This Year’s MacArthur Fellowship Grants: Meet the New Class of Science Geniuses

Photo by John B. Carnett; digital imaging by Neil Duerden
John Dabiri
John Dabiri, 28, California Institute of Technology Photo by John B. Carnett; digital imaging by Neil Duerden

The MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called the MacArthur Genius Award, is an annual presentation of no-strings-attached $500,000 grants (over five years) to smart people doing amazing things in the arts and sciences. This year brought 23 awards, with eight in hard science, ranging from a robotics-obsessed public school physics teacher to a biomedical animator to a black hole researcher—and, we’re proud to see, one of last year’s Brilliant 10 researchers, John Dabiri.

Here, meet this year’s Genius Scientists.

John Dabiri: Though we’re sure Dabiri feels honored enough–after all, he was one of our Brilliant 10 young researchers last year–we’re glad to see more accolades piled on him. Dabiri, the youngest honoree this year at 30, is a CalTech Ph.D engineer who’s studying the natural world for inspiration for new designs. In particular, he’s focusing on the fluid dynamics of jellyfish locomotion.

Amir Abo-Shaeer: The very first public schoolteacher to receive the MacArthur Grant, Abo-Shaeer teaches physics at Dos Pueblos High School, just west of Santa Barbara, CA. In his first year of teaching, back in 2001, he established the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, which, in collaboration with UC Santa Barbara, provides a four-year, progressive science and engineering program for exceptional students. It all leads up to the best senior year project ever: Competition in the FIRST Robotics Competition as Team 1717.

Kelly Benoit-Bird: Benoit-Bird is an oceanographer and marine biologist working at Oregon State University who has come up with innovative new ways to use sonar to study the lives of marine animals. She uses this sophisticated acoustic tracking to learn more about the feeding habits, movement, and communication of animals as diverse as Humboldt squid and spinner dolphins.

Drew Berry: Either an extremely artistic scientist or a science-obsessed artist, Drew Berry is described as a “biomedical animator.” Berry’s work is focused on creating narrative animations of complex microscopic phenomena in painstaking yet gorgeous detail, including a two-part exploration of the malaria life cycle, from its development in the mosquito to its diffusion in human cells. His work has appeared in the MoMA and the Guggenheim, and since 1995 he’s worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Carlos Bustamante: A genetics professor at Stanford, Bustamante has been able to gather clues about natural selection and evolution by analyzing sites of common variation within the DNA of humans of specific communities. That method works with plant and animal species as well–Bustamante has divined clues about the history of the domestication of both rice and dogs through his studies.

Michal Lipson: Lipson is an optical physicist, working to harness the power of light in the world of silicon manufacturing. Her work is ultra-precise and wildly complicated; suffice to say that her innovations have resulted in chips that are smaller, more efficient, and could improve signal transmission dramatically. Optical physics applied to silicon is a very new field, and Lipson, currently teaching at Cornell, is one of its pioneers.

Nergis Mavalvala: A quantum astrophysicist, Nergis Mavalvala is on the hunt to observe gravitational waves, working somewhere in between quantum physics and optics. In her graduate student days, she worked on a prototype laser interferometer, the design of which was later incorporated into the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the most sensitive of its type in the world. Mavalvala works specifically to solve the problems involved in using optical interferometers to observe quantum phenomena, which involve unconventional techniques and innovations like optical springs and physical cooling.

Marla Spivak: An entomologist, bee breeder and geneticist all in one, Marla Spivak works with honey bees to ensure that this vital element of a healthy ecosystem isn’t harmed by unforeseen disease. She studies hygienic behavior of honey bees, such as their ability to remove infected pupae from the hive, and has used this information to create the Minnesota Hygienic breed, which is resistant to some of the most virulent honey bee plagues. Spivak also holds workshops and publishes accessible work to make sure her efforts can spread through the beekeeping community.

2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellows