STARRY-EYED: Margie Profet used her MacArthur funds to switch fields of study.
Margie Profet had been researching reproductive biology for 10 years when the call came, out of the blue, in 1993. On the line was an official with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago, informing her that she had been named to join one of the most creative and elite groups of thinkers and doers in the world.

Such a scene has been played out 479 times since 1981, when the first MacArthur Fellowships were awarded. The fellowship has grown from a new and sometimes confusing award into one of the United States' most celebrated honors. Grantees receive a cash award that ranges from $150,000 to $375,000 and comprehensive health coverage-all with no strings attached.

Frank J. Sulloway: "My MacArthur period was the one period of my life when I wasn't living hand-to-mouth on...

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