Brainiacs

10.01.13

MacArthur’s Genius Women

A look at the 11 female innovators recognized this year.

Out of 24 recipients, 11 women won this year’s MacArthur genius grant—a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 over five years, up from its previous sum of $500,000. The recipients range from an atomic physicist to an immigration lawyer to a photographer, women working with passion on unique projects around the country. Here’s who they are, what they’re doing, and why you should pay attention.

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Robin Fleming. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Angela Duckworth left a high-powered consulting job in her late 20s to become a seventh grade math teacher in public schools. As she worked with her students, she started wondering what the best predictors of success for the kids would be—raw intelligence clearly wasn’t the only factor. Eventually she went back to school and became a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, studying kids and adults in stressful situations—cadets in training at West Point, competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, rookie teachers starting out at inner-city schools—to see who would succeed. She found that, more than any other factor, one thing predicted success: whether a person has the quality she calls “grit.” “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Duckworth explained in an April TED talk. Now, she’s working on ways to “make our kids grittier” and decrease dropout rates.

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Robin Fleming. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Robin Fleming, a historian at Boston College, wanted to study the period in British history just after the fall of the Roman Empire. But she had a problem: hardly any texts remain from that time, and those that do are documents by men (mainly monks) about kings and other power brokers, which give very little sense of daily life. So instead, she turned to material artifacts like jewelry, potsherds, coins, and skeletal remains—traditionally the province of archaeologists—to better understand quotidian lives. Her latest work turns to the economic distress left behind in the Roman Empire’s wake. “I’m also interested in moving lines between disciplines,” she says in a MacArthur video. “I think a long time ago we decided what history was and what archaeology was, and now what I want to do is I want to rethink that.”

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Dina Katabi. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Dina Katabi is a computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who emigrated from Syria in 1999 for graduate school. She and her students have developed Wi-Vi, a device that uses WiFi to observe people’s movements through walls. The technology could be used in law enforcement, by emergency responders who need to identify survivors in collapsed structures, or in homes to control appliances with the wave of a hand. The device still has its limitations, according to Katabi. “We don't have a Superman here yet,” she told Business Insider. “We can't see the silhouette of a person. We see the person like a blob, which we can use to trace how the person is moving behind a wall.”

Julie Livingston
Julie Livingston. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Julie Livingston, a medical historian and ethnographer at Rutgers, published a book last year about the only cancer ward in Botswana. She spent thousands of hours as a fly on the wall in the ward, looking at it “as a microcosm,” she told the MacArthur Foundation, “as a way of understanding a whole set of broader issues—about bureaucracy, about vulnerability, about power, about biomedical science, about hope.” Livingston hopes that her work will help put palliative care on the global health agenda alongside other hot-button topics.

Susan Murphy
Susan Murphy. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Susan Murphy designs clinical trials that study treatments for addiction and mental illness. The first thing you need to know about her? “I love math,” she says in a MacArthur video. “I like the way that it works, I like the fact that it’s clean.” But she wanted to find a way to use math to impact the real world. Her studies help doctors tailor treatments to patients’ responses and reactions over time, increasing their success in treating chronic conditions like depression, schizophrenia, and cocaine abuse.

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Sheila Nirenberg. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College, has developed a prosthetic eye to treat blindness in those with retinal diseases. As she explains in a TED talk, about 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from this type of blindness, and there’s little that can be done to treat it. Nirenberg’s prosthesis replaces the photoreceptors of the eye and sends coded electrical signals that the brain interprets as images. If her device makes it through clinical testing successfully, it could revolutionize the lives of people with macular degeneration and other diseases of the eye.

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Ana Maria Rey. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Ana Maria Rey, now a theoretical physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been fascinated with physics ever since her childhood in Colombia. “Since I was very young, I loved the idea of describing with math the behavior of the world,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. She studies ultracold atoms by trapping them with laser light and then probing them to simulate solid-state crystals. Cold atoms, she says, are a useful tool because they’re “highly controllable systems that are allowing us to understand quantum mechanics in a way that was not possible before.” She’s currently working on a theoretical framework for quantum computing based on alkaline earth metals.

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Karen Russell. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Karen Russell is no stranger to the vagaries of the award circuit—her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012, the year that no award was given for fiction for the first time in 35 years. “All those physiological things you hear about shock turn out to be true,” she told MacArthur after learning she had received the grant. “I was just giddy, really giddy. It’s such a vote of confidence—they’re saying that the work you do has value and should be supported.” The MacArthur Foundation has said that she “depicts in lyrical, energetic prose an enchanting and forbidding landscape and delves into subcultures rarely encountered in contemporary American literature.”

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Sarah Seager. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Sara Seager is looking for the next Earth. As an astrophysicist at MIT, Seager’s work focuses on exoplanets orbiting other stars, especially those with Earth-like characteristics that might harbor extraterrestrial life. She is currently working on a prototype for a fleet of nanosatellites that could be sent off into space to pinpoint new exoplanets orbiting bright, sun-like stars. “There absolutely is an Earth twin out there somewhere,” she says in a MacArthur video. “We just don’t know where.” Seager is also a single mother, and she anticipates that the grant will make her path as a woman and a mother in science that much easier. “I am disappointed to still be oftentimes the only woman in a room of engineers and physicists. There are still far too few women in the physical sciences,” she says.

Margaret Stock
Margaret Stock. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Margaret Stock is a lawyer focusing on immigration reform and national security. “We typically think of national security in the immigration context as a matter of keeping people out of the United States,” she says in her MacArthur video. “But it’s actually about letting the right people into the United States … it’s about economic security, it’s about civil liberties, it’s about freedom.” Stock has designed a program to draw highly qualified immigrants without green cards—talented people who had formerly been turned away—into the armed forces, by helping make it easier for them to gain naturalization. The pilot program was hugely popular in its first year and has been expanded in its second.

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Carrie Mae Weems. (Courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Carrie Mae Weems’ photography and video installations critique race, gender, and social justice in America. She is best known for exhibits such as Ain’t Joking, The Kitchen Table Series, and From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. Two years ago, Weems founded the Institute of Sound and Style in Syracuse, New York, to draw at-risk teens into the arts and give them the skills to make their own artwork. “We pay kids, because all the kids are desperately poor and need to be paid. We give them at least the minimum wage, and we train them in various aspects of the arts, giving them the skills that they need to fashion another life for themselves,” she told the New York Times. “That’s what I’m working on, that’s my heart’s desire.”