Two Yale scholars have just discovered that sometimes it pays to be a genius.
Medical School professor Gretchen Berland and anthropology student Heather Hurst GRD ’09 are among the 23 members of this year’s MacArthur Foundation Fellows class, which was announced Tuesday. The fellows each won $500,000 in the form of what is commonly known as a “genius grant” for their creative accomplishments and potential.
Berland, 40, is an Emmy winner who uses documentary filmmaking to explore the perspectives and problems of patients. Her most recent film, “Rolling,” depicts daily life from the wheelchairs of three Los Angeles residents.
While the “photovoice” medium has been used by others, for research and artistic purposes, Berland took a unique approach — she gave her subjects video cameras. The film won awards including Best Documentary at New York City’s Independent Film Project conference.
Hurst also combines disciplines for creative aims. Using everything from ancient artifacts to topographic maps, the 29-year-old graduate student reconstructs the paintings and monuments of the pre-Columbian Americas, allowing the viewer to see the art as it was then.
That uniqueness is exactly what the MacArthur Foundation seeks. All the winners were selected on the basis of their creativity and promise, said Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.
“We’re looking for people that are very, very outside of the box,” he said. “We are betting on the future and their potential.”
Although he said he cannot comment on Hurst’s and Berland’s work specifically, he said the process was “very competitive.” Every year, the foundation invites hundreds of people from many disciplines worldwide to be nominators, he said. They serve anonymously and confidentially, and seek “thousands” of nominees, Socolow said.
Only 20 to 25 people each year receive the phone call that tells them they’ve won, he said. He added that the winners usually had no idea they were even being considered.
Hurst said when she found out she’d been chosen, she was “absolutely shocked.”
“I jumped around the parking lot,” she said. “It was a total surprise. I wasn’t even entirely sure what the actual award was.”
Berland, who called it a moment of “incredulous joy,” said she left the letter of congratulations on her table. Every once in a while, she said, she had to check it to make sure it was real.
After the foundation lets winners know of their success, it never contacts them again — except to mail them a $25,000 check every three months for five years. That money goes to the individual, not the institution, Socolow said.
“It’s the purest form of philanthropy,” he said. “We believe, after we’ve done all our work, that these are very extraordinary people. They know far better than we what to do with the money.”
And they already have ideas. Hurst said after she finishes her current projects she might work with murals that are so fragmented, no grants will fund research on them.
Bertrand said she was glad she has three months to think before she receives her first check.
“I’ll probably start some film projects I might not have been able to do as quickly,” she said. “I view [the grant] as an extraordinary gift, but also an extraordinary responsibility.”
The MacArthur Foundation, which gives approximately $175 million each year in grants, has been naming fellows since 1981.