MacArthur Foundation Announces Its 2017 Class Of 'Geniuses'

Author Jesmyn Ward, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and artist Trevor Paglen are among this year's group of 24 MacArthur Fellows.

From a reporter who’s dedicated her career to documenting segregation in America’s education system, to one of the first computer scientists to hack an automobile, to an artist who doubles as a counter-surveillance researcher, this year’s roster of MacArthur Fellows celebrates yet another year of exceptional human achievement.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the latest recipients of its annual MacArthur Fellowship ― frequently referred to as the “Genius Grant” ― early Wednesday morning. Nikole Hannah-Jones, Stefan Savage and Trevor Paglen are but three members of an impressive class of 2017 fellows, newly endowed with a $625,000 check and an accolade previously attached to icons like Susan Sontag, astrophysicist Joseph Taylor and musical tour de force Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The MacArthur Foundation began doling out grants in 1981 in an effort to identify and extol high-achieving individuals in a wide range of disciplines. (The 2017 list of grantees counts a painter, immunologist, human rights strategist, urban planner and novelist among its two dozen-deep roster.) The once-$50,000 award has since ballooned into the six-figure, “no strings attached” grant we know today. There are no restrictions governing what recipients do with their fellowship bounty.

This year, the fellows include nine women, 14 men and one gender-non-conforming individual, ranging in age from 33 to 63. See the entire list of new “geniuses” below.

For more MacArthur Fellowship coverage, check out our interviews with grantees Rhiannon Giddens and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Jesmyn Ward (Fiction Writer)

Jesmyn Ward is a 40-year-old fiction writer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, whose stories bring black, marginalized communities to the center. Her three novels, including Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), address brutal and often ignored realities including poverty, racism, addiction and incarceration with honesty, affection and rigor. 

Gabriel Victora (Immunologist)

Gabriel Victora is a 40-year-old immunologist working in New York City. He adapted and perfected cellular imaging methods to better visualize the process through which adaptive immunity develops. His analysis of B cells yielded “the most definitive evidence to date that affinity maturation of antibodies occurs in a manner akin to Darwinian evolution,” a previously hypothesized but not ultimately proven conclusion that will benefit the creation of new and more potent vaccines. 

Tyshawn Sorey (Composer and Musician)

Tyshawn Sorey is a 37-year-old multi-instrumentalist, composer, performer and conductor in Middletown, Connecticut. His singular practice straddles the line between improvisation and composition, collapsing boundaries between genres and traditions including Western classical, American and Ethiopian creative expressions, resulting in experimental, avant-garde arrangements that test the limits of musical performance. 

Yuval Sharon (Opera Director and Producer)

Yuval Sharon is a 37-year-old director and producer of opera whose unorthodox performances ― often immersive and itinerant ― challenge the predominant understanding of what opera can be. His 2014 piece Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Carstook place in and around Los Angeles, with audience members commuting in limousines as singers and musicians emerged at various locations ― and within the vehicles themselves ― to tell a dynamic story within a living city. 

Stefan Savage (Computer Scientist)

Stefan Savage is a 48-year-old computer scientist whose interdisciplinary techniques address cybersecurity in the age of “smart” devices. Based in LaJolla, California, Savage recently demonstrated how an automobile could be hacked remotely and began working with car manufacturers to reduce security threats. His research in internet-related crimes, and the technological and cultural blindspots that enable them, prove critical in today’s constantly evolving technology landscape. 

Damon Rich (Designer and Urban Planner)

Damon Rich is a 42-year-old designer and urban planner whose strategies uproot the systems of oppression and discrimination embedded in cities’ layouts through predicaments like division, gentrification and environmental injustice. The Newark, New Jersey-based planner is known for his clever and sometimes witty approach to the field, as evidenced in his 2009 book Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, which used the Queens Museum’s 1,000-square-foot representation of New York City to visualize the foreclosure crisis. His work invites citizens who are often disenfranchised to the forefront of conversations about urban design, bringing democracy to the city space.

Derek Peterson (Historian)

Derek Peterson is a 46-year-old historian and professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he studies and preserves East African texts, specifically in Gikuyu and Swahili, to challenge predominant narratives regarding colonialism and nationalism in Africa. Peterson’s research incorporates an unrivaled array of written materials, ranging from diaries and religious pamphlets to syllabi and dictionaries, which speak to the interplay of motivations, perspectives, traditions and contexts at play in these often overlooked materials. 

Betsy Levy Paluck (Psychologist)

Betsy Levy Paluck is a 39-year-old research psychologist at Princeton University concerned with destructive patterns of human behavior, including discrimination, bullying and ethnic conflict. Paluck’s field research, which has taken her from American high schools to post-conflict Rwanda, determined that, as the MacArthur Foundation describes, “to change behavior, it is more important to target individuals’ perceptions of social norms than their personal beliefs.”

Trevor Paglen (Artist and Geographer)

Trevor Paglen is a 43-year-old, Berlin-based conceptual artist and geographer who uses public records and declassified documents as artistic materials, exposing the alarming grip military and corporate power possess in today’s climate of mass surveillance. His practice includes the establishing of “limit telephotography,” which uses high-power telescopes and cameras to photograph secret prisons and military bases.

Kate Orff (Landscape Architect)

Kate Orff is a 45-year-old landscape architect and founding principal of SCAPE, a Manhattan-based urban design studio that believes in urban landscapes’ ability to revive ecosystems, adapt to the difficulties posed by climate change and connect individuals. Orff collaborates with ecologists, engineers, educators, artists and community members to draw attention to the natural histories of specific regions, whether through infrastructure initiatives or podcast tours. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen (Fiction Writer and Cultural Critic)

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a 45-year-old writer, cultural critic and University of Southern California professor who uses fiction to provide a “voice to the voiceless,” specifically by humanizing underrepresented minorities. His 2015 novel The Sympathizer is a spy thriller told from the perspective of a communist double agent in and after the Vietnam War. His stories offer alternative understandings of well-trodden American war stories, where marginalized voices are often obscured and erased. 

Rami Nashashibi (Community Leader)

Rami Nashashibi is a 45-year-old community leader and the executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). The organization, based in Chicago’s South Side, works to provide health and wellness services, community organizing, criminal justice reform, arts enrichment and other services to low income residents. His Muslim Run Corner Store Campaign brought a wider selection of healthy foods to overlooked neighborhoods and eased racial tensions between the predominately Arab immigrant store owners and black patrons. 

Taylor Mac (Theater Artist)

Taylor Mac is a 44-year-old, New York-based theater artist ― and at times a playwright, performance artist, actor and all three at once. Mac, who uses the gender pronoun judy, breaks down distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow art to toy with cultural assumptions about gender, performance and identity. judy’s 24-hour piece “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (2014–2016), explores the history of American popular music through a queer lens, highlighting the instances in which pop culture innovations have emerged as weapons against intolerance and injustice.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta (Social Justice Organizer)

Cristina Jiménez Moreta is a 33-year-old social justice organizer, as well as the co-founder and the executive director of United We Dream, a nationwide network dedicated to helping immigrant families based in Washington, D.C. Moreta came to the United States from Ecuador as a 13-year-old undocumented immigrant. She has since worked to put young people at the forefront of a strategic effort to challenge the stigmas undocumented youth face and enact the policy changes necessary to protect them from deportation and offer a pathway to citizenship. 

Rhiannon Giddens (Singer, Instrumentalist and Songwriter)

Rhiannon Giddens is a 40-year-old singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, musical historian and activist based in Greensboro, North Carolina. Having trained as an opera singer before mastering the fiddle and five-string banjo, Giddens illuminates the overlooked influence of African-American artists to genres like folk and country. “I’m really interested in shining a light on those aspects of musical history that have been traditionally neglected and left behind,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. “Because I feel that our current situation can be explained by what’s going on culturally in years past that hasn’t been addressed.” 

Nikole Hannah-Jones (Journalist)

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a 41-year-old investigative journalist for The New York Times Magazine who often explores the effects of segregation on the American education system. Her work, including the 2016 article “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”, combines historical research and political analysis with first-person accounts, bringing the persistent reality of systemic racism and its pernicious effect on children and communities into sharp focus.

Jason De León (Anthropologist)

Jason De León is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who combines ethnographic analysis, forensic science and archaeological research in his work studying migration from Latin America to the United States. His 2015 book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, investigates the approximately 300 people a year who die attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, often with no identification or belongings on their person. The work explores who they are, how they die and what happens to them afterward. 

Emmanuel Candès (Mathematician and Statistician) 

Emmanuel Candès is a 47-year-old applied mathematician and statistician at Stanford University. His research, as explained by The MacArthur Foundation, “focuses on reconstructing high-resolution images from small numbers of random measurements, as well as recovering the missing entries in massive data tables.” Candès compared the technique, which is applicable in fields from diagnostic healthcare to radar imaging, to inferring a customer’s Netflix preferences from the limited assortment of movies she views and rates.

Dawoud Bey (Photographer and Educator)

Dawoud Bey is a 63-year-old photographer and educator who creates deeply engaging portraits of individuals from overlooked communities and reimagines how cultural institutions can better serve the communities in which they are based. In 2013, the Chicago-based artist created “The Birmingham Project,” a photo series paying tribute to the six children killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and its aftermath in Birmingham, Alabama. His more recent series, “Harlem Redux,” explores the transformative effects of gentrification on the historic black neighborhood.  

Regina Barzilay (Computer Scientist) 

Regina Barzilay is a 46-year-old computational linguist at the department of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Barzilay develops machine learning methods that enable machines to interpret human language and perform useful tasks. “One day machines can communicate with us in the same way we communicate with each other,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. Barzilay is currently exploring how machine learning can apply to the field of oncology, specifically in identifying trends that affect early diagnosis, treatment and disease prevention.

Annie Baker (Playwright)

Annie Baker is a 36-year-old playwright, based in New York, known for upending expectations of what kinds of people, language and situations are worthy of theatrical interpretation. Her 2009 production “Circle Mirror Transformation” takes place in a community acting class, in which five budding actors participate in exercises that illuminate elements of their interior selves. In 2010′s “The Aliens,” three amateur songwriters get high next to a dumpster, communicating primarily not through language but physical tics and cues. 

Greg Asbed (Human Rights Strategist)

Greg Asbed is a human rights strategist and a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fair Food Program (CIW) in Immokalee, Florida. For decades, the CIW has fought to improve conditions for low-wage workers and provide protections from sexual assault, wage theft and other abuses in the workplace. With his approach, dubbed worker-driven social responsibility (WSR), which has already spread from crop industries in Florida to the dairy industry in Vermont and garment industry in Bangladesh, he hopes to transform workplaces around the world. 

Sunil Amrith (Historian)

Sunil Amrith is a 38-year-old historian in the department of South Asian studies at Harvard University. He studies migration in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in relation to the movement of people and goods across the Bay of Bengal, which has occurred for centuries and continues to impact culture to this day. His 2013 book Crossing the Bay of Bengal examines how climate and environment shape the lives of ordinary Indians, and his upcoming work will delve into how climate change ― specifically monsoons ― continue to alter South and Southeast Asian history.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Painter)

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a 32-year-old figurative painter, born in Nigeria and based in Los Angeles, whose work combines techniques, media and subjects to visualize the hybrid reality of the immigrant experience. Crosby’s multimedia paintings invite viewers into her own intimate world, introducing them to her home and her family, to capture the global story of existing in between boundaries, cultures and traditions. At once accessible and incredibly dense, Crosby’s images offer textured representations of spaces, people and lives that fold in multiple perspectives and defy simple categorization.