It's a grant you can't apply for. And an honor for which you're nominated by people whose identities you'll never know. And even if you're a scientific researcher who well knows to expect the unexpected, an out-of-the-blue phone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has to come as a bit of a shock.
The news it brings with it? A $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship that comes with no strings attached: You can do anything you want with the money, and, at the end of the five-year-period it covers, you're not expected to write a report on how it was used.
This year, the foundation made 23 of those phone calls, and, in a rare occurrence, two of them were to recipients at the same institution: Kay Redfield Jamison and Geraldine Seydoux of Johns Hopkins. Jamison is a professor of psychiatry; Seydoux, an associate professor of molecular biology and genetics, both in the School of Medicine.
Having received one of the most prestigious awards in the country, the two join an elite group of MacArthur Fellows--including three other Hopkins faculty members who received them previously--from a wide range of fields including public service, the arts, science and business. This year's mosaic of winners includes a conservationist, a human rights leader, a composer, an art historian and an inventor.
Notification, which is always done by telephone, came just prior to last week's formal announcement.
"It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life-changing," says Daniel Socolow, the program's director.
Since the program began in 1981, 611 recipients, ranging in age from 18 to 82, have received the awards, which have come to be known as "genius awards."
"This new group of fellows is a strong collection of extraordinarily creative individuals, exceptional minds in motion," Socolow says. "We hope the fellowships will provide new freedom and opportunity over an extended period of time in support of these fellows' demonstrated potential for still greater achievement. They join a group of original and creative people of all ages and groups across a wide array of human endeavors linked together by their individual commitments to discovering and advancing knowledge and to improving society."
Jamison was recognized for her efforts to enhance mental health treatment, improve patient support and advocacy, and increase public awareness of psychiatric disorders. As the author of numerous scientific articles, an influential medical text on manic-depressive illness and several books for a general audience, Jamison has helped to increase understanding of suicide and serious mood disorders, the foundation says. Among her works is the best-selling An Unquiet Mind (1995), which chronicles her own struggles with manic depression.
"Jamison has combined the talents of a scientist with those of a writer who can explain the subject of mental illness to the afflicted," says Paul McHugh, the Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry and a Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Medicine. "Her concentration on manic-depressive disorder has demonstrated to patients that they can become free of the disorder and live a full life, as she herself has done."
Seydoux was tapped, the foundation says, because her work is helping to illuminate some of the most complex processes in biology.
"Her work is truly pioneering," says Thomas J. Kelly, the Boury Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics and director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "She has had a major impact on understanding fundamental problems that have challenged developmental biologists for over a century."
Seydoux's research focuses on the molecular machinery of reproduction and biological development, or how a single cell becomes a fully formed adult animal. Her work on the molecular genetics of worms called nematodes has identified the mechanisms that generate germ cells, which are precursors to adult reproductive organs. She also has identified how initial asymmetry of the embryo, necessary for the development of specialized tissues, derives from the interaction of specific structures within the ovum and sperm at fertilization.
The Hopkins faculty members who received grants previously are Fouad Ajami, the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and director of Middle East Studies Program in the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, in 1982; Philip D. Curtin, professor emeritus of history in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, in 1983; and Allen Grossman, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and professor of English in the Krieger School, in 1989.
An important underpinning of the MacArthur Fellowship Program is confidence that the fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of their awards.
The list of nominators for the program, numbering several hundred over the course of a year, continually changes. These nominators, who serve anonymously, are chosen for their ability to identify people who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their work. A 12-person selection committee, whose members also serve anonymously, makes recommendations to the foundation's board of directors. While there are no quotas or limits, typically between 20 and 30 fellows are selected annually.