Three local professors receive Genius Grants

One recipient is from Stanford, two others are from UC Berkeley and none of them had any clue they were being considered. They are the latest addition to a distinguished list of individuals pushing the envelope.

"They said 'Hi, I'm calling from the MacArthur Foundation,' and I flipped over my chair. I couldn't believe they were calling," said Stanford professor Carlos D. Bustamante.

Bustamante is one of 23 recipients of a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation -- also known as "Genius grants." The half-million dollars is paid quarterly over five years and comes with no strings attached.

"I might get to take an extra afternoon of sailing or something like that which I love to do so I might indulge a little in that, but I really hope to use the money to really further the science and take on the projects that we haven't been able to do so far," said Bustamante.

And that's what the MacArthur Foundation is hoping recipients will do with the money -- pursue their creativity.

Bustamante is a population geneticist, awarded for his analysis of DNA variations in populations.

However, not all the winners are researchers. In fact, they run the gamut from musicians to writers. They were chosen for their exceptional creativity and the potential for future advances. Of the 23 winners, two are from UC Berkeley -- economist Emmanuel Saez and computer security specialist Dawn Song.

"I didn't know at the beginning when they said, 'This is MacArthur," I didn't what they were calling me for? And then they explained," said Song.

Song, like everyone else, had no idea the grant was coming. Nominations are held in secret. She says she's excited about using the money on unconventional research that's usually hard to get funding for, but she's clearly uncomfortable with the "genius" label.

"I think the important part of getting this award is not about adding a tag saying this person is a genius or not. It's really about... I hope that through this award it's the work, it's the future work that will come out of this," said Song.

Yiyun Li of Oakland was also awarded a half-million dollars. The fiction writer teaches at UC Davis and tackles the effects of social changes in China.

Genius grants have been given out since 1981. There have been 828 in all.

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