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MacArthur Foundation blesses 25 of the best and brightest with hefty checks, instant fame
CHICAGO (CNN) -- One is challenging long-held theories about the origin of anthropoid primates. Another, working from her wheelchair, helps women worldwide break the bounds of disability.
In what has become an annual rite of scholarship and the arts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation late Tuesday unveiled its newest class of "MacArthur fellows." Each of the 25 honorees will receive $500,000 over five years, to be spent any way they wish.
The distinguished cast includes K. Christopher Beard, 38, an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and Susan Sygall, 47, executive director and co-founder of the organization Mobility International USA.
According to the MacArthur Foundation, Beard "caused excitement recently when he uncovered evidence in China that indicates anthropoid primates may have developed fist in Asia rather than Africa."
Sygall, the Foundation says, "is dedicated to improving the lives of persons worldwide who have disabilities."
Others on the list of 25 fellows include Margaret Murnane, 41, a physics professor who studies lasers and X-rays; Ben Katchor, 48, a comic strip artist who meticulously recreates the sidewalks of old New York; and Matthew Rabin, 36, an economist-psychologist who thinks that how we handle money says a lot about who we are as humans.
Daniel J. Socolow, director of the program, said MacArthur fellows are chosen not only for the great things they do today, but for what they could achieve tomorrow.
"This new group of fellows is a wonderful collection of extraordinary minds in motion," Socolow said.
Radio documentarian David Isay, 34, found out last Thursday he'd been selected as a fellow, but the MacArthur Foundation swore him to secrecy. At first he thought he was the victim of a crank call.
"It was a total shock," said Isay. "It was like I was hit in the head with a brick. I went into complete shock."
Some call them 'genius grants'
Started in 1981, the MacArthur program annually names between 20 and 40 people to receive a fellowship. The MacArthur Foundation, which funds the grants, is a philanthropic giant created in 1970 by the late John MacArthur, who made a fortune in the insurance business.
Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said winning candidates share many of the same characteristics: Scholarship, artistic achievement, creativity and dedication to public service. Whether in dance, the applied sciences or philosophy, they all have achieved something pretty fantastic.
Undiscovered Einsteins should take note: There is no fellowship application process. Winners are selected in a secretive review by specially chosen -- and anonymous -- nominators.
Candidates typically never even know they're up for a fellowship. The first word they get of their good fortune comes in a phone call from the foundation.
"It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life-changing," said Socolow.
So far, the program has named 588 fellows, ranging in age from 18 to 82, foundation officials said.
Fellows challenge the bounds of creativity
The average American may never have heard of the honorees, but within the winners' field their work usually is widely recognized.
A few eventually achieve global stature, such as the late poet Joseph Brodsky. A former MacArthur fellow, Brodsky went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987.
One criteria of the selection process looks at how a candidate would benefit from a stipend. The program wants each winner to have the chance to excel in ways they might otherwise be unable to achieve.
Isay, for example, said it's a challenge every month for him to make the monthly payroll of his small, not-for-profit company. A big check, however, is not the most rewarding aspect of being named a MacArthur fellow, he said.
"It's really the honor of the thing," he said. "It's fun. It's really cool."
For the MacArthur Foundation, part of the pleasure of running the program comes in getting to know the fellows.
"(They) are selected as individuals, but when we look at them as a group, unexpected and interesting threads emerge that weave them together," Socolow said.
"Considered from different perspectives, these fellows are mining history, creating from raw materials, redefining motion, illuminating responsibility, defending the environment and challenging boundaries."
The MacArthur Foundation
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