Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a private U.S. charity, awards 20 to 30 grants to Americans pursuing creative and intellectual projects.
The foundation gives each grant recipient $625,000 — popularly (although unofficially) called a “genius grant” — over five years to forward the recipient’s scientific, intellectual or artistic goals.
This year’s fellows “are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us,” said Cecilia Conrad, the managing director of the MacArthur Fellows.
Here are five of the 2020 fellows:
Isaiah Andrews, an econometrician at Harvard University, develops new and multidisciplinary tools to measure statistical changes in economics, social science and medicine to better predict society’s trajectory. “A thing that really motivates me about my work is that the stakes of these questions are enormous: long-term economic growth, development, inequality, recessions,” he said. “These are really, really important questions.”
Cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair wants to understand why our brains work the way they do. He’s combining traditional neuroscience mechanisms used to study the brain — like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans — with psychology and advanced mathematical techniques to study the human brain as it develops through childhood and early adolescence. “Inside, the brains are very person-specific,” he said. “We need to better characterize the mechanistic underpinnings so we can improve on our therapies and improve the long-term health outcomes of our kids.”
Playwright Larissa FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, creates theater productions that reframe Native Americans’ experiences in the U.S. She seeks to not only portray Indigenous stories but also provide greater access to them. “Theater is everywhere and everything,” she said, “and all human beings participate in theater.”
Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost is a biological chemist who researches the synthesis of new small molecules with bioactive or therapeutic properties, specifically in regards to infectious diseases. “Most of our naturally occurring cures have come from a small fraction of natural products that we can access under normal growth conditions in the lab,” he said. Penicillin, for example, was discovered inside common molds. “And so our goal has been to try to access this sort of hidden group of natural products and then interrogate these molecules for their properties.”
Documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang portrays the impacts of censorship, authoritarian governments and corruption on the lives of everyday individuals. She particularly focuses on these issues within China, her birth country, and the struggle of human rights activists amid the Chinese Communist Party’s repression. “I make films that explore the theme of freedom, power, propaganda and state control over individual lives,” she said. “Every film, to me, is a journey of discovery.”
To learn about the other 16 winners, visit the MacArthur Fellows website.
Banner image: Five of this year's MacArthur Foundation grant recipients. Clockwise from center top: Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost, Nanfu Wang, Damien Fair, Isaiah Andrews and Larissa FastHorse. (Photo Illustration: State Dept./Images: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)