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Meet Some of this Year's MacArthur Fellows

Surprise, shock, honor. Such were the emotions of many of the MacArthur Fellows selected this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.2023 Mac Arthur Fellows

"I was in total shock when I first learned about it,” said Dr. Linsey C. Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor and University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and one of the 20 individuals chosen to be part of the MacArthur Fellow Class of 2023. “It's kind of a mixture of elation and excitement and good fortune, because there's so many people out there doing great research."

As part of the honor, the 20 fellows – selected and recognized for their groundbreak work and potential – will each receive an $800,000 ‘genius grant,’ issued quarterly over five years.

“The 2023 MacArthur Fellows are applying individual creativity with global perspective, centering connections across generations and communities,” said Marlies Carruth, director of the MacArthur Fellows program. “They forge stunning forms of artistic expression from ancestral and regional traditions, heighten our attention to the natural world, improve how we process massive flows of information for the common good, and deepen understanding of systems shaping our environment.” 

Among the fellows this year were lauded scholars, poets, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, and writers.

Marr, for one, is a civil and environmental engineer with a specific focus on air quality, airborne pathogens, atmospheric science, and public health. Her research has involved studying today’s airborne issues such as air pollution and COVID-19 transmission.

It is understandable that many of the fellows found themselves caught off-guard by the award. The program – “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations” – are awarded based on external nominators from various fields. The nominations are then evaluated while the nominees themselves are never officially informed of their nomination status unless selected.

The program has picked 1131 people as MacArthur Fellows since 1981, with roughly 20 to 30 selected per year.

"It's shocking and astonishing. To be in the company of such esteemed fellows – molecular biologists, a poet laureate, legal and environmental scholars – that's a huge deal,” said fellow Patrick Makuakāne, a choreographer and cultural preservationist who is the founder, director, and kumu hula (hula master) of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu dance company.

“And then there's hula. [It] says to me that … maybe MacArthur understands how transformative it is to people's lives, having hula in their life."

Dr. Lester Mackey, principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England and adjunct professor at Stanford University, said that he intended to continue working to address social issues via his field of machine learning.

“Since joining the field in about 2007, I felt that there are certain aspects of the world and its problems that were largely neglected. And a lot of these are social issues,” said Mackey, whose technological work has focused on machine learning for use in fields such as climate, weather, and medicine. “I dedicate at least some of my time to seeing how we, as machine learning people, can contribute to those. I'd love to do more of that and see how we can do that most effectively."

The MacArthur Fellow honor does not come with specific responsibilities or commitments, instead opting for a “no strings attached" model for its fellows. This gives recipients a fair degree of flexibility when it comes to choosing what to do with their awarded funds.

"I was raised with not much money. So I have never had a cushion, if you will. There was never a safety net,” said fellow Ada Limón, the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States and a renowned poet whose work describes and illustrates the complexities of nature, human experiences, and interpersonal connections. “And so, to be honest, the thing that it's given me is this financial security which I've never experienced."

Though the program honors individuals, Limón said that she viewed the award as one that commends more than just the people named.

"One of the things that I've always resisted is the idea of a singular person achieving. I do think that we always are part of communities,” Limón said. “And even if you are an isolated artist that works solely on your poems alone in your office, your work is always responding to others. For me, the biggest thing I think about is [that] I hope that it brings attention to not just me but to poetry and the poetic community."

Part of the assessment for who gets to be a Fellow is based not just on work done, but work that could be done. The program accounts for “the potential of what could be” in its recipients, said fellow María Magdalena Campos-Pons, a multidisciplinary artist and the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Fine Arts at Vanderbilt University. Her own artistic interests include themes and topics of representation, diaspora, exile, being Cuban, the Black experience, and women.

Marr said she viewed the MacArthur Foundation honor as “a vote of confidence,” but added that the recognition did come with certain pressures.

“It also weighs on me. There's expectations now,” Marr said. “The fellowship is no-strings-attached. ... But still, I do feel an obligation really to society to try to continue to address important problems that matter to the average person."

In the case of fellow and fiction writer Manuel Muñoz, the award reaffirms the value of his work.

“I am still grappling with the enormity and significance of this recognition,” Muñoz said in an email. “I was eleven years between books and, at my lowest creative point, seriously thought about not writing much anymore."

Muñoz draws inspiration from and writes about the lives of Mexican American communities in California, bringing in intimate themes of underlying emotion, social norms and tensions, aspiration, labor, and strength during hardship.

“I still have to meditate on what [the award] means to me but, right now, it is standing as an affirmation of persistence and how the story did not abandon me:  I may have doubted that I could write them or that others would want to read them, but the pull of story and its demand to be written never truly left me,” Muñoz said. “I'm full of gratitude for that.”

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