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MacArthur 2012 Scientists

October 5, 2012

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation doesn't like to have its MacArthur Fellows Program awards called "Genius Grants," but the name seems to fit, so there it stands in popular culture. This year's MacArthur Fellows have been announced, and eight scientists are included.[1-2]

I wrote about scientists who were recipients of last year's awards in a previous article (The Genius Class of 2011, September 29, 2011). Another article (MacArthur Fellows 2010, October 5, 2010) has a list of some past recipients of these fellowships whose names should be familiar to my readership.

If none of the faces and names below are familiar, just wait a few years. Interestingly, the women outnumber the men, as they did last year. Clicking on a photograph will take you to the thumbnail biography in the text, below.

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The scientists in the MacArthur 2012 Fellows Program. Clockwise from the upper left, Maria Chudnovsky, Olivier Guyon, Elissa Hallem, Sarkis Mazmanian, Melody Swartz, Daniel Spielman, Nancy Rabalais and Terry Plank. Photos, licensed under a Creative Commons license, Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Maria Chudnovsky
Mathematician, Maria Chudnovsky (Ph.D., Princeton University, 2003), is an Associate Professor in the Columbia University Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. She was affiliated with Princeton University from 2003-2006, and she was a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute from 2003-2008, before joining Columbia University. Her specialty is graph theory, a topic that's become much more important in our age of connectivity. She strives to discover shortcuts that render seemingly intractable problems computable. She's noted for her contribution to the proof of the Strong Perfect Graph Theorem, which helps to allocate radio frequencies in telecommunications networks so they don't interfere.

Olivier Guyon
Olivier Guyon (Ph.D., Université Pierre et Marie Curie, 2002) is an Optical Physicist, Astronomer, and Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona Department of Astronomy. His specialty is in the design of telescopes for the detection of extrasolar planets. He invented a technique called Phase-Induced Amplitude Apodization to increase the sensitivity of telescopes for such studies. Guyon also works with adaptive optics and other telescope measurement techniques; and he's a project scientist at the Subaru Telescope, National Observatory of Japan, at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

Elissa Hallem
Neurobiologist, Elissa Hallem (Ph.D., Yale University, 2005), is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics of the University of California, Los Angeles. She studies the physiology of odor detection and its behavioral consequences. Hallem works with transgenic fruit flies, for which the odorant receptor genes have been manipulated. Her research showed that some odorant receptors are highly selective and others respond to a broad range of odors. Hallem's studies have also looked at how parasites use odors to find their hosts.

Sarkis Mazmanian
Microbiologist, Sarkis Mazmanian (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles, 2002), is a Biology professor at Caltech. He was at the University of Chicago from 2002-2005, and the Harvard Medical School from 2005-2006. His research focus is on symbiosis, especially of the non-pathogenic bacteria that colonize the human gastrointestinal tract. As I wrote about in a previous article (The Human Microbiome, June 18, 2012), the number of microbes in our microbiome outnumber our human cells by a factor of ten. There are about 10,000 bacterial species in our human microbiome. Mazmanian found that enteric bacteria can influence human immunity to certain diseases, including nervous system disorders.

Terry Plank
Terry Plank (Ph.D., Columbia University, 1993) is a Geochemist and a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Plank was at the University of Kansas from 1995-1999, and Boston University from 1999-2007. Her research is on the zones of tectonic plate collisions, and it involves chemical analysis of trace metals in deep core samples. Plank found that volcanic magma includes materials from subducted crust.

Nancy Rabalais
Marine Ecologist, Nancy Rabalais (Ph.D., University of Texas, 1983), is Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Her research is on "dead zones," the aquatic areas of low dissolved oxygen, that have increased in volume in the Gulf of Mexico. Her research involves the long-term monitoring of such zones along the Louisiana continental shelf. The nutrients from farmland fertilizer and other sources from the Mississippi River watershed cause an overabundance of algae when mixed into coastal waters. The decomposition of this algae consumes oxygen to the detriment of ocean life. Rabalais has worked with various government agencies in efforts to improve water quality.

Daniel Spielman
Daniel Spielman (Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995) is a Computer Scientist and the Henry Ford II Professor of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Applied Science at Yale University. His early research was on error-correcting codes; and one of his codes, for low-density parity checking, is used in high-definition television transmission. Recently, Spielman and a colleague found that small amounts of randomness added into the simplex optimization algorithm can facilitate solution. He also studied flow through unidirectional graphs, which is an important topic in scheduling.

Melody Swartz
Bioengineer, Melody Swartz (Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998), now a Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, was at Northwestern University from 1999-2006. Her research is on the mechanisms that control the flow of biologic fluids through tissue and their health implications. Such mechanisms are important to organ maintenance and development, and they also figure into the immune response to tumor invasion.


  1. MacArthur Foundation Web Site.
  2. MacArthur Foundation, 2012 MacArthur Fellows.

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