A specialist in plastic waste management, artists, musicians, computer scientists, and a poet-ornithologist who advocates for Black people in nature are among this year’s 25 winners of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious fellowships known as “genius grants” that honor discipline-bending and society-changing people whose work offers inspiration and insight.
The Chicago-based foundation announced Wednesday that it increased the “no strings attached” award amount each honoree receives from $625,000 to $800,000 over five years. Fellows do not need to report back to the foundation about how they spend the money.
“I hope that they will continue with their courage and provocation to inspire us to new places of understanding and inspiration,” said Marlies Carruth, director of the MacArthur fellows program.
Jenna Jambeck, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, received the award for accomplishments like calculating the amount of plastic created since 1950 and identifying that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters oceans each year. She got a call from the foundation after picking up her kids one day in September.
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“I was just completely overcome with emotion,” Jambeck said in an interview.
Jambeck, 48, has led surveys of the Ganges and Mississippi rivers to establish baseline data on plastic pollution and document the systems that produce the plastic, treat it as garbage and eventually funnel it into the water. The tension and challenge of managing waste captured her attention when she was in college in Gainesville, Florida, and witnessed a prolonged debate about whether to expand a landfill or transfer waste to another county.
“I just was hooked because, you know, this is something we create every day. We have to manage it,” she said, “Yet everybody wants this material as far away from them as possible.”
The foundation selects fellows through a multi-stage process where anonymous reviewers nominate and vet potential candidates, usually over the course of years, with the intent of recognizing people who are exceptionally creative in their work. The fellows are not involved in their selection and receive a phone call out of the blue, Carruth said.
J. Drew Lanham, a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University, said the fellowship gives him intellectual and creative liberation. Lanham, 57, is also a poet, an ornithologist, an activist for Black people in nature, the author of a memoir — in other words, a person who defies labels.
“I’ve even had friends and family and I’m sure colleagues wonder, ‘Well, are you really working? What are you doing? How does that have anything to do with ornithology or how does that have anything to do with your being a college professor?’” he said, speaking from Edisto Island, South Carolina.
Among his writings are a 2013 essay “9 Rules for Black Birdwatchers,” and a memoir that traces the beginning of his love affair with birds and nature to his childhood on his family’s farm in South Carolina, which they lost after his father’s death.
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Carruth said this class of fellows is optimistic about civic repair and that the foundation is recognizing their work after the isolation, anxiety and disorientation created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the fellows are doubling down on subjects that we thought we knew, she said, approaching them with new insights and from new perspectives like Emily Wang, a physician who founded a network of clinics that treat people released from jail with community health workers.
Another fellow, Reuben Jonathan Miller, has conducted years of ethnographic research on people’s lives after being incarcerated. His research incorporates his personal experiences as a volunteer chaplain in Cook County jail and the imprisonment of his father and brother.
Other fellows include the author, botanist and advocate for environmental stewardship through the traditional knowledge of native peoples, Robin Wall Kimmerer; the computer scientist, Yejin Choi, who has developed new ways to train computers to understand language; the Chicago-based artist and architect Amanda Williams; and mathematician June Huh whose work bridges different parts of the field to prove longstanding conjectures.
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The MacArthur Foundation reported an endowment of $9.4 billion at the end of 2021 and said it paid out $273 million in grants and impact investments that year. Its fellows program represented $15.6 million of those 2021 grants, the foundation said.