A Massachusetts doctor fighting the global threat of viruses and a longtime Maine fisherman combining science with his experience on the water to save a way of life are among the 25 recipients of the MacArthur ''genius" grants announced today.
The MacArthur Fellows Program, now in its 25th year, awards $500,000 with no strings attached to encourage people who have shown great potential in a wide variety of fields, from the sciences to the arts. The Fellowship is unusual, and particularly dramatic, because it is shrouded in secrecy. Winners do not apply and do not even know that they are being considered until they get a phone call informing them they have won.
''I was blown away," said Dr. Sue Goldie, one of two New England winners, who uses computers to devise more effective strategies for fighting diseases.
The awards, which are sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are considered one of the country's highest honors. But the announcements, made every fall as school begins, also provide the public with a view of the extraordinary intellectual creativity in their midst.
Goldie, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, has earned acclaim in the relatively unknown discipline of ''decision science," which seeks to bring the rigors of mathematics to difficult real-world problems where much is unknown. A passionate advocate for the disadvantaged, Goldie, 43, builds computer programs that simulate the ways viruses move through society, combining biological research with epidemiology and sociology. This work has allowed Goldie and her colleagues to develop more effective strategies for fighting the human papilloma virus, which is linked to cervical cancer, the most common cancer killer of women in the world.
The other New England winner, Ted Ames, 66, grew up in a fishing family on Deer Island, off the Maine coast. Ames, who earned a master's degree in biochemistry at the University of Maine, has worked to bridge the gap between scientists and fishermen over how to manage fish.
Ames said his family has been in commercial fishing since before the American Revolution, and that he had his first boat at age 12. Ames has studied the biology of fish, combining it with the knowledge of fishermen in an attempt to understand the bewildering and changing underwater ecology of the Gulf of Maine. Ames founded the Penobscot East Resource Center to study the fishery and bring fishermen and scientists together.
''We need to create some common ground," Ames said.
In the arts, the winners include Jonathan Lethem, a New York-based novelist who wrote ''Motherless Brooklyn" and is known for intertwining elements from traditional genres such as science fiction and westerns in unusual ways; Julie Mehretu, a New York-based painter whose work evokes multiple time periods and locations; and Aaron Dworkin, a music educator in Detroit who founded the Sphinx Organization, which works to bring minorities into classical music.
In the sciences, a MacArthur Fellowship was awarded to Nicole King, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies how multicelled organisms evolved from early, single-celled organisms. Among the other science winners were Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist at Cornell University who studies complex networks; and Steven Goodman, a conservation biologist who studies endangered plants and animals in Madagascar for a Chicago museum.
Although the MacArthur has come to be known as the ''genius grant," the organizers emphasized that the award is also meant to recognize creativity and the other qualities -- such as sheer tenaciousness -- that lead people to great works.
For Goldie, an early, life-shaping experience came with her discovery of tae kwon do at age 11. Goldie said she had a lonely, difficult childhood and was moved from one foster home to another, and tae kwon do became a foundation for her life. She recalled often being kicked out of math class for being disruptive, but then using her time in the hallway to pore through the textbook so she could earn a 100 on the next test -- her way of proving something to the world.
Even today, after working her way up to a position at Harvard School of Public Health, Goldie is so driven that many nights she will read past midnight, wearing a headlamp like a cave explorer, while her husband is asleep. The idea that large numbers of people can be helped through broad, sometimes simple changes -- the foundation of public health -- inspires her to work on five hours of sleep a night.
''This is a cause that you can devote your life to," Goldie said. ''You can help your neighbor, and you can help your global neighbor."
Goldie and Ames both said they have not decided how to spend their winnings, but Ames related the story of a fisherman who wins a lottery prize and must decide what to do: He keeps fishing.
''I think success comes from the pleasure of doing what you enjoy," Ames said.
Gareth Cook can be reached at email@example.com.