These are the MacArthur ‘geniuses’ of 2017

By Anna Schaverien 12 October 2017

Here are the people making a real difference to our world.

The $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship is more commonly known as the ‘genius grant’.

The winners of the five-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation are selected based on their ‘exceptional creativity’ and often come from very diverse fields.

Previous winners of the fellowship were Hamilton and Moana creator Lin Manuel Miranda, political activist Susan Sontag, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Katherine Boo.

2017’s fellows include social activists, playwrights, singers, and historians as well as computer scientists, anthropologists, and immunologists.

Out of the 24 winners of this year’s grant, here are five of the geniuses who are changing our world for the better.

1. Kate Orff, the eco-friendly architect

Architect and environmental activist, Kate Orff, won one of this year’s coveted fellowships based on her innovative work designing habitats that adapt to climate change.

With the architecture firm she founded, SCAPE, Orff has designed a park with permeable concrete that allows rainwater to seep into the ground and turned a creek once used for waste and sewage into a beautiful nature trail.

Next year, the company’s biggest project yet will adapt New York’s Staten Island shore to create a 1km-long buffer that protects neighbourhoods from wave damage and erosion, and doubles as an oyster reef and fish habitat.

Kate Orff's project for Staten Island will provide protection for local neighbourhoods. Image: SCAPE.

With plenty more interesting projects on the drawing board, Orff will continue to make our architecture more environmentally-friendly.

2. Stefan Savage, the computer scientist taking on hackers

This professor of computing and engineering at University of California San Diego has been chosen for the grant thanks to his unusual approach to fighting cyber crime.

Instead of tackling spam emails and cyber attacks, Savage gets into the mind of the hackers by joining the very groups he’s fighting against, and asks himself how they’re making money and what can be done to make attacks unprofitable.

“If you don’t actually understand the back end of the criminal process, then you don’t really know if whatever intervention you are using is actually the most cost-effective place to get in there and do something,” he said to his local newspaper, the LA Times.

Praised for the ‘real world importance’ of his work by the MacArthur Foundation, Savage says his next challenge is to make cyber security just as evidence-based as the medical field.

3. Betsy Levy Paluck, the conflict psychologist

With Trump threatening nuclear war with North Korea, Betsy Levy Paluck‘s work is especially important.

The Princeton University psychologist’s special area of interest is social tensions and she tries to apply her research to reducing conflict in real-world situations.

Psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck. Image: MacArthur Foundation.

Levy Paluck and her team studied how to school bullying by speaking to nearly 25,000 students and looking at their social networks. With the changes they suggested, the number of bullying incidents reported at schools dropped by 30% in one year.

She has also worked on reducing ethnic tensions in Rwanda, and studied how attitudes towards same-sex marriage in America are changing.

4. Trevor Paglen, the anti-surveillance artist

Trevor Paglen has two jobs that you’ve probably near heard combined before: he’s a conceptual artist and geographer.

He uses this unusual combination to make unique images and sculptures about how human rights are being threatened by mass surveillance and data collection.

Paglen has used powerful telescopes to photograph secret prisons, documented the classified satellites that orbit our planet, and photographed the fibre optic cables that cover the ocean floor to give us internet access – all in an effort to make the average man on the street see what’s usually hidden from him.

One of Trevor Paglen's works, showing a classified listening station in Virginia. Image: Trevor Paglen.

5. Regina Barzilay, the cancer-fighting linguist

Machine-learning expert, Regina Barzilay, is a professor teaching at MIT‘s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

She has already used language processing to decipher the dead language of Ugaritic, mapped out the world’s languages, and is now turning her head to fighting cancer.

Barzilay plans to improve the early detection and treatment of cancer with machine-learning and is already working on models that will use language to identify an early diagnosis.

“I’m rarely interested in providing yet another solution to traditional language processing tasks,” she said.

“I’m most excited about solving problems not within the mainstream of the field that require new perspectives.”

To find out more about the other recipients of the MacArthur Foundation fellowships, visit the site here.