Alums named MacArthur geniuses

Computer science professor Daniel Spielman ’92 was one of four Yale alumni awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant this year.
Computer science professor Daniel Spielman ’92 was one of four Yale alumni awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant this year. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Daniel Spielman ’92, a Yale computer science professor, remembers his first PC — a 1977 Commodore PET with a primitive eight kilobytes of memory that he bought secondhand from an engineer in the fifth grade. After the purchase, he said he devoured books about computing, discovering a passion that would result in his life’s work and, most recently, a MacArthur Foundation grant amounting to $500,000.

The 42-year-old from Guilford, Conn. was one of 23 visionaries nationwide awarded what is popularly referred to as a MacArthur “genius grant,” which will be distributed over the next five years. The fellows, who were announced Tuesday, also include life scientist Elissa Hallem GRD ’01 PHD ’05, photographer An-My Le GRD ’93 and legal historian Dylan Penningroth ’93. They were selected for their “creativity,” “originality” and “ability to make important contributions to the future” across all disciplines, according to a Tuesday release from the organization.

“What [MacArthur fellows] are known for is not for solving the big scientific problems of the age, but the problems that no one else had thought to work on,” Spielman said.

Spielman’s colleague Holly Rushmeier said his work is admired for the “elegance and beauty” of its theoretical mathematics in addition to its “tremendous practical impact.”

Spielman focuses on the efficacy of data transmission, which can be used to refine current computer systems. His research in error-correcting codes allows simple computer hardware to decode complicated codes, improving technologies like cellphone reception and satellite TV. His study of linear programming improves the efficiency of industry operations ranging from the compilation of airline schedules to the way in which Walmart distributes its goods, colleague Steven Zucker said.

Samer Sabri ’13, who is currently taking Spielman’s spectral graph theory class, said Spielman often addresses his new research during lectures, finding simple ways to solve problems that have existed for long time. Spielman said he hopes the publicity from the grant will attract more students to his classes and Yale’s computer science department.

“Being able to experience the cutting edge through him is very exciting,” Sabri said.

Though his research as a theorist is not money-driven, Spielman said the grant money will give him more time to “sit and think” innovatively about his next projects.

Hallem, on the other hand, said she hopes to use her grant to pursue projects that are too preliminary or risky for traditional avenues of funding, such as an examination of the evolution of neural circuits in different species. A professor of neuroscience at UCLA, Hallem has studied the implications of human parasites like roundworms for the spread of human and animal disease, as well as economic losses in agriculture — an interest she developed during her lab work at Yale, she said.

MacArthur money does not solely go towards scientific projects — Northwestern University history professor Dylan Penningroth’s prize money will further his study of African-American socio-legal history and civil rights through county court records.

The genius grants will help recipients pursue artistic endeavors as well. Le, a photography professor at Bard College, said she plans to use her MacArthur grant to fund a long-term project profiling the military using a 19th-century-style camera. The project was inspired by her childhood experiences amid the Vietnam War, she said.

“I’m a bit of a tomboy and I grew up with a bunch of boys, so I find all of the military fascinating,” Le said. “In another life I would have been a combat photographer.”

The Yale MacArthur fellows said they reacted to news of the grant with similar surprise. Candidates are nominated without their knowledge and do not even know they are being considered until they are named fellows. When Spielman received a congratulatory phone call from Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, Spielman said he expected the caller to “ask me for my bank account number to defraud me.”

While Spielman reacted with shock at the grant’s announcement, his student and advisee Cyril Zhang ’15 said he was not at all surprised given his experience with Spielman in class.

“He is a quirky thinker of the highest caliber and a brilliant communicator with insight and artistry,” Zhang said. “That is exactly what science needs.”

In the past two years, Spielman was also awarded a place in the first class of Simons Investigators, receiving a $660,000 research grant over five years, as well as the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, one of the highest honors in mathematics.

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