MacArthur Foundation awards 24 ‘genius grants’

CHICAGO — A newspaper reporter who refuses to forget decades-old murders and a law professor trying to get people to forget the way they think about severe mental illness are among 24 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”

The $500,000 fellowships were announced today by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

While recipients can spend the money however they like, the foundation said the selections were made as much for what the scientists, artists and others might achieve as much as for what they’ve already done.

“We’re looking for ways to have an impact with the grants,” said Bob Gallucci, the foundation’s president. “This is not just an award for past accomplishment (but) for the potential to do more creative things in the future.”

As in previous years, a wide variety of fields are represented on the list of recipients, including both arts and sciences. There is a novelist and an applied physicist, a photojournalist and a molecular biologist, a painter and a biochemist, physicians and a short story writer, a bridge engineer and poet.

They are also people who are as close or closer to the beginning of their careers than they are to the end. Of the 24 recipients, nine are still in their 30s, with a total of 16 of them not yet 50 years old.

One after another, they say they the money will help them continue what has become their life’s work.

Like Jerry Mitchell.

A reporter with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., Mitchell, 50, has spent two decades investigating Civil Rights-era slayings, reminding readers that among them were graying old men who had gotten away with murder.

It was Mitchell whose reporting on the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers that was instrumental in a new trial and conviction in 1994 for Byron de la Beckwith.

Today, Mitchell, who has continued his investigations, said the money will allow him to take a leave of absence from the paper to focus on the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers — the so-called “Mississippi Burning” case — and the four surviving suspects.

“People are dying,” said Mitchell, pointing to a fifth suspect in the 1964 slayings who died a few months ago. “The window is shutting pretty quickly.”

Elyn Saks, 53, said the money will allow her to continue educating people about the lives of those with severe mental illness, the kind of thing she did with a book about her own struggles with schizophrenia.

“I want to make a difference in how people see schizophrenia,” said Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California’s law school, whose memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” came out in 2007.

To that end, she said she is working on a book about “high functioning people with schizophrenia” such as herself.

“I hope my book and other books like it give people more understanding and more sympathy and more empathy.”

Rebecca Onie, who co-founded and is CEO of Boston-based Project HEALTH, said the award might prompt others to use as a template her organization to improve the health of low-income families.

“This is validation of our model and creates for us an opportunity to educate…” she said.

For Timothy Barrett, the award will make it easier for him to keep alive the craft of papermaking.

The founding director of the papermaking facilities at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, Barrett, 59, said the grant means more research into how paper was made centuries ago, further unlocking the secrets of the process.

“It’s hard to get research funds because I’m not in a traditional field,” he said.

Besides that, he said, the grant will help him pay tribute to those craftsmen who, for a variety of reasons, never wrote down how they made paper.

“I’m really eager to see that they not be forgotten,” he said.

On the Net:

MacArthur Foundation: www.macfound.org/

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