Va. Bluesman, U-Md. Professor Among 24 Awarded MacArthur Grants
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Marc Edwards thought "it was a sick practical joke." Lisa Cooper initially refused to take the call. Ruth DeFries was "just in shock, in total shock."
But this morning the three Washington area researchers -- and 21 other brilliant, accomplished, creative people around the country -- can say they are "geniuses," and $500,000 richer for it.
"You don't have contingency plans on the side in case you win $500,000," joked Corey Harris, a blues musician in Charlottesville who said he's just beginning to imagine exactly what he'll do with the money.
The eclectic class of fellows includes a forensic anthropologist, a medieval historian and a spider-silk biologist.
Edwards, 43, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, helped raise alarms about lead in Washington drinking water. Cooper, 44, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, examines the role of race and ethnicity in doctor-patient relationships. DeFries, 50, a professor of environmental geography at the University of Maryland, studies how humans are transforming the Earth's surface.
The Chicago-based foundation famously grants the money with no strings attached, no requirement that the recipients actually do anything. "With the gift of time and unfettered opportunity to create and explore, we are confident that the fellows will follow their hearts and their minds wherever they lead, making new discoveries and making a difference in the world," MacArthur president Jonathan Fanton said in a statement.
Since 1981, 756 fellows have been selected. The new fellows received their phone calls last week and were instructed to confide in no more than one person. Edwards -- once he was convinced it was no joke -- told his wife, Jui-Ling, who broke down in tears, because the couple has sacrificed so much for his work, he said.
"We incurred some substantial financial debts in the last few years to make progress on the Washington, D.C., lead and drinking water issue," he said.
Prying loose documents via Freedom of Information Act requests, Edwards earlier this year helped bring attention to tests that indicated elevated lead levels in water fountains at several public schools. He said he will use the MacArthur money to pursue his investigations of deteriorating water systems in Washington and other cities.
Cooper shared the secret with her husband, Nigel Green. "He's been teasing me about it, 'Oh, I'm married to a genius!' " she said.
Born in Liberia, Cooper went to college and medical school in the States, where she was struck by the central role race plays in social interactions. In medical school, she further noticed that race and ethnicity -- and the related influences of cultural backgrounds, past experience, unconscious assumptions -- affect the way doctors and patients interacted. That, in turn, could affect medical care. She decided to "get inside what happens in these doctor-patient visits."