The 10 New MacArthur Genius Scientists Are All Connected
One of these geniuses is a stem cell biologist. Another is an economist. Then there’s the big data guy, the nanomaterials expert, and the woman who figured out how your brain spruces up its synapses. These geniuses are inventing photosynthesis in a lab, cleaning up hospital waste, and exposing housing policies that punish the poor.
What unites this brain trust? Today, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that it has selected them as its 2015 fellows, endowing each with $675,000 for their innovative work. But these ten scientists (of the total 25 MacArthur fellows) are also thematically linked through their research. Each of them, in some way, looks at how individual parts affect a whole system, or how a network affects its nodes.
Some of this is blatant: University of Chicago computational biologist John Novembre makes maps that link changes in the human genome to geographic coordinates. Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm, is an environmentalist who helps hospitals extend the “do no harm” philosophy to their surrounding communities by reducing waste, weaning off fossil fuels, and cutting down on toxic cleaning materials. Christopher Ré of Stanford University wrote a program that mines dark data—the stuff computers can’t normally process—in order to find otherwise unrecognizable connections. Darpa used his program (regrettably called DeepDive) to investigate online sex slavery; scientists used it to discover new drug targets.
Some of the network’s other connections are less obvious. Did you know that some racial and economic inequalities are rooted in housing policy? Using ethnographic surveys and court document research, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond demonstrates causal connections between events in a neighborhood, like a neighbor calling the police to report domestic abuse leading to the abused woman’s eviction. Peidong Yang at the University of California, Berkeley uses nanowires and bacteria to create synthetic leaves that mimic the carbon cycle, converting sunlight, water, and CO2 into a number of carbon-based gases. And Beth Stevens, neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, discovered that the brain’s network keeps itself tidy using immunological cells called microglia that prune away old and unused synapses.
Beyond innovative work, the MacArthur Foundation doesn’t claim to have an overarching investment strategy when it comes to choosing who wins its annual genius grants. But if you look closely at this year’s grantees—especially those in the sciences—you’ll see an intellectual portfolio hedging towards systems and networks thinking.
Maybe the MacArthur people weren’t aware of any systematic systems-based bias in their choices. After all, that’s where most of the big work in science is headed. You think some lone genius is going to figure global climate change? And what about gene editing? The billion-dollar question there isn’t whether scientists can do it, it’s what will happens to the rest of the body if they do. These days, scientists make their discoveries in context, not in isolation.
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