Genius in our midst

3 Marylanders are among 25 selected for $500,000 MacArthur Foundation grants

Published in: Baltimore Sun
Issue/Volume: September 23, 2008
Written by: Frank D. Roylance and Tyeesha Dixon

9/23/2008 – The so-called “genius grants,” which were announced today, can be used however the recipients see fit. All three Marylanders have connections to the Johns Hopkins University, and all said they were honored and understandably delighted.

Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Riess, 38, said he explained to his 4-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, that his MacArthur grant was “like when you’re in school and you do something good and get a sticker. But it’s, like, a lot of stickers.”

Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, 43, a Hopkins critical care physician, said he got the unexpected news in a phone call at a meeting of hospital medical officers. He was told to tell only one person. After he hung up, he had to deliver a talk on patient safety to 30 people. “Here I am bursting with this news, and I have to try to contain myself,” he said.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a 31-year-old Nigerian novelist with a graduate degree from Hopkins, said she was “grateful … and happy. I’m looking at the prize as a well-paid job that will allow me write the book I want to write, without worrying about earning a living for five years.”

The awards are intended to recognize individuals of extraordinary creativity and promise, and to provide them with the freedom to develop their ideas. This year’s grants went to people in fields as diverse as geriatrics and urban farming.

They are paid in installments over five years and are fully taxable. The MacArthur Fellows Program’s director, Daniel Socolow, conceded that the winners could blow the cash in a casino – “but they don’t.”

As a group, he said, those selected as MacArthur Fellows feel “an enormous responsibility to prove that we’re right. I think the kind of people who get this, almost to the person, have that sense of responsibility and drive … to fulfill their passion and their vision.”

Socolow dislikes the “genius grants” label the awards have acquired.

“To us, genius is really too limiting,” he said. “These are people who are very bright but people who are working without stop, with a committed energy and a sense of passion that’s not necessarily the definition of genius.”

The MacArthur Fellows Program solicits confidential nominations from hundreds of people in a wide variety of fields. Those picks are then vetted through thousands of others in their fields and a search of “everything written about them,” Socolow said. The program then narrows down the nominations; typically 20 to 30 fellows are selected each year.

Socolow phones the winners with the good news. He said he hears “every emotion in the book.” Often it’s “disbelief: ‘You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not as creative as you think.'”

When Socolow called Riess last week and introduced himself as the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, Riess sensed what was coming. “I know what the MacArthur Foundation is, and when people ask you to close the door and sit down, that tipped me off,” he said.

But Socolow toyed with him. “He said, ‘Is this Adam Riess, the poet?’ Internally, my jaw dropped. I didn’t really expect a joking line. I said, ‘No, I’m an astrophysicist.’ And he said, ‘Oh yes, that’s right, the astrophysicist.'”

Riess was honored for his work “designing experiments and devices to advance our understanding of the geometry of the universe and to trace the story of both its beginning and its end.”

In 1998, Riess was the lead author on the first paper to describe the astonishing discovery – through his study of a type of exploding star called a Type Ia supernova – that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by a still-unexplained force dubbed “dark energy.”

Riess said his generous MacArthur grant is “a drop in the bucket for these kinds of projects.” What he really needs is for astronauts to repair the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys during the coming $900 million servicing mission. The ACS breakdown last year halted his search for more Type Ia supernovae in ever more distant galaxies.

His first thought last week was to use the MacArthur money to help develop a new optical technology to make the supernovae easier to find in his deep-space Hubble images.

Pronovost was honored by the MacArthur Foundation for “devising life-saving, clinical practices that are improving patient safety in hospitals and sparing countless lives from the often deadly consequences of human error.”

In a 2003 study in 70 Michigan hospitals, Pronovost required intensive care unit staff members to follow a checklist that reminded them to follow basic hygiene practices, such as washing their hands and using sterile gowns. Eighteen months later, central-line catheter-related infections had fallen by two-thirds. His study estimated the changes saved 1,500 lives in Michigan.

The idea has been widely adopted in the medical community, and Time magazine named Pronovost this year to its “100 Most Influential People” list.

“We spend a penny on patient safety research for every dollar spent finding new drugs and identifying new therapies,” he said. “The problems we have are predictable because we haven’t invested in trying to prevent these mistakes.”

“The prestige of the MacArthur,” he said, “kind of legitimizes this field of inquiry.”

Pronovost wasn’t sure how he would use the grant. But he has considered expanding the checklist idea, developing software tools that could, for example, help consumers find safe, affordable mortgages, the correct retirement investments and the best medical coverage.

Speaking by phone from Nigeria, Adichie said her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, grew out of years of thought and research about the Nigerian civil war, which raged from 1967 to 1970, after the creation of the Republic of Biafra. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the fighting and famine, including both of her grandfathers. “It’s a book that I’ve had in my head for a really long time, because I’ve been really interested in the war,” she said.

The story weaves the social and political context of the war around a love story involving a university professor and his mistress.

“It’s often talked about as a book about war, but for me it’s an intense love story,” Adichie said. “A lot of stories in the book are based on real stories, and they actually did happen to people.”

Adichie first came to the United States in 1997. She recently moved to Columbia from New Haven, Conn. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published in 2003.