October 12, 2017

Meet this year's health care MacArthur 'geniuses'

Daily Briefing

    The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Wednesday announced 24 "genius" grant winners, including four who work in health care or have made contributions to the field.  

    The selection process

    The MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program recognizes creativity, originality, and the potential to make an important contribution to the world. The fellowship is often called a "genius grant" or "genius award."

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    To select fellows, a committee of leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities, and for-profit and not-for profit communities review nominations brought to the committee's attention by a pool of external nominators, according to the foundation. The selection committee completes a multi-step review and typically names between 20 and 30 fellows each year.

    The 2017 winners each will receive a $625,000 stipend, dispersed in quarterly installments over five years. The funding comes with "no strings attached," the foundation noted, as the award is designed to "support ... people, not projects."

    Regina Barzilay

    Regina Barzilay, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was awarded a fellowship for her work developing new machine learning methods that enable computers to analyze unstructured data and perform real-world tasks. According to the foundation, Barzilay currently is working with physicians and her students to leverage machine-learning in oncology and develop deep-learning models that use imaging, free text, and structured data to detect trends that affect disease prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment. Her work holds "the promise for significant societal impact," the foundation said.

    Emmanuel Candés

    Emmanuel Candés, a mathematician and statistician at Stanford University, was awarded a fellowship for his research into signal recovery and matrix completion from incomplete data sets—research that, according to the foundation, has implications for health care imaging. Candés' work reconstructing high-resolution signals from limited measures under specific conditions could help reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a high-resolution MRI scan, "an outcome with particularly beneficial implications for children," the foundation said. Candés framework, according to the foundation, also "holds promise for phase retrieval," a problem that appears in several applications, including diffraction imaging (X-ray).  

    Betsy Levy Paluck

    Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University, was awarded a fellowship for her study of social norms and networks. The foundation said her work is "providing new insights into strategies for reducing patterns of discrimination, bullying, and ethnic conflict" in a range of settings.

    In a year-long field experiment into ethnic tolerance in post-conflict Rwanda, Paluck demonstrated that to effect behavior change, it is more important to change individuals' perception of social norms than it is to change individual beliefs. Currently, Paluck and colleagues are conducting an ongoing longitudinal study into bullying, harassment, and prejudice in schools in New Jersey.

    Gabriel Victora

    Gabriel Victora, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, was awarded a fellowship for his study of acquired immunity and the mechanisms by which organisms respond to infection. The foundation said Victora's work has led to "the most definitive evidence to date" that antibody maturation happens "in a manner akin to Darwinian evolution."

    This insight may shed light on why immune responses occur against only some of the antigenic features that occur during infection, as well as why the immune system prefers using antibodies from an earlier infection even when less effective against a slightly different, new infection, the foundation said. Practical applications of Victora's research influence development of new and more effective vaccines and treatment for autoimmune disorders, the foundation said (Dwyer, "The Two-Way," NPR, 10/11; Gibson, Washington Post, 10/11; Schuessler, New York Times, 10/11; Regina Barzilay, macfound.org, accessed 10/11; Emmanuel Candés, macfound.org, accessed 10/11; "Betsy Levy Paluck," macfound.org, accessed 10/11; "Gabriel Victora," macfound.org, accessed 10/11; "MacArthur Fellows Program," macfound.org, accessed  10/11; "About MacArthur Fellows Program," macfound.org, accessed 10/11).

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