MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winners include innovators with global reach [video]

Meet the newest crop of geniuses.

They’re the 24 recipients of the 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellowships, often called “genius grants,” recently announced by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The grants are awarded each year to 20–30 individuals in a variety of disciplines who demonstrate “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the foundation.

Winners come from all walks of life. They each receive $625,000, paid out over five years as “an investment in their potential.” The money comes with no strings attached.

MacArthur Foundation grantees must be citizens or residents of the United States, and they can’t hold elective office or advanced positions in government.

They also cannot apply for the grants. Someone has to nominate them, and because the selection process is confidential, candidates don’t know they’re being considered. They only find out after they have been selected, with a phone call from the foundation before the news is made public.

From immunology to opera

The 2017 honorees include Brazilian immunologist Gabriel Victora, who teaches at New York’s Rockefeller University and studies how antibodies defend against infection; Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker; computer scientist Stefan Savage, who researches internet security and cybercrime; and opera/theater producer Yuval Sharon, a creator of immersive, multisensory, mobile operas.

Some of the 2017 honorees are already striving for a global impact.

Human-rights strategist Greg Asbed, for example, developed a program to improve working conditions for tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. His model is now being replicated in Bangladesh’s garment industry, among other places.

Asbed’s approach is credited with eliminating serious abuses, such as forced labor and wage theft.

Woman onstage singing and playing a banjo (© Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)
Honoree Rhiannon Giddens performs in Charlotte, North Carolina. (© Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)

With his grant money, Asbed told the Miami Herald, he hopes to extend his program’s reach and to “change people’s lives immeasurably.”

Another grantee, computer scientist Regina Barzilay, teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s developing machine learning methods that enable computers to process and analyze vast amounts of human language data.

Barzilay is harnessing the power of machine learning to serve cancer patients. Her data processing techniques aim to identify trends and patterns that foster early diagnosis, treatment and disease prevention worldwide.

Since 1981, 942 people have been awarded MacArthur Foundation grants.

The 2017 honorees represent a broad range of talent in the arts, humanities and science, including photographer Dawoud Bey, mathematician Emmanuel Candès, musicians Rhiannon Giddens and Tyshawn Sorey, anthropologist Jason De León, theater artist Taylor Mac, social-justice organizer Cristina Jiménez Moreta and historian Derek Peterson.

Completing the list of grantees: urban planner Damon Rich, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, landscape architect Kate Orff, community leader Rami Nashashibi, psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck, painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, historian Sunil Amrith, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen and fiction writer Jesmyn Ward.