A MacArthur “Genius Grant” Winner’s Brain-Boosting Pursuits

To get the most out of his time in the lab, University of Chicago computational geneticist John Novembre prioritizes time out of it.

A MacArthur “Genius Grant” Winner’s Brain-Boosting Pursuits
[Photo: Rena Schild on Shutterstock]

University of Chicago computational geneticist John Novembre, who studies the evolutionary history and genetic diversity of human populations, was recently awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” for his work developing algorithms to learn more about the processes that shaped human genetic diseases. In order to accomplish this type of work in the lab, however, he spends a great deal of time outside it. “Being outside and exercising allows me to unwind and refresh myself for clearer thinking the next time I sit down to work,” says Novembre, who finds parallels between the paradoxical activities of extreme sports and sitting in front of a computer. “When I’m doing science, we’re pushing the boundaries of knowledge in a way that’s exploration in a very intellectual space.” Here are some of the very physical ways Novembre unwinds:

John NovembrePhoto: John D. & Catherine MacArthur Foundation

Local Sport, With Colleagues

I have this thing about doing a “local sport.” Cycling is great in Chicago. Cyclocross is a type of bike racing that takes place principally in the fall. It’s traditionally what road cyclists do after the season gets too wet to ride safely on the roads, and so a lot of the riding is on paths or cross country across grassy areas within local parks. Because it has its roots in cross-country racing in Europe, they put in small barriers where you have to get off your bike and jump off and get back on. It’s not as serious as road cycling. The way one race announcer described it, it’s business in the front, party in the back. It’s a culture where the people who are cheering hand out Twizzlers or cookies or beer or shots of Malört. I have a few friends, another professor and a postdoctoral fellow in my department, who do it in the same category as me, which is a lot of fun.

The Value Of Being A Beginner

I enjoy being a beginner at a sport: There is a period where you are uncomfortable, and yet feeling the reward of having the concept come together and your body move in ways you didn’t expect is exciting. Once the cyclocross season ends, I belong to an outdoor hockey league. I get on skates at one of the local rinks at least one evening per week. I picked up hockey when I was in Colorado. There’s an ice rink here on the Midway [in Hyde Park].

Night Skiing

Once a year some close friends and I do a four- or five-day backcountry ski trip in eastern Oregon, where there are some basic shelters. We cook for ourselves and then we will ski up and down some of the local ridges and mountains. It’s really wonderful. We usually plan it on a full moon–we’ll do a full-moon ski and there’s no lights or anything. It’s a place where we check in with each other once a year and celebrate major moments in each other’s lives.

The Surf Vigil

Before [the University of Chicago] I was at UCLA, and so in terms of the local sport there I got into surfing. I have a lot of friends down there, and so around New Year’s we try to go out to San Onofre, where we do a “surf vigil” where we start before dawn, surf the sunrise, rest on the beach, surf during the middle of day, and then surf again at sunset. It’s a great experience. These trips are great ways to spend time with friends and have extended conversations with people I really adore.

Learning Self Sufficiency

When I was doing my PhD I took a little over three weeks off and helped a man sail his Hallberg-Rassy Monsun 31 from Raiatea in French Polynesia to Hawaii. It was a 22-day trip. From doing that and seeing this guy and what he had learned from self-sufficiency, that’s where I got more empowered to enjoy some of these sports without being fearful. Some of the more exotic things I have done in terms of outdoor adventures have taught me a self-reliance and confidence that translates well into research, where you often have to believe you will find a solution where there isn’t one.

A Piñata Encounter

[After winning the grant], my department hosted a party for me. They put a piñata up and blindfolded me and had me try to hit it, which is absolutely embarrassing. It was a long, painful process. Normally they let one kid suffer and take the blindfold off and move on, but in this setting, they just left me there until the thing came down. They put plastic test tubes, DNA confetti, and Hershey kisses in there.


About the author

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times.