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The Most Genius Geniuses

What immediately strikes me about this year’s collection of MacArthur Fellows, aka the "Geniuses," is that they don't care much for the "genius" label. This is, of course, befitting of their "genius" status. But it's also a reflection of the surprise...
September 28, 2011, 4:13pm

What immediately strikes me about this year's collection of MacArthur Fellows, aka the “Geniuses,” is that they don’t care much for the “genius” label. This is, of course, befitting of their “genius” status. But it’s also a reflection of the surprise element: the Foundation, which secretly collects and researches nominees without their knowledge, has dispensed more than its share of surprising phone calls.

Newly-named MacArthur Fellow Ubaldo Vitali, a silversmith who restores historical masterworks by hand, thought it was a joke. “It took me a couple days to realize it was true. Or at least I think it is,” he said.

With work spanning from decoding the genomes of virulent human pathogens, to re-contextualizing the human condition through rhyme, and unraveling modern economic problems through the study of 16th century accounting principles, these awarded geniuses make it their life's pursuit to disclose the concepts and theories that build the social and scientific infrastructure of our daily existence. They are the builders of our social connective tissue—finding links between disciplines to explore the evolving definition of what it is to be human through our past, present and future.

Each $500,000 grant (to be used however each winner wishes) is pretty rad as well, and is seen as a dynamic investment in people who will continue their work into the future, not a reward for work they’ve done in the past.

Looking at this list of honorees, it's apparent that the word "genius" in and of itself transcends the classic image of a wild-haired Einstein, manically waving chalk at a blackboard. Indeed, these geniuses are multi-disciplinary architects, applying their unique abilities to constructing platforms that move humanity forward. With that, here’s a look at the world's newest class of smart smarty pants.

Production: Jad Abumrad, 38, New York, NY

Producer and host of the nationally syndicated show, Radiolab, Abumrad approaches storytelling as he would musical composition, weaving rhythms and pitches into distinct sonic pleasures. By taking a narrative approach to large scale, metaphysical issues such as time, mortality, and the nature of numbers, Abumrad welcomes listeners to engage with new material every week that is at once informative, humorous, and inspiring.

Law and Ethics: Marie-Therese Connolly, 54, Washington, D.C.

Marie-Therese Connolly has devoted her life's work to champion a cohesive and comprehensive system for addressing mistreatment and abuse of the elderly in the United States. As director of the Department of Justice’s Elder Justice and Nursing Home Initiative, and director of Lifelong Justice at Appleseed, Connolly has worked tirelessly to develop new litigation theories to protect elderly citizens.

Economics: Roland Fryer, 34, Cambridge, MA

A professor of economics at Harvard, Roland Fryer looks to apply the same kind of quantitative analysis used in economics to find clues to the causes of racial inequality. Using cross-disciplinary data, Roland's research is geared towards finding new information about unequal market opportunity and chronic testing gaps across demographics.

Architecture: Jeanne Gang, 47, Chicago, IL

At the intersection of design, environmental studies and architecture lies the work of Jeanne Gang, whose revolutionary approach to architecture aims to create buildings that become integrated parts of their surrounding environment.

Microbiology: Elodie Ghedin, 44, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghedin's work involves the genome sequencing of viruses and parasites, with the hope of one day creating better treatments for viral infections and how they manifest across the globe.

Physics: Marcus Greiner, 38, Cambridge, MA

The organization of condensed matter is crucial in understanding principles such as superconductivity in a precise environment. In developing apparatuses that are able to organize cooled atoms into two-dimensional lattices, Greiner's work holds the key to large implications for quantum computing and high-density information storage.

Sports Medicine: Kevin Guskiewicz, 45, Chapel Hill, NC

Sports-related brain injury is a common side effect of our nation’s relentless love for watching beat the crap out of each other. Guskiewicz, a sufferer of multiple concussions, has used his research in sports-related injury to develop techniques for measuring the effects of concussions and improper tacking in real time to eventually reduce the impact of long-term consequences of sports-related head trauma.

Journalism: Peter Hessler, 42, Ridgeway, CO

This long-form journalist has deftly documented the rapid transformation of China, drawing upon his ten-year immersion in one the fastest socially and economically developing countries in the world, to produce nuanced observations and documentation of a population whose environment is perpetually shifting.

American History: Tiya Miles, 41, Ann Arbor, MI

A historian who studies the interrelationships between Cherokee Indians and slaves living in colonial America, Miles, a public historian, has teased out historical records and stories from Diamond Plantation, a Cherokee-owned plantation, to lend meaning and texture to the understanding of our American heritage.

Psychology: Matthew Nock, 38 Cambridge, MA

A leading psychologist at Harvard, Nock’s research attempts to find specific physiological evidence for why people inflict harm on themselves, a question that to date has no clear answer.

Music: Fancisco Nuñez, 46, New York, NY

Nuñez is a conductor, composer, pianist, and founder of the Young People's Chorus of NYC (YPC). Today, His work affects 1,000 youths across five after school programs, and thirteen satellite and public schools throughout the greater NYC area. The YPC is the first children's choir to become an official radio choir, and continues to expand the paradigm through which artistic development for children is measured.

Ecology: Sarah Otto, 43, Vancouver, BC

By studying the characteristics of gene evolution through sexual and asexual reproduction, Otto's cross-disciplinary work has established a new context for understanding population evolution. She is one of the first scientists to apply mathematical modeling to biological research.

Computer Science: Shwetak Patel, 29, Seattle, WA

Technological integration into our physical reality has become increasingly more pervasive, but the implications of such integration on our ability to inform our environment are just barely being realized. Patel, a sensor technologist and computer scientist, works to use the integration of wireless sensors into existing infrastructures to measure our interaction with resources and how we can use this data to make our environments more efficient.

Music: Dafnis Prieto, 37, New York, NY

Prieto's work with ensembles, pairing unlikely instruments (like the saxophone and violin), challenges audiences to recognize never before heard combinations of sounds, spanning beyond genre and tradition.

Poetry: Kay Ryan, 65, Fairfax, CA

Kay Ryan uses rhyme and puns to create deceptively simple works of poetry around deeper contemplations of our own mortality.

Chemistry: Melanie Sanford, 36, Ann Arbor, MI

While the green movement has staked its claim in many facets of the first world, the idea of greener industrial chemistry has yet to materialize. Sanford's work at the University of Michigan attempts to synthesize chemicals more efficiently (fewer steps with a “greater” yield), and with a reduction in toxic byproducts, a process that has huge implications for the manufacturing of medicinal compounds.

Neurology: William Seeley, 39, San Francisco, CA

An associate professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory & Aging Center, Seeley's work identifies molecular and cellular structures that may impact frontotemporal dementia, which lends new hope to eventually finding treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Economics: Jacob Soll, 42, Camden, NJ

Few people would consider 17th century European history and economics could help us better understand our current economic and political dilemma. However, Soll, currently a professor at Rutgers University, uses encyclopedic cataloguing and analysis of documents from early modern Europe to open new constructs through which we look at history and apply it to our current social state of being.

Poetry: A.E. Stallings, 43, Athens, Greece

Both a poet and a translator of Classic Greek texts, Stallings not only uses her perspective and modern insight to inform her translations of ancient Greco-Roman texts, but uses Ancient myth to inform her poetry, resulting in works with startling wisdom concerning the relevance of the Classical in the Modern.

Metalworking: Ubaldo Vitali, 67, Mapelwood, NJ

Vitali is a fourth generation silversmith and conservator who uses scholarship to inform his preservation of historical silver artifacts from medieval Europe and Colonial America.

Music: Alisa Weilerstein, 29, New York, NY

Alisa Weilerstein describes the cello as the instrument with the closest range to the human voice. While her breadth of work spans across classics and contemporary pieces, she is a constant advocate for contemporary composers, exposing their music to audiences, and often performing with them onstage.

Medicine: Yukiko Yamashita, 39, Ann Arbor, MI

Yamashita’s research on the asymmetrical and controlled specialization of stem cells has been instrumental in providing powerful insight into what causes erratic cell division, the primary cause of many cancers and proliferative disorders in humans.