MacArthur Genius Grants Announced, Radiolab Host Among Recipients

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Twenty-two people received great news from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation over the past week — they were named as recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the Genius Award.

It starts with a phone call out of the blue. That's how each recipient learns they will receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years. The award comes without stipulations or reporting requirements, offering Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore.

This year's recipients include Radiolab host and producer Jad Abumrad. He was notified about the award last week when he received a cryptic email from Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

"I was like, is this some Nigerian scam or something?" Abumrad recalled. Over the phone, Socolow proceeded to tease the unwitting Abumrad, asking the producer if he knew anyone who had ever won the award.

"Okay, I’ll give you a hint," Socolow said, by Abumrad’s account. "Their name starts with an A. The next letter is a B. And the next letter is a U," at which point Abumrad said he burst out "Are you kidding me?" with a choice expletive excluded.

Abumrad said the intervening week has felt surreal, as he’s leaked the news to a few family members and co-workers while trying desperately to abide by the Foundation’s confidentiality agreement.

He thinks what may have earned him the award and why the show resonates with listeners may be one in the same.

"I just feel like we’re telling stories that are in some sense a weird amalgam of what public radio does, has been doing for 30 years — bringing new ideas to people," he said. "But maybe the aesthetic is different, the style is different. It’s a much more kinetic style than usual public radio storytelling, and I think people love public radio to a degree that when a new style is introduced, a new template for how to tell stories, maybe that’s why we’ve been embraced this way."

Other recipients from the area include Francisco Nunez, choral conductor and composer for the Young People's Chorus of New York City, Dafnis Prieto, a jazz percussionist and composer, Professor Jacob Soll, a European Historian at Rutgers University, Camden, Ubaldo Vitali, a conservator and silversmith, and Alisa Weilerstein, a cellist from New York.

Weilerstein, who was in Jerusalem when she was contacted, also thought it might be one of those Nigerian e-mails, saying she had no clue whatsoever.

"That's how they intended it and it worked," she said.

(Photo: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein/ Jamie Jung)

For her, the biggest thing is that it's not a classical music award. "It’s an award for artists and scientists, and it really rewards creativity. It’s a very noble thing. And of course, the monetary value is ridiculous. It’s just incredible. It gives a lot of freedom to anyone who gets it."

Vitali said to say he was surprised when he received the call is an understatement. "I didn't believe it actually. I thought it was a joke of some kind." The 4th generation silversmith had never applied for any grants or fellowships, "always paying for my own research and traveling."

Based out of Maywood, N.J., Vitali draws on past and modern metalworking techniques and scholarship to restore historical masterworks — specializing in Renaissance and medieval pieces — and to create original works of art.

With this grant, he plans to continue to do his work as a creator, designer, conservator and preserver and try tying them all together. "It's like a dream," he said.

For Dr. Jacob Soll the call was a dream come true. He said he was walking to a library to do some work wondering how he was going to pull off his research when he got the call. He said he called the foundation back a couple of times, and still didn't believe it until he got a letter and showed it to some select people asking, "does that say what I think it says?"

Soll, a European Historian at Rutgers University, Camden, has a plan for the grant. He's going to finish his book on the problems of politics and accounting. Then he's going to go to Paris and use it as a base to visit all the great libraries of Europe — something he could never have afforded to do — and plans to write a book about those libraries. He also plans to read with no one bothering him — except his children.

He said in this economic climate it's tough to get funding for research.

"These guys have opened the door for me to do my own project," Soll said. "It's beautiful."

The selection process begins when hundreds of invited nominators assist the foundation in identifying people to be considered for a fellowship and the selection committee meets to review files, narrow the list and make final recommendations. The number of fellows selected each year varies between 20 and 25.

This year's fellows work across a broad spectrum of endeavors, to include a sports medicine researcher, architect, parasitologist, and an evolutionary geneticist.

Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said, "The MacArthur Fellows exemplify how individual creativity and talent can spark new insights and ideas in every imaginable field of human endeavor."

Brian Wise also contributed to this report.