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Statisticians, choreographers and writers highlight ‘genius grant’ recipients

Jeffrey Brenner, 44

The old man couldn't control his diabetes, no matter how closely he followed his doctor's instructions. A nurse visited him to find out why the insulin wasn't working, only to watch the nearly blind man inadvertently inject himself with a syringe filled with nothing but air.

It sounds simple to track a patient outside of office visits. But the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found the idea genius.

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Jeffrey Brenner, a doctor and founder of the organization that dispatches medical professionals to the doors of the desperately poor residents of Camden, N.J., is one of the recipients of a "genius grant" from the foundation.

"This is an acknowledgment that we are headed in the right direction," Dr. Brenner said.

He created the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers as a means to find and track the poorest patients with the most complex medical issues. Those patients are visited wherever they are – at home, in shelters – and escorted to medical appointments.

"We cut, scan, zap and hospitalize [patients]," said Dr. Brenner, whose group is now working with 10 communities to develop similar systems. "But we forget we need to take care of them."

Carl Haber, 54

A National Public Radio report about the Library of Congress worrying about damaging old recordings just by playing them sparked the imagination of Carl Haber, a 54-year-old experimental physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

He began to think how one could use precision optical measuring techniques employed in particle research to pull sounds from fragile or crumbling cylinders as well as discs and tinfoil.

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"Using scientific cameras and measurement tools that just use light, we create essentially a picture … and then write a program where the computer analyzes the image and calculates mathematically how the needle would move, rather than use the needle," he said.

The result: bringing to life the voices of the dead, from Alexander Graham Bell from the 1800s to a Native American language that fell silent with the last of its speakers. The thousands of recordings from bygone eras around the world are of "great value to anthropologists, the study of folklore, national culture," he said.

But there's more to it, as Mr. Haber found out when he heard Bell respond to a small mistake made during the recording.

"To hear someone caught off guard, you are actually seeing the humanity of these people," Mr. Haber said.

Robin Fleming, 57

Robin Fleming's work has been to show the humanity of nations passed over in history books. A medieval historian at Boston College, she has focused on Great Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, starting in the fifth century, by analyzing things like coins, pots and even tooth enamel found in settlements and cemeteries to create a picture of their lives.

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What she discovered was that the people of the time were so determined to carry on the ways of those who came before that they went to cemeteries to dig up artifacts to help them do that – including containers that held cremated remains.

"They knock[ed] the ash out, give them a wash and put them on the table," Ms. Fleming said.

Margaret Stock, 51

With an eye to a more contemporary, but just as forgotten, issue, lawyer Margaret Stock focuses on military personnel and their families who she says are victimized by U.S. immigration laws.

After Sept. 11, as politicians asked the nation to take care of those fighting for their country, Ms. Stock was getting call after call, hearing things like a soldier begging her to stop immigration officials from deporting his wife to Mexico.

"He's on the tarmac … about to be deployed, and says his wife took a wrong turn into a construction zone, was picked up by immigration, they had her in jail and were trying to deport her," said Ms. Stock, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. "The pain that's being caused right now is tremendous."

To help, Ms. Stock created the American Immigration Lawyers Association MAP program, which assigns volunteer lawyers across the nation to military families that need help.

For Ms. Stock, her thousands of dollars will mean one thing: People will be seeing more of her. "This is going to let me advocate more," she said.

Karen Russell, 32

Fiction writer Karen Russell worked at a veterinary clinic part-time while writing the acclaimed novel Swamplandia! Her grant money buys her time.

"Just the idea of having a stretch of time where you can commit your time wholeheartedly to a project – nobody gets that," the New York City resident said.

Kyle Abraham, 36

The dancer-choreographer recalled relying on food stamps just three years ago.

"It was amazing to me," Mr. Abraham said. "It was a shock. I was laughing about it. I was crying about it, it was so overwhelming. I've been trying to figure out how to pay off my student loans to this day."

A Pittsburgh native whose latest work, Pavement, uses dance to probe violence, Mr. Abraham lives in New York and is the founder and artistic director of his company, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. "Getting an award like this lets me know I can continue to make work and pay my dancers and I can pay my rent."

Donald Antrim, 55,

New York City

Teaches writing at Columbia University and is being recognized for his fiction and non-fiction.

Phil Baran, 36, La Jolla, Calif.

Organic chemist at the Scripps Research Institute who invents ways to recreate natural products with potential pharmaceutical uses.

C. Kevin Boyce, 39,

Stanford, Calif.

Paleobotanist at Stanford University who looks at links between ancient plants and today's ecosystems.

Colin Camerer, 53,

Pasadena, Calif.

Behavioural economist at the California Institute of Technology whose pioneering research has challenged assumptions in traditional economic models.

Jeremy Denk, 43, New York City

Writer and concert pianist who combines his skills to help readers and listeners to better appreciate classical music.

Angela Duckworth, 43,


Research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is helping to transform our understanding of just what roles self-control and grit play in educational achievement.

Craig Fennie, 40, Ithaca, N.Y.

Materials scientist at Cornell University who has designed new materials with electrical, optical and magnetic properties needed for electronics and communication technology.

Vijay Iyer, 41, New York City

Jazz pianist, composer, bandleader and writer who is reconceptualizing the genre through compositions for his ensembles, as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations and scholarly writing.

Dina Katabi, 42,

Cambridge, Mass.

A computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked at interfacing computer science and electrical engineering to improve the speed and security of data exchange.

Julie Livingston, 46,

New Brunswick, N.J.

Medical historian at Rutgers University interested in the care of chronically ill patients in Botswana who exposed the unlikelihood that technology will fix health issues in Africa or the rest of the world.

David Lobell, 34, Stanford, Calif.

Agricultural ecologist at Stanford University who has investigated the impact of climate change on crop production and food security around the world.

Tarell McCraney, 32, Chicago

Playwright at Steppenwolf Theatre Company who examines the diversity of African-American experiences.

Susan Murphy, 55,

Ann Arbor, Mich.

A statistician at the University of Michigan, she has translated statistical theory into tools that can be used to evaluate and customize treatment regimens for people with chronic or relapsing disorders.

Sheila Nirenberg, New York City

Neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who is exploring the nervous system and creating new prosthetic devices and robots.

Alexei Ratmansky, 45,

New York City

Choreographer and artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre who is revitalizing classical ballet with interpretations of traditional works and original pieces.

Ana Maria Rey, 36,

Boulder, Colo.

Theoretical physicist at the University of Colorado who is working on how to control states of matter through conceptual research on ultra-cold atoms.

Carrie Mae Weems, 60,

Syracuse, N.Y.

Photographer and video artist who examines African-American identity, class and culture in the United States.

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