The 2015 MacArthur “geniuses” include Ta-Nehisi Coates and a third-generation puppeteer

Genius grid.
Genius grid.
Image: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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Apart from the Nobel Prize or the presidential medal of honor, a MacArthur Fellowship—known to many as “the genius grant”—may be the most coveted career credential in the US. Every year, the MacArthur Foundation selects a crop of extraordinary Americans and hands them $625,000 paid over the course of five years—no strings attached, no progress reports needed.

The Foundation hopes to foster creativity in its broadest definition. “The Fellowship is speculative, based on the potential for creativity, and creativity involves taking risks,” wrote the program’s managing director Cecilia Conrad in the commentary published in the Washington Post. “Individually, they demonstrate a track record of enduring accomplishment through tenacity, imagination and risk-taking. Collectively, they reflect the diversity of American creativity.”

The Fellows are selected through an anonymous peer-nomination process. No-one can apply or even know that they’re in contention. The phone call from the Foundation, made about two weeks before the public announcement, often comes as a great, fortuitous surprise for the recipients. “I got the call on Sept. 8, at 2:30 pm,” recalls Alex Truesdell, who runs a non-profit organization that makes affordable furniture and tools for children with disabilities. “It was the most stunning, memorable moment.” Until the fellowship, Truesdell tells Quartz that she has  never earned more than $62,000 a year.

But it’s not just the cash windfall that’s gratifying, for many it can mean validation of a lifelong passion and mission. “I was thrilled, even relieved,” says Truesdell. “It was a great affirmation of the work we’ve been doing for 34 years.”

MacArthur’s endorsement can also spark public interest on a neglected issue. For Gary Cohen, the first environmental health advocate that the Foundation has selected, winning the Fellowship means connecting to a broader audience  ”The MacArthur Award has so much cachet,” says Cohen. “I hope that it will be catalytic to spreading the message that a healthy environment is critical to health and well-being.”

Announced today (Sept. 29), here the 24 newly-minted MacArthur geniuses:

Patrick Awuah, 50, is a former Microsoft engineer who returned to Ghana and founded Ashesi University College. He hopes to promote a new model for higher education in the country grounded on liberal arts studies and ethics.

Kartik Chandran, 41, is an environmental engineer on a mission to rebrand wastewater as “enriched streams.” He hopes to mine wastewater for fertilizers, chemicals, and energy sources as well as transform them to clean water.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, 39, is a journalist, critic, and bestselling author. His writing appears in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent.

Gary Cohen, 59, is an environmental health activist campaigning for cleaner, greener and climate-resilient hospitals. He is the co-founder of Health Without Harm, a global coalition that promotes sound environmental practices and standards in health facilities worldwide.

Matthew Desmond, 35, is an ethnographer and sociologist at Harvard University who is studying the impact of eviction on fringe populations. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

William Dichtel, 37, is a chemist who developed porous polymers known as covalent organic frameworks (COFs). His groundbreaking research has been published in numerous journals such as Science, Nature Chemistry, Journal of the American Chemical Society, and Angewandte Chemie.

Michelle Dorrance, 36, is a tap dancer and choreographer who is redefining the percussive dance style for contemporary audiences using its historical context as a springboard.

Nicole Eisenman, 50, is an accomplished painter and draftsman. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums worldwide including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Kunsthalle Zürich, and the Ludwig Museum in Germany.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, 33, is a photographer and video artist. In her book, The Notion of Family, Frazier vivified the decline and decay of her hometown, the once-thriving steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania after the factories closed.

Ben Lerner, 36, is an award-winning poet, essayist, and a novelist with a cult following. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and a fellowship from the Guggenheim, Lerner has penned five books and currently teaches at Brooklyn College in New York.

Mimi Lien, 39, designs sets for theater, dance, and opera. A Yale University-trained architect, Lien has worked on theatrical productions for such prestigious companies such as the Public Theater in New York, Lincoln Center Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and the Ballet Theatre in Russia.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, 35, is familiar to many Broadway enthusiasts. A Tony Award-winning composer, lyricist, and performer, Miranda created critically acclaimed shows such as In the Heights and Hamilton. He is currently playing the role of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway.

Dimitri Nakassis, 40, teaches the classics at the University of Toronto. Drawing from philology, archaeology, and economic theory, his groundbreaking research is transforming our understanding of prehistoric Greek societies.

John Novembre, 37, is a computational biologist who has developed novel data visualization and analysis techniques to shed light on human genetic history. His research sheds new light on the etiology of genetic diseases.

Christopher Ré, 36, is a computational scientist and is the inventor of DeepDive, a powerful analysis tool that mines “dark data,” which is a term used to describe the mass of unprocessed data buried in texts, illustrations, and images. Ré teaches at Stanford University.

Marina Rustow, 46, is a historian poring through the 300,000 fragments of the Cairo Geniza manuscript to learn more about Jewish life in the Middle East during the medieval ages. Her work challenges the common notions about religious schisms that persist today. She teaches at Princeton University.

Juan Salgado, 46, is a champion for Latino immigrant workers in the US. As president & CEO of the Chicago-based Instituto del Progreso Latino, Salgado has created programs that expand educational and economic opportunities for low-income Latino population.

Beth Stevens, 45, is a neuroscientist whose research is advancing the understanding of the origins of adult neurological diseases. She is an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School and the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Lorenz Studer, 49, is a stem-cell biologist whose pioneering research could lead to the treatment for Parkinson’s disease. He is the founding director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Alex Truesdell, 59, is a different kind of furniture designer. Using the principles of adaptive design and simple materials like cardboard and glue, she creates custom-fit furniture and tools for children with disabilities. She is the founder and director of the Adaptive Design Association in Manhattan.

Basil Twist, 45, is a third-generation puppeteer who is reinvigorating the art form for new audiences. His most famous work to date is the underwater puppetry spectacle, Symphonie Fantastique.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, 72, is an award-winning poet and teacher living in Vermont. A trained pianist, Voight has published six collections of poetry and essays.

Heidi Williams, 34, is an Oxford University-trained economist studying the dynamics of the healthcare markets. Williams has probed into how intellectual property restrictions have stymied the study of the human genome. She has also investigated how institutional factors affect cancer drug development.

Peidong Yang, 44, is an inorganic chemist who made big breakthroughs in the field of nanomaterials and nanowire photonics. A distinguished professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Yang is currently researching how to simulate artificial photosynthesis.

More information about each Fellow’s work can be found through the MacArthur Foundation website.