Winners Welcome MacArthur 'Genius Grants'

Correction Sept. 30, 2007

The audio version of this story misidentifies the professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who studies the role of race relations in American medicine. She is Dr. Lisa Cooper, not Dr. Linda Cooper.

The MacArthur Foundation announces 24 "Genius Grants" of $500,000 each. Some of the honorees include spider-silk biologist Cheryl Hayashi; neurorobotics expert Yoky Matsuoka; Lisa Cooper, who studied how race, ethnicity and gender influence the doctor/patient relationship; and classically trained vocalist Dawn Upshaw.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The MacArthur Foundation announced its genius grants today, and that means 24 people will each receive half a million dollars over the next five years to spend however they see fit.

Among this year's recipients: a blues musician, an inventor, a medieval historian and a scientist who studies the stuff of the web, not the Internet. She studies the silk of spiders with which they weave their webs.

Cheryl Hayashi is an associate professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside.

Dr. CHERYL HAYASHI (Associate Professor of Biology, University of California, Riverside): Once you start working on spiders, you just really can't avoid noticing how important silk is to every aspect of their ecology.

SIEGEL: What are the big questions you're trying to answer about spider silks?

Dr. HAYASHI: Well, where do they come from, the ancestral spider? I mean, we don't know that. Why and how are there so many different kinds of silks? We've just been scratching the tip of the iceberg on that one. How all these silks are mechanically different and what they allow spiders to do? I mean, that's just really, really under-described.

SIEGEL: At various times in my life, I've heard people describe how strong the silk of a spider can be. What's a reasonable statement of how strong it is that is academically, scientifically defensible?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HAYASHI: Well, there are some types of spider silks that are remarkably strong that rival high tensile steel in terms of strength. And there's other types of silks out there that are far tougher. They can absorb a lot more energy before failing than nearly all man-made and biological materials.

But what's remarkable to me about spider silks is just the variety of silks out there. And so, basically, if you were an engineer or an architect, and you were looking for a particular material and you wanted to make a checklist of what features you wanted in that material. I really believe we could take any checklist and go wild, and if we just knew enough about spider silk, we could find a particular spider that already made that kind of silk.

SIEGEL: Really?

Dr. HAYASHI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And the varieties of spider silks - there's a great variety and there are significant differences between different species or varieties?

Dr. HAYASHI: Oh, enormous differences. So even a typical orb-web weaving spider can make seven different types of silks from one individual spider.

SIEGEL: For different physical situations or different functions, why would - how does one spider use different kinds of silks or…

Dr. HAYASHI: It's really for different functions. So each kind of silk is made in its own silk gland. You could think of it like you're at a soft drink fountain, you know, and there'll be a little spigot for cola, a little spigot for lemon lime-type drink, a little spigot for fruit punch. And that's how to think about, sort of, the machinery a spider has in their spinneret area.

And they use a different type of silk for different architectural elements of their webs. A spider uses one kind of silk to make the frame of their web, they make a different kind of silk to make the capture spiral of their web, and yet another kind of silk to wrap up their eggs with.

SIEGEL: And it's just all in a day's work for the spider.

Dr. HAYASHI: Oh, all in a - all in an hour's work.

SIEGEL: Cheryl Hayashi says her MacArthur grant will give her the chance to travel to other parts of the world to study more spiders and to do riskier research, work that might produce a publishable article, but maybe not. The extra income affords her the ability to fail.

Yoky Matsuoka is looking for answers to how the brain tells the hand what to do, so that she can advance the field of neurorobotics. Matsuoka is an associate professor in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. And she got into robotics in a very unusual way.

Dr. YOKY MATSUOKA (Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle): I used to be a tennis player and I was pursuing to be a professional tennis player. All I cared about was to, you know, play tennis and then also, you know, started to be a little bit curious about how our brain controls our body to perform so well or so poorly sometimes. And when my career as a tennis player ended with multiple injuries, I started to think that maybe what I want to do is to pursue engineering and build a robotic device that could play tennis with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MATSUOKA: So by the time I finished my neuroscience study, rather than building my tennis buddy, I got more interested in utilizing robotics technology to help people who have neurological disorders. Then, I ended up forming a lab called Neurobotics, where I build robotic devices, which will understand, assist and rehabilitate human mobility.

SIEGEL: And you've actually - you have designed, I gather, a hand that it is remarkable in its replication of the human tendons.

Dr. MATSUOKA: That's correct. And the whole idea behind it is to mimic as much of the anatomical feature as possible. So that one, it could be used to understand further about the human biomechanics and neuro control of the movements, but also that it could be one day a very futuristic prosthetic device which people can wear immediately after they lose their limbs and then use the same brain control signals that are used to control their original limbs to control this mechanical device.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Yoky Matsuoka. She was named a MacArthur genius grant recipient today. So was Dr. Linda Cooper, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. She has studied doctor-patient communication and how that communication often breaks down when the patient is from a minority group and the doctor is white. She saw it as a resident.

Dr. LINDA COOPER (Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University): Oftentimes, it seemed to me that minority patients were not necessarily well understood in terms of their social situation and their environment and why they might or might not be kind of interested in either coming in for help or following through an advice. And I found that people sort of made assumptions about minority patients and then would either decide to give them information or not give them information based on the assumptions they made, you know, to discuss certain issues or to recommend certain things, or they might decide that they weren't even going to bring up something or offer it because they had already assumed that the minority patient would not be able to follow through or not be interested.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Linda Cooper.

We found our fourth of the 24 MacArthur fellows at San Francisco International Airport on a cell phone, which sadly played havoc with a wonderful voice of soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Ms. DAWN UPSHAW (Soprano): One of the great things about this grant is that you can really continue doing what you're doing or they'll support a change in direction. And I think I'm at a point in my work where I am looking for all kinds of new projects. And one of the things I enjoy most is presenting new music and working with composers and also beginning to work with young singers.

SIEGEL: Well, what is the special satisfaction of working with - of presenting new music? Obviously, if you present Mozart, you don't get to talk much with Mozart about what he had in mind in that particular area, I understand working with a composer. Is it the nature of the music itself that you find more attractive?

Ms. UPSHAW: Well, I feel I'm really reacting to the world around me when I'm presenting music in my own time and especially with particular composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, that the music, besides having its usual healing powers, if it's connecting me to the world and to the listeners, to the world in such a way that we're all learning something or appreciating something in a way that we hadn't before then that's really what it's all about.

(Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: That's soprano Dawn Upshaw off her cell phone singing music by one of her favorite composers whom she mentioned Osvaldo Golijov. Upshaw is one of 24 recipients of this year's MacArthur genius grants.

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