Five California ‘Geniuses’ Recognized by Foundation

Times Staff Writer

Five California scientists, three of them at UC Berkeley, are among the 25 winners across the country of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants.

Each of the winners receives $500,000 over five years, which can be used to further their research or for anything else they desire.

The three UC Berkeley recipients include a geophysicist who uses household products in laboratory experiments to check out theoretical calculations about volcanoes and earthquakes; a molecular biologist attempting to determine how primitive one-celled organisms diversified into all the forms of life we know today; and a neuroscientist probing how cells in the brain communicate with one another.

The other two California winners are a UC San Diego historian of science who is documenting how sound brought jolting changes to the movie industry and a Stanford University biochemist developing new techniques to produce useful drugs.


The award offers “highly creative men and women the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity to explore, create and contribute,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Recipients do not know they have been nominated for the awards. Most use the funds to support research for which it is difficult to find conventional funding sources.

UC Berkeley geophysicist Michael Manga said the MacArthur funds will allow him to visit many volcanoes that he has previously only read about, including Erta Ale in Ethiopia and Ol Doinya Lengai in Tanzania, he said in a telephone interview Monday. “The thing about seeing the real live thing is you have a much better idea of what the problems are, what you don’t understand,” he said.

He studies “how the Earth and other planets work inside.” He uses computers to simulate the forces operating underground in the flow of lava, the interaction of hot rocks with ground water, and the effects of bubbles and gas pockets below the surface. Then he tries to reproduce the conditions in the laboratory, using substances including Karo syrup, paraffin wax and xanthum gum. The basement of his laboratory has a model volcano that would win first prize at any science fair.


The models let him test the validity of the computer calculations. “It’s always good to check and see that what you are spitting out of the computer is right,” said Manga, 37, an associate professor of earth and planetary science. It is also a good way to attract young students into the field.

The grant money also will help him continue monitoring springs and creeks in earthquake-prone areas to look for changes associated with temblors. It’s hard to get funding for the project, he said, because the research yields few results without earthquakes.

Pehr Harbury, an associate professor of biochemistry at Stanford, is also grateful for the MacArthur funds. Harbury works with combinatorial chemistry, a technique in which methods mimicking evolution are used to fish out specific molecules from mammoth libraries of complex chemicals. This allows researchers to create new drugs and other useful compounds.

Previous researchers have used the technique with big molecules called polymers, but Harbury has found ways to apply it with smaller molecules similar to those found in drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is interested in the technique, but will not provide funding without agreements that would, among other things, prevent him from publishing the results, he said. “Their restrictions are not workable,” he said.

As a consequence, Harbury, 40, said he has spent the last couple of years writing grant proposals and seeking other funding sources with little success. “From that perspective, [the MacArthur] money is huge. It’s very good timing on their part.”

Nicole King, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, is studying a group of single-celled organisms called choanoflagellates, which are found in water virtually everywhere. “These are our closest living unicellular relatives,” she said, “as close to an animal as you can be without being an animal.” All modern life evolved from a very similar organism.

Surprisingly, the choanoflagellates contain genes for a number of enzymes valuable in multi-cellular species, but have no apparent function in their hosts. King, 35, is attempting to deduce their role and to determine if there is some way to manipulate the organisms so they become multicellular. “The point is to understand the minimal machinery necessary for multicellular animals, which helps us understand where we came from and how we evolved,” she said.

Emily Thompson, associate professor of history at UC San Diego, is an aural historian, studying sound technology. A well-received book she wrote three years ago explored the music-enhancing technology of concert halls. Now she is researching how the advent of sound recording affected people in the movie industry -- “not the stars, but the sound engineers, musicians, editors, cameramen, projectionists and so forth,” she said.


“Most people tend to assume that new technology simply makes things bigger and better and faster,” Thompson, 43, said. “But it isn’t experienced that way by everyone.... For a brief period, it was really chaotic.”

The MacArthur money will help her travel for research: “There is a huge amount of material in Los Angeles, New York City, Madison, Wis., all over the place.” And, she added, the money might make it possible to include a DVD with the book she plans to write.

Lu Chen, an assistant professor of neurobiology at UC Berkeley, is studying how brain cells communicate with one another through synapses, particularly the nature of the proteins involved. The studies will help understand how memory and learning work and could lead to the development of new classes of drugs for psychiatric diseases, according to the MacArthur Foundation. Chen, 33, could not be reached for comment Monday.



Out-of-state grant recipients

The 25 fellows announced today by the MacArthur Foundation will receive $500,000 apiece over five years.

The 20 winners outside California are:


* Marin Alsop, 48, Poole, England; a conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra using unique approaches to interpret classical music.

* Ted Ames, 66, Stonington, Me.; a Maine lobsterman whose studies of spawning, habitat and fishing patterns are leading to changes in how East Coast fisheries are managed.

* Terry Belanger, 64, Charlottesville, Va.; a rare book preservationist at the University of Virginia.

* Edet Belzberg, 35, New York City; a documentary filmmaker whose works depict the lives and realities of children in underexplored conditions.

* Majora Carter, 38, Bronx, N.Y.; founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, an urban revitalization group.

* Michael Cohen, 61, Huntingdon Valley, Penn.; founder and president of Institute for Safe Medication Practices, which seeks to reduce drug delivery mistakes.

* Joseph Curtin, 52, Ann Arbor, Mich.; violin maker using new materials and techniques to produce world-class instruments.

* Aaron Dworkin, 35, Detroit; founder and president of the Sphinx organization, which is providing minorities access to careers in classical music.

* Teresita Fernandez, 37, New York City; a sculptor integrating architecture and the optical effects of color and light into contemplative spaces.

* Claire Gmachl, 38, Princeton, N.J.; an electrical engineer at Princeton University developing state-of-the-art lasers for environmental monitoring and homeland security.

* Sue Goldie, 43, Boston; researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health attempting to transform women’s healthcare in poorly served populations around the world.

* Steve Goodman, 48, Chicago; a biologist at the Field Museum of Natural History who is documenting and protecting endangered plants and animals of Madagascar.

* Jon Kleinberg, 33, Ithaca, N.Y.; a computer scientist at Cornell University who is developing new ways to extract information from complex networks, such as genomes.

* Jonathan Lethem, 41, Brooklyn, N.Y.; a novelist who mixes different genres to explore the connections between high art and popular culture.

* Todd Martinez, 37, Urbana, Ill.; a theoretical chemist who is developing new insights into the physical laws that govern chemical reactions.

* Julie Mehretu, 34, New York City; a painter who transforms “canvases into visually compelling excavations of multiple epochs and locales.”

* Kevin M. Murphy, 47, Chicago; a University of Chicago economist revealing forces shaping such social phenomena as wage inequality, addiction and growth.

* Olufunmilayo Olopade, 48, Chicago; a researcher translating molecular genetic findings about breast cancer in women of African descent into treatments.

* Fazal Sheikh, 40, Zurich, Switzerland; a photographer using images “to bring the faces of the world’s displaced people into focus.”

* Michael Walsh, 62, Arlington, Va.; a vehicle emissions specialist designing and implementing techniques to reduce pollution in third-world countries.


Source: MacArthur Foundation

Los Angeles Times