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The 2015 MacArthur Fellows

October 5, 2015

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has just announced its 2015 Fellows Class. Mixed in with a puppeteer, a tap dancer, and a poet, are several scientists, but no physicists. So, the presumed advice to youngsters from the MacArthur Foundation is to shun physics if you're interested in getting a MacArthur grant. At this point, the best tactic would be to learn how to recite poetry about science while tap dancing.[1] Some body painting might help. There have been many prominent physicist Fellows in past years, as I listed in last year's article (The 2014 MacArthur Fellows, September 19, 2014).

The 24 Fellows in this year's class (up from 21 last year) include eight people working in STEM fields.[2] Unlike most prizes, which are awarded for accomplishment, the MacArthur Fellowships are awarded for potential. The stated purpose of the fellowships is to allow the fellows an opportunity to "exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society." This year's fellows receive a "no strings attached" award of $625,000, which is paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.[3]

A biographical note for each of this year's STEM-field recipients appears below. Clicking on a photograph will take you to the thumbnail biography in the text.

Kartik Chandran William Dichtel John Novembre
Christopher Ré Beth Stevens Lorenz Studer
Heidi Williams Peidong Yang

Eight members of the MacArthur 2015 Fellows Program. Left to right by row, top row,
Kartik Chandran, William Dichtel, John Novembre; middle row, Christopher Ré, Beth Stevens, Lorenz Studer; bottom row, Heidi Williams, Peidong Yang. Photos licensed under a Creative Commons license, courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Kartik Chandran
Environmental engineer, Kartik Chandran, has been working to transform wastewater from a pollutant to useful chemicals, such as fertilizers, and an energy source. Chandran received a B.S. degree in 1995 from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and a Ph.D. in 1999 from the University of Connecticut. After a short stint at a private engineering firm, he became a research associate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University from 2004-2005. Chandran is now an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

Most wastewater treatment technology is decades old, and it involves bioremediation processes that produce greenhouse gases and solid residue. Chandran has investigated how certain combinations of microbes can do a better job. In one example, his processes have been able to remove nitrogen from waste with minimal release of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. Through use of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, Chandran has transformed bio-generated methane gas into methanol.

William Dichtel
Chemist, William Dichtel, has been linking molecules into high surface area networks potentially useful in electronic, optical, and energy storage applications. Dichtel received a B.S. degree in 2000 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in 2005 from the University of California Berkeley. After a joint appointment from 2005-2008 as a research associate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the California Institute of Technology, Dichtel became an associate professor of chemistry at Cornell University.

Dichtel's specialty is the development of porous polymers called covalent organic frameworks (COFs). The porosity of COFs give them extremely high surface area, of the order of a football field per gram. The porosity makes COFs ideal for molecular separations and water purification, storage of chemicals such as fuels, and storage of electrical charge.

John Novembre
Computational biologist John Novembre has been investigating how geography has affected genetic diversity and influences human evolution. Novembre received a B.A. degree in 2000 from Colorado College and a Ph.D. in 2006 from the University of California at Berkeley. He was at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 2008–2013, and he was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in bioinformatics at the The University of Chicago from 2006–2008. Novembre is presently an associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago.

In his specialty of computational biology, Novembre has developed data visualization and analysis techniques to improve on the usual principal component analysis approach to the analysis of the geographic distribution of genetic diversity. His work has shown that ancestry can sometimes be pinpointed within a few hundred miles using genetic sequencing. His research has allowed a highly detailed genetic map for African Americans that's useful for determining the genetic origins of disease.

Christopher Ré
Big data is the specialty of computer scientist, Christopher Ré. Ré received a B.S. degree in 2001 from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in 2009 from the University of Washington at Seattle. From 2009-2013, he was an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is presently an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Ré has created an inference engine, DeepDive, that searches previously unprocessable data buried in texts, illustrations, and images. DeepDive has been found to be more accurate than human annotation. DeepDive is presently extracting data about human trafficking networks from the "dark web," and its Pharmacogenomics Knowledgebase examines the biomedical literature to find relationships among genes, diseases, and drugs.

Beth Stevens
Neuroscientist, Beth Stevens, has been investigating the role of microglial cells in neuronal signaling in the brain. Stevens received a B.S. degree in 1993 from Northeastern University and a Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Maryland. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University from 2005-2008, she became an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the F. M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

Previously, the microglia were thought to just have an immunological function in reducing of brain inflammation and the removal of foreign bodies. As Stevens found, microglia act also to remove synaptic cells, the connections between nerve cells, during brain development. Stevens demonstrated that the extend of this "pruning" is a function of the activity level of the neural pathways. This pruning optimizes the "wiring" pattern of the brain.

Lorenz Studer
Biologist, Lorenz Studer, has been developing a technique of regeneration of dopaminergic neurons as a treatment for Parkinson's disease. Studer received a Candidate Medical Degree in 1987 from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, followed by an M.D. (1991) and a graduate degree (1994) from the University of Bern, Switzerland. He was at the University of Bern and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke within the National Institutes of Health from 1994-1999. Studer is presently the founding director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he is also a member of the Developmental Biology Program.

Studer works on the large-scale generation of dopaminergic neurons for transplantation as a treatment for Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. His techniques have produced such cells at greater quantity and quality. In animal testing, Parkinsonian symptoms were significantly improved by such transplantation.

Heidi Williams
Economist, Heidi Williams, investigates the economic forces involved with medical innovation. Williams received an A.B. degree in 2003 from Dartmouth College, an M.Sc. degree in 2004 from the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D in 2010 from Harvard University. She is presently an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Williams and her colleagues have found that economics has encouraged development of drugs for treatment of late-stage cancers over those for treatment of early stage cancers. That's because the late stage cancer drugs take a shorter time to develop, test, and bring to market, so their patent protection period and profit window is greater.

Peidong Yang
Inorganic chemist, Peidong Yang, does research on semiconductor nanowires and nanowire photonics for renewable energy applications. Yang received a B.A. degree in 1993 from the University of Science and Technology in China and a Ph.D. in 1997 from Harvard University. From 1997-1999 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is presently a Distinguished Professor of Energy and a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley.

Yang is using the photonic effects of nanowires as a means for artificial photosynthesis to combine sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and water, to create chemical compounds that store energy. Yang and his collaborators have combined semiconducting nanowires and bacteria to create a "synthetic leaf." The nanowires gather sunlight for bacterial photosynthesis to produce butanol. Yang has had further success in conversion of carbon dioxide into methane.


  1. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers (Tap Dance), from the film, "The Barkleys of Broadway," YouTube video.
  2. MacArthur Foundation, 2015 Fellows Class.
  3. MacArthur Foundation, Fellows Frequently Asked Questions.

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