MacArthur ‘genius’ grants: $500,000 each to the best among us

It’s like Christmas for the ultra-talented. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced 23 “genius” grant winners, bestowing $500,000 awards to writers and scientists, musicians and photographers from Los Angeles to Switzerland.

Among the winners are Junot Díaz, 43, a Dominican-born Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of the recently released “This Is How You Lose Her”; Chris Thile, 31, a composer and a mandolinist for the folk band Nickel Creek, who is the youngest grant recipient; and David Finkel, 56, a Washington Post reporter and author of “The Good Soldiers.”

“Reading the stories in Díaz’s new collection, ‘This Is How You Lose Her,’ is often a three-dimensional, laugh-out-loud experience,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Hector Tobar a few weeks ago. He called Díaz a “true master” and a “leading voice of American fiction.”

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation also gave awards to a range of scientists and researchers, according to a list obtained by the Associated Press prior to the official announcement of the winners. They included Tuscon-based telescope designer Olivier Guyon, 36; tectonic researcher Terry Plank, 48, of New York; and Northwestern University historian Dylan C. Penningroth, 41, who has studied property ownership among slaves and their children.


The foundation says the five-year, $500,000 grants come with “no strings attached” in the spirit of fostering intellectual freedom.

California-based winners include Elissa Hallem, 34, a neurobiologist at UCLA; Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, a medical microbiologist at Caltech; Maurice Lim Miller, 66, an anti-poverty community developer in Oakland and the oldest recipient; and Uta Barth, 54, a Los Angeles-based photographer.

“Barth photographs the ordinary and overlooked: light falling across a wall or floor, the edge of a window, a sprig of flowers, a leafless branch, the seams and surfaces of a domestic interior,” the Los Angeles Times wrote of her in 2008. “Born in Berlin in 1958 and raised in California, she subverts traditional expectations that a photograph should contain an overt subject, clearly described.”

Most of the winners are based in the U.S., with the exception of Natalia Almada, a 37-year-old documentarian based in Mexico City who covers Mexican life and history, and Melody Swartz, 43, a bioengineer in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The MacArthur Foundation was founded by John D. MacArthur, who owned Bankers Life and Casualty Co., and his wife, Catherine. The foundation claimed $5.7 billion in assets in 2011, in which it granted $230 million in awards.

Here is the full list of winners, according to the Associated Press:

- Natalia Almada, 37, documentarian

- Uta Barth, 54, photographer

- Claire Chase, 34, arts entrepreneur

- Raj Chetty, 33, economist

- Maria Chudnovsky, 35, mathematician

- Eric Coleman, 47, geriatrician

- Junot Díaz, 43, fiction writer

- David Finkel, 56, journalist

- Olivier Guyon, 36, optical physicist and astronomer

- Elissa Hallem, 34, neurobiologist

- An-My Le, 52, photographer

- Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, medical microbiologist

- Dinaw Mengestu, 34, writer

- Maurice Lim Miller, 66, social services innovator

- Dylan C. Penningroth, 41, historian

- Terry Plank, 48, geochemist

- Laura Poitras, 48, documentarian

- Nancy Rabalais, 62, marine ecologist

- Benoit Rolland, 58, stringed-instrument bow maker

- Daniel Spielman, 42, computer scientist

- Melody Swartz, 43, bioengineer

- Chris Thile, 31, mandolinist and composer

- Benjamin Warf, 54, pediatric neurosurgeon


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