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Meet The Geniuses

Dr. Nawal Nour, 37, poses on a deck above her apartment building overlooking Boston Saturday, Oct. 4, 2003. Nour received a MacArthur Foundation grant for her work directing a clinic she founded that offers treatment to African women who underwent circumcision in their homeland.
AP
A soil scientist trying to end hunger in Africa, a nursing professor searching for better ways to treat elderly cancer patients and an Ohio author of children's books were among 24 winners Sunday of this year's $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

While wisdom may take many years to acquire, there is no minimum age on intelligence and creativity in approaching life's challenges: CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver reports two of this year's winners are still in their 20s.

As it has in previous years, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation offered the awards to people in an array of fields, from a botanist to a blacksmith. Recipients may use the money as they wish.

"The central theme is creativity, and what the diversity of this class of fellows reaffirms is that creativity can be found in many places in our society," said Jonathan F. Fanton, the foundation's president.

Fanton said the grants, first given out in 1981, have been awarded to people in a growing variety of fields in recent years as the foundation looks for "talent in unusual places."

Among the latest MacArthur fellows is Angela Johnson, 42, of Kent, Ohio, an award-winning writer of books for children and young adults who has made a career of paying attention to the real lives of children.

"Kids have been adopted, their grandparents are dead or dying," she said. "Things become demonized because we don't talk about them."

Johnson said she started writing in the third grade and continued through college at Kent State.

Her books have a more serious tone than some of the more fanciful literature written for kids.

"One school denied me speaking privileges because they thought one of the themes in one of my books was a little too much for their children, about a lynching 30 years ago. I write about real life, things universal," she said.

"I'll never be one to write about puppies and kittens, it's not going to happen," Johnson said.

Another MacArthur is Pedro A. Sanchez, 62, a leader in international agroforestry who once led a team that dramatically improved the productivity of land in Brazil and did the same on the land of African farmers.

"The message it (the award) sends is it recognizes that this work is very important and crucial for eliminating hunger for the planet," said Sanchez, who now heads the tropical agriculture program at Columbia University's Earth Institute. "And that it's possible to do so in an environmentally friendly way."

Sanchez pioneered the use of leguminous trees to increase the nitrogen content in soil, doing away with some of the need for expensive chemical fertilizers.

For Sarah Kagan, 41, an associate professor for gerontological nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, the challenge is to change the way medical professionals approach and treat elderly cancer patients.

"We do have a societal inclination to talk past older adults," said Kagan, who has written extensively on the issue, including a book, "Older Adults Coping with Cancer: Integrating Cancer into a Life Mostly Lived."

"We also try to explain away older people's physical reaction to things ... saying that's just about being old," she said.

Other recipients include Loren Rieseberg, a botanist at Indiana University researching sunflowers to answer questions about how species originate.

Dr. Nawal Nour, 37, of Boston, received a grant for her work directing a clinic she founded that offers physical and psychological treatment to African women who underwent circumcision in their homeland.

And Tom Joyce, a 46-year-old blacksmith from Santa Fe, N.M., is being recognized for work including abstract sculptures as well as functional objects such as a gate forged from scrap metal collected by local residents from the banks of the Rio Grande.

Lateefah Simon, 26, is being honored for her creative approach to turning around the lives of young women who have fallen into drug addiction and crime.

Simon is the Executive Director of Center for Young Women's Development (C.Y.W.D) in San Francisco, Calif. It is a grass roots nonprofit organization that promotes economic self-sufficiency, community safety and youth advocacy. Each year, the program trains 2,500 pre- and post-adjudicated young women to become leaders capable of shaping the laws and regulations that affect them.

Participating young women have served on local commissions and policy boards, including the San Francisco Youth Commission, the Juvenile Justice Commission, the Young Women's Health Advisory Committee to the San Francisco Health Commission, and the San Francisco District Attorney's Prostitution Task Force.

Simon and her team have developed one of the nation's first peer-run education, employment and community reintegration programs for post adjudicated and currently incarcerated girls. The education program, which operates inside San Francisco's juvenile hall, is run entirely by formerly incarcerated young women.

And while many MacArthur Fellows have distinguished academic backgrounds, others like Simon, have never finished college.

One of the winners this year is 21-year-old Erik Demaine, the youngest professor ever at MIT. His dad home schooled him before Demaine graduated from college at 12. He received his doctoral degree at 20.

"I like to do a lot of things, most of them in theoretical computer science and algorithms," Demaine says.

Demaine uses techniques like origami paper folding to discover scientific rules. That discovery could be useful in everything from space exploration to sheet metal and understanding how proteins work.

Some grant recipients say they do not know what they will do with the money, which will be distributed over five years. But many echo Kagan, who said the money will find its way into her work.

"It is the biggest honor," Kagan said of the award. "And the biggest responsibility."