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Awarding Genius Endeavors

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program gives unrestricted $500,000 awards to a select group of talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their pursuits. Here are four of this year’s winners:

Tapping Every Student’s Potential

For almost 18 years, Dr. Deborah Bial has been making college accessible to inner-city students by working with colleges to create alternative ways to identify talented students who may not meet the traditional standards for admission — high SAT scores and class rank — but have other qualities essential for success: motivation and leadership.

The founder and president of the collegeaccess organization, The Posse Foundation Inc., Bial was awarded the MacArthur grant for her continuous dedication to making a college education become an attainable dream.

“Winning the MacArthur fellowship is not only wonderful for me but for Posse,” says Bial. “MacArthur identifies people that have potential for the future and that’s exactly what Posse is about, too.”

With the help of Posse staff who sort through the nominations made by teachers, counselors and community organizations, Bial selects promising students from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

Selected students join a “posse” or a small group that participates in an eight-month pre-collegiate training program that includes seminars in team building and academic workshops.

Posse students get free tuition from the 28 partner colleges that include Boston University, Brandeis University (Mass.), Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), and Wheaton College (Ill.). Over the course of the students’ college careers, Posse monitors the progress of the students, who are required to participate in study programs.

Though Posse is located in major cities, Bial says it is neither a minority nor need-based program, and is geared towards all types of students, regardless of race.

“In the United States, people use the term diversity as a synonym for minority, but we don’t do that at Posse,” says Bial. “We want everyone involved in the conversation of college diversity and leadership equity.”

Since the foundation began, it has sent nearly 2,000 students to college with awards totaling $175 million, but Bial wants to send 5,000 students to college by the year 2020.

Bial received her bachelor’s and master’s from Brandeis University and her doctorate in education from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

— By Magaret Kamara

Improving Bedside Manners

A representative from the MacArthur Foundation, at first posing as a reporter, called to inform the stunned Dr. Lisa Cooper, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, that she was being recognized for her work in studying the quality of communication between patients and physicians and how it relates to racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

Cooper, who has a medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says she has employed a variety of techniques in her research, including analyzing patient and physician surveys and listening to audio recordings of patient visits.

Improved interpersonal dynamics when patients are allowed to discuss personal and family- related issues, Cooper adds, helps build rapport between patients and physicians and helps foster patient involvement.

“Visits where the patient talks more and the doctor talks less tend to be more satisfying to the patient,” says Cooper, adding that her intense interest in medicine blossomed at an early age.

 “I was raised in a medical family. My grandmother was a nurse and my father was a surgeon,” says Cooper as she recalls visiting her father’s clinic in her native Liberia. “I’d see children come in who didn’t feel well and I thought, ‘I’m going to be a doctor and take care of children.’”

Cooper says she ventured to the United States at age 17 where she enrolled in college with the intention of returning to Liberia to practice medicine. But her plans soon changed.

“I didn’t (go back) because of the political instability there, and I didn’t move back home to live,” says Cooper, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Emory University in 1984.

Although Cooper says she has not decided what she’s going to do with the $500,000 grant, she hopes to expand her research to include international communication approaches in the future.

“I hope that I can expand my work in some new directions and that I can learn more about the reasons for the different types of communication problems that exist,” Cooper says. “Maybe then I can look to solutions that would apply not only in the U.S. but in the developing world in a place like Africa, where I grew up, where a lot of similar situations exist.”

— By Dana Forde

 Studying Spider Silks

The MacArthur award has been dubbed the “genius” award, but Dr. Cheryl Hayashi, an associate professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, says she is not comfortable with the idea of being referred to as a genius.

“I’d say that I’m dedicated, enthusiastic and I have a lot of perseverance for what I do,” Hayashi says. “But I personally don’t use the ‘g’ word. I’m just appreciative that the work I do has been recognized.” Hayashi has been praised by the MacArthur Foundation for her work in the biological study of spider silks.

Hayashi analyzes the molecular genetics of these silks and their protein sequences. Her work focuses on the diversity of silks that are found among various types of spiders and different familial spider groups.

“Spiders make silks and everybody knows that, but what people might not realize is that most spiders make several kinds of silk,” says Hayashi, adding that species such as the orb web weaving spider produce seven different types of silk. “What I do is clone the genes that underlie these silk proteins. I try to figure out what is the gene for this protein, what is the sequence and how does it relate to the physical properties of that silk.”

Hayashi says she discovered an interest in studying spiders as an undergraduate at Yale University and credits growing up in Hawaii for helping her develop a strong appreciation for science.

“When I was a kid, I was interested in so many things…I can’t say I always knew I was going to be a scientist, (but) I was exposed to so much biology and natural diversity in Hawaii,” Hayashi says. “Hawaii is really a living laboratory of evolution.”

Hayashi says she’s still not sure exactly how she will use the $500,000 grant, but that she hopes to use it toward more research initiatives.

“I’m certainly considering more high-risk projects, and I’m considering using the opportunity to travel the United States and internationally,” says Hayashi, adding that most of her work has been centered on California spiders. “I just see so much opportunity globally.”

Hayashi adds that she hopes she can inspire other women and minorities to pursue interests in the field of science and other STEM disciplines. “Hopefully people can see that scientists come in all shapes, colors and sizes,” Hayashi says. “And hopefully we can figure out how to increase the participation of women and underrepresented groups (in science).”

— By Dana Forde

Giving Others a Second Chance At Life  

Dr. Yoky Matsuoka, assistant professor in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, is a mastermind in the research world of neurobotics.

She is broadening our understanding of how the brain works to coordinate musculoskeletal action in order to properly build robotic technology that can assist people with manipulation disabilities such as brain injuries and reduce functional capabilities.

For her exceptional work in creative robotic research to help humans move forward after suffering serious injuries, she received the 2007 MacArthur Foundation grant.

“Unbelievable, it can’t be me,” Matsuoka recalls thinking when she discovered that she was receiving the award. “I am not a genius.”

Matsuoka’s admiration for neurobotics blossomed during her years at the University of California, Berkeley. As a student-athlete playing tennis, she fantasized about building a robot that could play tennis with her to help her improve her skills.

Though she never built a tennis robot because “not enough is known about humans to replicate them into robotic forms,” Matsuoka says it was the concept of using neuroscience and robotics to help people that introduced her to the field.

Matsuoka, who earned her bachelor’s from UC Berkeley and her master’s and doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on several research projects. One includes a sophisticated robotic prosthetic hand device that has an intrinsic tendon structure with precise finger movements that closely resembles a human hand and can respond to sensor signals from the brain.

Another project is intended to help stroke patients recover through a virtual environment and visual feedback program used during therapy. The program addresses the condition of decreased movements, “nonuse,” that affects a quarter of all stroke patients by encouraging patients to push beyond perceived limitations to their range of motion and strength.

This device will provide a more accurate assessment of stroke patients’ progress, increasing the efficacy of rehabilitation.

Though Matsuoka is making great strides in technological advancements that give people a second chance at life, she does not see herself as a hero, preferring to instead praise doctors and physical therapists.

But Matsuoka’s research experiments and robotic devices help enhance the current technologies doctors and therapists have and create new alternatives helping patients recover faster.

She plans to write a book that will offer advice to women who are interested in engineering or other sciences but are intimidated by the male dominance in the field. The book will also speak to women who are juggling their professional lives with familial responsibilities.

“I am a professor and mom of three kids,” Matsuoka says. “It turns out that it is very hard to do this [but] I have lived through it, and would like to see if I can give advice in such a way to help recruit and retain women in the field.”

 — By Margaret Kamara

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