On the subway in New York City earlier this month, Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Janine di Giovanni received what she thought was a random spam email. After all, a message that starts with “An important message from The President” could have been a security update or an unwanted sales pitch.

But upon opening the email, di Giovanni learned she had won one of the most prestigious academic prizes in the world — a Guggenheim Fellowship.

“I almost deleted it, and then I opened it,” she said. Then, di Giovanni punched the air above her and shouted in celebration. “These people looked up at me like I was crazy. But it’s New York City, so no one thinks you’re crazy.”

Guggenheim Fellowships have been awarded since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to people “who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts,” according to the Foundation’s website. The purpose of the fellowship, according to its website, “is to help provide Fellows with blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible.”

Of the roughly 3,000 applicants this year, only 168 fellows were chosen for the fellowship. Winners receive a grant to spend six to 12 months working on a project of their choice, but the Foundation does not disclose grant amounts. Di Giovanni said she intends to use the funds to travel to war zones in the Middle East to interview Christians for a book she is writing to document “vanishing people.”

For the other four winners at Yale — Design Lecturer at the School of Drama Ann McCoy, Art School professor of sculpture Aki Sasamoto, English professor John Peters and Classics and History professor Joseph Manning — the Guggenheim Fellowship means a chance to explore new topics in their creative efforts.

Until this year, as a painter and sculptor, McCoy has received nearly every award for fine art — except for the Macarthur Grant and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

But after submitting her 39th application for the fellowship, she finally won the Guggenheim this year.

“I kept applying because I need money,” she said. “I was very famous when I was young. I was in all kinds of museums, I had full pages in the New York Times. Then, for the last 25 years, nobody was showing my work. This came at an amazing time for me.”

McCoy uses alchemy, dreams and mythology to inspire her pencil drawings and projections. She said she will use the money to fund her next project, which will include writing an alchemical fairy tale about an old Colorado mine from her childhood as well as working on a series of drawings, sculptures and lantern slide projections.

Sasamoto, who joined the Art School last July, learned that she earned the fellowship while caring for her infant at home. Internationally known for her performance sculptures, she uses objects like washing machines and trash cans in her art to explore themes related to everyday life. The award will allow her to “facilitate more conversation with everyday people.”

“The fellowship is prestigious, but also it’s generous enough so that I can make ambitious work without restrictions,” Sasamoto said. “I’m hoping that I can start making a piece without securing venues.”

Peters said that the fellowship will allow him to take a year off to work on a book about the media’s depiction of weather.

This idea grew out of a chapter he wrote in his previous book “The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media” where he mentioned the topic in passing. In addition, he taught a junior level seminar called “Elemental Media” and a first-year seminar called “Literature, Media and Weather,” where the topic of weather “keeps coming up.”

“The specific angle I wanted to pursue in this book was the way that we mediate weather,” Peters said. “That is, the various media forms weather takes. And here I mean media in a broader sense than radio, TV and the internet. I’m interested in thinking of basic media, like pictures, words or numbers or sounds, or Gods. … I just realized that this is such a jackpot of interesting stuff.”

Manning also plans to take time off and use the fellowship money to write a book that explores how pre-industrial societies dealt with climate change. He intends to combine geographic data and historic documents to inform his writings.

Manning said that applying for the fellowship allowed him to assess his career goals.

“[It was] a great motivator to put thoughts down on paper about my career so far,” he said, “and [about] what I want to do in the future. This is a very useful thing to do from time to time.”

Last year, six members of the University won the Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2016, there were three recipients of the honor.

Matt Kristoffersen | matt.kristoffersen@yale.edu