolds on which cultured cells can grow.
  • Victoria Hale, 45, pharmaceutical entrepreneur, San Francisco. Hale's nonprofit Institute for OneWorld Health tries to treat parasite-borne diseases that typically strike in the world's poorest areas and are ignored by pharmaceutical companies because they are unprofitable.
  • Adrian LeBlanc, 43, nonfiction writer, New York. LeBlanc, a former fiction editor at Seventeen magazine, spent 10 years involved in the lives of residents in an impoverished Bronx neighborhood researching her first book "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx."
  • David Macaulay, 59, author and illustrator, Norwich, Vt. The England native and former high school art teacher's book "The Way Things Work" is considered a leading work in the field of illustrated educational books.
  • Josiah McElheny, 40, sculptor, New York. The master glassblower's 2005 work "An End to Modernity" consists of a 12-foot-wide by 10-foot-high chandelier modeled on the 1960s Lobmeyr design for the chandeliers at Lincoln Center.
  • D. Holmes Morton, 55, pediatrician, Strasburg, Pa. Morton's treatment of Amish and Mennonite children afflicted with genetic diseases makes his Clinic for Special Children in rural Pennsylvania an international resource for inherited disorders found in isolated groups.
  • John Rich, 47, physician, Drexel University in Philadelphia. Rich, who created the Young Men's Health Clinic at the Boston Medical Center, is a leading scholar in the health care needs of urban black men.
  • Jennifer Richeson, 34, social psychologist, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Richeson investigates how race and gender affect the way people think, feel and behave.
  • Sarah Ruhl, 32, playwright, New York. Ruhl's "The Clean House," a 2004 play about a successful doctor whose Brazilian maid hates to clean, was a finalist for a 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
  • George Saunders, 47, short story writer, Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. Saunders, whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and Esquire, has an undergraduate degree from the Colorado School of Mines and worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer before joining the Syracuse faculty.
  • Anna Schuleit, 31, artist, New York. German-born Schuleit uses flowers, grasses and music to bring historic institutions back to life. For 2003's "Bloom" she blanketed the hallways of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center's original building with begonias, lilies and tulips.
  • Shahzia Sikander, 37, painter, New York. Born in Pakistan and trained at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Sikander's works merge the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary forms, styles and vibrant hues.
  • Terence Tao, 31, mathematician, Los Angeles. The Australian-born former child prodigy is the first mathematics professor in the history of the University of California Los Angeles to win the Fields Medal, mathematics' highest honor.
  • Claire Tomlin, 37, aviation engineer, Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. The England native uses mathematical theories to address practical problems in air traffic control and collision avoidance.
  • Luis von Ahn, 28, computer scientist, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Von Ahn, who was born in Guatemala, helped develop CAPTCHA, a test used on many commercial Web sites to determine whether the user is human.
  • Edith Widder, 55, deep-sea explorer, Fort Pierce, Fla. Widder helped design a remotely operated camera system known as Eye in the Sea, which detects and measures bioluminescence on the ocean floor and has produced rare footage of sharks, jellyfish and squid.
  • Matias Zaldarriaga, 35, cosmologist, Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The Argentina native is the co-creator of computer software known as CMBFAST, a standard tool for astronomers to estimate the total density of mass and energy in the universe.
  • John Zorn, 53, musician and composer, New York. Zorn, a saxophonist, is at the center of the "downtown" experimental music scene in lower Manhattan.
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