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2011 MacArthur 'Genius' Grants Announced

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2011 MacArthur 'Genius' Grants Announced


2011 MacArthur 'Genius' Grants Announced

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

LYNN NEARY, host: And I'm Lynn Neary.

A geneticist, a percussionist, a parasitologist and a poet. Those are some of this year's winners of one of the most prominent and generous fellowships in the country. Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced its new fellows. And whether these 22 people buy this title or not, they will now be widely referred to as geniuses, recipients of the Genius Grant.

BLOCK: We're going to hear now from three of them. First, Jeanne Gang, the founder of Studio Gang Architects in Chicago. One of her best-known buildings is called the Aqua Tower. A surprising presence on the Chicago Skyline, it's wrapped in curving concrete slabs that form balconies, creating with rock-hard material a soft image of rippling waves.

And as she explained to us the Aqua Tower confronts a basic Chicago problem: wind.

JEANNE GANG: What's interesting with the tall buildings, the strongest force that you're going to receive on a tall building is the lateral pressures from the wind. So, because we wanted people to enjoy the outdoors and be able to step outside even on the tallest floor - 82nd floor - varying the slab edges the way that we did helps to confuse the wind and kind of reduces those pressures and makes it more comfortable.

You know, so that in Chicago - even though, you know, you probably only going to use the balconies three or four months out of the year - you still have - when you go out there you're not feeling, like, huge gusts of wind blowing at you.


GANG: It makes it possible to inhabit this exterior world.

BLOCK: Jeanne Gang, I read that one of your colleague's description of you as a - he called you a very Midwestern architect. What do you think he means by that? And do you think that's true?

GANG: Well, maybe like being Midwestern you're trying to - you're somewhat pragmatic and trying to, you know, get things done. The other part of it is with my family and my friends, you don't ever want to get too lofty...


GANG: ...about yourself or your achievements. That's also kind of a Midwestern trait, I guess.

BLOCK: Were you - and I'm picturing you as a kid. Were you always, you know, busy with the Legos, creating incredible structures while your...


BLOCK: ...friends were sort of thinking little houses and garages?

GANG: I was, you know, this kid that was making playhouses and structures for the neighborhood, and not so much into dolls.


GANG: Unless somebody wanted a big Playhouse structure for their dolls...


GANG: ...but I've always been into materials. Like, I remember collecting so many rocks on one vacation as a kid that my dad went to pick up my suitcase and put it in the trunk of the car and he could barely lift it.


GANG: But, you know, just, I also like breaking things. And I've always thought that you could learn more about materials through breaking and destroying bits and pieces than, you know, than just observing it. So I think the experiment started pretty early.

BLOCK: Well, it served you well, clearly.

GANG: Thanks.

BLOCK: That's Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

Our next MacArthur Fellowship winner is a medical researcher. He studies concussions and long-term effects of traumatic brain injury in sports.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Number 32 on third down and six. Rob in trouble gets - oh, a big hit onto Sean Jackson...

Dr. KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ: Well, a concussion is really - means to shake violently. So it's really when the head is accelerated and decelerated very rapidly, and the brain inside the cranial cavity sort of sloshes around.

BLOCK: Kevin Guskiewicz's research at the University of North Carolina has been groundbreaking. His work is one reason the NFL changed its kickoff rule this season in hopes of reducing dangerous collisions. He wants to make contact sports safer for all athletes, including his three sons.

GUSKIEWICZ: Many of my friends think I'm crazy for allowing my kids to play football knowing what I do. But I'm a big believer in allowing a kid to explore what it is he has passion for doing. And he's going to be a better player and a safer player, one that knows how to protect himself at age 14, 15, 16 when these injuries are more likely to occur, if he's learned that sport at a younger age.

And I spent a lot of time out on the football field with my kids and with the other coaches, trying to help them understand proper technique and not lowering the head inappropriately, and predisposing a child to a head injury.

BLOCK: You know, for as long as you've been involved with this, studying the impact of concussions in sports and brain injury, I wonder if it's especially gratifying now. You must have felt for a while, I would think, that you were sort of out in the wilderness, that people weren't paying attention and maybe thought you were, you know, a little crazy to be doing this and talking about it all the time. And now it seems to be much more accepted.

GUSKIEWICZ: It really is. And it has taken some time to capture the attention of the key players, if you will. We're at a critical juncture, I think a time when some people are calling for collision sports to be banned, especially for young kids. I think we bear the responsibility to try to help keep our athletes safe out there. And it's going to take a creative agenda, I think, for us to find ways to do this. And I fear otherwise we're going to be steering kids away from sport, organized sport. And there are other issues that come with that.

BLOCK: Kevin Guskiewicz studies concussions in sports at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He hopes to expand his research on traumatic brain injury to military veterans.


BLOCK: This is the Young People's Chorus of New York City. It brings together hundreds of kids from all parts of the city, rich and poor.


BLOCK: The chorus's founder and artistic director, Francisco Nunez, is the last MacArthur Fellowship winner we're going to hear from today. He says he grew up poor and music changed his life.

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: Well, when I was young, I grew up, you know, in New York City and the Dominican Republic. I was basically with a single mom. My dad was around but he was not really living with us. And it was hard for me to stay, you know, making friends in the streets. All the kids that were in the street were looking for trouble.

So my mom bought a piano from the Salvation Army. And she said, Let's start piano lessons. She's always wanted to be a pianist herself but she never had the way or means to do it. So I practiced and that kept me home and energized. But what was interesting about the piano, the music opened up a world that was outside of the neighborhood I was in.

I was able to meet children completely different than me - children that were Jewish, children that were African-American, children that were Chinese who loved to work, who loved to sing, who loved to play and they wanted to study. I wanted to give an opportunity for other kids in New York City to have that.

BLOCK: What do you think happens with that cross-pollination, mixing, you know, inner-city, underprivileged kids with kids from very elite, very wealthy schools?

NUNEZ: Well, it's interesting because I - the social idea of mixing, for some reason, is still unique. We talk about it so much but New York City is one of the most segregated cities in the country, where people live in their pockets, in their neighborhoods. And you don't have to speak English to live in New York City. You don't have to leave your neighborhood.

And at first they're fearful of each other 'cause they don't know what to expect. But when they come together and they notice that they actually need each other, and people appreciate them as humans because of what they're doing, it actually changes them.

BLOCK: When you're auditioning a kid for the Young People's Chorus, what are you listening for?

NUNEZ: That they don't have a damaged voice, is the first thing. But what I - it's not so much what I'm listening for, it's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for energy, enthusiasm, and I'm looking for a great parent who loves their child. Singing, we can teach anyone to sing.

BLOCK: Really?


BLOCK: To sing well?

NUNEZ: I said to sing.


NUNEZ: Sing well...


NUNEZ: I think we can teach anyone to sing well, as well. What's interesting about YPC is that we're not looking to create musicians. Work looking to create great people.

BLOCK: That's MacArthur winner Francisco Nunez, who founded and conducts the Young People's Chorus of New York City.


BLOCK: Each of the MacArthur Fellows wins $500,000 - no strings attached. And one final note, a shout-out to one of our own. Jad Abumrad, the producer and host of WNYC's Radiolab has also won the MacArthur. Congratulations.

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