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Amidst Global Troubles, MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Winners ‘Provoke And Inspire’

Written by corres2

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The MacArthur 'Genius Grant' winners for 2020.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The MacArthur 'Genius Grant' winners for 2020.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This year’s MacArthur Fellows — recipients of what’s commonly known as the Genius Grant — are engineers and writers, scientists and musicians, artists and scholars and filmmakers. They’ve mapped the universe and the human brain, created new worlds and picked apart what makes our own world tick.

Among the honorees is speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin, who won back-to-back Hugo Awards for every book in her Broken Earth trilogy, about the struggle to remake a world wracked by exploitation and geological upheaval. “I am writing the stories I wish someone had written for me when I was younger,” she said in a short video.

Also on the roster is dancer and choreographer Ralph Lemon, who’s at work on a piece called Saturnalia, which will grapple with grief, violence and power structures in today’s culture. And singer and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who brings a global Black feminist sensibility (and a nearly four-octave vocal range) to her interpretations of both jazz standards and her own original works.

“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” MacArthur Fellows managing director Cecilia Conrad said in a statement. “They 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.”

In honor of their talent and creativity, each Fellow gets an award of $625,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years. On its website, the Foundation describes the award as “no-strings-attached;” there are no expectations, and Fellows may do what they wish with the money.

Here are this year’s MacArthur Fellows, with links to our own coverage where applicable.

(Note: The MacArthur Foundation is among NPR’s financial supporters.)

Isaiah Andrews, 34, econometrician

“Developing robust methods of statistical inference to address key challenges in economics and social science.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, 43, sociologist, writer, and public scholar

“Shaping discourse on highly topical issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology for broad audiences.”

Paul Dauenhauer, 39, chemical engineer

“Developing new technologies for converting renewable, organic materials into chemicals used in products such as plastics, rubber, and detergents.”

Nels Elde, 47, evolutionary geneticist

“Investigating the molecular mechanisms and evolutionary processes driving host-pathogen interactions.”

Damien Fair, 44, cognitive neuroscientist

“Devising maps of network connectivity in individual brains that advance our understanding of how distinct regions communicate and develop in both typical and atypical contexts.”

Larissa FastHorse, 49, playwright

“Creating space for Indigenous artists, stories, and experiences in mainstream theater and countering misrepresentation of Native American perspectives in broader society.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers, 62, environmental health advocate

“Bringing attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas and its role in perpetuating health and socioeconomic disparities.”

Mary L. Gray, 51, anthropologist and media scholar

“Investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.”

N. K. Jemisin, 48, speculative fiction writer

“Pushing against the conventions of epic fantasy and science fiction genres while exploring deeply human questions about structural racism, environmental crises, and familial relationships.”

Ralph Lemon, 68, artist

“Generating interdisciplinary modes of artistic expression for stories, emotions, memories, and identities that traditional media do not accommodate.”

Polina V. Lishko, 46, cellular and developmental biologist

“Examining the cellular processes that guide mammalian fertilization and opening new avenues for contraception and treatment of infertility.”

Thomas Wilson Mitchell, 55, property law scholar

“Reforming laws and developing policy solutions addressing mechanisms by which Black and other disadvantaged American families have been deprived of their land, homes, and real estate wealth.”

Natalia Molina, 49, american historian

“Revealing how narratives of racial difference that were constructed and applied to immigrant groups a century ago continue to shape national policy today.”

Fred Moten, 58, cultural theorist and poet

“Creating new conceptual spaces to accommodate emerging forms of Black aesthetics, cultural production, and social life.”

Cristina Rivera Garza, 56, fiction writer

“Exploring culturally constructed notions of language, memory, and gender from a transnational perspective.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant, 31, singer and composer

“Using manifold powers of interpretation to infuse jazz standards and original compositions with a vibrant, global, Black, feminist sensibility.”

Monika Schleier-Smith, 37, experimental physicist

“Advancing our understanding of how many-particle quantum systems behave and connecting phenomena observed in the laboratory to a range of other areas of physics.”

Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost, 41, biological chemist

“Investigating synthesis of novel molecules with therapeutic properties and expediting discovery of new antibiotics.”

Forrest Stuart, 38, sociologist

“Challenging long-held assumptions about the forces that shape urban poverty and violence and bringing to light the lived reality of those who experience it.”

Nanfu Wang, 34, documentary filmmaker

“Creating intimate character studies that examine the impact of authoritarian governance, corruption, and lack of accountability on the lives of individuals.”

Jacqueline Woodson, 57, writer

“Redefining children’s and young adult literature to encompass more complex issues and reflect the lives of Black children, teenagers, and families.”

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