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September 30, 2021

The 6 new MacArthur 'geniuses' in health care

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    The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday announced 25 "genius" grant winners, including six who work in health care or who have made contributions to the field.

    The 'Most Influential’ health care leaders, according to TIME

    Candidate selection

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

    To select fellows, a committee of leaders across multiple industries reviews nominations brought to its attention by a pool of external nominators. The selection committee completes a multi-step review and typically names between 20 and 30 fellows each year.

    As with prior years, the 2021 winners will each 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."

    Overall, according to the foundation, 1,061 people have been named MacArthur Fellows since 1981.

    The winners

    This year, six "genius" grant winners were awarded for their work to advance health care.

    Marcella Alsan, a physician-economist who serves as a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, was awarded a fellowship for her work investigating the role discrimination and resulting mistrust play in perpetuating racial disparities in health care. According to the foundation, Alsan's "most influential work to date provides empirical evidence for the widely held hypothesis that mistrust of medical institutions contributes to poor health indicators experienced by Black men in the United States."

    Trevor Bedford, a computational virologist in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was awarded a fellowship for developing tools for real-time tracking of virus evolution and the spread of infectious diseases, including the viral pathogens that cause influenza, Ebola, and Covid-19. 

    Bedford on Tuesday tweeted that while he is "honored and overwhelmed" to be named as a fellow, "it's difficult for [him] to sort out [his] feelings about these awards, as they are so intertwined with the pandemic." He added, "It feels perhaps uncomfortable to be professionally rewarded for doing something that felt like a moral imperative. So many scientists, public health officials, health care workers, journalists and others have worked themselves bare during the pandemic. Though there's still a long road in front of us, I'm confident that our collective effort will ultimately get COVID under control."

    Ibrahim Cissé, a biological physicist at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Germany, was awarded a fellowship for developing microscopy tools to investigate the subcellular processes underlying genetic regulation and misfunction.

    Joshua Mielean adaptive technology designer at Amazon, was awarded a fellowship for developing devices that enable blind and visually impaired individuals, including himself, to access everyday technologies and digital information.

    Michelle Monjea neurologist and neuro-oncologist at Stanford University, was awarded a fellowship for her work advancing understanding of pediatric brain cancers and the effects of cancer treatments with an eye toward improving therapies for patients.

    Victor J. Torres, a microbiologist at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, was awarded a fellowship for investigating how "multidrug-resistant bacteria cause disease and identifying new therapies to fight and prevent infection," particularly in regard to Staphylococcus aureus, which causes a wide range of diseases, according to the foundation.

    A focus on social justice

    According to Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the program, the goal of the award is to recognize "exceptional creativity," as well as future potential, across several fields, including the arts, sciences, humanities, advocacy, and more.

    "As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this [2021] class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what's possible," she added. "They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries. It happens in all fields of endeavor, among the relatively young and more seasoned, in Iowa and Puerto Rico."

    Notably, most of the 2021 fellows, while held in high regard in their fields, are not currently household names, the New York Times reports. In addition, while there is no specific theme for any given class, almost all the winners this year who are not in the sciences do work relating to social and racial justice. According to the Times, this coincides with the foundation's funding priorities, as it was one of five foundations that in June 2020 pledged additional payouts of $1.7 billion in response to the pandemic.

    The foundation in July also announced $80 million in grants to support "an equitable recovery from the pandemic and combat anti-Blackness, uplift Indigenous Peoples and improve public health equity."  (Hauck, USA Today, 9/28; Stevens/Schuessler, New York Times, 9/29; Vera, CNN, 9/28)

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