Gulf Coast Doctor, Artist Among Those to Receive Genius Grant

Macarthur Foundation awards 25 new fellows with $500,000 each

Sept. 23, 2008 — -- Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed Dr. Regina Benjamin's family clinic but it couldn't faze her Hippocratic Oath. Though the storm had left her in a dire financial situation of her own, she began treating people at her rural family health clinic in coastal Alabama for free -- and sometimes for shrimp or oysters.

Benjamin is one of the 25 people being recognized by the Macarthur Foundation for her achievements and epitomizing the boundless human spirit with a $500,000 grant known unofficially as the "Genius Grants." The grant is awarded over a 5-year period.

After Katrina, Benjamin rebuilt her practice with the help of volunteers and donations only to have her clinic burn down to the ground in an unrelated fire. The MacArthur grant money will help Benjamin get back on her feet and continue to serve people in Bayou La Batre, an impoverished fishing village along the Gulf of Mexico. "I want to give some of it to small scholarships for junior high kids to go into health care," she added. "Small town and minority kids don't have the opportunity to go into health care."

Into the Dirt

Another new Macarthur fellow who has raised the human spirit is former basketball player turned urban farmer, Will Allen.

The son of a sharecropper from North Carolina, Allen was the first black basketball player to play for the University of Miami. After graduating in 1971 he went on to play for the American Basketball Association and European basketball leagues. It was while in Europe that Allen had an epiphany. "I wanted a system where all people would have access to safe and healthy food, whether they were millionaires or made $5,000 a year," he said.

Today Allen is the 59-year-old CEO of Growing Power, a farming organization in Milwaukee that uses novel techniques to grow nutritious food within the city limits. The organization supplies fruits and vegetables at affordable prices to urban areas where healthy food is often hard to come by and the lack of such foods have been linked to a rise in obesity and diabetes.

From Pack-Rat to Pack-Art

Tara Donovan likes to collect everyday materials and use them to make statements about society. "I wanted to be an artist at a young age, not fully knowing what that meant," she said.

"It's so much about discovering something within yourself and developing a language that is truly your own," Donovan said. "It evolves over time."

According to the Macarthur Foundation, Donovan's work will change contemporary sculpture and installation art for years to come. But nothing has changed for Donovan herself. When asked what she would do with her award money she responded, "Just keep doing what I do. Make art. Pay taxes."

Since 1981, 781 individuals have been given grants from the Macarthur Fellows Program. According to the foundation the awards are intended to encourage people to pursue their creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations -- with no specific limitations on how the money is spent. In total the Macarthur Foundation has given out almost $4 billion since its creation.

Other recipients this year include:

Adam Reiss - An astronomer investigating the geometry of the universe and its origins and its possible end.

Sally Temple - A neuroscientist researching neurons and working to find treatments for central nervous system damage.

Chimamanda Adichie - A Nigerian novelist trying to bring understanding of ethnic conflicts through her words and her own experiences.

Walter Kitundu - An experimental instrument builder, composer and musician creating new instruments and possibilities for music.

Diane Meier - A geriatrician transforming how the elderly are provided medical care and having their social needs met.

Marin Soljacic - An optical physicist who realized Nikola Tesla's theory that electricity can be transmitted wirelessly; a technology that may someday be used to charge devices without the need for a power outlet.

Miguel Zenon - A jazz musician who is blending various jazz styles to fuse a new style of jazz for a new century.

Peter Pronovost - A critical care physician who is changing medical procedures to improve human error and reduce patient mortality.

John Ochsendorf - A structural engineer and architectural historian preserving historic structures and finding uses for ancient architectural techniques for contemporary use.

Jennifer Tipton - A stage lighting designer changing the relationship between stage lighting and performance.

Stephen Houston - An anthropologist revealing the Mesoamerican life from hieroglyphic inscriptions and figural art.

David Montgomery - A geomorphologist improving the understanding of the geophysical forces that shaped civilizations and continue to define our world.

Alex Ross - A music critic who continues to expand understanding of classic and contemporary music to music scholars and the general public alike.

Nancy Siraisi - A medical historian whose research has brought greater understanding of medieval and Renaissance medical history.

Rachel Wilson - A neurobiologist whose research has increased understanding of sensory physiology.

Kirsten Bomblies - A molecular biologist who is broadening our understanding of how new species originate.

Wafaa El-Sadr - An infectious disease specialist who has developed new methods for treating HIV and tuberculosis.

Andrea Ghez - An astronomer who has improved on how scientists look into the night sky by overcoming atmospheric limitations of ground-instruments.

Mary Jackson - A fiber artist who has preserved centuries-old techniques of sweetgrass basketry.

Leila Josefowicz - A violinist is bringing together traditional and contemporary works to inspire new violin compositions.

Alexei Kitaev - A physicist who has contributed to theoretical physics and continues to work on quantum systems.

Susan Mango - A biologist researching on how complex organisms form.