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Radiolab's Jad Abumrad, Chicago's Jeanne Gang win MacArthur 'genius' grants

Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and Jad Abumrad, co-host and producer of the acclaimed public radio program Radiolab, are two of the 22 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Fellowships.

Informally known as "genius grants", fellowships are awarded annually by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (Disclosure: WBEZ and NPR are among the many organizations that have received funding from The MacArthur Foundation.)

Each MacArthur fellow receives $500,000 "to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers."

"This has been a year of great change and extraordinary challenge, and we are once again reminded of the potential individuals have to make a difference in the world and shape our future," said Robert Gallucci, President of the MacArthur Foundation in a press release announcing this year's winners. "The MacArthur Fellows exemplify how individual creativity and talent can spark new insights and ideas in every imaginable field of human endeavor."

Jad Abumrad

Abumrad, 38, co-hosts and produces Radiolab from WNYC in New York.  He creates "engaging audio explorations of scientific and philosophical questions [that] captivate listeners and bring to broadcast journalism a distinctive new aesthetic," according to the MacArthur citation.

Radiolab initially began as a weekly showcase for pieces by other producers, curated by Abumrad. But over time, a new approach emerged. 

Along with co-host and veteran reporter Robert Krulwich, Abumrad created an immersive audio exploration of a single, scientific topic marked by intricate editing and sonic layering, all held together by a conversational and infectiously curious tone.

The style draws heavily on Abumrad's background in musical composition, which he studied at Oberlin College.

Jeanne Gang

Jeanne Gang, founder of her eponymous Studio Gang, is best known for her acclaimed Aqua Tower, a skyscraper near Chicago's downtown lakefront which features undulating balconies that resemble ripples or waves of water. 

Gang, 47, has long been fascinated by the ecology of place, and many of her works have explored the sustainable relationship between the built environment and the natural environment.

In choosing Gang, the MacArthur Foundation called her "an architect challenging the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form in a wide range of structures."

More recently, Gang has been exploring ways in which architecture and design can revitalize barren stretches of former industrialized land along the Chicago River.  She says a new book due out this Fall entitled The Reverse Effect will explore that theme further and the design possibilities therein.

Though internationally acclaimed architects like Gang frequently receive commissions for their work, Gang notes that much of her practice also involves the creative and theoretical exploration of themes.

"What we’ve been doing is a lot more research and experimental work," she told Eight Forty-Eight host Alison Cuddy on WBEZ Tuesday.  "It’s the creative energy that fuels our commissions and our projects. But that work is not often funded."

The MacArthur fellowship will help fund those pursuits, she says.


In addition to Gang and Abumrad, 20 others received fellowships this year. Here's a list of their names - and excerpts about them from the MacArthur announcements:

-- Marie-Therese Connolly of Washington, D.C.: "a lawyer who draws on a blend of legal, policy, and legislative skills to combat the largely hidden but immense problem of elder abuse and mistreatment."

-- Roland Fryer of Harvard University: "an economist illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality in American society."

-- Elodie Ghedin of the University of Pittsburgh: "a biomedical researcher who is harnessing the power of genomic sequencing techniques to generate critical insights about human pathogens."

-- Markus Greiner of Harvard: "an experimental physicist who is advancing our capacity to control the spatial organization of ultra-cold atoms with the aim of revealing basic principles of condensed matter physics."

-- Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina: "a researcher and athletic trainer who has made major advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sports-related concussions."

-- Peter Hessler of Ridgway, Colo.: "a long-form journalist whose three books and numerous magazine articles explore the complexities of life in Reform Era China as it undergoes one of the fastest social transformations in history."

-- Tiya Miles of the University of Michigan: "a public historian who explores the complex interrelationships between African and Cherokee people living and working in colonial America." (Coincidentally, she's due on Tell Me More later today.)

-- Matthew Nock of Harvard: "a leading clinical psychologist of suicide and self-injury in adolescents and adults, [who] has made significant breakthroughs associated with the very basic question of why people harm themselves."

-- Francisco Nunez, director and founder of the Young People's Chorus of New York City: He is "is shaping the future of choral singing for children."

-- Sarah Otto of the University of British Columbia: "a theoretical biologist whose research focuses on fundamental questions of population genetics and evolution, such as why some species reproduce sexually and why some species carry more than one copy of each gene."

-- Shwetak Patel of the University of Washington: "a computer scientist who has invented a series of sensor technology systems for home environments with the goal of saving energy and improving daily life through a broad range of applications."

-- Dafnis Prieto of New York City: "a percussionist whose dazzling technical abilities electrify audiences and whose rhythmically adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies."

-- Kay Ryan of Fairfax, Calif.: "an accomplished poet whose immediately distinctive and tightly woven verse is grounded in incisive explorations of seemingly familiar language, ideas, and experiences."

-- Melanie Sanford of the University of Michigan: "a chemist reviving and enhancing approaches to organic synthesis previously set aside because of their technical difficulty."

-- William Seeley of the University of California, San Francisco: "a clinician-researcher who integrates microscopy, magnetic resonance imaging, and clinical examination to explore the structural, functional, and behavioral aspects of human neurodegenerative disease."

-- Jacob Soll of Rutgers University: "a historian whose meticulously researched studies of early modern Europe are shedding new light on the origins of the modern state."

-- A. E. Stallings of Athens, Greece: "a poet and translator mining the classical world and traditional poetic techniques to craft works that evoke startling insights about contemporary life."

-- Ubaldo Vitali of Maplewood, N.J.: "a fourth-generation silversmith, conservator, and scholar who draws upon a deep knowledge of past and modern metalworking techniques to restore historical masterworks in silver and to create original works of art."

-- Alisa Weilerstein of New York City: "a young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition."

-- Yukiko Yamashita of the University of Michigan Medical School: "a developmental biologist exploring the biochemical, structural, and molecular genetic mechanisms that regulate stem cell division."

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