MacArthur Foundation Names ‘Genius Grant’ Winners for 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of seven 2017 MacArthur Fellows featured in The Wall Street Journal in October 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, September 23, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

When told that they’ve been selected for the MacArthur Fellows Program, “genius grant” winners are given a phone number to use for a variety of reasons—including if, a little later, they start to think that they dreamed up the whole thing.

The MacArthur, whose 2017 fellows were announced Wednesday, scores high in pinch-me points. This year’s 24 winners, who each receive $625,000 over five years to be spent however they would like, include an opera director who once staged a performance among rushing commuters in a train station, a computer scientist who used her own breast cancer to spur her oncology-data research, and an anthropologist who has studied artifacts left by undocumented migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Here, a look at some new fellows in the program, which is designed to encourage innovation by helping exceptionally creative people pursue their own interests.

—Ellen Gamerman

Rhiannon Giddens

In her performances, the Greensboro, N.C., singer, songwriter and instrumentalist attempts to shed light on black
musicians whose history with musical genres including folk and country has largely remained untold. “The history of American music has been whitewashed and bowdlerized with imaginary narratives of where this music comes from,” she said, calling the period between the emancipation of slaves and the start of the 20th century a particularly unexplored chapter in music. Among other things, the grant enables Ms. Giddens, 40, to pursue a longtime goal of creating a stage work about an 1898 massacre in Wilmington, N.C. In that episode, working-class blacks and whites joined in a political party before white supremacists launched a violent campaign against black politicians to break up their movement.

Regina Barzilay

The computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge Mass., is an expert in computational linguistics and recently began applying machine learning to the field of oncology. When Ms. Barzilay, 46, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, she was struck by the uncertainty around her treatment process. “I firmly believe there is a lot of really important information and patterns that are hidden in the data of cancer patients,” she said. Imaging and pathology data are “lying around as dead weight” instead of being used to make more predictions about who is likely to get cancer and how that cancer should be treated, she said. Due to funding constraints, Ms. Barzilay had been furthering this study with her students on weekends and evenings.

Gabriel Victora

The immunologist researches how antibodies are generated. “When we first get in contact with a foreign substance or disease agent, we make antibodies against these— they’re not very good but they evolve to become very good over time,” he said. “We try to understand the process whereby these antibodies get trained to be very good.” Mr. Victora said his work could further research on vaccines for diseases such as malaria or HIV, or it could be applied to, say, a flu vaccine that would last longer than a year. The 40-year-old New Yorker was a concert pianist early in his career but tired of all-day practice sessions and in his mid-20s pursued a master’s degree in immunology. “Music trains you how to teach yourself things,” he said. “It also gives you the endurance to just keep trying things over and over until they work.”

Jason De León

The anthropologist’s research is framed around improving understanding of the migrant experience along the U.S.- Mexico border through a combination of ethnography, archaeology and forensic science. Mr. León, 40, who works in the anthropology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has used archaeologically recovered migrant artifacts to help tell their story. With the grant, he plans to continue to stage exhibits, incorporating footage from drones that survey migrant remains and document migration routes in Mexico and Arizona. A trained archaeologist, he had worked on ruins in Mexico before switching to contemporary immigration issues. “Archaeology doesn’t have to be about the ancient past,” he said. “It can be about this morning or last week.”

Kate Orff

The landscape architect is the first from her profession to receive a genius grant. In her work, which includes projects around coastal infrastructure plans and urban-park design, the 45-year-old New Yorker searches for ways to integrate cities and their surrounding ecosystems. The grant will help Ms. Orff, founding partner of the landscapearchitecture and urban-design firm SCAPE, to pursue ongoing research into reclaiming America’s endangered bays and wetlands, with an eye toward reducing dependence on oil and petrochemicals and addressing challenges posed by factors such as climate change. “Landscape architecture is this true hybrid of arts and sciences,” she said. “We are working with living systems, living organisms, and we’re trying to combine them with culture.”

Yuval Sharon

The opera director’s immersive works include a 2013 piece on immigration staged in a bustling Los Angeles train station, with audience members listening on headphones to performers scattered around the terminal. The 37-year-old Los Angeles resident hopes to make the art form fresh for younger audiences. Next month, the founder and artistic director of the production company The Industry will collaborate with other organizations to present a new operatic staging of “The War of the Worlds.” The performance will be presented inside a Los Angeles concert hall and broadcast onto the street through repurposed air-raid sirens. “We’re taking opera outside the hallowed concert hall and right out into the life of the city,” he said.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The author of the 2015 novel “The Sympathizer” has examined the Vietnam War— known as “the American war” in Vietnam—through the perspective of the Vietnamese. The 46-year-old Los Angeles author delves into the inhumanity of the war for the civilians who experienced it and explores the story of the war’s refugees. “When Americans say ‘Vietnam,’ they mean the Vietnam War,” he said. “The country is very separate from that.” The novelist and literary critic arrived at a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975. At age four, he was separated from his family and placed with a white host family for several months. He watched as his parents, successful business people in Vietnam, toiled as shop owners in San Jose, Calif. “Watching my parents struggle to make a living really shaped who I am,” he said.

Write to Ellen Gamerman at

Appeared in the October 11, 2017, print edition as ‘The ‘Genius Grant’ Winners.’

Category: Interviews


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