Four Elis land ‘genius’ grants

Among the 24 individuals named as this year’s MacArthur Foundation Fellows, four have ties to the University.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports individuals who exhibit exceptional creativity in their careers, announced the recipients of the “Genius Awards” Tuesday.

They include two Yale faculty members, Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Dr. Mary Tinetti, the Gladys Phillips Crofoot professor of medicine and epidemiology and public health, as well as two alumni, British painter Rackstraw Downes ART ’64 and University of Southern California law professor Elyn Saks LAW ’86. Each recipient receives a $500,000 grant that is given over a period of five years.

The fellowship winners all expressed elation and excitement over the grants they received.

“It’s a lovely birthday present,” said Downes, a realist painter and author, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in a few weeks.

Yale President Richard Levin praised the work of the two faculty members for their recognition in a School of Medicine press release Tuesday.

“Mary Tinetti and Rick Prum exemplify what the MacArthur Grants are all about — extraordinary creativity, energy and a commitment to research,” he said.

Both Tinetti and Prum said winning the award was a validation of their unconventional research.

Tinetti, a physician who is also the director of the Yale Program on Aging, has devoted much of her research to studying risk factors that result in fatal falls for the elderly. Using the award money, Tinetti said she hopes to incorporate her research findings into a tangible model for health care.

Prum, who serves as chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and is curator of ornithology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, also won the award for his nontraditional approach. As a self-described “bird nut,” Prum has conducted interdisciplinary studies about birds. His work on the physics of avian feather coloration has opened the new field of photonics, which is similar to electronics except that it studies the control of light rather than electrons. His other research projects include the evolution of feathers and developmental research between dinosaurs and birds.

An advocate of education finance reform, Prum said he plans to use a portion of the award money to advance funding in education. And, he added, part of it may be used for a family trip to the Southeast Asia island Borneo.

“They have great birds — whiteheads — there, as well as orangutans,” Prum said.

In addition to the Yale faculty who received the award, two alumni were 2009 recipients.

Saks, associate dean and professor of law, psychology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the USC Gould School of Law, recently completed her 2007 memoir “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” which describes her experiences living with schizophrenia. She only came out to students as a sufferer of schizophrenia last year and her works attempt to illustrate that people can live normal lives with the disorder, she said.

“It’s not that you can’t live independently,” she said. “It’s just that the stigma is greater than it should be.”

In fact, Saks is currently working on a study about high-functioning people with schizophrenia. And with the MacArthur fellowship, she said she hopes to write a book about it.

Downes, who studied at the Yale School of Art in the 1960s, is known for his paintings that explore the relations between the built and natural world. His works are hung at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Next year, Downes’ oil-paintings will be exhibited at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.

“Ever since I came to Yale in 1961, I’ve been painting at my easel every single day … it’s nice to get a pat on the back,” he said of the award.

For him, the award will also alleviate any future financial concerns, an ongoing consideration for artists, Downes said. Downes was the oldest person to receive the MacArthur grant this year.

Comments