23 New 'Geniuses' Pushing The Boundaries Of Art And Science Today

Meet the 2016 MacArthur Fellows leading America into the future.
MacArthur Foundation

From a 44-year-old microbiologist to a 32-year-old long-form journalist to a 67-year-old jewelry maker, the 2016 class of MacArthur Fellows is a diverse selection of the sharpest minds in America today.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of its annual MacArthur Fellowship ― commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant” ― early Thursday morning. Dianne Newman, Sarah Stillman and Joyce J. Scott are just three of those recipients, earning themselves a $625,000 stipend and a spot in the history books next to previous fellows like writer Susan Sontag, astrophysicist Joseph Taylor, and artist Carrie Mae Weems.

The MacArthur Fellowship dates back to 1981, created to acknowledge and celebrate high-achieving individuals in disciplines as diverse as sculpture, chemistry, human rights law and engineering. What was once a $50,000 award has since grown into a six-figure prize, awarded to American citizens and residents with a “no strings attached” policy to enable them to pursue new creative work.

This year, the fellows include 12 women and 11 men, ranging in age from the 31 to 67. Together, the group of artists, scientists, writers, lawyers, engineers and activists are nothing short of inspirational. See the entire list of new “geniuses” below.

For more MacArthur Fellowship coverage, check out our interview with video artist Mary Reid Kelley, our interview with art historian Kellie Jones, and our critical examination of the word “genius.”

Ahilan Arulanantham (Human Rights Lawyer)
MacArthur Foundation
The 43-year-old director of advocacy and legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is being recognized for his efforts to help expand immigrant detainees’ access to legal representation. The MacArthur Foundation cites in particular his work on the class action suit Franco-Gonzalez v Holder, launched in 2010, in which Arulanantham led a group of lawyers and advocates in securing the right to appointed counsel for immigrants with mental disabilities.
Claudia Rankine (Poet)
MacArthur Foundation
The 53-year-old professor of poetry at Yale University uses verse and prose to mine the emotional tensions that have dominated a post-9/11 world and the racial tensions that complicate issues like affirmative action. Her works include Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014).
Maggie Nelson (Writer)
MacArthur Foundation
The 43-year-old School of Critical Studies faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts is being celebrated for her five book-length works of nonfiction that combine feminist and queer theory, cultural and art criticism, philosophy and psychology to make sense of her own personal experiences. According to the MacArthur Foundation, Nelson is responsible for substantially "broadening the scope of nonfiction writing."
Subhash Khot (Theoretical Computer Scientist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 38-year-old professor of computer science at New York University is working to answer one broad but complex computational question: Can every problem whose solution can be quickly verified by a computer also be quickly solved by a computer? In other words, Khot's research attempts to define the limitations of modern computing. You can read about his Unique Games Conjecture (UGC) here.
Manu Prakash (Physical Biologist and Inventor)
MacArthur Foundation
The 36-year-old bioengineering professor from Stanford University uses soft-matter physics to explain phenomena in the physical world and invent solutions to problems across the global health, science education, and ecological sectors. One of his projects involves a low-cost, sticker-like microfluidic chip capable of collecting thousands of nanoliter-volume droplets of saliva from mosquito bites, which can then be screened for pathogens.
Daryl Baldwin (Linguist and Cultural Preservationist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 53-year-old director of the Myaamia Center in Oxford, Ohio, is being honored for his work reviving the linguistic, cultural, and intellectual heritage of the Miami (Myaamia) nation. Baldwin is also a leader for other indigenous groups attempting language reclamation efforts through the National Breath of Life workshops, which facilitate access to archival materials in D.C.-based archives and libraries.
Anne Basting (Theater Artist and Director)
MacArthur Foundation
The 51-year-old theater professor from the University of Wisconsin is using storytelling and performance to help improve the lives of elders struggling with cognitive impairment. Her work, including an improvisational theater project called "TimeSlips" that has since morphed into a formal therapy protocol, underscores the importance of sustained emotional connections later in life.
Victoria Orphan (Geobiologist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 44-year-old environmental science professor from the California Institute of Technology specializes in microorganisms living in deep-sea beds. According to the MacArthur Foundation, Orphan’s work identifying and understanding the symbiotic relationships between methane-oxidizing single-celled organisms and deep-sea bacteria has been vital to understanding our planet's climate dynamics today.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Playwright)
MacArthur Foundation
The 31-year-old playwright from New York City is known for works like "Appropriate" (2012), "An Octoroon" (2014), and "Gloria" (2015). Jacobs-Jenkins is being recognized for his ability to satirize and comment on modern culture, specifically the ways individuals come to terms with race and class -- privately and publicly.
Vincent Fecteau (Sculptor)
MacArthur Foundation
The 47-year-old sculptor from San Francisco, Calif., creates colorful papier-mâché and cardboard creations that, as the artist describes in a video on the MacArthur Foundation's website, cannot be fully experienced by simply gazing upon them through a flat computer screen. "He takes a slow and contemplative approach to his craft," the MacArthur Foundation writes online, "giving careful consideration to how sculptural elements -- mass and volume, solid and void, color and texture -- fuse to establish surprising configurations that compel the viewer to deepen and prolong one’s engagement with the object."
Jose Quinonez (Financial Services Innovator)
MacArthur Foundation
The 45-year-old founder and CEO of Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco, Calif., is addressing the fact that a disproportionate number of minority, immigrant, and low-income households lack a bank account or credit history -- and therefore often cannot apply for loans or rent property. In order to connect these individuals with financial support, Quinonez is borrowing from traditional cultural practices in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Mary Reid Kelley (Video Artist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 37-year-old video artist from Olivebridge, N.Y., channels the aesthetic of early animation and low-tech film to critically explore the idea that women have achieved gender equity in society. The MacArthur Foundation describes her art as "a hybrid form of video that is like nothing else being produced today."
Bill Thies (Computer Scientist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 38-year-old senior researcher at Microsoft in Bangalore, India, is being celebrated for his work creating communication and digital technologies that are helping advance the social and economic well-being of low-income communities in the developing world. -- many of which have limited access to the internet and low levels of literacy. For CGNet Swara, a citizen journalism initiative for isolated tribal communities, Thies created an interactive voice response (IVR) system that allows users to report on events using mobile phones.
Josh Kun (Cultural Historian)
MacArthur Foundation
The 45-year-old professor of communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles specializes in art and pop culture -- specifically, how media like music can illuminate the evolution of racial and ethnic identity in America. In addition to writing books and articles on pop culture, he also co-founded the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation.
Dianne Newman (Microbiologist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 44-year-old biology professor at the California Institute of Technology studies the evolution of ancient microbes and the ways bacteria have played a role in shaping planet Earth. With training in engineering, Earth science, geobiology, and molecular genetics, Newman is able to apply her knowledge to a number of fields -- including medicine.
Lauren Redniss (Artist and Writer)
MacArthur Foundation
The 42-year-old assistant professor of illustration at Parsons, The New School for Design, is being recognized for her work "Century Girl" (2006), "Radioactive"(2010) and "Thunder and Lightning" (2015), which the MacArthur Foundation describes as seamless integrations of art, text and design in works of visual nonfiction.
Kellie Jones (Art Historian and Curator)
MacArthur Foundation
The 57-year-old associate professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University habitually shines a light on overlooked black artists, attempting to situate forgotten figures in the modern and contemporary canon. Her forthcoming book, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, explores howLA's black communities contributed to the activist art scene of the mid to late 20th century.
Joyce J. Scott (Jewelry Maker and Sculptor)
MacArthur Foundation
The 67-year-old artist from Baltimore, Md., specializes in beadwork and jewelry, turning what has traditionally been seen as a domestic craft or luxury into a vehicle for investigating racism, sexism and violence today. The MacArthur Foundation cites her work “The Sneak” (1989), "Lynched Tree" (2011–2015) and “Ancestry/Progeny” (2008).
Rebecca Richards-Kortum (Bioengineer)
MacArthur Foundation
The 52-year-old bioengineering professor from Rice University works in nanotechnology, molecular imaging and microfabrication techniques to create low-cost and practical medical tools. For example, her portable, high-resolution microendoscope allows for the real-time diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer in a single visit.
Sarah Stillman (Long-Form Journalist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 32-year-old New Yorker staff writer has written on everything from the abuse of civil asset forfeiture to the realities of young police informants to the kidnapping of undocumented children at the U.S.-Mexico border. "Committed to following many-faceted stories through to their conclusion, no matter where and how long it takes her," the MacArthur Foundation writes online, "Stillman teases out the complex forces driving the marginalization of her subjects." Her work includes “The Invisible Army” (2011), “Taken” (2013) and “The List” 2016.
Julia Wolfe (Composer)
MacArthur Foundation
The 57-year-old associate professor of music composition at New York University blends folk, classical, and rock genres in order to blur the line between music and theater. The MacArthur Foundation cites her work "Cruel Sister" (2004), "Steel Hammer" (2009) and "Anthracite Fields" (2014).
Jin-Quan Yu (Synthetic Chemist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 50-year-old chemistry professor from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is being recognized for his pioneering techniques related to the functionalization of carbon-hydrogen (C–H) bonds and their application in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and materials science.
Gene Luen Yang (Graphic Novelist)
MacArthur Foundation
The 43-year-old graphic novelist from San Jose, Calif.,
is credited with bringing diverse people and cultures to children’s and young adult literature, as well as confirming comics’ role as a creative force in literature and education. The MacArthur Foundation cites his work American-Born Chinese (2006), Boxers and Saints (2011), and Secret Coders (2015­), among others.
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