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Professors from MIT, Boston College, and a musician bound for Harvard's faculty win MacArthur 'genius grants'

Posted by Your Town  September 25, 2013 03:15 PM

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(MacArthur Foundation)

A video about BC historian Robin Fleming. For videos of the other three MacArthur Fellows with local ties, see below.

Four people with ties to Boston-area schools – a medieval historian who teaches at Boston College, a computer scientist and an astrophysicist who teach at MIT, and a musician who will soon join Harvard University’s faculty – were among the 24 individuals named Wednesday as 2013 MacArthur Fellows, each winning the prize commonly known as a “genius grant.”

History professor Robin Fleming, 57, a California native who lives in Cambridge, became the first-ever MacArthur Fellow from BC.

Computer scientist and Cambridge resident Dina Katabi and astrophysicist and Concord resident Sara Seager, both 42, are professors at MIT, which has now had 22 faculty and staff members win the awards.

Another ‘genius grant’ winner this year, jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, 41, of New York City, is scheduled in January to join Harvard’s faculty as the music department’s Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.

Each fellow will receive a stipend of $625,000 paid out over five years. The money can be spent however the recipient chooses, with “no strings attached,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which doles out the grants.

The program aims to recognize “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future,” said a statement from the foundation.

Since the MacArthur Fellows program began in 1981, a total of 897 fellows have been named including this year’s class.

Fleming, chair of the history department at BC, has been affiliated with the university since 1989.

She said she feels a “really lucky” to have been selected for the prestigious award.

“I’m a good historian and I do interesting work, but there are a lot of good historians out there who do really interesting work,” she said by phone Wednesday.

Fleming said she found out about three weeks ago when she got a phone call “out of the blue” informing her she’d been chosen as a fellow.

“I almost fell over and I don’t remember the conversation very clearly,” she said.

“It’s been really, really hard to keep a secret.”

"It all still feels a bit “surreal,” but Fleming said she is planning out how she can use the grant to continue her work.

She said she the money will allow her to take some time off from teaching and administrative duties at BC so she can focus on her latest project, which she just started.

Fleming said the effort involves writing history with researchers and academics from other disciplines, “not just historians.”

She said the grant will also help pay for archaeological work in the UK.

Her expertise as a historian focuses on “life in Britain in the tumultuous centuries during and after the fall of the Roman Empire,” which she recounts through books, articles and other writings using “an artful blending of archaeological and textual sources.”

“Drawing on physical remains as well as objects including brooches, buckles, coins, potsherds, and spears found in medieval cemeteries and settlements, Fleming is able to illuminate the everyday existence of the largely illiterate lower-elite and peasant classes,” the foundation said. She is “changing the way historians view early medieval Britain and providing a framework for incorporating material culture into the writing of history.”

Katabi, a native of Syria, earned a doctorate from MIT in 2003 and has taught in the institute’s electrical engineering and computer science department since.

As a communications researcher focused on wireless data transmission, she has found ways “to improve the speed, reliability, and security of data exchange.”

Her work has included showing that Wi-Fi signals “can be used to track the movements of humans, even if they are in a closed room or behind a wall,” or “to send commands to a computer via a person’s gestures as the signals reflect off of the person’s body,” the foundation said.

“Through her numerous contributions, Katabi has become a leader in accelerating our capacity to communicate high volumes of information securely without restricting mobility.”

Reached by phone Wednesday she said she “feels great” to have received such a distinct honor.

“It’s also a weird feeling,” Katabi added.

“On the one hand I’m very happy, excited, shocked and also humbled.”

She received a phone call recently from a man who said she would be named a MacArthur Fellow. She didn’t believe him, looked up the foundation’s number and called them directly to confirm.

“I thought someone was playing a joke on me – that it was a prank,” she said.

She said she hasn’t pinpointed exactly how she will spend the money, but plans to invest it toward continuing her research into wireless networks.

“This is one opportunity to go for something crazy that I wouldn’t be able to get funding for otherwise,” Katabi said.

Seager, a Toronto native and professor of planetary science and physics with a doctorate from Harvard, joined the MIT faculty in 2006.

Her work includes “exploring the possibility of life throughout the galaxy” by focusing her studies on exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system and trying to find planets that resemble Earth.

“She is quickly advancing a subfield initially viewed with skepticism by the scientific community,” the foundation said. “Her early predictions led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.”

“She is also spearheading advanced hardware design and space mission projects, including ExoplanetSat, a university collaboration to build low-cost “nano-satellites” to observe planetary transits,” the foundation added. “A visionary scientist contributing importantly in every aspect of her field, Seager is finding new celestial frontiers and fueling curiosity about life in worlds beyond our reach.”

She called being named a fellow “a huge honor.”

“It’s a big deal. I hope it can help me continue with my work,” including by giving exposure to projects she has been working on.

She said she plans to use the grant money “on the home front” to help pay for personal expenses to care for herself and her children.

“That’s something a lot of people don’t realize There’s a lot of things at home that fill your brain up at home and this money will help free up time for me to focus more on my work.”

Like the others, Seager got a call a few weeks ago to tell her she’d won. But, people at the MacArthur foundation weren’t able to reach her directly.

Because of her field of study, Seager said she gets “a lot of strange phone calls,” including from people alleging they saw UFOs and aliens. So, she has an assistant to screen her calls.

Neither she nor her assistant believed the call was real until Seager got an email from the foundation, which prompted her to probe further and to confirm that the previously ignored calls were not a hoax.

Iyer, a pianist, composer, bandleader, electronic musician, and writer who hails from Rochester, N.Y., is “forging a new conception of jazz and American creative music,” the foundation said.

Scheduled to start teaching at Harvard next semester, Iyer has worked on “compositions for his own and other ensembles, collaborations across multiple genres and disciplines, and scholarly research on the act of listening,” the foundation said. “Through his wide-ranging body of work, Iyer is creating a unique voice in diverse musical contexts while reaffirming the place of music not just as entertainment but as an essential part of human society.”

His albums have ranged from music influences by South Indian classical music, West African drumming, contemporary European composers, and 20th century African American piano masters to “imaginatively rearranging” works by Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Michael Jackson, M.I.A., and others,” the foundation said.

One of his latest projects renders “the dreams of minority veterans from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” “as lyrics and set to a restless, poignant electroacoustic score punctuated by moments of improvisation.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Iyer called the award “life-changing.”

“It’s massive,” he said. “It’s almost like a dare – ‘I dare you to undergo some process of self-transformation and discovery.’”

He said he ran into a friend and fellow artist Wednesday who told him: “Unlike a lot of other awards, this is one that stays with you for life. It becomes kind of a stamp for your entire career.”

Iyer said he hasn’t had any time to celebrate. He is working on finishing an album and a major project that will debut next week. He is also preparing to teach in a few months at Harvard and responding to dozens of emails.

He said he hopes the grant will allow him to not have to worry about whether projects he wants to take on are affordable.

“I’m always doing new projects and a lot of them in ways are unfeasible,” he said. “Now I can kind of just relax some of those concerns.”

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@gmail.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

(MacArthur Foundation)

A video about MIT computer science professor Dina Katabi.

(MacArthur Foundation)

A video about MIT astrophysics professor Sara Seager.

(MacArthur Foundation)

A video about Harvard-bound musician Vijay Iyer.

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