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3 from Harvard awarded MacArthur grants

Will use $500k to advance studies

(Tsar Fedorsky/Getty Images)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / September 20, 2011

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Three Harvard professors - an economist who studies racial disparities, a physicist who probes the quantum behavior of ultracold atoms, and a clinical psychologist working to better understand suicide and how to stop people from harming themselves - are among the 22 people awarded MacArthur “genius’’ grants today.

The three local recipients of the $500,000, five-year awards are all under 40: Roland Fryer, 34, a professor of economics; Markus Greiner, 38, an associate professor of physics; and Matthew Nock, 38, a professor of psychology.

Unlike many other prizes, people do not apply to become MacArthur Fellows and the honor is unexpected, awarded to people in diverse fields, including this year the radio producer of a show about science, a percussionist, and a poet. Instead of honoring a lifetime of contributions, the grant is often given to people at an important stage in their career, to fuel future work.

All three local winners said they were still recovering from the surprise of winning the grant, but were already thinking of ways to use the generous awards to have an impact on their fields.

Greiner, for example, is known for work he has done on a microscope that provides a window into a world governed by the quirky rules of quantum mechanics.

His research could potentially help in the design of new materials, or enable quantum computing - in which the weird behavior of atoms can be exploited to enable faster, more powerful computers. One of the things he hopes to do with the grant is to emulate his mentor, Nobel laureate Theodor Hansch, by setting up a space in his laboratory where scientists can play with new ideas.

“To really have a playground where one can try very unconventional ideas that are not funded otherwise, to keep the spirit of playful exploration,’’ said Greiner. “To keep that as a physicist, to not just follow the beaten track.’’

Fryer and Nock both said they hoped to use the money to find ways to help move their research into the real world.

As Fryer trained to become an economist, he was impressed by the elegance of the research methods available to him, and wanted to find a worthy problem on which to use them. He became interested in understanding the causes of racial disparities - in incarceration rates, in income, in health. Over the years, he has concentrated on education, and is in the midst of a large experiment in Houston’s public schools, where 20 schools have implemented changes his research suggests are important.

Fryer doesn’t know what he will do with the money yet, but he said, “it’ll be all about the search for a scaleable solution to the racial achievement gap.’’

Nock has been working on tools that could help predict whether a person is likely to attempt suicide. Ultimately, he hopes to find ways to prevent suicides and help people who try to harm themselves.

It’s an idea he has had since he studied abroad in London as a Boston University undergraduate, working in a psychiatric hospital ward for suicidal and violent patients. Nock knew that as a psychologist, he wanted to see patients, so he asked the staff: What are the best treatments? What would he be able to offer patients like this when he was a practicing psychologist? What he learned discouraged him, and drove his career.

“There’s been a lot that we don’t know about suicide, because it’s a highly stigmatized behavior,’’ Nock said. “I’d really like to move more into the realm of using some of what we’ve learned to develop new treatments for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.’’

The other recipients are: Jad Abumrad, a radio host and producer; Marie-Therese Connolly, an elder rights lawyer; Jeanne Gang, an architect; Elodie Ghedin, a parasitologist; Kevin Guskiewicz, a sports medicine researcher; Peter Hessler, a long-form journalist; Tiya Miles, a public historian; Francisco Nunez, a choral conductor and composer; Sarah Otto, an evolutionary geneticist; Shwetak Patel, a computer scientist; Dafnis Prieto, a jazz percussionist and composer; Kay Ryan, a poet; Melanie Sanford, a chemist; William Seeley, a neuropathologist; Jacob Soll, a European historian; A.E. Stallings, a poet and translator; Ubaldo Vitali, a conservator and silversmith; Alisa Weilerstein, a cellist; and Yukiko Yamashita, a developmental biologist.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globecarolynyj.