‘Ge­nius’ prizes honor 8 in state

Cal­tech jel­ly­fish ex­pert and L.A. artist are among re­cip­i­ents.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Larry Gor­don

Cal­i­for­nia’s new­est MacArthur fel­lows in­clude an L.A. sculp­tor.

Eight Cal­i­for­ni­ans, in­clud­ing a pub­lic high school physics teacher, a deaf sign­lan­guage ex­pert, a jel­ly­fish re­searcher and an in­stal­la­tion artist, are among 23 win­ners of this year’s grants from the MacArthur Foun­da­tion.

The re­cip­i­ents will each re­ceive $500,000 over the next five years, with no strings at­tached.

In­cluded on this year’s list are a few cel­e­brated names, such as David Simon, the Bal­ti­more-based screen­writer of “The Wire,” the 2002-08 tele­vi­sion se­ries about the ur­ban drug trade, and An­nette Gor­don-Reed, the Har­vard law pro­fes­sor who has writ­ten about Thomas Jef­fer­son’s re­la­tion­ship with a slave.

But most are aca­demics and artists who have worked in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity and on Mon­day seemed awestruck by the honor. The MacArthur fel­low­ships, started in 1981, re­ward peo­ple who are “mak­ing our world a bet­ter place for us all,” ac­cord­ing to di­rec­tor Daniel J. So­colow.

Among them are Amir Abo-Shaeer, 38, who teaches en­gi­neer­ing and physics at


Dos Pueb­los High School in Go­leta, near Santa Bar­bara, and es­tab­lished an academy that spe­cial­izes in hands-on learn­ing about ro­bot­ics, among other sub­jects.

He said the money will give him the “free­dom to be cre­ative in a field that does not have a lot of fund­ing.”

Abo-Shaeer said he saw the award as val­i­da­tion of the work many teach­ers are do­ing in pub­lic schools. “To be rec­og­nized is an amaz­ing thing,” he said.

Carol Pad­den, a UC San Diego com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sor, spoke in an in­ter­view through a video con­nec­tion with sign-lan­guage trans­la­tion of ques­tions that she then an­swered in her own voice.

The child of deaf par­ents who is deaf her­self, Pad­den re­searches the struc­ture and evo­lu­tion of sign lan­guages and their dif­fer­ences from spo­ken lan­guage and from each other.

Pad­den, 55, said Mon­day that she will use the award for fur­ther world­wide re­search and to ad­vance her life’s work of show­ing “that sign lan­guages be­long in the class of hu­man lan­guages.”

John Dabiri, a Cal­tech ex­pert on the un­der­wa­ter mo­tion of jel­ly­fish, will spend some of his grant on swim­ming lessons.

“Oddly enough, I never learned to swim,” said Dabiri, 30, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of aero­nau­tics and bio­engi­neer­ing. “For once, it will be nice to study jel­ly­fish from close up in­stead of from the other side of the glass.”

The rest, he said, may go to help­ing younger sci­en­tists.

His work on how jel­ly­fish gen­er­ate jet-like forces has im­pli­ca­tions for man-made trans­porta­tion and en­ergy in­no­va­tion, as well as for med­i­cal re­search on blood flow, he said.

Los An­ge­les artist Jorge Pardo, 47, has worked the fine line be­tween art and de­sign. His projects in­clude his own home (once opened to the pub­lic as a Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art ex­hibit) and the ex­hi­bi­tion hall for the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art’s pre-Columbian gal­leries, which con­sists of un­du­lat­ing wood cab­i­nets.

UC Berkeley had two win­ners: Dawn Song, 35, a com­puter se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist, and econ­o­mist Em­manuel Saez, 37, who stud­ies the his­tory and ef­fects of tax pol­icy. Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity ge­neti­cist Car­los Bus­ta­mante, 35, was rec­og­nized for DNA se­quenc­ing work that pro­vides in­sights into hu­man pop­u­la­tion mi­gra­tion and the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of dogs.

At UC Davis, cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor Yiyun Li was praised for “emo­tion­ally com­pelling ex­plo­rations” of her fic­tional char­ac­ters, an achieve­ment all the more re­mark­able be­cause she be­gan to write in English only af­ter she moved to the United States in 1996, the foun­da­tion said.

Li, 37, said she hopes the award will al­low “a lit­tle bit less teach­ing, a lit­tle more time to fo­cus on writ­ing.”

Tele­vi­sion writer and pro­ducer Simon, whose cur­rent se­ries “Treme” is about New Or­leans, said he would prob­a­bly give some of his grant to char­ity and may use some of it on fu­ture work.

“I might want to pur­sue some­thing that had min­i­mal com­mer­cial value,” he said.

For a com­plete list of the win­ners, in­clud­ing a type de­signer, a honey­bee ex­pert and a jazz pi­anist, go to

Amanda Ed­wards

HIGH TECH: Amir Abo-Shaeer, a teacher in Go­leta, Calif., es­tab­lished an academy that spe­cial­izes in hand­son learn­ing about ro­bot­ics. He is among 23 re­cip­i­ents of this year’s $500,000 MacArthur Foun­da­tion grants.

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