"It was an extremely critical time for me, a time that was a little bit stressful," Alsop says with intentional understatement. "Daniel Socolow [director of the MacArthur Fellows Program] called me in Denver at 8 a.m. He said, 'We've been looking at you for a while, and we thought this would be a good time to let the world know what we think of you.' That was very moving to me."
Astrophysicist Adam Riess found that the fellowship allowed him to sidestep years of cumbersome grant procedures. When he wanted to try putting an experimental new filter atop a mountaintop telescope, he could just reach into his pocket, pull out $25,000, and buy one.
"I had an idea about a new, exotic kind of filter that we could put on a telescope on Mauna Kea," says Riess, a professor at Hopkins who won his MacArthur in 2008 and who conducts experiments that try to measure "dark energy."
"It's hard to get a research grant for something unusual and outside the box," he says. "The MacArthur allowed me to take the risk. The filter is working very well. We're very happy with the results so far, and we will be writing a paper soon on what we've learned."
Along a similar vein, Alsop created a program called OrchKids that is dedicated to bringing classical music instruction into the schools. Though Alsop fervently believes in the importance of arts education, it can take decades, or longer, to demonstrate the positive effect on even one life.
The $100,000 seed money for the program came from Alsop's MacArthur winnings, though other donors have since stepped up and contributed to the program.
"My parents taught me that you have to lead the way and put your money where your mouth is," Alsop says. "You have to make a personal sacrifice before you can ask other people to make one."
Silbergeld, the Hopkins professor studying antibiotic-laced animal feed, also has created an educational fund of sorts from her MacArthur money and other prizes she has won over the years.
Her biology students can draw on the fund, which currently consists of $120,000, to finance their own scientific research — and it is money they would be hard-pressed to obtain from other sources.
"In science, we're generally pretty conservative," says Silbergeld, who received her award in 1993. "We tend to want to tread in footsteps that have been trod in before, like a snail extending our antennae out just a little bit further.
"Winning the MacArthur freed me up materially and mentally. I very much spread my wings, and I want to instill that same sense of adventure in my students. In the future, I hope that's the spirit that the MacArthur continues to be about."