Artist and architect Amanda Williams, 48, remembers standing in front of her former Cornell University dorm and telling her 9-year-old daughter, “When I was here, my life changed.”
At that moment, her phone buzzed and her life changed again.
“So many things don’t give us hope, the feeling that we can’t overcome,” says Williams, celebrated for his large-scale art installations on the South Side of Chicago. “This feels like it helps swing the pendulum in the other direction.”
October is award season for the exceptionally smart. First the Nobel Prizes and now MacArthur scholarships, revealed Wednesday: high-paying honors that you can’t apply for, forever brand you as a genius and arrive, fabulously, with almost no strings attached.
When his phone rang, Reuben Jonathan Miller thought the call would only bring more problems for him to solve, as MacArthur fellows were solving huge problems the rest of us can’t.
“My work follows people who have been locked up in prison,” says Miller, 46, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Chicago. “I thought the call was from a lawyer representing someone who had been in prison.”
Miller, who is rehabbing his South Shore home, was in the process of fixing some drain problems using YouTube videos. The person on the call asked Miller if he was “somewhere confidential” and alone. Foundation staff ask all fellows for this, as confidentiality is key. Miller, author of “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,” thought “Oh, what’s the bad news now?”
The bad news is that Miller, 46, had won one of those “genius grants.” This class of fellows is extremely lucky, literally. The scholarship is now $800,000 paid over five years, a nice 28 percent jump from the previous year and the first increase since 2014.
“It took 60 seconds to register the information,” says Miller. Then he screamed. A minute later, uncontrollable laughter. Did he ever imagine this? “Never. I thought of the 19 reasons why I wouldn’t be chosen.”
This year’s diverse class includes musicians, artists, writers, activists, hyphens galore, and many, many academics. It is composed of 15 women and 10 men who come from 15 states. The group includes nine black fellows, seven Asian American, two Native Americans and one Chicana. The youngest recipient is 35 and the two oldest are 69. So there may still be time for the rest of us.
Among this year’s better-known recipients are Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who wrote the stealth bestseller “Braiding Sweetgrass”, which blends indigenous wisdom with scientific learning, asking readers to rethink how they view and treat the natural world. Kimmerer ignored multiple calls from MacArthur administrators, to the point of using the list they have used to inform other winners that “they wanted my confidential evaluation of a candidate,” she says. So she pulled next to a road on the way to a faculty retreat.
‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ has gone from surprise hit to juggernaut bestseller
This year’s group includes Kiese Laymon, the black Southern author of “Heavy: an American Memoir,” which has been hailed by critics, named one of the best personal stories of the past half century and banned by several school boards. Martha Gonzalez, another newly minted fellow, is a professor, “Chicana artivista,” feminist music theorist, and member of the Grammy-winning ensemble Quetzal.
The fellows are “architects behind new forms of activism, artistic practice and citizen science,” says program director Marlies Carruth. “They are excavators that uncover what has been overlooked, underestimated or poorly understood. They are archivists that remind us of what must survive.”
The winners spoke of the fellowship as an honor, a responsibility, a gift and an ongoing recognition of their work. But it is also a magnet for more. It has the ability to attract interest, investment and legitimacy to fellows’ projects. The fellowship may last for five years, but the title of MacArthur Fellow, the term “genius,” is forever.
Melanie Matchett Wood, 41, a Harvard number theorist who also studies algebraic geometry, is an infectious mathematician. Her conversation often erupts into fireworks of laughter.
“I’m filled with joy doing math—that’s why I love it,” says Wood. “It is incredibly fun and satisfying for me to work with. Nothing could beat my love of working to figure out ways to solve new mathematical problems.” As a teenager, she was the first female American to make the US International Mathematical Olympiad Team, receiving silver medals in 1998 and 1999. She was also cheerleader and editor of her school newspaper.
“Mathematics can be very specialized,” says Wood, one of the few women on Harvard’s mathematics faculty. (Before that, she was one of the few women on Stanford’s mathematics faculty.) “One of the big parts of my work is bringing together different parts of mathematics to solve problems that we don’t know how to solve.” A potential application of her scholarship would be to reduce barriers to finding solutions by funding interdisciplinary workshops. “I thought this sounded fun,” she says. Again, laughter.
Wood is one of two mathematics scholarship recipients this year. June Huh, 39, of Princeton, once dreamed of being a poet. Growing up in Korea, his mathematical potential was not at first widely recognized by graduate schools. “In my first attempt, I didn’t get an offer,” he writes in an e-mail. When he tried again two years later, he received only one from the University of Illinois. Huh has a year left. In July, his work in geometric combinatorics won him the Fields Medal, given every four years to mathematicians under 40 and known as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics.”
Many of this year’s fellows are pursuing new interdisciplinary areas of exploration and with them fresh job descriptions. Jenna Jambeck, 48, who is an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, considers himself an “open data citizen scientist” who shares information with the public. Her interest in waste dates to early childhood. “As a kid, I was completely fascinated by what we then called a ‘dump,'” says Jambeck. She encourages lay people to get involved by recording debris they see in the Marine Debris Tracker mobile app she developed to provide useful data on plastic debris pollution for scientific research. “I’m not sharing recommendations. I’m sharing data information so that communities around the world can be decision makers,” says Jambeck.
MacArthur will “allow me not to have to worry about things. I’m at a public university. I never expected my work to reward me personally,” says Jambeck. “When you have ideas that are ready, it’s hard to get traditional financing. This is a big surprise. It removes some burdens.”
Like Miller, Yale University School of Medicine physician and researcher Emily Wang dedicates her work to the formerly incarcerated as director of the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice. She is interested in their long-term health outcomes and care once they are released.
Wang also ignored initial calls from the MacArthur Foundation. Then again, she is extremely busy professionally and mother of four girls: 12-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old.
“My first response was one of tears,” says Wang. “I’m still processing the enormity and the glory.” Called last month, fellows were instructed to share their life-changing news with exactly one person until the announcement. Wang has not yet decided what she can do with the scholarship. But she thinks big. “I want to collaborate with the world’s health organizations,” she says. MacArthur “gives us some more bandwidth and these great opportunities.”
MacArthur carries the gift of time. The scholarship potentially takes the grind off some tasks—grant writing was mentioned more than once—freeing up hours, potentially weeks and months, to invest in substantive work and travel.
“It gives me time to stop and think,” says Miller, who is writing a book about countries that have “overcome slavery” and how they view people who have committed violent acts. “It gives me time not to do the other things. Time is the prize.”
The grant gives the recipients the opportunity to plan big. Williams will buy red tulip bulbs, 100,000 of which will be planted Saturday with volunteers for an “art activation” installation in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood. With the title “Relating todefines Redlining,” the bulbs will bloom in the spring when 16 buildings were demolished.
MacArthur “is an affirmation to keep pushing, to lean into the way I’ve been thinking about things,” Williams says. “It gives me much more aggressive life planning. It elevates people’s thinking about what is possible in everyday life.”
She sees the award as something that inspires not only the winners, but also business partners and colleagues. “I just want to be open to the excitement and all the things that are born out of other people’s excitement,” Williams says.
Full List of 2022 MacArthur Fellows:
- Jennifer Carlson, 40, sociologist
- Paul Chan, 49, artist
- Yejin Choi, 45, computer scientist
- P. Gabrielle Foreman, 58, literary historian and digital humanist
- Danna Freedman, 41, synthetic inorganic chemist
- Martha Gonzalez, 50, musician, scholar, artist and activist
- Sky Hopinka, 38, artist and filmmaker
- June Huh, 39, mathematician
- Moriba Jah, 51, astrodynamicist
- Jenna Jambeck, 48, environmental engineer
- Monica Kim, 44, historian
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, 69, plant ecologist, educator and author
- Priti Krishtel, 44, healthcare lawyer
- Joseph Drew Lanham, 57, ornithologist, naturalist and author
- Kiese Laymon, 48, writer
- Reuben Jonathan Miller, 46, sociologist, criminologist and social worker
- Ikue Mori, 68, electronic music composer and performer
- Steven Prohira, 35, physicist
- Tomeka Reid, 44, jazz cellist and composer
- Loretta J. Ross, 69, reproductive justice and human rights advocate
- Steven Ruggles, 67, historical demographer
- Tavares Strachan, 42, interdisciplinary conceptual artist
- Emily Wang, 47, primary care physician and researcher
- Amanda Williams, 48, artist and architect
- Melanie Matchett Wood, 41, mathematician
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