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Yale University; MacArthur Foundation

Genius Awards. From left to right: Richard Prum, Jill Seaman, and Beth Shapiro.

Genius Grants Honor Seven Scientists

By: 
Constance Holden
2009-09-22 (All day)

Richard Prum suffered a bad break for someone who studies birds for a living: major hearing loss that rendered him unable to appreciate his subjects' songs. "I live in an acoustically flat world," says Prum. So he's had to narrow his attention to what he could see: avian plumage. For the past decade or so, Prum has combined the studies of evolution and development to analyze feathers as "a kind of a tough problem in the evolution of novelty." That's turned out to be more rewarding than Prum, a Yale University professor, ever imagined: Today he received $500,000 in an unrestricted 5-year gift from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Prum, 48, is one of seven scientists, two physicians, and an engineer among this year's 24 recipients of the MacArthur "genius" awards.

Jill Seaman, 57, an infectious-disease physician who works in the southern Sudan and other war-torn regions, says that in her case, the prize might better be called a "stubbornness" award. In the 1990s, Seaman started working out of mud huts and under trees in the bush in Southern Sudan to fight an outbreak of kala-azar, a parasitic disease that had already killed more than half the local population by the time she and her team were able to start treatment. “We were told the numbers were too many to treat,” she says, “but when you see so many people so sick with their eyes begging for a bit of hope, then of course you find a way to treat. And then you become part of the place.” Seaman says she's anxious to see how far the money will push efforts to fight complex infectious disease in the bush. “The award is truly lifesaving,” she says.

Beth Shapiro of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, says she was "completely shocked" to receive the award. The MacArthur Foundation, famous for its secrecy, arranged a "fake meeting with a fake undergraduate" to be sure she'd be alone in her office when they called, she says. An evolutionary biologist, Shapiro, 33, spends a lot of time in the Arctic collecting DNA from extinct creatures such as musk oxes. She also hopes genetic data from polar bears and ancient climate data will help scientists better target conservation efforts.

It seems to help to be at a top-ranked university to get a MacArthur fellowship. Others honored include:

Lin He, 35, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Peter Huybers, 35, a climate scientist at Harvard University.

L. Mahadevan, 44, an applied mathematician at Harvard University.

John A. Rogers, 42, an applied physicist and inventor of flexible electronic devices at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Daniel Sigman, 40, a biogeochemist at Princeton University.

Mary Tinetti, 58, a geriatric physician at the Yale School of Medicine.

Theodore Zoli, 43, a bridge engineer at HNTB Corp. in New York City.

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