How do you turn passion into a MacArthur genius grant?

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There’s no question that the 23 people crowned MacArthur geniuses today are insanely talented. But how have they managed to take that raw talent and turn it into something real and tangible — how have they turned their talent into success? We reached out to all of them with that very question. Eighteen responded.

Many of this year’s grant recipients spoke about working to counteract injustices in the world: violence against African-Americans, the refugee crisis, climate change and the trauma of war, for example. For some, it’s about choosing the right colleagues, listening to and absorbing the outside world and reflecting that back to their work. For others, it’s a sense of destiny that makes them return to their work day after day. Their responses have been lightly edited.

This year’s class of MacArthur Foundation fellows include a human rights lawyer, a video artist, a geobiologist and a jewelry maker/sculptor.

Ahilan Arulanantham, Human Rights Lawyer
Arulanantham, 43, is working to change the immigration laws in the United States — laws that he believes are “stuck in the 19th century.”

Photos courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“I was born here, but my family is all Sri Lankan Tamil, and most of my extended family had to flee Sri Lanka in the ‘80s in what became a civil war. A lot of them came and stayed with us in our house for a long period of time, so I was very exposed in a direct and personal way to the difficulties that refugees face, the struggle to adjust when your life is disrupted in that way, and their capacity to adapt and go on to do amazing things in their new countries. Seeing that made me want to just ensure that people understand the difficulties that refugees face and to treat them fairly, with respect, in our policies more generally.”

Daryl Baldwin, Linguist and Cultural Preservationist
Baldwin, 53, is attempting to revitalize the linguistic, cultural and intellectual heritage of the Miami nation through and restoring the use of the Miami language to its original population.

Daryl Baldwin

“I suppose over the years, I’ve really learned how any level of language use, whether it’s a minor ability to speak the language, can have a real impact on a person’s development of their identity. Learning new things, learning how our ancestors talked about things or learning how they might have understood things through the language is really fascinating to me.”

Anne Basting, Theater Artist and Educator
Basting, 51, works to improve the lives of elders with cognitive impairment through storytelling and creative expression.

Anne Basting

“The answer is listening really clearly to what your talent is telling you [about] how it should be put into play. And then trying to resist outside pressures to conform that talent to something that pre-exists. And by listening to it, really allow it to articulate its own path forward, which leads – as it has with me – to a lot of unconventional career decisions.”

Kellie Jones, Art Historian and Curator
Jones, 57, is working to expand and diversify notions of what constitutes modern and contemporary art, and is especially interested in canonizing art of the African Diaspora.

Kellie Jones, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 9, 2016

“I first started working as a curator at community arts institutions, and those allowed me platforms for the type of curating and art history that I was doing, which then launched me into larger institutions. I always want to point out that community arts institutions are so important for people to have experience, for young people to be able to experiment and work in these types of fields. Also to bring art to young people so that they get turned on by art, they get turned on by music, by visual art, by dance. I really think having access to those type of institutions as a young person was what really sparked my imagination in ways that I might not have appreciated at the time.”

Josh Kun, Cultural Historian
Kun, 45, a professor at the University of Southern California, is interested in understanding cultural history and exchange through arts and popular culture.

Josh Kun, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, USC, Los Angeles, CA, Thursday, Sep. 1, 2016.

It really doesn’t feel like a choice. I wake up most days where all I want to do is what I get to do: I listen to music; I think about cultural history; I get to share the things I’m thinking about with other people. In some special cases, I get to turn those thoughts and ideas into books or into public concerts or into art exhibitions that further and transfer the curiosities and passions and obsessions that I have to the wider public. I do what I do, because it gives me great joy to be able to share the things that I’m working on with people, in the hopes that we can make things together. I believe very strongly that music and culture are key avenues for reimagining society and key avenues for surviving society, especially right now.”

Maggie Nelson, Writer
Nelson, 43, expresses contemporary, sometimes taboo, issues through her new category of nonfiction writing.

Maggie Nelson, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, At home, Los Angeles, CA, 09.07.2016.

There has been no plan and I did not anticipate this form of success. I’ve just had my nose to the grindstone, writing books for the past 20 years. Being a writer takes a lot of self-direction, when no one’s waiting with bated breath to hear what you have to say. I think writing has always been the most natural thing for me. I’ve always done it, since I learned how to write. I often think of it as a kind of metabolism. It’s a way of incorporating and interpreting and sending back out the world that is around me. And so in that way, just as natural to me as eating or breathing.”

Dianne Newman, Microbiologist
Newman, 44, studies ancient microorganisms in order to understand modern bacteria responsible for various diseases.

“I’ve always been curious about many different things. Thanks to having wonderful mentors and family encouraging me, I guess I’ve had an underlying confidence that I could try lots of things and I wasn’t afraid to do so. Naïveté and ignorance can be blissful. It also could help you be a little more adventurous than you might be if you actually knew more about what you were doing than I have in different stages of my career. That, ironically, has been something of an advantage, because I haven’t been as hide bound by convention because I’ve been moving into new areas. I also feel that I’ve had a good sense for people. I think that I have succeeded really in large part because I was able to identify wonderful people with whom to work in every stage of my career. Good taste. Good taste matters.”

Victoria Orphan, Geobiologist
Orphan, 44, works to increase our understanding of microbial organisms living in extreme environments and their impacts on all life on earth.

“I think that I’m good at trying to make connections between different disciplines in science. We work with environmental ecosystems where biology, in our case, microorganisms, chemistry and the physical environment are all intimately connected in ways that are often difficult to observe if you’re just taking one viewpoint. What I’ve tried to do in my work is bring to bear tools and insights from these different fields to try to understand this complex environmental system in nature and how it works in a much more holistic way.”

Manu Prakash, Physical Biologist and Inventor
Prakash, 36, applies his expertise to inventing solutions to problems of global health, science education and ecological surveillance.

Manu Prakash

I wouldn’t call it a success in any way. I’m not done yet. I think I enjoy doing what I do, and I don’t really think too much about success. I’ve often said this, and I actually really mean it, which is I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do. And it bothers me quite a lot that luck has so much to play with it. A lot of my work is actually trying to get rid of that luck, that everybody should have the chance to enjoy science.”

José A. Quiñonez, Financial Services Innovator
Quiñonez, 45, is working on creating a pathway for individuals with limited or no financial access to gain non-predatory credit and the basic necessities that come with it.
Jose Quinonez

“[My mom dying] made my mind focus on the problem that poverty is a human construct. Poverty is something we can eradicate. My mom didn’t die because God was mad at us or was punishing her or because she was this or that. It wasn’t that at all. So I was able to understand there was a structural issue that led to my mother not getting proper care, or no care, and then ultimately she died because of that. That was the economic situation of that day. And so when I was able to sort of realize that, I was able to hone my mind into, “Well, this is the beast that I need to fight.'”

Claudia Rankine, Poet
Rankine, 53, writes about the ways public forces in American life such as racism can affect us emotionally.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

“I think that the traits that help me to keep going in the work is the kind of unending curiosity and patience, with the need to negotiate trauma and feelings around being a person in a society that is systemically unjust to people based on the color of their skin. Given that I’m one of those people, I feel very lucky to be able to do my work. But it doesn’t separate me from the kind of precarious living that all African-Americans engage in, as citizens of a country that was formulated on segregation and white supremacist ideas.”

WATCH: Using poetry to uncover the moments that lead to racism

Lauren Redniss, Artist and Writer
Redniss, 42, uses writing and art to bring nonfiction topics to life through visual works of literature.

Lauren Redniss, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 16, 2016

I was a very shy person, as a kid, and even into my adulthood, extremely shy, and journalism gave me a way to talk to people. And I always had a sense that time was slipping away too fast, so I wanted to record things. So drawing gave me a way to record things and, in a sense, to slow down time.  And it was those two impulses that I wanted to find a way to combine.”

Mary Reid Kelley, Video Artist
Kelley, 37, explores the condition of women through history by creating works of video.

“In my case, the verse that I was looking at and emulating was written during the First World War by the people who were in the war, usually active duty soldiers who were writing about their experiences and using humor to do so. I was very struck by this: That people who were going through what must have been such incredible trauma that we associate with the First World War, like poison gas and machine guns and things like that, that they would be dealing with this trauma with essentially jokes and wordplay, and silliness, and that this didn’t detract from the very serious criticisms of the war, criticisms of their various governments. And that the heightened humor and the heightened criticism, and in some cases criticism to the point of bitterness and anger, they really went together and made something extremely powerful.”

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Bioengineer
Richards-Kortum, 52, is working to address global health disparities by creating low-cost, practical medical tools.

“When I was a graduate student, my advisor really was very good at figuring out how do you, as a scientist or an engineer, work very closely with physicians to address real challenges that they face. And then actually move those solutions into practice. I discovered that that was something that I just really enjoyed doing. I discovered about 10 years ago that there was this huge need and huge opportunity to do this in some of the poorest places of the world. So that’s where we really focused the efforts of our group over the last decade, trying to be a lab that can help bridge going from that clinical need to an actual solution that can have impact in the field.”

Joyce J. Scott, Jewelry Maker and Sculptor
Scott, 67, turns craft into commentary on social and political injustice.

Joyce Scott

“I [was] an artist prenatally, in utero. My mother was an artist. I never saw another way for me. I’m driven by the need to express my concerns. I mean, I’m just another human being, so my concerns are just the same as others, but I’ve always been driven to do it in a way that ignites conversation or that is just interesting or provocative to look at; not only for me to make it, but for folks to view.”

Sarah Stillman, Long-form Journalist
Stillman, 32, focuses on telling stories of injustice about those who are often invisible in our society.

“I think many of us find that our greatest professional blessings are also our curses. I’m an extremely obsessive person and an obsessive reporter. When I get fixated on a story, I can’t let it go. I’m thinking about it in my sleep. I’m thinking about it when I wake up. I’m immersing in documents. I’m talking to tons and tons of people. And sometimes, I’m going down a wide array of rabbit holes, not all of which are the most productive. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get the sorts of stories that aren’t sitting for you on the surface, but are in their very nature systemic, complex, messy and often hidden from a clear public view.”

WATCH: Are innocent citizens at risk of police seizure of their cash, cars and homes?

Julia Wolfe, Composer
Wolfe, 57, combines musical genres to create new works that are based on history and documentary research.

Julia Wolfe photographed in New York, New York on Monday, September 12th, 2016.

I think a lot of people kind of imagine a composer sitting at their desk or sitting at their piano and things sort of magically coming to them. There is a moment of inspiration, when you’re trying to capture an idea or something emotional. But then you have to get to work and be very diligent about finding a way to construct the architecture of a piece and build it so that it has cohesion and meaning and freedom. There’s a drive to create something and to go somewhere I’ve never been before, to enter into a kind of new territory.”

Jin-Quan Yu, Synthetic Chemist
Yu, 50, is a pioneer of new techniques for the functionalization of carbon-hydrogen bonds.

Jin-Quan Yu, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, at his office at the Scripps Institute, La Jolla, California, Wednesday, September 7, 2016

“If you’re working in a field that you’re passionate about, it’s important you chase a problem based on curiosity, not based on just trying to be productive or trying to be successful. Instead, you should try to follow your heart and work on something you’re really curious about and try to understand the fundamental question of ‘why.'”


Here’s the full list of awardees:

Ahilan Arulanantham, Human Rights Lawyer
Daryl Baldwin, Linguist and Cultural Preservationist
Anne Basting, Theater Artist and Educator
Vincent Fecteau, Sculptor
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Playwright
Kellie Jones, Art Historian and Curator
Subhash Khot, Theoretical Computer Scientist
Josh Kun, Cultural Historian
Maggie Nelson, Writer
Dianne Newman, Microbiologist
Victoria Orphan, Geobiologist
Jose A. Quinonez, Financial Services Innovator
Claudia Rankine, Poet
Lauren Redniss, Artist and Writer
Mary Reid Kelley, Video Artist
Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Bioengineer
Joyce A. Scott, Jewelry Maker and Sculptor
Sarah Stillman, Long-form Journalist
Bill Thies, Computer Scientist
Julia Wolfe, Composer
Gene Luen Yang, Graphic Novelist
Jin-Quan Yu, Synthetic Chemist
Nsikan Akpan, Corinne Segal and Kristen Doerer contributed reporting. Photos courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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