Campus & Community

Daniel Schrag Wins MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship

3 min read
Daniel Schrag

Give Daniel Schrag some old seawater, bits of sediment from the ocean floor, and chunks of coral rock, and he’ll tell you about Earth’s climate tens of thousands, even millions of years ago.

He’s done this so well that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this week it will give him $500,000 with “no- strings-attached” to do whatever he wants for the next five years. Schrag is one of 25 people who will receive this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, often referred to as “genius grants.”

“MacArthur Fellows are chosen for their exceptional creativity, record of significant accomplishment, and potential for still greater achievement,” says Daniel Socolow, director of the Fellows program. “The Foundation neither requires nor expects specific projects from the Fellows, nor does it ask for reports on how the money is used. An important underpinning of the program is confidence that the Fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of Fellowship resources.”

Nominations for the honor are made in secret; not even the nominees know they have been selected. They are notified by a surprise phone call. When Schrag received his call, “I was indeed surprised, and it was wonderful,” he says. “I am delighted, and appreciative of the honor.”

The call came from John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, himself a previous MacAthur winner. The two teach a course in environmental science and public policy together.

Schrag sees the money as giving him “an opportunity to do things I could not do otherwise. My research on past and present climates has been generously supported by federal agencies. In addition, I am interested in helping government policy makers better understand problems facing Earth’s environment. Using the money to find innovate ways to do that would be spending it in the spirit in which it was given.”

Schrag came to Harvard in 1997, after teaching at Princeton and receiving his Ph.D. in geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1993. To reconstruct past climates and changes in sea level, Schrag and his colleagues and students study changes in ancient coral reefs, deep ocean sediments, and water trapped in the pores of rocks. These investigations are described on his web site (

One project exploits changes in the chemistry of Pacific Ocean corals to determine the timing and severity of El Niños, and how they disrupt the planet’s weather (see August 19, 1999, Gazette, page 1).

Another line of research involves him with Paul Hoffman, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, in championing the idea that Earth was frozen over repeatedly some 750-570 million years ago (see Sept. 17, 1998, Gazette, page 7). Volcanic activity finally warmed-up this so-called “Snowball Earth,” and an explosive burst of life occurred the like of which the planet has never since seen. If the theory is right, it would solve one of the greatest mysteries of life: how all the different forms of plants and animals, the ancestors of all present living things, suddenly appeared about 565 million years ago.