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These MacArthur ‘geniuses’ are some of 2020’s most fascinating people

The MacArthur Fellowship gives $625,000 to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.”

These MacArthur ‘geniuses’ are some of 2020’s most fascinating people
(Left to right) Mary L. Gray, Forrest Stuart, N.K. Jemisin, Thomas Wilson Mitchell, and Polina V. Lishko. [Photo: courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]
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Every year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards $625,000 fellowships to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals” to spend on whatever they wish.

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Sometimes known as “genius grants,” the awards have highlighted people doing fascinating work across the arts and sciences. This year’s 21 recipients are no exception. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Science fiction and fantasy author N.K. Jemisin, recognized for “pushing against the conventions of epic fantasy and science fiction genres while exploring deeply human questions about structural racism, environmental crises, and familial relationships.” Her critically acclaimed Broken Earth Trilogy explores issues of caste and identity on a planet wracked by environmental disaster, and her 2020 novel, The City We Became, tackles issues of race in the United States and in fantasy and superhero storytelling as its heroes fight to protect a newly sentient New York City.
  • Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart was recognized for “challenging long-held assumptions about the forces that shape urban poverty and violence and bringing to light the lived reality of those who experience it.” His newest book, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy, explores the role social media, including creating music videos, plays in the lives of “gang-associated youth in Chicago,” sometimes helping to avert violent confrontations.
  • Anthropologist and media scholar Mary L. Gray, affiliated with Microsoft Research, was recognized for “investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.” Her most recent book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, coauthored with Siddharth Suri and excerpted by Fast Company here, explores the lives and challenges faced by often-hidden workers in the tech economy.
  • Property law scholar Thomas Wilson Mitchell was recognized for “reforming laws and developing policy solutions addressing mechanisms by which Black and other disadvantaged American families have been deprived of their land, homes, and real estate wealth.” A professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Law, his research explores legal issues that have challenged Black families’ land ownership over generations. He was the principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, a law adopted by a growing number of states with provisions to protect families when land is divided among multiple heirs.
  • Biologist Polina V. Lishko was recognized for “examining the cellular processes that guide mammalian fertilization and opening new avenues for contraception and treatment of infertility.” Lishko, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has done innovative research in understanding the “molecular mechanisms” involved in sperm movement and fertilization that could lead to new techniques in treating infertility and developing contraceptives, including male or unisex treatments.

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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