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Three Win ‘Genius Grant’ Award

By Keith J. Winstein


Three members of the MIT community and one former member will be awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “genius grant” today, the Foundation announced. Not since 1984 have so many MIT faculty or staff won the fellowship, which includes a gift of $500,000 to use without restriction.

The MIT recipients are Angela M. Belcher, a professor of materials science and biological engineering, Vamsi Mootha, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute who studies mitochondria, and Amy B. Smith ’84, an inventor and instructor at the Edgerton Center.

“These three grants attest both to the creative excellence of these individuals and to the breadth of ways MIT people serve society,” wrote President Charles M. Vest in a statement last night. “Amy Smith works passionately and selflessly to use engineering skills to improve the human condition in the developing world. Angela Belcher is a true pioneer of the emerging field of nanotechnology, creating materials that mimic Nature at the molecular level. Vamsi Mootha of the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School applies genomics and computational biology to understand human diseases such as diabetes,” Vest wrote.

Another recipient, Julie Theriot, graduated from MIT in 1988 with degrees in biology and physics. She was a fellow at the Whitehead Institute in the mid-1990s and is now a professor of biochemistry and of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Seeing mitochondria in a new way

“I’m deeply honored that I received the award,” Mootha, 33, said in an interview last night. “It’s obviously the biggest I’ve ever won.”

Why did he receive it? “I’m not too sure,” he said. “I think maybe my approach is just unusual.” The MacArthur Fellowship is famous for its secrecy -- no one can apply for it, and recipients are not told they are being considered.

“I’m combining clinical medicine and genomics and computing with the goals of trying to understand human disease,” he said.

Mootha, who is also a medical doctor, studies mitochondria, the power plants of biological cells. “The traditional way to do biology was to study one protein at a time,” he said. “What these new tools allow us to do is to allow us to monitor all proteins, or all genes encoding mitochondria, in a single experiment. Genomics is sort of allowing a global biology.”

“For the last three years, all of my research has been at MIT,” Mootha said, adding that his research had been “enhanced by having some really bright UROP students work with me.”

On Friday, Mootha will become an assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I’ll continue close ties to MIT and the Broad Institute as well,” he said.

Smith plans to fund others

Smith, who teaches the Edgerton Center’s SP.721 course on “Development, Dialogue and Delivery,” is well-known for several inventions aimed at improving standards of living in developing countries. (She is not related to Aimee L. Smith PhD ’02, the campus activist who ran for City Council in 2003.)

In 1999, Smith won the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors award for her phase-change incubator, a device for testing water and growing microorganisms at a steady temperature without a reliable source of electricity. She won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2000 for her screenless grain hammermill, a more-reliable and cheaper way of making grain into flour.

These days, she’s working on a “process for taking agricultural waste materials and converting them into charcoal,” she said, and teaching the “D-lab” course at the Edgerton Center, which grew out of the laboratory of the late Professor Harold E. Edgerton ScD ’31.

“Since I started working there, we do a fair amount of international work that wasn’t originally part of the mission,” said Smith, 41. “But we like to think Doc Edgerton would be proud that we’re doing it.”

“There’s a lot that we’re trying to do to expand the program,” she said. “A lot of times when I’m traveling, you’ll meet someone who is so clearly someone who would make something of themselves, if they only had enough to get started.”

“Now I can just set up a fund where I can say, ‘Wow, this seems like a good thing to do,’” she said. “There’s so many people who deserve that chance that it seems like a cool thing to do.”

Belcher works on nanotechnology

Belcher, the professor of materials science and biological engineering, is well-known in the field of nanotechnology. She is a founder of Cambrios Technologies Corp., a biological and electrical manufacturing technology company in Cambridge.

“The main idea is borrowing ideas from nature -- that had millions of years to evolve interactions with materials,” in order to manufacture tiny machines and materials, she told The Boston Globe.

“In her most recent work, she has genetically modified viruses (strains that only attack bacteria and are harmless to humans) to interact with solutions of inorganic semiconductors, yielding self-assembling metal films and wires with diameters in the low tens of nanometers,” the Foundation wrote.

“I’d like to figure out how I can contribute to the community around Cambridge,” Belcher, 37, told the Globe. “A lot of times, you know you are nominated for an award -- but this was out of the blue.”

Theriot studies cell organization

Winning the MacArthur Fellowship “was like somebody calling to tell you you won the lottery when you hadn’t even bought a ticket,” said Theriot, 36, the Stanford professor and former Whitehead fellow.

“Most of the research that my lab does is focused on trying to understand the biomechanics and biophysics of how cells move and arrange their structural organization,” she said, adding that her two MIT degrees -- in 1988, in physics and biology -- are now the basis of her work.

At MIT, “I was really sort of a Samurai student,” she said. “I took lots of units.”

Theriot encouraged MIT students to “take advantage of all the opportunities, do crazy things during IAP,” and to “live it up while they’re there.”

Twenty-three receive award

The MacArthur Foundation granted 23 fellowships this year. According to The Associated Press, the other 19 are: Joseph DeRisi, professor at the University of California, San Francisco; John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation; Daphne Koller, professor at Stanford University; Naomi Ehrich Leonard, professor at Princeton University; Maria Mavroudi, professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Judy Pfaff, artist; Aminah Robinson, folk artist, visual historian and storyteller; C.D. Wright, professor at Brown University; David Green of Project Impact; Reginald R. Robinson, pianist and composer; Gretchen Berland, professor at Yale University; Rueben Martinez, who works to inspire Spanish-speaking people to read to their children; Heather Hurst, archaeological illustrator and artist; Tommie Lindsey, debate coach; Edward P. Jones, fiction writer; Aleksandar Hemon, short story writer; James Carpenter, glass sculptor, engineer and designer; Cheryl Rogowski, farmer; and Katherine Gottlieb of the Southcentral Foundation.