Big bucks for those thinking outside the box

MacArthur Fellow reward of $500,000 goes to 23

September 28, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

They are reinventing American classics - the family farm, ragtime music, community health care - and using new technologies to answer old questions. They are thinkers and builders, often working against the grain, and in recent days they have answered the phone to learn news that made some put down the receiver in shock: They are the 23 people whose names were revealed yesterday as this year's MacArthur Fellows.

They sounded giddy, still, days after learning they had won the prize that has come to be known as the "genius grant": a golden purse worth $500,000, no strings attached, over the next five years. And some of the people who got this windfall also sounded relieved that, now, they can continue to be different. That is the point of the MacArthur awards: They celebrate people who are creative and, by implication, courageous.

"I'm happy they chose me - I've been working hard for years," said Reginald R. Robinson, a ragtime composer.

The 24-year-old fellowship, awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has developed a mystique over the years - you can't apply for it, you wait to be tapped - and as a group, its winners provide an annual portrait of the state of American genius. By the standard of this year's list, the bar is being set higher and higher.

Today, it may not be enough, for example, to paint beautiful birds in the manner of John Audubon. One new MacArthur fellow, illustrator Heather Hurst, 29, of New Haven, Conn., is also working toward her Ph.D. in archaeology so she can better understand the pre-Columbian scenes she draws.

And today, science is not focused on a single cell, as James Watson was when he discovered the secret code of life. MacArthur fellow Vamsi Mootha, 33, of Boston, a doctor and mathmetician, works at the intersection of biology and computers to learn how patterns of cells act together to cause disease.

This year's fellows represent the usual wide range of dreamers and innovators, from a debate coach at an inner city high school to a glass sculptor in New York to an experimental poet of the South.

They could be called retro, re-examining old subjects as they do, but through new lenses in art, music, chemistry, biology and engineering. They dare to use new relationships, too, say in business, to solve old problems like freeing prisoners of conscience.

Sometimes, genius lies in rediscovering an old art.

Not many people do what Hurst does, for instance. The archeological sites she brings to life can't be seen with the naked eye because much of what is discovered remains underground and the jungle or building above it must remain undisturbed.

A fine arts major in college, Hurst went on a dig in Honduras and was assigned to draw when she didn't like the work. Now she works in the northeast Peten region of Guatemala to re-create ancient sites. She relies on artifacts, topography, digital scanners and crushed stones. She spends most of her time in underground tunnels, trying to picture what temples might have looked like.

As a free-lancer hired by academics, she has been making less than $20,000 a year. "They pay my airfare, feed me rice and beans, and I live in a tent," she said by phone. There's no market for her work outside academia, though her images of the ancient Mayan world - with their fallen warriors and lost hieroglyphs which make visible "what no eyes have viewed since 800 A.D." in the words of the MacArthur Foundation - are being collected by museums.

"It totally changes everything," says Hurst. "Now I can try to have my own projects. I am between fields, I don't fit in the archeologist book, the fine arts book or the art history book. Now I can combine all these fields."

Working in several disciplines has allowed Mootha, a 33-year-old doctor-researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, to figure out which cells go awry in a fatal childhood disease. He is now trying to pick up patterns that might help explain what goes wrong in cells that cause diabetes.

His main interest is the power center or energy source of cells. Today, because of the mapping of the human genome and the new technologies it brought, including the ability to see all the proteins in a given cell and which genes turn off and on at a given time, he is using computers to answer his questions.

For Mootha, the prize isn't so much financial as psychological freedom: He kept his schedule last week, attending meetings and speaking at a luncheon, all the while secretly knowing he could now "try something wild," something bold he wouldn't have to explain to colleagues or defend to government officials.

"I can follow my nose into the sciences," he said, "pursue it without justifying it to anyone."

Normally, to tap into the largest source of U.S. research money, from the National Institutes of Health, researchers predict what they'll be doing years from now. "I don't know how you can possibly do science five years in advance," he said.

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