Docs, Researchers, Among MacArthur Fellows

The MacArthur Foundation's secretive "genius grant" awards this year are for $625,000 each. This year's grantees include a stem cell reearcher, a geneticist, a neuroscientist, and a social activist who got hospitals to stop using mercury thermometers.

From a puppeteer to a stem cell researcher, an eclectic group of creative thinkers has been named MacArthur Foundation fellows. This year each fellowship carries a $625,000 stipend, popularly known as the “genius grant.”

The winners are allowed to spend the money any way they want. It is paid out over five years. It also comes with the expectation that the grantee will continue to use his or her creativity to "continue to do great things" according to the foundation's managing director.

The Class of 2015, as the foundation calls it, includes several medical and health policy fellows.

Gary Cohen, 59, president of Health Care Without Harm in Reston, Va., has helped hospitals turn green. Through his Healthier Hospitals Initiative, Cohen has brought attention to the toxic agents hospitals have used and offered alternatives. Among his high profile projects was the successful push to get health care institutions to abandon mercury thermometers. He has brought about change by “galvanizing a sense of social responsibility among hospitals and health care conglomerates” rather than filing lawsuits.

University of Chicago computational biologist John Novembre, PhD, age 37, won for work on the etiology of genetic diseases. Novembre develops “novel data visualization and analysis techniques to investigate the correlations among genomic diversity, geography, and demographic structure.”

His work has also led to finding a “link between the population explosion of the last few centuries and the inordinate plethora of rare, deleterious variations in the contemporary genome.” Novembre is an associate professor in the university’s department of human genetics.

Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Beth Stevens, PhD, was awarded her stipend for “revealing the heretofore unknown role of microglial cells in neuron communication,” the foundation noted.

Stevens, 45, showed that microglia are responsible for the “pruning” of synaptic cells during brain development. “Her work suggests that adult diseases caused by deficient neural architecture such as autism and schizophrenia or states of neurodegeneration such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease, may be the result of impaired microglial function.” She is an assistant professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center stem cell biologist Lorenz Studer, MD, was named a fellow for his work on dopaminergic neuron generation. His research goal is to develop a method to generate dopaminergic neurons for transplantation on a large scale. The hoped-for result is to come up with a protocol to get these neurons into the brains of people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s.

Studer, 49, is currently founding director of MSK’s Center for Stem Cell Biology.

The foundation was started by the late John D. MacArthur, who developed and owned Bankers Life and Casualty Company and other business and had extensive real estate holdings and his late wife Catherine. According to information on its web site, as of 2013, the foundation had assets of $6.3 billion. The genius awards are just a part of the foundation's philanthropy, comprising $12.2 million of $231.4 million it awarded that year.

The annual awards nominating process is a closely held secret. Only the foundation and its nominating committee (whose members are also never publicly named) know how the fellows are selected.

The grantees come from the sciences, the arts, and the field of social activism.

This year’s class includes Washington, DC, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York City puppet master Basil Twist, and Princeton historian Marina Rustow, PhD.

Past MacArthur winner Carol Levine recently visited MD Magazine. In a video interview and article she discusses her work since getting the award.