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A Chat with MacArthur 'Genius' Grant Winners

When Reginald Robinson first heard ragtime music at a school show at age 13, he decided he wanted to learn to play the piano. Robinson taught himself to play by ear on a tiny keyboard. In the ensuing 18 years, he has become an accomplished pianist and composer.

Robinson is one of 23 people this year to receive MacArthur Foundation "genius grants," given in recognition of exceptional creativity and originality. Over the next five years, winners will receive $500,000 to spend as they wish.

NPR's Michele Norris and NPR's Robert Siegel talk with five of this year's winners: Robinson; human rights activist John Kamm, who leveraged business relationships to help free prisoners of conscience in China; Cheryl Rogowski, recognized for her innovative approach to family farming; Massachusetts Institute of Technology nanotechnologist Angela Belcher; and Naomi Leonard, a marine roboticist at Princeton University.

Full List of Winners

Angela Belcher, nanotechnologist, 37: A materials scientist at MIT, Belcher uses genetically engineered viruses to explore new avenues for controlling inorganic chemical reactions.

John Kamm, businessman-human rights strategist, 53: Kamm developed an innovative approach to free Chinese prisoners of conscience, emphasizizing communication with Chinese businesspeople and government officials.

Naomi Ehrich Leonard, marine roboticist, 40: A Princeton University professor, Leonard constructs autonomous underwater vehicles that mimic flocking birds and assist in the understanding of ocean dynamics.

Reginald Robinson, ragtime pianist-composer, 31: A Chicago resident, Robinson composes and performs ragtime music.

Cheryl Rogowski, farmer, 43: Rogowski formulates solutions to problems afflicting American family farms. She lives in Pine Island, NY.

Gretchen Berland, physician-filmmaker, 40: Berland combines two professions — physician and filmmaker — to highlight and document pressing issues in health care. She is an assistant professor of internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine.

James Carpenter, glass technologist, 55: Carpenter combines architectural and engineering skills to create unique glass structures. His work includes a blue glass bridge in Seattle's City Hall and light-modulating canopies in the Phoenix Federal Courthouse.

Joseph DeRisi, molecular biologist, 35: An associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, DeRisi develops and uses new technologies to explore the complex biological processes that regulate gene expression.

Katherine Gottlieb, Alaskan health care leader, 52: Gottlieb strengthens primary-care delivery in native Alaskan communities and develops new health care programs for at-risk populations, including pregnant women with fetal alcohol syndrome.

David Green, technology transfer innovator, 48: As executive director of Project Impact in Berkeley, Calif., Green helps manufacture and deliver health care products to impoverished communities in the developing world.

Aleksander Hemon, short story writer, 40: A Chicago resident, Hermon writes innovative works of fiction that examine the impact of ethnic conflict and exile.

Heather Hurst, archaeological illustrator, 29: Hurst reconstructs paintings and drawings of pre-Columbian America by assembling materials such as crushed stones and maps. Her work has appeared in National Geographic.

Edward P. Jones, novelist, 53: Jones' novel The Known World, about a black slave owner, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Tommie Lindsey, high school debating coach, 43: As a forensics coach in Union City, Calif., Lindsey teaches at-risk youth about the power of communication and persuasion. Many of his students have won national debating awards.

Rueben Martinez, bookseller, 64: Martinez promotes reading among California's Hispanics by selling Spanish-language books and using his bookstore as a launching pad for community events that celebrate literature. He owns Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery in Santa Ana, Calif.

Maria Mavroudi, philologist, 37: Mavroudi examines linguistic exchanges between two antagonistic cultures — medieval Byzantium and its Islamic Middle Eastern neighbors.

Vamsi Mootha, physician-researcher, 33: Mootha identifies the causes of diseases such as diabetes by examining complex data from molecular biology, genetics and protein chemistry.

Judy Pfaff, sculptor, 58: Pfaff creates innovative sculptures that combine two- and three-dimensional elements into large formations.

Aminah Robinson, folk artist, 64: Robinson creates signature works on canvas and in three-dimensional constructions that celebrate her Ohio childhood neighborhood and reflect on ancestral themes.

Amy Smith, inventor, 41: Smith creates technologies — such as water-purification devices and incubators — that assist people in the world's remote societies.

Julie Theriot, microbiologist, 36: Theriot studies the complexities of bacterial infection by illuminating basic biophysical processes behind pathogens and cells.

C.D. Wright, poet, 55: Wright writes poetry that experiments with syntax and meter and delves into topics ranging from the Louisiana prison system to her Arkansas childhood.

Daphne Koller, computer scientist, 36: A Stanford University professor, Koller has developed new computational methods for representing reason and knowledge.

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Michele Norris
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.