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MacArthur Foundation bestows 23 ‘genius grants’

Melody Swartz was named MacArthur Foundatifellow. | Courtesy John D. Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Melody Swartz was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow. | Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:11AM

When Melody Swartz got word that she’d been chosen to receive a coveted MacArthur Fellows Program award (known more commonly as a “genius grant”), the Switzerland-based bioengineering professor and Glen Ellyn native was in the middle of a grocery store with ’80s music blaring from loudspeakers overhead.

“Horrified” at what the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation representative might think of the cheesy tunes streaming through her cell phone, she dropped her shopping basket and rushed to find a quiet corner.

“I was completely flabbergasted,” Swartz said via email. “It came completely out of the blue.”

Like the rest of this year’s 23 awardees — which include such disparate pioneers as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz, pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Warf and stringed-instrument bow maker Benoit Rolland — Swartz, 43, will receive a total of $500,000 paid out quarterly over five years.

Since 1981, with the help of anonymous, handpicked nominators, the MacArthur Foundation has doled out hundreds of grants and many millions of dollars to artists and entrepreneurs in a variety of disciplines.

In a written summary of her achievements, the MacArthur Foundation notes that Swartz’s research “has important implications not only for normal tissue development and maintenance but also for cancer biology.”

The summary highlights her recent demonstration that “some solid tumors can secrete chemical signals that mimic the mechanisms used by lymphatic differentiate infected or invasive cells from normal ones.”

In other words, groundbreaking stuff.

For Swartz, the money “will allow me to have a small ‘high-risk’ project going where I can try out wild and crazy ideas.” The recognition, she said, gives her work increased visibility that could prove valuable in securing future grants and publishing deals.

It also “gave me a very nice confidence boost” in a field where criticism is plentiful and positive feedback is rare — especially for those who choose to work, as Swartz does, in “unconventional” ways.

“Of course, I will also use [the money] to hire more help with my house and son!” Swartz wrote, so that “the precious little time I have is spent more wisely.”

Like Swartz, Claire Chase, 34, was in the midst of music when she got The Call. Unlike Swartz, she was in China surrounded by orchestral performers.

“I was in the middle of a sound-check and so I couldn’t pick up,” e-mailed Chase, who in 2001 founded the revolutionary International Contemporary Ensemble in Chicago (it’s currently Ensemble in Residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art). “But I saw that a Chicago number had called 4 or 5 times, and I was thinking, ‘What’s so terribly urgent? Why on earth is this person being so persistent?’”

When the Brooklyn-based Chase finally was able to step out of rehearsal and return the call, street noise was so loud that she could barely hear the life-altering news being delivered. It wasn’t until she ducked into a nearby Cuban restaurant and made “desperate sign-language motions to the hostess to let me crouch in the stairwell” that the call’s import sank in. Butterflies and disbelief quickly followed.

Chase is “most excited by what the future holds — how this fellowship can help expand and deepen the work I am already doing, and how many new projects and possibilities it will make realizable for me and my colleagues.”

Mexico City resident and documentary filmmaker Natalia Almada, 37, shared similar sentiments and marveled at the no-strings-attached nature of her surprising honor.

“They said, ‘This is the last time you’ll hear from us,’ ” said Almada, who spent part of her childhood in Chicago.

She’s used to a lot more hoop-jumping where funding is concerned.

“Mostly, I feel like it’s the freedom to say I don’t need to worry,” Almada said, noting that earning a living in her chosen field has always felt “very precarious.”

Her latest film (“El Velador”) examines the effects of drug trafficking violence on Mexican society.

“And if I’m smart,” she added, “I don’t need to worry for a really long time.”

Washington D.C.-based writer and Georgetown University visiting professor Dinaw Mengestu — who grew up in Forest Park and graduated from Fenwick High School in 1996 — is part of the elite stable as well. The MacArthur Foundation singled him out for “enriching the understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America in tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are seared by escape from violence in their homelands.”

Upon getting word in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was taking part in a literary festival, the Ethiopia-born Mengestu found himself “pretty much in tears.”

“On the writing front, it will let me do the long-form reporting, which is harder and harder to find funding for and harder and harder to place in journals,” Mengestu said. “So I can write about the places I want to write about without having to worry about whether or not I can find somebody to fund those stories.”

He’d also like to “help create something inside Africa” to promote literacy and “bring books into African culture.”

That’s all very noble, but what about a Maserati?

“I think I’ve got too much student debt left over from college and graduate school,” he said with a laugh. “That’s just never going to happen.”

Another Chicago-connected educator, Northwestern University associate professor of history Dylan C. Penningroth, feels tremendously grateful for his wholly unexpected windfall. As per MacArthur Foundation rules, recipients may spill the beans to only one person before finalists are made public. Penningroth, whose work focuses on property ownership among American slaves and “legacies of slavery and emancipation” in West Africa, told his wife.

“It’s taken all our willpower not to run out and tell my parents and her parents and my sisters,” Penningroth said shortly before he was officially allowed to spread the news. “It’s strange.”

As for his plans, Penningroth admitted that he has “only started to dream.” Purely by chance, the MacArthur award came just as another grant of his was winding down. Consequently, Penningroth said, he’ll be able to “think big” and hire research assistants for his studies in America. He’ll also be able to afford expensive plane tickets to Ghana for his work overseas.

Does he anticipate any “genius” ribbing from friends and colleagues?

“I hope not,” Penningroth said. “I don’t have a smart-alecky answer for it yet.”

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