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2012 MacArthur Fellows Are ‘Pure Genius’

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the MacArthur Fellows for 2012 on Tuesday. The 23 fellows, who each were awarded an unrestricted $500,000 ‘genius grant’, were selected from hundreds of anonymous nominations identified for their creativity, and promise to contribute positively in the future.

The Arts

Natalia Almada, documentary filmmaker

As founder of Altamura Films, Almada most recently directed the documentary “El Velador.” Her work focuses on using documentary film as an art form and a tool for social change.

Watch the trailer for “El Velador” below or watch the full documentary which aired on PBS Sept. 27, 2012.

Uta Barth, conceptual photographer

In Barth’s photographs, the mundane is center-focus, attempting to distinguish the way a human perceives reality and how a camera captures it. Her most recent series, “… and to draw a bright white line with light” debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011.

Clair Chase, arts entrepreneur

Chase is forging a new model for commissioning, recording and performing classical music. In addition to being an accomplished flutist, she also serves as the artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, which she co-founded in 2001.

Laura Poitras, documentary filmmaker

In a trilogy of documentaries shot after Sept. 11, Poitras reveals on film the human consequences of military conflict abroad from unusual vantage points. With “My Country, My Country” in 2006 and “The Oath” in 2010, the third film, yet to be titled or released, focuses on the impact of prolonged international conflict.

Benoit Rolland, stringed-instrument bow maker

For more than 40 years, Rolland has created personalized bows in the French style, for some of the highest-acclaimed musicians in the world. To make a bow that for a particular musician, he listens to recordings or live performances to create a bow that complements a musician’s playing style and instrument.

Chris Thile, mandolinist and composer

As an artist, Thile has performed in a variety of music settings, including Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, infusing a distinctly American canon for the mandolin. Most recently, Thile collaborated with Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Myer to compose and perform, “The Goat Sessions.”

An excerpt from The Goat Sessions Live, “Attaboy”:

An-My Le, photographer

As a refugee from the Vietnam War, moving to the U.S. in 1975, much of Le’s work is inspired by her own experiences. Her photographs of military activity blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning.

Watch PBS’ “Art 21” for more on how artists picture and question war, which features a segment on An-My Le:

Watch Protest on PBS. See more from ART:21.


Junot Diaz, fiction writer

Recently publishing a collection of stories, “This Is How You Lose Her,” Diaz is most well-known for his 2008 novel, “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Listen to Jeff Brown’s recent conversation with Diaz:

David Finkel, journalist

As a writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has told stories that revealed the toll of war on U.S. troops and the struggle for refugees. He is the author of the 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers.”

Dinaw Mengestu, writer

Born in Ethiopia and raised in Illinois, Mengestu is best known for his work exploring the African diaspora in the U.S. both in fiction and non-fiction writing. He has authored two novels, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” and “How to Read the Air.”

Dylan C. Penningroth, historian

Penningroth studies Afro-American socio-legal history. He hopes to expand and connect his findings to redefine our historical understanding of civil rights. He is the author of “The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South.”

Medical Sciences

Benjamin Warf, pediatric neurosurgeon

Warf’s work focuses on the treatment of intra-cranial diseases in young children, with a particular focus on hydrocephalus, also known as “water on the brain.” He pioneered an alternative, low-cost treatment for the disease and a training program, in collaboration with Cure International, for doctors throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Elissa Hallem is an assistant professor at UCLA. Photo: MacArthur Foundation

Elissa Hallem, neurobiologist

In her lab at University of California, Los Angeles, Hallem researches the sense of smell in nematodes, a type of brown worms, most interestingly those which are parasitic within humans and other animals. Hallem hopes to use her innovative research to eventually reduce parasitic infections in humans.

Sarkis Mazmanian, medical microbiologist

Mazmanian is a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology who studies the complex interplay between gut bacterial species and the immune system. His research lays the foundation for a new understanding of human-microbiome symbiosis that could lead to new therapies or preventive treatments for a broad class of human diseases.

Melody Swartz, bioengineer

Swartz researches the chemical microenvironments in which solid tissues develop and are maintained within the human body. Her studies have been extremely useful for understanding how organs develop and in particular, the immune responses to cancer, in particular tumor invasion.

Eric Coleman, geriatrician

Coleman has worked with Congress, hospitals, health care providers and patients and families to address the miscommunications and errors that occur as patients transition from hospitals to post-discharge homes, sub-acute care facilities, or other sites of care. His Care Transitions Intervention program has trained patients and caregivers with critical knowledge and skills to enable self-care.

Earth, Life and Physical Sciences

Terry Plank, geochemist

Focusing on what happens when tectonic plates collide deep below the Earth’s crust, Plank’s research at Columbia University shows a connection between the chemical composition of volcanic rocks and the temperature of the rocks at the point of rock formation.

Olivier Guyon, optical physicist and astronomer

In search of Earth-like planets outside our solar system, Guyon invented an alternative telescope that reduces the necessary and expensive mirror instruments in the special telescopes by half, effectively removing engineering and cost barriers for sending a planet-locating telescope into orbit.

Nancy Rabalais, marine ecologist

Since the mid-1980s, Rabalais has led long-term studies on the effects of so-called “dead zones,” oxygen-deplete areas, especially the coastal areas near the Gulf of Mexico. She has also garnered national attention for efforts to reduce urban and agricultural runoff and restoring degraded water ecosystems by the Gulf and Mississippi River basin.


Maria Chudnovsky, mathematician

Chudnovsky set out to break down the fundamental principles and theories of graphs, abstractions that represents the connections between a set of similar things. Her research and studies should broaden the utility of graph theory into other major branches of mathematics, including linear programming, geometry and complexity theory.

Daniel Spielman, computer scientist

Spielman wants to know how we communicate and how we measure, predict and regulate our environment and our behavior. In computer science, he specializes in the design of algorithms, trying to solve newer and faster ways to solve problems.


Maurice Lim Miller, social services innovator

As the founder of the Family Independence Initiative, Miller has devoted his life to anti-poverty work. His work is based on a principle that low-income families have a lot of capacity to help themselves and each other. Working with these families, Miller created a national model that taps into the initiative and capability of low-income households to maximize their own networks and resources.

Raj Chetty, public economist

In his research on the design of effective government policy, Chetty hopes to provide scientific solutions that maximize efficiency and effectiveness of government programs, focusing on tax and education policy. Based on hard evidence, he attempts to propose the long-term solutions that will stimulate lasting economic growth.

For complete bios and videos on all of this year’s fellows, go to the MacArthur Foundation website.

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