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What the 2015 MacArthur Fellows Are Up to

The latest scientists to win the "genius grants" are learning about the brain, turning sewage into useful stuff, and everything in between.
Kartik Chandran. (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Kartik Chandran. (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

This year's crop of MacArthur Fellowship winners includes a tap dancer, a puppetry artist, and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. But there are other winners too: economists, neuroscientists, even a computer scientist who specializes in databases—all of whom have produced work that's already changed the way we look at the world. Here's a rundown of what some of this year's social and natural scientist awardees have been up to lately:

Desmond showed that recently evicted families were more likely to suffer poor health, and mothers were more likely to suffer depression, parenting stress, and material hardship.

  • Matthew Desmond, an associate professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University, studied the impact of eviction on low-income families, which Desmond argues is largely overlooked in recent debates over poverty. In a paper published in February in Social Forces, Desmond and co-author Rachel Tolbert Kimbro looked at 2,676 mothers and children who took part in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Using that data in conjunction with eviction records, they showed that recently evicted families were more likely to suffer poor health, and mothers were more likely to suffer depression, parenting stress, and material hardship—including homelessness and loss of possessions. "Eviction spares neither their material, physical, nor mental wellbeing, thereby undermining efforts of social programs designed to help them," Desmond and Kimbro wrote.
  • Most recently, John Novembre and his team at the University of Chicago have been working on better ways to study the genetic basis of quantitative traits—things like height, weight, and blood pressure, all of which are the result of complex interactions between different genes and the environment. Last year, he and his colleagues developed computer algorithms that would help researchers identify where a person's ancestors came from using genetic data. That same method, Novembre and his team of researchers wrote, "could be used to identify the contributing strains to novel hybridized plants, to identify origins of recombinant human pathogens, to identify colonization origins of invasive species," among other things.
  • Back in 2007, Beth Stevens, now an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues reported their discovery: A type of immune cell known as microglia is essential to early brain development. The basic premise is that microglia work to prune unnecessary connections between neurons in the brain. But the idea that immune cells could play a constructive role in development was something of a shock. Stevens and her colleagues have proposed that malfunctioning microglia and related processes could play a role in autism, schizophrenia, and other disorders related to brain development. And, just last week, they reported that inhibiting the chemical tags microglia use to identify and attack cells could prevent memory decline in old age.
  • MIT Assistant Professor of Economics Heidi Williams studies innovation—specifically, technological innovation in the health-care industry. This year, she and her colleagues studied the development of cancer drugs, and the consequences of patent law and drug regulation on the development of new cancer treatments. Their results suggest drug companies can make substantially more money off drugs for treating relatively advanced cancers. That's because trials for those drugs, which tend to extend lives by a few months rather than save them, take far less time than others. Combined with the fact that patent protections extend only from the time of filing (rather than the time a drug goes to market), pharmaceutical companies have less time to profit from—and less financial incentive to develop—drugs aimed at earlier-stage cancers. The results could help the government design systems to encourage drug manufacturers to invest in treatments that have more meaningful impacts on patients' lives.
  • Finally, there's Lorenz Studer, a biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, whose lab is working on a new way to treat Parkinson's disease using human stem cells. Parkinson's develops when the neurons in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine start to fail, and Studer's hope is to grow stem cells into new dopamine-producing cells and transplant them into patients' brains. This year, Studer and his team have worked on growing stem cells into hypothalamus cells that may influence obesity, narcolepsy, and infertility, to name a few applications. They've also looked at the promise—and potential limitations—of clinical trials in humans aimed at testing stem-cell based treatments for brain repair.

See the full list of MacArthur Fellows here.