Thursday, October 12, 2017

Genius, Nobel prizes shine light, dispel gloom -- Oct. 12, 2017 column


For anyone who needed a shot of optimism, this was a good week.

Don’t get me wrong. The news – an acclaimed Hollywood mogul allegedly molested women for years, raging wildfires devastate California, the White House limps from tweet to tweet – has been depressing.

But there were bright spots in the gloom.  

The first encouraging words came from Sweden with the announcement of the 2017 Nobel prizes. The highly prestigious awards recognize often obscure scholars and others whose work has been of “the greatest benefit to mankind.”

The Nobel prizes also pull us back from our obsession with the day’s outrages to consider what’s going right in our world.

Eight Americans won solo or shared the prizes in chemistry, medicine, physics and economics. Each prize comes with a $1.1 million check. We lost out on peace and literature, but President Barack Obama won the peace prize in 2009 and Bob Dylan for literature last year.

Then came the MacArthur fellowships, commonly known as “genius grants.” The awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognize residents or citizens of the United States with exceptional creativity.

Two dozen lucky souls won this merit lottery this year, and each will receive a $625,000 grant over five years with no strings attached.

Genius grants are meant to give promising thinkers and doers in a wide range of fields the freedom to pursue their work.

No one can apply for a grant; you must be nominated – and anyone who holds elective office or an advanced government post is automatically ineligible. Nominations and the selection process are hush-hush.

At a time when being smart seems less important than having a smart mouth, the Nobel prizes and the MacArthur awards are a gift. They remind us of the power of education, hard work and perseverance and of the vitality and rich experiences immigrants bring to America.

Two of the American Nobel winners immigrated from Germany decades ago. Joachim Frank, 77, a professor at Columbia University, shared the chemistry prize with scientists in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Rainer Weiss, 85, who is affiliated with MIT, was one of three American winners of the physics prize. 

Last year, all six of the Americans who won the Nobel prizes in economics or the sciences were immigrants, according to the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group. Of the 85 Nobel prizes Americans have won in chemistry, medicine or physics since 2000, 33 have gone to immigrants, the group reported.

Among this year’s 24 genius grant winners were Gabriel Victora, 40, a Brazilian-born immunologist with a Ph.D. from New York University who studies how antibodies fight infection. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, is a Nigerian-born painter who graduated from Swarthmore and Yale, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46, is a Vietnamese-American novelist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

One theme of the genius grants this year was social change, and several winners work to help improve immigrants’ lives directly or by telling their stories.

Cristina Jimenez Moreta, 33, a social organizer, is a former undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Ecuador as a child with her family. She is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, which advocates for immigrant youth.

“For me, this recognition is a recognition of the lives of undocumented people, of the work that we have been doing to advocate and create change,” she told The Washington Post.

Greg Asbed, 54, a Baltimore native with degrees from Brown and Johns Hopkins, is a human rights strategist who founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.

Rami Nashashibi, 44, of Chicago, a community organizer with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. It helps immigrants and people of color with housing, health and other necessities.

Anthropologist Jason De Leon, 40, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, founded the Undocumented Migration Project, which researches clandestine traffic along the border and collects artifacts, such as clothing and backpacks, left in the desert.

Describing this year’s crop of MacArthur fellows, Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the program, said in a statement: “Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all.”

Yes, it does. And these awards also remind us why America’s role as a beacon of hope for the world still matters.


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