Campus & Community

Harvard faculty members net MacArthur fellowships

4 min read

Biologists win three ‘genius’ awards

Three biologists — one current and two future faculty members at Harvard — have won MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, $500,000 no-strings-attached awards intended to encourage creativity, originality, and innovation in a broad array of fields.

The winners are Assistant Professor of Neurobiology Rachel Wilson at Harvard Medical School; Susan Mango, who was recently appointed professor of molecular and cellular biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); and Kirsten Bomblies, who will be an assistant professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, also at FAS. Both appointments are effective July 1, 2009. Mango is currently a professor at the University of Utah. Bomblies is currently at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, in Tubingen, Germany.

“It’s a big shock. Unlike all the other grants and awards, you don’t apply for this one,” Wilson said. “As a scientist, you’re trained to think about a project then about how to fund it. It feels very backward to have people give you money and say, ‘Now, go figure out what to do with it.’”

Wilson, Mango, and Bomblies are among 25 recipients announced Tuesday (Sept. 23) by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which began the MacArthur Fellows Program in 1981 as its first grant-making initiative. Over the years, awards have gone out to 781 people, ranging in age from 18 to 82.

“The MacArthur Fellows Program celebrates extraordinarily creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement,” said MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton. “With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of fellows, men and women of all ages in diverse fields, exemplifies the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit.”

The MacArthur Fellows Program accepts no applications. Instead, nominations are submitted in a secretive process that culminates in the surprise announcement to fellows.

Both Mango and Wilson are Harvard graduates, with Mango earning her bachelor’s degree in 1983 and Wilson in 1996.

Wilson, who received her doctorate from the University of California, San Francisco, in 2001, conducted her early research on how neurons and certain neurotransmitters function in the formation of long-term memory. Her current focus is on how nerve cells function to detect odors in one’s sense of smell. The MacArthur Foundation said her work opens new avenues for exploring the broader issue of how neural circuits are organized to sense the environment around us.

Wilson heard about the award just over a week ago, as she, her husband, and her parents were preparing to take a few days away in a lighthouse keeper’s former home near Provincetown, Mass. The award, she said, was a complete surprise. Though she’s had some time to digest the news since then, Wilson still hasn’t decided how to make use of the fellowship award, though she pointed out that even without money, the publicity that accompanies it would help recruit fellows and students to her lab.

“It’s a great way to attract people to your lab. The money is nothing if you don’t have good people,” Wilson said.

Mango, who received a doctorate from Princeton University in 1990, uses approaches from the fields of genetics, genomics, ecology, and embryology to examine the question of how complex organs form. Mango conducts much of her work on nematode worms, focusing on how the creature’s pharynx forms. Though much attention has been paid to how specific tissues form, Mango focuses on how those tissues interact and create a single functioning organ. She has identified a gene, pha-4, as crucial to the coordinated development of the worm’s pharynx.

Mango said she was in her office when got the phone call telling her she had been named a MacArthur Fellow. She said she was speechless, completely taken by surprise. Like Wilson, Mango hasn’t yet decided how to use the award.

Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in speaking about Mango’s appointment to the Harvard faculty, said recently that Mango is a leader in the field of organogenesis. He called her research “groundbreaking” and said it “opened alternative ways of thinking” about development.

Bomblies is currently finishing her post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck. She works on the molecular genetics of development and pathogen resistance in Arabidopsis and other plants.