$500,000 for the Imagination

The annual fellowships of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation were announced today, bestowing surprise financial windfalls on two dozen creative "geniuses." Each winner garners $500,000 over 5 years with no strings attached, intended to support creative freedom. Among the recipients are nine scientists. As always, none knew they were nominated until the phone call saying they'd won.

Molecular biologist Norm Pace at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says that after picking up the phone, he was first asked if he was sitting down. Lauded for his work on new ways of studying bacteria, Pace says the grant is a nice "validation of what I've been doing. Most people don't pay much attention to the microbial world even though it's what's running the place." His work has enabled scientists to study bacteria that can't be cultured, overcoming a major obstacle for microbiologists.

Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Jamison won for her work on both the science and public advocacy of mental health. Jamison researches and treats mood disorders and depression. She also seeks to overcome the stigma of mental illness and wrote about her personal experience with manic depression in the best-selling book An Unquiet Mind. "It's FABULOUS, in caps," she says of winning the grant. "The problem with severe mental illness is that people don't talk about it." Jamison plans to use part of the award to raise awareness of psychiatric diseases among college students, whom she believes are at high risk of mental illnesses.

Another winner, Harvard physicist Lene Hau, praises the MacArthur program for giving scientists the chance to do "really new things that are hard to fund through traditional means." Hau recently slowed down light to the speed of a bicycle before stopping it completely (ScienceNOW, 18 February 1999 and 22 January 2001) and hasn't decided yet how to spend her winnings. Stanford University's Christopher Chyba, who studies astrobiology and national security issues, says the award might give him the chance to write a book. Says Chyba: "How on earth do I make time without it?"

The winners (in the sciences):

Christopher Chyba, scientist/science policy specialist and Carl Sagan Chair at SETI Institute, Stanford University

Michael Dickinson, insect physiologist at the University of California, Berkeley

Lene Hau, optical physicist at Harvard University

Kay Redfield Jamison, psychologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Honorary Professor of English, University of St. Andrews (Scotland)

Cynthia Moss, director, Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Norman Pace, molecular biologist, University of Colorado, Boulder

Brooks Pate, physical chemist, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Geraldine Seydoux, developmental biologist at John Hopkins University School of Medicine

David Spergel, astrophysicist, Princeton University

Related site

The MacArthur Foundation