The newest winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants” were named Wednesday, elevating 21 scholars, artists and community activists to the rarefied ranks of those who receive surprise no-strings-attached cash because of the promise they hold.
The 2014 awardees tapped by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will each receive $625,000 to spend any way they like. But back in 2007, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Dr. Mark Roth, a cell biologist, received the momentous call telling him he’d get half a million dollars out of the blue.
Fred Hutch News Service caught up with Roth, 57, to ask what comes after that? How does one put MacArthur Fellow funds to use and what’s the lingering impact of such an award?
Q: First of all, what’s it like to get the call that says you’re a MacArthur winner?
A: “You’re quite confident that someone has played a joke on you,” Roth recalled. “I thought, it can’t be right. There must be something wrong about this.” He was at work in his lab in the Fred Hutch Basic Sciences Division when the phone rang. It took him a couple of days, he said, and some intense double-checking, to understand that he’d really been chosen. “It’s a rather mysterious process by which they ferret out people doing great things,” he added.
Q: Seven years later, what difference has the MacArthur award made in your work?
A: “It created this ability to do what I wanted to do,” said Roth. For years before the award, he had struggled with the notion of reductionist research vs. expansionist research, or whether to focus on the tiniest parts of basic cell science or the function of the whole. After the grant, he decided that it was the larger fundamental questions that interested him most. “I wanted to focus on what kills people and how do we stop it?” he said. He was already studying suspended animation, being the first scientist in 2005 to put mice into reversible hibernation, with hopes of someday using the technique to help humans suffering from strokes, heart attacks, and other trauma.
Q: Oh, so the money allowed you to pursue new goals?
A: Not exactly. The MacArthur funds, spread over five years, were helpful for overall family expenses such as a college education for a child, Roth said. More compelling than the cash, however, was the selection, which served as a sign that he should stop pursuing the kind of building-block mainstream science funded through federal grants and actively seek out the risky subjects that interested him most. “What they did was give me a swift kick in the butt to be willing to go away even more than I had,” he recalled. “It wasn’t the dollars that created the freedom, it was the appreciation of a group like the MacArthur Foundation to encourage me to use my time and my effort in an expansionist way.”
Since receiving the grant, he has formed Faraday Pharmaceuticals Inc., a firm working on ways to use elemental reducing agents to preserve homeostasis. There are several promising therapies in the pipeline, including one that could use something as simple as table salt to prevent death, he said.
Q: So, do you feel like a genius?
A: “Not at all! Ask my wife!” said Roth. “I just feel very fortunate. It’s not easy for me to see that it was a no-brainer for them to give me this award.” He has met with other MacArthur Fellows a couple times at the reunions held by the organizers and is always struck by the range and skill of the other winners.
“It’s just a freak of nature. Holy crap, there’s a person here where if you look at her stone sculpture and you see what she’s done with a single block of rock, you can’t believe it,” he said. “She has this relationship with the rock.”
The award has shifted Roth’s focus forever, he said, propelling him toward fundamental questions he might otherwise have missed. “I feel very fortunate for the award, for the opportunity to work at a place as great as Fred Hutch – and for the opportunity to make this world a better place.”
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JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com. Prior to that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.