For Hopkins Astronomer And 24 Others, The Stars Align
MacArthur Grants Bring $500,000 to High Achievers

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Adam Riess is a man of science, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University who has measured the accelerating expansion of the universe. He knows more than most people about Einstein's cosmological constant and Type 1a supernovae.

But a phone call last week brought him right down to Earth: "I felt jiggly all over," he said.

Jiggly? Is that like giggly?

"I felt giggly, too," he allowed.

The caller was from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, informing Riess that he had just been awarded a half-million bucks to spend however he wanted. Free money in hard times: Who wouldn't go all jiggly? Plus, it happened to be the second big haul for the 38-year-old scientist: A couple of years ago Riess shared the $1 million Shaw Prize, endowed by a Hong Kong philanthropist, with two other researchers.

Foundation President Jonathan Fanton says it's "the nicest time of year," when he and other staff members get to make the calls announcing showers of cash from MacArthur -- 781 fellows have been picked since 1981, counting the 25 whose names were announced today at 12:01 a.m. Sometimes recipients drop the phone, he said. They stammer in disbelief. They exult with delight.

When placing calls to unsuspecting scientists, scholars, artists, writers and musicians, the MacArthur people never get to say, "Congratulations, you're a genius!" That word is banned at the foundation. Fanton is quick to point out that the awards, though commonly called "genius grants," are actually prizes for "creative ability."

Riess gained notice, according to the foundation, because his "observations are taking us to the edges of the universe, telling the story of both its beginning and its end." Said the professor: "I'm definitely not a genius. I see myself more as a pesky inquisitor of nature."

Another Hopkins professor, Peter Pronovost, a critical care physician, won the award for his work to reduce bloodstream infections and deaths caused by catheters used in intensive-care units. He's not just studying data but applying clinical solutions to an ironic tragedy: "You go to the hospital, and you come out sicker. Why the hell should we accept that?" he said.

Pronovost, 43, got word of the windfall while in Washington last week to speak to a conference of academic medical colleges about how to improve focus on patient safety. He took the call in a hallway and had to suppress his desire to shout the news to fellow doctors. The MacArthur money comes with no strings attached, but the foundation insists that recipients share the excitement with only one person until the media-embargoed recipient list goes public.

Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- whose most recent book is "Half of a Yellow Sun" -- took the call in Lagos last Monday. It was her 31st birthday. "It's very exciting," she said, still chortling at week's end. "I really appreciate the recognition. "

And the $500,000?

"I don't have to think about taking a teaching job for the next five years," said Adichie, who recently moved to Columbia to be with her fiance, Ivara Esege, a physician at the University of Maryland. "I can write and get well paid for it for the next five years, which is the best possible position for a writer to be in."

One thing about the MacArthur grants isn't generally known: The money, which is taxable as income, doesn't arrive all at once. It is apportioned into quarterly payments of $25,000 over five years. Adichie, for one, describes this as a "prudent" approach: "I was thinking it's a good thing I don't get a lump check, because God knows what I might do."

As part of notification protocol, the MacArthur staff asks two questions of recipients before spilling the beans: "Are you alone? Are you sitting down?"

Mary Jackson, 63, said yes to both questions: She took the call in her studio on Johns Island, S.C., where she makes sculpture-like baskets from sweet grass, palmetto, bulrush and other natural materials in the Gullah tradition. "I've always known about the fellowships the MacArthur Foundation granted but never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would receive the award," said Jackson, who shows her work almost every year at the Smithsonian Craft Show.

Musical recipients range from well-known classical violinist Leila Josefowicz, 30, who champions contemporary works, to jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón, 31, who wants to use the money in part to organize free concerts in small towns in his native Puerto Rico. "Jazz has almost taken this turn toward being museum music," the Brooklyn, N.Y., musician said. "I think it's very important to bring jazz to the people."

Tara Donovan, 38, is a practitioner of what's called "accumulation art." Her works include an installation made of 2 million clear plastic drinking straws and another comprising 3 million plastic cups (all seven-ounce size) arranged in stacks of different heights. Her materials may seem odd, but they're not cheap. She said of the award: "It sure helps, especially in this rotten economy."

Donovan, who also lives in Brooklyn, missed the call and went into the kitchen to phone the foundation. Her husband was there, cleaning, so of course she didn't tell him to leave, she said with a laugh.

And she couldn't resist calling her mother, who wasn't so keen on the art-school idea to begin with. Donovan got her bachelor's degree at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and a master's at Virginia Commonwealth University. "My mother said, 'You've been telling me that you've been a genius your entire life, and you just got validated.' "

The complete list of 2008 winners:

Chimamanda Adichie, 31, fiction writer, Columbia.

Will Allen, 59, urban farmer, Milwaukee.

Regina Benjamin, 51, rural family physician, Bayou La Batre, Ala.

Kirsten Bomblies, 34, molecular biologist, Tubingen, Germany.

Tara Donovan, 38, sculptor, New York.

Wafaa El-Sadr, 58, infectious disease specialist, New York.

Andrea Ghez, 43, astronomer, Los Angeles.

Stephen Houston, 49, anthropologist, archaeologist and epigrapher, Providence, R.I.

Mary Jackson, 63, fiber artist, Charleston, S.C.

Leila Josefowicz, 30, violinist, New York.

Alexei Kitaev, 45, physicist, Pasadena, Calif.

Walter Kitundu, 35, multimedia artist, San Francisco.

Susan Mango, 47, biologist, Salt Lake City.

Diane Meier, 56, geriatrician, New York.

David Montgomery, 46, geomorphologist, Seattle.

John Ochsendorf, 34, structural engineer and architectural historian, Cambridge, Mass.

Peter Pronovost, 43, critical care physician, Baltimore.

Adam Riess, 38, astronomer, Baltimore.

Alex Ross, 40, music critic, New York.

Nancy Siraisi, 76, historian of medicine, New York.

Marin Soljacic, 34, theoretical physicist, Cambridge.

Sally Temple, 49, developmental neuroscientists, Albany, N.Y.

Jennifer Tipton, 71, stage lighting designer, New York.

Rachel Wilson, 34, neurobiologist, Boston.

Miguel Zenón, 31, saxophonist, New York.

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