MacArthur Fellows Include Psychologist, Anthropologist, Geographer

Betsy Paluck
Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Levy Paluck

Cybercrime, mass surveillance and migration are among the areas studied by the new cohort of MacArthur Foundation fellows announced today. The fellowships, often referred to as “genius grants,” offer a no-strings-attached $625,000 cash grant to exceptionally creative people expected to achieve something important using their outstanding talent going forward. “Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements,” the  the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation notes, “the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.”

This year’s crop of 24 fellows includes a number of people working as or with social scientists, such as psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck, whose work in Rwanda, New Jersey public schools and investigating how institutions respond to same-sex marriage in the United States drew the attention of MacArthur. She was selected, according to the foundation, for “unraveling how social networks and norms influence our interactions with one another and identifying interventions that can change destructive behavior.”

Paluck, 39, is a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, and deputy director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Policy there. Widely published in the psychology discipline, she is an associated editor of the SAGE-published journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Other recipients include:

Jason De Leon
Anthropologist Jason De León

Jason De León, 40, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, has brought attention to migration across the U.S.–Mexico border through his Undocumented Migration Project and in his writing, such as his 2015 book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. As noted by the foundation, “He combines ethnographic analysis of migrant stories, forensic science, and archaeological research in his efforts to understand this process—who makes the journey, the routes, the means of survival and manner of death—and the human consequences of immigration policy.”

Trevor Paglen
Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen

Geographer Trevor Paglen, 43, is not an academic, but a working conceptual artist who “draws on his training as a geographer and utilizes the tools of image-making, coupled with painstaking review of public records and declassified documents, to explore infrastructures of warfare, surveillance, and social control that are generally hidden from the general public.” This includes spy satellites, secret bases and other government-sponsored “dark geography.”

Regina Barzilay
Computer scientist Regina Barzilay

Computer scientist Regina Barzilay, 46, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works to develop machine learning methods to decipher the huge amounts of data that in the forms of human language. As the foundation explains, “Much of her work is focused on designing machine learning models that do not require large amounts of annotations for training since such resources are not available for most languages and tasks. In the multilingual context, Barzilay created algorithms that leverage annotations from high-resource languages (i.e., such as English) to analyze languages that lack such annotations; this includes the vast majority of world languages.”

Stefan Savage
Computer scientist Stefan Savage

Another computer scientist, Stefan Savage, according to the foundation, “identif[ies] and address[es] the technological, economic, and social vulnerabilities underlying internet security challenges and cybercrime. A professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, co-director of the Center for Evidence-Based Security Research, and co-director of the Center for Networked Systems at the University of California San Diego, Savage, 48, “contextualizes cybersecurity threats within much broader ecosystems, including underlying economic incentives and social structures contributing to vulnerabilities.”

Sunil Amrith
Historian Sunil Amrith

Sunil Amrith, a 38-year-old historian at Harvard University’s Department of South Asian Studies, studies how migration has affected South and Southeast Asia. His books Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia and Crossing the Bay of Bengal, the director of the Harvard Center for History and Economics “combines the theoretical frameworks of oceanic and environmental history with archival, ethnographic, and visual research to chart how migration transformed individuals, families, and communities.”

Derek Peterson
Historian Derek Peterson

Another historian, the University of Michigan’s Derek Peterson, delves into the intellectual output of East Africa to outline both colonialism and nationalism. Peterson, 46, “draws on an unprecedented range of vernacular and English-language sources written by Africans, including record books, diaries, religious pamphlets, syllabi and dictionaries, oral histories, and letters. His analyses of these texts extend beyond their content to include the context in which they were created and their intellectual, aesthetic, and material characteristics.”

Individuals cannot apply for MacArthur fellowships, and nominations made by other parties are kept confidential. Fellows must be citizens of the United States, and are not allowed to be politicians or policymakers currently in office or government positions.

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