SOLVING REAL-WORLD PROBLEMS: MacArthur fellow Vonnie McLoyd's research combines concepts in socioeconomics, psychology, and anthropology.
Thomas Daniel, a zoologist from the University of Washington in Seattle, says the windfall from the Chicago-based philanthropy will allow him and his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to engage in "fringier and riskier" projects than they normally could.
"I think that's the real spirit of the MacArthur fellowships," adds Daniel. "This is a grant to help people who may have some promise, and [the foundation] knows it's a risk."
There are no calls for proposals or application deadlines for the fellowships. Instead, more than 100 anonymous nominators drawn from a variety of fields propose scientists, social activists, artists, and others for consideration. This list is narrowed down by a 13-member selection committee, with the foundation's board of directors making the final selections, which were announced in June. A total of 21 fellows were named this year.
The amount received by a grantee over the five-year period could range from $150,000 to $375,000. The specific figure depends on the age of the recipient, with a slightly higher stipend going to older grantees. Health care benefits are also included.
INVESTING WISELY: MacArthur fellows are not "ditto marks," comments foundation official Catharine Stimpson.
The six scientist-fellows for 1996 are:
- J. Roger P. Angel, 55, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory ($330,000);
- Barbara Block, 38, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford University ($245,000);
- Thomas L. Daniel, 41, a professor of zoology at the University of Washington ($260,000);
- Richard E. Lenski, 39, the Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University ($250,000);
- Vonnie C. McLoyd, 45, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan ($280,000); and
- Nathan Seiberg, 39, a professor of physics at Rutgers University ($250,000).
Another common characteristic among fellows is that they take a broad, integrative approach to their work. For example, Stanford's Block combines techniques and concepts from ecology, evolution, genetics, molecular biology, and physiology to amass a comprehensive biological picture of the life history of oceanic fishes.
Although this quality is not a "necessary condition," remarks Stimpson, "frequently we do see fellows whose work crosses disciplinary borders, as well as ones who bring new information to bear on a discipline, thereby changing prevailing paradigms within an area."
Recipients are not required to submit any kind of report or accounting of how they use their no-strings-attached fellowships. "We hope that the money and recognition we give will enable work to be done that might not have been done before," says Stimpson. "Then we leave it to the fellow to decide what the best investment is."
In the sciences, fellows tend to use their MacArthur award to expand their research. But, she adds, many times there are personal circumstances in which the money makes an "extraordinary" difference. "The grant allows recipients to concentrate on their work," Stimpson stresses. "For example, a fellow might not have to take out a consulting job to pay for the nursing home for an aging parent."
TAKING FLIGHT: Zoologist Thomas Daniel studies the biomechanics of animal flight and movement.
But Daniel's group of grad students and postdocs goes one step further, relating what they discover inside a creature to understand how an animal adjusts its movement to external environmental cues. One of the lab's biomechanical projects deals with the flight mechanics of the hawkmoth.
"This work is unsupported at the moment," says Daniel, "but now it will be." He says he would also like to use some of his money to set up a "mini-gift" to the university to support graduate student research in biomechanics and zoology.
Daniel's work integrates concepts in zoology, engineering, and mathematics, a mix he attributes to his own mentors. He says an undergraduate professor pointed out to him that "biology, [with] all its diversity and wonder, is not free to violate the laws of physics." These are sentiments that Daniel uses to guide his own work and teaching.
Daniel reports that he's "been asked many times" what he thinks it is about his work that led to the call from Stimpson. "I'm stuck. My publication record is not particularly high or low in terms of numbers. But the things I'm proud of are pretty broad-ranging, from my research on molecular motors to a collaborative project on the extinction and evolution of the ammonoids to my teaching activities."
UNIFICATION: The equations of theoretical physicist Nathan Seiberg tie together several vexing concepts.
Seiberg's work brings together concepts in string theory and the quantum theories of supersymmetry and strong interactions. Supersymmetry is the notion that "the particles comprising matter and force in nature come in pairs. So, for every type of particle of force there is a particle of matter," he explains. "[It's] an idea that many theorists like, but at the moment we don't have any instrumental measurements proving that it's right."
Through mathematical modeling, Seiberg is attempting to combine certain aspects of supersymmetry with principles that explain how subatomic particles behave, namely a force known as the strong interaction. "This is the force that holds the nucleus of an atom together," notes Seiberg. "The equations describing this force are known, but are extremely complex and difficult to solve. Since I was interested in supersymmetry, I looked at what the equations would look like if we would make them consistent with supersymmetry."
With relatively minor modifications, Seiberg, along with physicist Edward Witten from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was able to solve the strong-interaction equations. The solution to this conundrum also has implications for string theory, notes Seiberg. "It turns out that the strong force has electric and magnetic fields much like ordinary electric and magnetic fields. The similarity between the dynamics of these forces can be generalized to string theory."
This theory, he remarks, holds that the fundamental particles of nature are not point-like. "They're more like lines . . . of energy. This idea leads to a unified description of all interactions in nature: gravity, strong and weak interactions, and electromagnetism. The detailed understanding of this theory is still lacking, and that's exciting."
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS: Arizona's Roger Angel, pictured with one of the telescope mirrors he helped to design, plans to detect Earth-like planets using land-based and space-borne devices.
"We've been trying to get funding for two or three years to develop techniques to get pictures of planets of other stars from the ground. This type of project falls in the cracks between NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and NSF [the National Science Foundation]."
The discovery earlier this year of Jupiter-like planets orbiting nearby stars like the sun has heightened interest in this area of astronomy. "At the moment, there's no visualization of these planets because photos taken from telescopes are too blurry due to Earth's atmosphere," he says. With advanced visual-enhancement techniques, Angel's group hopes to decrease the blurring.
According to Angel, one of his lab's more "forward-looking" projects is developing space-borne instruments to detect Earth-like planets (for a review, see J.R.P. Angel, N.J. Woolf, Scientific American, 274:46-52, 1996). "It will take at least a decade to get the technology sorted out, but it has the most striking potential," he remarks.
"The instrument that we've designed is capable of distinguishing planets like Earth," he predicts, explaining that the device will detect the spectrum of heat radiated from a planet. "If we could examine the thermal radiation from another planet and it were like the Earth, it would show the three big features of carbon dioxide, water, and ozone," he says. "Water in the spectrum of another planet would show it was probably habitable, and ozone would be a strong indicator of primitive life, which is the origin of oxygen and ozone in Earth's atmosphere."
EVOLUTION IN ACTION: Microbila ecologist Richard Lenski and colleagues witnessed one type of evolution in their E. coli experiments.
Lenski and colleagues tracked 3,000 generations of the microbe over one year and observed how the population adapted to its surroundings. "The punctuated evolutionary dynamics that we observed, although seemingly very complex, had a very simple underlying cause-natural selection for rare beneficial mutations," he explains. According to Lenski, many people perceive the study of evolution to be "abstract and theoretical," but it has "tremendous practical significance." He says understanding microbe evolution has a huge impact on public health issues, especially with the advent of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the last few decades.
Lenski suggests that his MacArthur award also is recognition for the interdisciplinary aspects of his field. "It combines questions from ecology and evolution with a model system that's been developed by molecular biologists and geneticists." He plans to take a sabbatical in France in about a year to "make connections" and nurture collaborations with European colleagues.
TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE: Marine biologist Barbara Block will attach satellite tags on bluefin tuna with her MacArthur Foundation funds.
"We have a multidisciplinary approach to our biology," she says. "The goal in our lab is to link the different levels of biology." Among other projects, Block's team is working on developing remote technologies for collecting physiological and environmental data from animals like tunas that are difficult to monitor.
"We're pleased to get the fellowship because we're launching what we call a Tag-A-Tuna campaign," says Block, referring to the new "pop-up" satellite monitor her lab plans to attach to bluefin tuna. The tags monitor where the fish travel, as well as such physical parameters as water temperature. At a predetermined time, the tag will release from the tuna, rise to the surface, pop open, and transmit the accumulated data to Block's lab via satellites orbiting the globe.
Despite the tag's innovative design, Block says, "we've had some trouble raising money to do the project, in part because the technologies behind the tags have never been used before."
The satellite tags are still in development, she notes, but the prototypes are scheduled to be completed later this year. "We'll put them first on tuna in captivity and then on tuna in the open ocean."
The MacArthur Foundation describes the contributions of Vonnie C. McLoyd, a developmental psychologist, as pioneering in her "attempt to describe the psychological processes through which economic deprivation influences African American children and families."
"She has shed much light on what forces are influenced by conditions of childhood poverty and the rearing of children," and how they affect outlook and achievement orientation, comments Philip Costanzo, chairman of the department of psychology: social and health sciences at Duke University. McLoyd recently accepted a full professorship in the department after being a visiting professor there for the last year.
"She tackles very complicated questions," says Costanzo. McLoyd conducts longitudinal studies-ascertaining what events in the past affect events in the future-on the interactive influences of race, ethnicity, family, and economic hardship on human development. "Her work employs the best of what social science has to offer to solve real problems," remarks Costanzo. McLoyd uses an innovative mix of methodologies-first-person interviews and data on sociological trends, for example-to get a handle on the real-world problems.
"She has an understanding of economic, psychological, anthropologic, and sociological issues," says Costanzo. "Developmental psychology, which is her home discipline, is by its very nature an interdisciplinary enterprise. She's a very important thinker."
This is a description that MacArthur Fellows program director Stimpson would probably use for all the grantees. "The fellows are innovators in their fields," she asserts. "There's a connection between exceptional creativity and risk.
"The exceptionally creative person looks at the world in a different way. The exceptionally creative person is not a ditto mark. That's our ideal candidate."