CHICAGO – A Chicago skyscraper architect, a New York City children’s choir founder and a North Carolina scientist who studies how to prevent sports-related concussions are among the latest 22 recipients of the no-strings-attached MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”
The $500,000 fellowships for 2011 were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Recipients largely don’t know they’re in contention for the annual awards and often learn they’re winners with an out-of-the-blue phone call informing them they’ll receive the money over the next five years.
“I was dumbfounded; I actually cried,” said Francisco J. Nunez, 46, founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Nunez finished what he called a “very strenuous” board meeting when he received a call from a phone number he didn’t recognize.
“I get this call from a gentleman,” Nunez said. “He tells me to tell whomever I’m with to leave and go into a private room. Next thing I know I have to sit down at my desk. I started shaking.”
Recipients can spend the money however they like, but many like Nunez say the honor of the fellowship makes them focus on what they would accomplish in their fields if only they had the means. And now they do. His group’s many choir programs have more than 1,000 young singers.
“I feel like I have an opportunity here and a challenge to figure out something really great,” he said. The foundation cited him for “shaping the future of choral singing for children.”
Even though they’re referred to as the “genius grants,” MacArthur Foundation President Robert Gallucci said the more attractive quality is creativity.
“We hope we’re giving these people an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have to pursue their area or interest and let that spirit that has driven them to be free to accomplish more in the future,” Gallucci said. “We’re aiming here at the future.”
As in previous years, a wide variety of fields are represented on the list of recipients, including both arts and sciences. This year’s list includes a former U.S. poet laureate, an elder rights lawyer, an evolutionary geneticist, a jazz percussionist, a cellist and a developmental biologist.
The foundation relies on hundreds of anonymous nominators to offer names to be put in contention for the grants. Nominations only are accepted from the list of anonymous nominators. Recipients often say they have no idea who nominated them.
Names are then given to a selection committee of about a dozen anonymous members. They meet regularly to review nominations, narrow the list and then make final recommendations to the MacArthur Foundation’s board of directors.
Including this year’s recipients the MacArthur Foundation has awarded 850 genius grants since 1981.
Jeanne Gang, 47, was the architect of Chicago’s 82-story Aqua Tower and her firm, Studio Gang, puts a focus on green building and sustainable design. MacArthur cited Gang’s designs for challenging “the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form.” Gang said she will put together a plan for the grant money and methodically follow it.
“I’ve always tried to maintain a very experimental side and research side of our practice,” Gang said. “(The grant) will feed into our research, our prototyping, our creativity.”
Kevin Guskiewicz’s studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have made strides in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of sports-related concussions. Guskiewicz, 45, said he wants to use some of the grant money to develop rehabilitation plans for athletes and soldiers who suffer concussions. The foundation noted Guskiewicz’s combination of laboratory and on-the-field investigations to further his research.
“It’s sort of like piecing together a puzzle,” he said. “We still have several more pieces of the puzzle to put in place.”
Some MacArthur money could go to the ECO Girls project in southeastern Michigan. Tiya Miles, 41, started the project when she was on sabbatical from her job as an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The environmental mentorship program connects urban girls with college students, she said.
“We’ve been getting some small grants, but I didn’t know how I was going to fund this project,” Miles said.
Miles’ scholarship focuses on the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S. and the relationships between African and Cherokee people in early America. The foundation said Miles is “reframing and reinterpreting the history of our diverse nation.” The grant money affords her the luxury of taking time to think and reflect on her future, Miles said.
“I have lots of plans that I could imagine,” she said.
There was one economist on the list: Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor who studies race and inequality in America.
A few years back, Fryer published a study that found that children with “distinctively Black” names fared no worse than other children on several socioeconomic measures, after controlling for circumstances at birth. That study was co-authored with Steven Levitt, of “Freakonomics” fame.
National Public Radio contributed to this report.