Winners. Newly minted MacArthur awardees from top left: anthropologist Stephen Houston; developmental biologist Susan Mango; astrophysicist Andrea Ghez; and optical physicist Marin Solijicac

MacArthur Foundation

Geniuses of the Year

"Do you think this is a prank?" developmental biologist Susan Mango recalls the voice on the phone asking her, "because I assure you, this is not a prank." But Mango, whose lab at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City studies how organs form, could be forgiven for thinking so. She and nine other researchers received a call last week with the news that they were among the this year's 25 winners of the so-called genius grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The awards, given out annually since 1981, come with $500,000 over 5 years and no strings attached.

The foundation conducts a private search to identify people who have demonstrated creativity and the potential to make major contributions to their respective fields. Mango, a 47-year-old single mother of one, believes the award sends a message to other women, “especially women pulling their hair out about trying to have a family and do science."

Stephen Houston, a 49-year-old anthropologist at Brown University, has spent decades deciphering the Maya language and studying how that civilization perceived the human body. He plans to plow the prize money back into his research. Marin Soljacic, a 34-year-old optical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, admits he has some "far out" ideas to extend his work on nanophotonics, the study of light at minute ranges, and its applications for wireless computing. But he's not ready to disclose them.

The other scientists on this year's list of winners are:

  • Kirsten Bomblies, 34, a plant evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. She studies how new species of plants originate.
  • Andrea Ghez, 43, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the evolution of star systems and galaxies.
  • Alexei Kitaev, 45, a computer scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He seeks to apply quantum physics to computing.
  • David Montgomery, 46, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. He researches how Earth's topography changes over time.
  • Adam Riess, 38, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who studies geometry of the universe.
  • Sally Temple, 49, a neuroscientist at the New York Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, hopes to develop treatments for central nervous system damage.
  • Rachel Wilson, 34, an experimental neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Her work focuses on neural activity within fruit fly brains.

Learn more about these researchers and the other 2008 MacArthur Fellows at