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When the Phone Rings and the Voice Says: You’ve Won a MacArthur Award


Patrick Makuakane, a hula choreographer in San Francisco, was at the Burning Man festival when he received a text from someone who claimed to be from the MacArthur Foundation and had been trying to reach him. The spotty cell service in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada made Makuakane miss the calls, and he did not understand why he was being contacted.

“Finally, I kind of pieced it together,” he said. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

Makuakane is part of a new class of 20 MacArthur Fellows that includes a U.S. poet laureate, a composer, a hydroclimatologist studying the impact of global warming and a lawyer who founded an organization dedicated to preserving American democracy.

Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gives fellowships to a select group of writers, artists, social scientists, entrepreneurs and other individuals in a variety of fields. The fellowship is “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations,” and comes with a $800,000 stipend, according to the foundation’s website.

The fellows, who were announced on Wednesday, were nominated by a constantly changing pool of anonymous people and then recommended by an independent selection committee to the foundation’s president and board of directors. Since 1981, more than a thousand people have received a MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius” award.

Hailing from across the United States, the fellows are engaged in a wide variety of creative and intellectual work. María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who is based in Nashville, is a multidisciplinary artist who explores the history of the Caribbean through multimedia installations. Lucy Hutyra, a professor at Boston University, investigates the impacts of urbanization on the carbon cycle.

Because of the anonymous selection process, many of the fellows were, like Makuakane, astonished to hear they had been chosen.

Ada Limón, who is the U.S. poet laureate, had just arrived home in Kentucky after seeing her 98-year-old grandmother die. She had been receiving calls from an unknown number and assumed they had something to do with the memorial service.

“But then the MacArthur Foundation finally got a hold of me,” she said. “And it was so wild because I was grieving, but then had this incredible news. And so my whole body felt very overwhelmed. And I just started sobbing.”

Many of the fellows were also unsure about how they would use the financial award, but some were beginning to have ideas.

Courtney Bryan, a composer and professor of music at Tulane University, has been brainstorming plans for using the money to support musicians in New Orleans.

“I’m thinking about what to build that is a creative hub and that will give more opportunities for artists to take risks and be paid for it, too,” she said.

For Jason D. Buenrostro, a cellular and molecular biologist at Harvard who investigates the mechanisms that regulate gene expressions, becoming a fellow has felt immensely validating. He said he had struggled with impostor syndrome because he is a first-generation Mexican American and neither of his parents graduated from high school.

Now, he said, he is in “a place where there’s a recognition for the value I’ve been able to provide and also the potential I might have to do more.”

Here are the other fellows:

E. Tendayi Achiume, a legal scholar

Andrea Armstrong, an incarceration law scholar

Rina Foygel Barber, a statistician

Ian Bassin, a lawyer and democracy advocate

Raven Chacon, a composer and artist

Diana Greene Foster, a demographer and reproductive health researcher

Carolyn Lazard, an artist

Lester Mackey, a computer scientist and statistician

Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer

Manuel Muñoz, a fiction writer

Imani Perry, an interdisciplinary scholar and writer

Dyani White Hawk, a multidisciplinary artist

A. Park Williams, a hydroclimatologist

Amber Wutich, an anthropologist

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