MacArthur Genius Grants Announced, Radiolab Host Among Recipients

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

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.


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Comments [38]

allnightryan from Los Angeles

Kudos to you and your work with Radiolab! I love the show and wish you continued success and adventure!
Cheers from LA!
supporter, member, volunteer and fan of KCRW, KPCC, The Current, WCBE, KEXP, WTMD

Sep. 27 2011 03:49 AM
april from Stamford, CT

Best. News. This. Week! Congrats, Jad. Freaking love your show!

Sep. 26 2011 09:54 AM
Karla from New York

I am so happy to see this, and so very proud of our RadioLab host. It's been a long time coming, and this will only help Mr. Abumrad to continue to explore his full potential. I look forward to much more in the future.

Sep. 25 2011 02:57 PM
Gordon from Guyana

Jad: I am so happy that you, and through you all the Radiolab team, have got solid recognition for everything that has made me a long-dedicated and much-rewarded fan.

Sep. 25 2011 02:23 PM

It's great to see such terrific recognition go to such a deserving person. Congratulations!

Sep. 24 2011 10:15 AM

I guess i'm going to have to apply for a $13 dollar grant to fund the memorization of jad's fancy last name

Sep. 24 2011 08:50 AM
Chris WNYC Member from NYC

You are da man, Jad!

Sep. 23 2011 01:54 PM
Ben from Brooklyn

Congratulations Jad!

Sep. 22 2011 08:25 AM
Laurie from Roanoke VA

Wow! I am so happy for you Jad! Congratulations! "...freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore." That sounds fabulous. Hope to be able to hear what you do with it. Cheers!

Sep. 22 2011 08:21 AM
Jaromir from Czech Republic

Hey guys,
I like your playful, easy to understand and so fantastic way how you popularize scientific discoveries. It is nice to know, Jad, that you received the award.
I listen to your podcasts which help me to learn English language on one side and get familiar with so many intersting things.
Thank you and congratulations to all in your team.

Sep. 22 2011 07:08 AM

Jad, This is fantastic news!! I'm so pleased that you've won this award! I love the work that you and
Robert do together! Awesome! Congrats to Radio-Lab! from, Cindi in Utah! <*)))>< .... <*)))><...

Sep. 22 2011 01:31 AM

Congrats to Jad! About 5 years or so ago, we took out sons to see you and Robert in DC -- the were maybe 13 and 10...raising the next generation of RadioLab geeks.

Sep. 21 2011 09:45 PM
Carol from Longmont, Colorado

Congratulations Jad! Not only am I happy for you, but feel that I am finally vindicated for continually quoting Radiolab and calling you a genius myself!
Your unique and addictive show highlights just a small portion of your genius, I'm sure. Congratulations again!

Sep. 21 2011 09:34 PM
Joey Ben-Hail from Bayside, New York

Congrats Jad! Well deserved for your hard work dissecting questions that have driven man-kind's curiosity for centuries! You and Robert Host a truly unique/educational/entertaining one-of-a-kind radio show. You guys are the modern philosophers of our time. Thank you for all that you do to enlighten us.

Sep. 21 2011 12:02 PM
Chung from Chicago

JAD! Email me now and wire the $500,000 to my Nigerian account to upgrade to the SUPER Genius award. Not a scam! You're science awesomeness and captivating story telling are mindblowing! Congrats!!!

Sep. 21 2011 11:34 AM
Eliza Frank from Astoria, NY

Restores my wobbly faith in humankind! Love the show, and all you and Robert do! Congratulations many times over!

Sep. 21 2011 09:26 AM
Nicole W

Wonderful and deserved honor for Radiolab and Jad Abumrad! This show for years has been bringing worlds of research together--intellectual, philosophical, and creative--that are too often still imagined as discrete. Few shows on radio or elsewhere make these connections so well. I look forward to many more years of RL. Jad and Robert's work speaks to an audience who finds questions of science compelling, urgent, and difficult. It's great to engage these questions in J&L's excellent company. Congratulations all around.

Sep. 21 2011 08:39 AM
Nicole W

Wonderful and deserved honor for Radiolab and Jad Abumrad! This show for years has been bringing worlds of research together--intellectual, philosophical, and creative--that are too often still imagined as discrete. Few shows on radio or elsewhere make these connections so well. I look forward to many more years of RL. Jad and Robert's work speaks to an audience who finds questions of science compelling, urgent, and difficult. It's great to engage these questions in J&L's excellent company. Congratulations all around.

Sep. 21 2011 08:35 AM
Eileen from Philadelphia

Congrats Jab!! You and your show are awesome.

Sep. 21 2011 07:14 AM
Renee Downing from Tucson

Congratulations from a huge fan of the podcast!

Sep. 20 2011 10:44 PM
Deborah from downtown NYC

It was great to hear on my favorite radio station that one of my favorite shows with one of my favorite radio persons (that are in the league of my 'imaginary friend' (Rob too)contingent) WON A GENIUS GRANT!!! Wowee!
It's the way the show SOUNDS! You do amazing research on fascinating topics– then do this poetic/literal/abstract thing that makes the point SO MUCH MORE clear/visceral/moving. THANK YOU, congrats and keep up the great work. Hope this helps you make more wonderful work for us to hear. Can hardly wait!

Sep. 20 2011 10:20 PM
Linda from NYC

Congrats to Jad and to fellow recipients of this most gracious and prestigious award!

Sep. 20 2011 09:47 PM
grebwerd from Boulder

Way to go JAD!

Sep. 20 2011 08:04 PM
Eric from Fair Lawn

Way to go, Jad!

Sep. 20 2011 07:43 PM
Jerome from CA

Congratulations, Jad!

Sep. 20 2011 06:21 PM

Go Jad!! Really thrilled for you and a well deserved award indeed. Thank you for using your genius to show us the beauty and wonder in this universe!

Sep. 20 2011 06:10 PM
Lisa Haber-Chalom from West Orange, NJ

This is such wonderful news! Jad Abumrad is indeed outstanding. I've been touting this program for years, especially among my colleagues involved in science. I do feel however that Robert Krulwich should have also been recognized. Without him, Radio Lab would not have the same depth and appeal. He is an integral part of the program. They are an amazing team.

Sep. 20 2011 05:34 PM
Monica from NYC

This is absolutely super deserved. I love RadioLab, I love Jad and Rob. They have such amazing chemistry together. I adore every episode, I listen to them over and over again while I am sorting Drosophila in the lab and looking and fly brains. YOU ARE AMAZING !!! I concord: we need RadioLab to be a regular show !!!!!

Sep. 20 2011 05:23 PM
Nuala Bean from New York

YAY!!! This is GREAT news! Jad totally rocks.

Sep. 20 2011 05:08 PM
Marc from Paris

Félicitations !

Delighted for you, Jad!

Sep. 20 2011 03:08 PM
Susan from Alta, CA

So glad to get this news! Radiolab has been must-listen material for years. You & Robert Krulwich are 2 of my fave voices, and sources for thought-provoking material. Congratulations, and well done!

Sep. 20 2011 02:47 PM
Citizen in Chicago

Read this interesting article on how these genius grants began.

Sep. 20 2011 11:55 AM
Glen from Northern, VA

I share this show with everybody I know because you guys do such good work.

Congratulations on the award and keep up the insightful programming.

Sep. 20 2011 11:22 AM
Christy from New York

Congratulations! When I heard the news on WNYC this morning, I did a little jig for you.

Sep. 20 2011 11:09 AM
Maz from Cambridge MA

Congratulations Jad!

Awesome news, love your work...Genius!
Salute from the land of the Cedars.
You makes us proud!

Sep. 20 2011 11:03 AM
Greg from Harlem

Well done & well deserved! Looks like it's time for WNYC to increase your budget and turn Radiolab into a regular weekly show. *Crosses Fingers!*

Sep. 20 2011 08:38 AM
Sebastian from NYC

Congratulations JA! Radiolab is one of my favorite shows.

Sep. 20 2011 08:01 AM
Olivia from NYC

Is that a Genius Award in your hand, b!%*#? Love you, Jad Abumrad.

Sep. 20 2011 07:42 AM

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