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'Genius grant' winners get $500K

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Sept. 22, 2012 photo provided by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Elissa Hallem,  34, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who explores the physiology and behavioral consequences of odor detection in invertebrates and identifies interventions that may eventually reduce the scourge of parasitic infections in humans. is seen at her office in Los Angeles. Hallem is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation In this Sept. 22, 2012 photo provided by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Elissa Hallem, 34, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who explores the physiology and behavioral consequences of odor detection in invertebrates and identifies interventions that may eventually reduce the scourge of parasitic infections in humans. is seen at her office in Los Angeles. Hallem is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." (Associated Press)

CHICAGO — Mandolin player and composer Chris Thile learned the hard way that when you get a call from the 312 area code this time of year, you should probably answer the phone.

Thile is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants," which are given in a secrecy-shrouded process. Winners have no idea they've been nominated for the $500,000 awards until they get the call, and nominators must remain anonymous.

Thile ignored the incessant phone calls from the foundation at first, thinking they were election-year robocalls. Then he received an ominous message: "Don't tell anyone about this call."

His tour manager searched for the number online and told him, "It appears to be from something called the MacArthur Foundation." It was a name Thile recognized.

"I think I must have turned white," he said. "I've never felt so internally warm. My heart was racing. All of a sudden, I felt very askew physically. I was trying to catch my breath. ... I thought, 'Oh my God, did I win a MacArthur?'"

In this Sept. 19, 2012 photo provided by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David Finkel, 56, a Washington Post journalist whose long-form newswriting has transformed readers? understanding of military service and sacrifice, is seen at his home in Silver Spring, Md. Finkel is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation In this Sept. 19, 2012 photo provided by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David Finkel, 56, a Washington Post journalist whose long-form newswriting has transformed readers? understanding of military service and sacrifice, is seen at his home in Silver Spring, Md. Finkel is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." (Associated Press)

The grants, paid over five years, give recipients freedom to pursue a creative vision. Winners, who work in fields ranging from medicine and science to the arts and journalism, don't have to report how they spend the money.

Northwestern University historian Dylan C. Penningroth said he now can expand his search for court records of property owned by slaves in the pre-Civil War South.

"This grant will make it possible for me to think big, to be more ambitious about the time period I cover and the questions I'm trying to answer, like, what's the connection to the modern civil rights era?" Penningroth said.

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