MacArthur 'genius' grants go to four from MIT

Angela Belcher


Two MIT engineers, a scientist and an alumna have won 2004 MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as "genius" grants. They were honored for coaxing viruses to manufacture microelectronic devices, inventing inexpensive technologies to solve problems in developing countries, developing potential treatments for diabetes and unraveling the secrets of bacterial infection.

Associate Professor Angela Belcher of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Biological Engineering Division, Edgerton Center Instructor Amy Smith (S.M. 1995), Broad Institute associate Vamsi Mootha, and Julie Theriot (S.B. 1988) will each receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support.

MacArthur Fellows -- this year there are 23 -- are selected for their "originality, creativity and potential to do more in the future," according to the MacArthur Foundation. Candidates are nominated, evaluated and selected through a confidential process; no one may apply for the awards, nor are any interviews conducted.

Coaxing viruses

Belcher, 37, got the news early last week in her MIT office. She knew something exciting was happening, she said, because "the person who called said, 'Are you sitting down? Are you by yourself?'"

Although she's still getting used to the news ("I was very shocked and very surprised," she said), Belcher said she foresees using the award in two ways. "It will be a catalyst for exploring new ideas in my lab and, equally important, let me contribute more to my community through science outreach to kids."

According to a biography from the MacArthur Foundation, Belcher has "demonstrated a proclivity for developing new techniques for manipulating systems that straddle the boundary of organic and inorganic chemistry at the molecular scale. In her most recent work, she has genetically modified viruses (strains that only attack bacteria and are harmless to humans) to interact with solutions of inorganic semiconductors, yielding self-assembling metal films and wires" with diameters only billionths of a meter across.

"The ability to control this self-assembly process may one day lead to the next generation of microelectronics or other nanoscale machines," the Foundation said. Belcher is excited to further extend her work "to medical applications with some of the materials we're developing," she said, and has also recently become interested in energy-efficient batteries and lighting.

Belcher received the B.S. (1991) and Ph.D. (1997) from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, before joining the MIT faculty in 2002 as the John Chipman Career Development Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering.

Helpful inventions

Amy Smith, 41, is dedicated to using technology to solve problems in the developing world. Smith said the MacArthur award "is pretty exciting, though a little scary. I've always operated on a shoestring. It'll be odd to do it differently for a change."

Smith is a mechanical engineer and inventor who designs "life-enhancing solutions and labor-saving technologies for people at the far end of dirt roads in the world's most remote societies -- people facing crises that erupt in health clinics with no electricity and in villages with no clean water," according to the MacArthur Foundation biography.

"Striking in their simplicity and effectiveness, her inventions include grain-grinding hammer mills, water-purification devices and field incubators for biologic testing, each reflecting her inordinate creativity and ingenuity," the biography said.

"I currently have very little funding for my projects, so this gives me a lot more flexibility," said Smith, who is working on two projects in Haiti. "I will be able to move forward a lot faster now. There's so much to do in Haiti, it's really nice to have the resources to keep these projects going, and start new projects, too."

Smith said she often meets people in the countries where she works who have ideas for projects of their own, but no resources. "Now I'm in the position where I can help with those resources, which is pretty cool," she said.

Smith received the S.B. (1984) and S.M. (1995) from MIT; between undergraduate and graduate school, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. In 2000 she joined the staff of the MIT Edgerton Center, where she co-founded the MIT IDEAS Competition (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, Service) for students who developed designs to solve community problems.

She teaches a class at MIT called D-Lab that combines many of her interests -- teaching, international development, invention and design.

"I think we've worked out a pretty nice model, where we start by teaching about international development and appropriate technology and begin working with community partners in developing countries. Then we travel to work with these partners in the field, spending the Independent Activites Period implementing some of what we learned in the class, and identifying additional projects to work on back at MIT during the next semester," said Smith. Students working on the projects are often able to go back to the field in the summer for the next round of fieldwork, supported by the IDEAS Competition or MIT Public Service Center fellowships.

Treating diabetes

Vamsi Mootha, 33, told the Boston Globe that he initially thought the call from the MacArthur Foundation was a prank. "It was a very odd, surreal conversation," said Mootha, who in addition to being an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is also an assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to the Foundation, Mootha is converting the "promise of new technologies such as genomics and proteomics into tangible, important insights regarding basic biological processes and the sources of human diseases."

Earlier this year Mootha and colleagues reported a discovery that suggests a new treatment for adult-onset diabetes. Specifically, they found a gene that revs up the energy-producing ability of muscle cells. Doing so could lessen the harmful effects of the disease.

Mootha was also honored by the MacArthur Foundation for pioneering "powerful, adaptable computational strategies for mining data collected in laboratories throughout the world, providing an efficient means to hunt down gene interactions that lead to a wide variety of diseases."

Mootha received a B.S. (1993) from Stanford University and an M.D. (1998) from Harvard University Medical School. He completed his internship and residency in internal medicine at the Brigham and Women's Hospital (1998-2001).

In September 2004, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Broad Institute, as well as an instructorship in medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Understanding bacteria

Julie Theriot (S.B. 1988) was cited by the foundation for "unraveling the secrets of bacterial infection by illuminating basic biophysical processes underlying movement of cells and the pathogens that invade them." Theriot, 36, is an assistant professor of biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Other MIT faculty members who have won MacArthur Fellowships in the past include Institute Professors Noam Chomsky of linguistics and John H. Harbison of music; Erik Demaine and Daniela L. Rus of electrical engineering and computer science; Evelyn Fox Keller of the Program in Science, Technology and Society; Eric Lander of biology; Heather N. Lechtman of archaeology; David C. Page of biology; Michael J. Piore of economics; Alar Toomre of mathematics; and Jack Wisdom of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences.

Timothy Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web consortium at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and CSAIL research affiliate Richard M. Stallman were also past MacArthur Foundation Fellows.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).


Topics: Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty

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