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Five Californians Named MacArthur Award Fellows

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A labor lawyer who won a major settlement for garment workers in Los Angeles sweatshops, an African American playwright who challenges conventional notions of black experience, and the proprietor of perhaps the world’s most unusual museum are among the 23 winners of this year’s awards presented by the MacArthur Foundation.

Other California winners of the prize are a Berkeley biologist whose work is revealing the complexities of insect flight, and a Stanford astrobiologist whose research ranges from the search for extraterrestrial life to global terrorism.

The five Californians among the 23 fellows to be announced today illustrate the sometimes quirky, wide-ranging nature of the MacArthur awards. Each will receive $500,000 over five years, no strings attached. The announcement was delayed for a month because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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“I was stunned when I heard about the award and I am still stunned,” said Julie Su, 32, litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

Only a year after her 1994 graduation from law school, Su filed a landmark federal lawsuit on behalf of 80 Thai women who worked 18 hours a day in a sweatshop in El Monte. The case established a precedent that retailers and clothing makers could be held responsible for unfair labor conditions at plants run by their manufacturing subcontractors.

As part of the suit, Su helped the women gain U.S. citizenship.

The MacArthur award, she said, “is honoring a vision, one that I didn’t create, but that I share. There are two visions of a just society. One is that workers are valued and vital members of our community whose exploitation is intolerable. The second is that our legal system must be accessible to claims for racial and economic justice.”

This is the second time a lawyer at the center has received a MacArthur award. Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director, won a $300,000 grant in 1998.

Suzan-Lori Parks, 38, was also surprised. The playwright and director of the A.S.K. Theater Projects Writing for Performance Program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia was “sitting at my desk working on a play. I thought they made decisions in June, so I wasn’t prepared.”

Parks wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s “Girl 6” and is the author of several plays, including “The Sinner’s Place,” “Betting on the Dust Commander,” “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” and “The America Play.” Her most recent, “Topdog/Underdog,” opened off-Broadway in July.

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Her works place emotionally engaging characters in symbolic or allegorical situations, mixing humor with tragedy and illuminating African American culture and history.

Even Better Than Discouragement

The award “is a wonderful gift from them and a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “It’s always good to get encouragement. Discouragement helps writing, but encouragement helps more.”

Most writers, painters and composers contradict the conventional image of “someone who plays around a lot,” she said. “For most that I know, it’s a seven-day workweek, often for no money. We do it because we want to give people something beautiful, make the world better, or shine light on a problem people don’t want to think about. It’s great that [the MacArthur Foundation] is there to help support it.”

For David Wilson, 55, the money will be especially useful. He is the founder, designer and curator of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, a fanciful blend of science, art and science fiction that offers a provocative commentary on how we organize and archive cultural artifacts.

Wilson has operated the unusual collection of exhibits on a shoestring budget for 14 years, “hanging on by our fingernails,” he said.

The museum faced a new financial crisis in the last three years when he was forced to buy the building in which his works reside. He has so far raised about half the nearly $1-million price with grants from four major foundations, fund-raisers and donations.

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“We’ve been somewhat strapped for cash,” he said with characteristic understatement. “This will be helpful.”

One immediate project is “a series of films that expand on exhibits in the museum. We’re just finishing the first and building a small theater where they will be screened.”

A longer-term goal is building an indoor and outdoor garden for museum patrons. “There’s a lot of text, a lot of audio narration, a lot of thinking,” he said. “So we need to provide some sort of antidote to all that.”

Two Northern Californians also received grants. Michael Dickinson, 38, is an insect physiologist whose research is unraveling the mysteries of insect flight. His work integrates a wide variety of disciplines to understand this particularly complex behavior.

Currently at UC Berkeley, Dickinson will move to Caltech next year.

Dickinson was camping on a remote beach in Hawaii when recipients were notified Friday and didn’t find out about the award until this week. The trip “has been nirvana for me,” he said. “People come here for birds and waterfalls, and I have been reveling in fruit flies in rotting fruit on the jungle floor.”

He doesn’t yet have plans for the money, but “I have a number of projects in the back of my mind that I usually fantasize about doing, in the category of ‘I would never get money for this.’ ”

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One project he would like to undertake is producing robotic animals--say a chicken that would fool another chicken into thinking it was real. “That would be an astonishing tool for studying animal behavior and how animal brains work in a natural context.”

Christopher Chyba, 41, is a Stanford astrobiologist and policy analyst with a passion for understanding the origins of life on Earth and for protecting human civilization from self-destruction.

Chyba has developed models to explain how Earth could have sustained life 3.5 billion years ago when the sun was 25% dimmer than it is now. He has also investigated the role of asteroids and comets in bringing organic materials to the surface of the early Earth, as well as how seismic observations could monitor Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty compliance.

For several years, he has focused on the relationship between preparing for biological terrorism and improving public health. He is an advisor in the current crisis.

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Award Winners

The 23 fellows announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation each will receive $500,000 over five years. The winners outside of California:

* Danielle Allen, 29, Chicago; associate professor in the University of Chicago’s departments of politics and classical languages and literature. Work includes a book examining the theory and practice of punishment in classical Athens.

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* Andrea Barrett, 46, Rochester, N.Y.; novelist and part-time instructor in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. Books often reflect her interest in science and history.

* Rosanne Haggerty, 41, New York; founder and executive director of Common Ground. Has renovated old hotels into housing for homeless and low-income adults.

* Lene Hau, 41, Cambridge, Mass.; physics professor at Harvard University. Optical physicist whose research involves studying light.

* Dave Hickey, 62, Las Vegas; art theory and criticism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An art critic and analyst of Western culture who has written about contemporary art.

* Stephen Hough, 39, New York and London; concert pianist who seeks out works from lesser-known composers of the past as well as challenging new compositions.

* Kay Redfield Jamison, 55, Baltimore; psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Author of revealing and acclaimed books on mood disorders.

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* Sandra Lanham, 53, Tucson, Ariz.; founder and director of Environmental Flying Services. A pilot and conservationist who flies mostly over Mexico conducting research on marine and desert ecology.

* Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, 40, Chicago; associate professor in the College of Architecture and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. An artist who uses photography, video, sound and sculpture.

* Cynthia Moss, 61, Kenya; director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. A naturalist who studies the ecology and social behavior of wild African elephants.

* Dirk Obbink, 44, Oxford, England; lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature at the University of Oxford, and fellow and tutor in Greek at Christ Church College. A scholar who focuses on papyrology and is an expert in rescuing damaged texts.

* Norman Pace, 59, Boulder, Colo.; professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado. Explores the relationship between biochemical and evolutionary processes.

* Brooks Pate, 36, Charlottesville, Va.; chemistry professor at the University of Virginia. Probes molecules to tease out their basic reactive properties.

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* Xiao Qiang, 39, New York; executive director of Human Rights in China. A leader in promoting human rights in China.

* Geraldine Seydoux, 37, Baltimore; assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

* Bright Sheng, 45, Ann Arbor, Mich.; music professor at the University of Michigan. A composer, conductor and pianist who merges diverse musical customs.

* David Spergel, 40, Princeton, N.J.; professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. An astrophysicist whose research helps paint a more comprehensive picture of the origin, structure and evolution of the universe.

* Jean Strouse, 56, New York; biographer. Her work has included accounts of the lives of Alice James and J.P. Morgan.

Source: Associated Press

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