An MIT scientist who borrows nature's ideas to construct tiny electronic devices and a Harvard doctor racing to understand the complex world of energy metabolism are among three local "MacArthur geniuses" announced today.
The 24th annual MacArthur Fellowship, a $500,000 no-strings-attached prize, is known for acknowledging creative and undiscovered thinkers in a wide range of fields. The entire process, from nomination to finalist, is secret until the recipients receive a phone call, a conversation that one Boston recipient said yesterday he thought at first was a prank.
"It was a shock and continues to be a real big shock," said Dr. Vamsi Mootha, 33, of Harvard Medical School. "I thought it was a prank. It was a very odd, surreal conversation."
The Boston-based recipients are Mootha, an assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School studying metabolism; Angela Belcher, 37, an MIT materials scientist who merges nature and electronics; and Amy Smith, 41, an MIT instructor who invents simple technologies to solve problems in the poorest places on earth.
There were three other New Englanders among the 23 recipients nationally: C. D. Wright, 55, a Brown University poet; Gretchen Berland, 40, a Yale University doctor-filmmaker; and Heather Hurst, 29, a graduate student and archaelogical illustrator in New Haven.
Mootha says he will probably use the money to study rare metabolic disorders that could shed light on more common illnesses. Mootha, who also starts on Oct. 1 as an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, specializes in the structures responsible for energy metabolism: the mitochondria.
Almost every year, Boston has at least one MacArthur recipient; last year six of the 24 recipients were based in the Boston area. The funding comes from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The prize, delivered in checks over five years, cannot be applied for. The selection process involves several hundred "nominators," hundreds of nominees, and a 12-member selection committee.
" They are anonymous, too," said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. Other recipients this year included a Bard College sculptor and a California high school debating coach. "The reason for all the confidentiality isn't to hide, it's to protect the program, to remain as frank and objective as possible."
Belcher, 37, who was on a tight work deadline when the call came, said she was rendered speechless. A nanotechnology specialist, she uses structures found in nature to improve manmade devices that can result in self-assembling metal films and wires. For example, when she was a graduate student, she realized that abalone use proteins to build super-strong shells from calcium carbonate. She, in turn, replicates such natural processes to improve manmade devices that manufacture materials on a microscopic scale.
Belcher is still considering how she will spend the money, but expects she may extend her work into the fields of medicine or energy and look for ways to encourage children to become interested in science.
"I'd like to figure out how I can contribute to the community around Cambridge," she said. Smith, who teaches in MIT's mechanical engineering department, invents technologies that can solve vexing problems in developing countries, such as low-cost water purification. A Lexington native and MIT grad, she worked in the Peace Corps in Botswana for four years before deciding to tackle some of hurdles she saw people experience every day. Smith, who says her work is perpetually underfunded, is eager to do more field work, such as bringing a simple grain-grinding mill machine she developed to Haiti.
"We can make a lot more progress," she said.
Beth Daley can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org