Three Harvard professors are among the 2011 MacArthur Fellows. They include economist Roland Fryer Jr. (from left), physicist Markus Greiner, and clinical psychologist Matthew K. Nock.

Photos courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Campus & Community

Three named MacArthur Fellows

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Harvard’s Fryer, Greiner, and Nock honored with ‘genius’ grants

Three Harvard faculty members, whose research ranges from the spatial organization of ultra-cold atoms to the effect of racial differences in America to the psychology of suicide and self-injury, are among the recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation fellowships.

Roland Fryer Jr., Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics; Markus Greiner, associate professor of physics; and Matthew K. Nock, professor of psychology, will receive the prestigious “genius” grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced today.

The three are among 22 recipients from a variety of fields to be recognized by the foundation for their originality and dedication to their chosen fields. The annual awards are no-strings-attached grants of $500,000, which recipients may use to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. Recipients are nominated anonymously, and don’t know they are under consideration until they are notified by the foundation that they have won.

“This has been a year of great change and extraordinary challenge, and we are once again reminded of the potential individuals have to make a difference in the world and shape our future,” said Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation. “The MacArthur Fellows exemplify how individual creativity and talent can spark new insights and ideas in every imaginable field of human endeavor.”

For Fryer, that field is illuminating the causes and consequences of economic disparity due to race and inequality in American society, particularly when it comes to education.

Most recently, Fryer led an experiment to examine whether financial incentives work as a method of boosting student achievement. In a study that examined 20,000-plus students at more than 200 schools in three cities, the results found that incentives alone have no significant impact on state test scores.

Though he has yet to decide how he will use the grant funds, Fryer hopes to develop a scalable solution to a problem he calls the “civil rights issue of the 21st century” — closing the racial achievement gap.

“I’m still in a bit of shock,” said Fryer, of being named a MacArthur Fellow. “The feeling that is most prominent at this point is one of gratitude — to the foundation for the fellowship, to my colleagues, and to the University for doing what it can to provide an environment for faculty where ideas are our only constraints.”

Greiner learned of his award two weeks ago, while visiting friends in Munich, but initially believed he’d been contacted by the foundation seeking information about another nominee.

“They called to tell me they needed information regarding a MacArthur Fellow, and had some questions regarding their CV and background, but then told me they were talking about me,” Greiner said. “It was a wonderful surprise.”

Greiner’s work focuses on using lasers and magnetic fields to cool atoms to ultra-low temperatures — near absolute zero — then trap them in lattices created using lasers. Once trapped, the atoms behave similarly to electrons, enabling the investigation of quantum phenomena like superconductivity under conditions that can be more easily controlled.

For Nock, who studies suicide and self-injury in adolescents and adults, the grant offers the chance to seed programs that not only advance our understanding of suicide, but our ability to predict and prevent it, he said.

As a researcher, Nock has made significant breakthroughs in understanding why people harm themselves. Using a multidisciplinary approach that combines epidemiology, laboratory experiments, mental associations, and real-world biological and psychological assessment, he has documented the mental state of people considering or recently engaging in self-injury. His work has uncovered a psychological marker — the extent to which a person associates his or her self-concept with death — and the strength of that association, which can be used to predict suicide attempts with greater accuracy than before.

Despite being named a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation, Nock said the credit for his work should be shared with his many collaborators.

“The MacArthur Fellows Program recognizes individuals, but our research is very collaborative in nature, and I am only one very small part of the outstanding team of researchers that contributed to the work recognized by this award,” he said.