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Faculty Members Nab Three Genius Grants

By J. PATRICK Coyne, Contributing Writer

Three members of Harvard’s faculty will receive $500,000, “no strings attached,” as recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships.

The 24 winners of this year’s awards ranged from a 22-year-old MIT math professor who has studied the computational geometry of Tetris to a biomedical engineer who employs the biophysics of noise to enhance motor control to a modern day blacksmith.

With this year’s awards, the total number of Harvard faculty members who have garnered the so-called “genius grant” climbs to 38.

Unlike many other academic awards, there is no application procedure and candidates do not know they’re being considered until they’ve won.

“The call comes out of the blue and can be life-changing,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, which sponsors the awards.

For this year’s winners, the call came on Sunday.

“[I said], ‘Whoa! Is it me? Are you sure you didn’t get the name wrong?’” recalled Xiaowei Zhuang, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology who received one of this year’s fellowships.

A pioneer of the emerging field of biophysics, Zhuang has studied the interactions of individual molecules and used that research as the basis for examining the mechanism of viral membrane fusion with host cells.

Research of this type may shed light on the basic biology of infection and help to identify possible targets for therapeutic intervention in diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, the MacArthur Foundation said in a press release.

In a statement, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby lauded Zhuang’s research.

“She practices science with a remarkable versatility and originality,” he said.

Zhuang said she does not yet know how she will use the money, but plans to save it for a “high risk, high reward project” that is not easily funded.

“I will use it for a future good idea that I have,” she said.

Nawal Nour, an instructor in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), was delivering a baby when she learned that she had won one of this year’s prizes, according to a University press release.

In addition to her position as an instructor at HMS, Nour is the founder and director of the African Women’s Health Practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The clinic—the only one of its kind in the United States—is geared towards providing medical and emotional treatment and support to African women who have undergone female circumcision.

Nour could not be reached for comment.

But in a University press release, she said that her personal background helped inform her work.

“Having grown up in Sudan and Egypt, female circumcision wasn’t shocking to me,” she said.

Nour said she hopes that the money will help to establish health centers in Africa similar to the practice she began here.

Another fellowship went to Jim Yong Kim, chief of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities and director of the Program in Infectious Disease and Social Change at HMS.

A public health physician, Kim’s work centers on the eradication of infectious disease. In the early ’80s, he co-founded Partners in Health (PIH), an international program that brings modern medical care to the poorest and the sickest.

“[The award] is a victory for people who believe in global equity,” said PIH president Ophelia Dahl, one of Kim’s close colleagues.

At Harvard, Kim developed a plan to reduce the cost of drugs to fight multi-drug resistant tuberculosis among the poor by 95 percent.

Kim, who is on leave this year and could not be reached for comment, described the award as a “huge responsibility” in a University press release.

“It would be difficult to keep much for myself. I want to find a way to accelerate what I’ve been doing for the past 15-20 years—helping the poor get access to better health care,” he said.

An adviser to the World Health Organization’s Director-General, Kim is currently devising new methods for treating people with HIV and AIDS and is aiming to get 3 million people into treatment by 2005. Kim received his M.D. at HMS in 1991 and his Ph. D. in anthropology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1993.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and is designed to emphasize the importance of the creative individual in society. Fellows are selected for the originality and creativity of their work and the potential to do more in the future.

Harvard’s presence on this year’s list of MacArthur Fellows wasn’t limited to faculty.

Eve Troutt Powell ’83, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, also received an award for her study of the role of race in modern Islamic society.

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