Two Oberlin Alums Tapped As MacArthur Fellows

Thylias Moss '81 and Richard Lenski '76 Win "Genius" Grants For Exceptional Creativity

It's a little like winning the lottery, or finding Ed McMahon on the other side of your front door--only better. There is no way anyone can anticipate being selected for this prestigious five-year grant with a no-strings income of anywhere from $150,000 to $375,000, but two Oberlin alumni--biologist Richard E. Lenski '76 and poet Thylias Moss '81--found themselves among the 21 recently announced MacArthur Fellows. They bring to five the number of Oberlin graduates who have earned this remarkable honor .

Thylias Moss, 42, is a poet whose work combines the African-American concept of "witnessing" with a variety of Western poetic traditions. A native of Cleveland, she earned her M.A. from the University of New Hampshire and is an English professor at the University of Michigan. Her books of poetry include Hosiery Seams on Bowlegged Women (1983), Pyramid of Bone (1989), At Redbones (1990), Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (1991), and Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (1993). She has also written two children's books: I Want to Be (1993) and Somewhere Else Right Now (1997). Thylias's work is particularly sensitive to the impact of public life on private life. Her total grant is $265,000.

Richard E. Lenski, 39, is a biologist in evolutionary biology and ecology. His research has placed phenomena usually studied from a purely genetic standpoint, such as plasmids or antibiotics and viral resistance, into an evolutionary context with tremendous relevance for understanding the impact and emergence of new diseases. Richard earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, and, as the Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, has made important contributions through his own research and with his expert commentary on socially important issues such as the release of genetically engineered organisms.

His laboratory has collected data on several thousand generations of E. coli under evolution for life in culture. Richard and his graduate students produced the major experimental demolition of the accepted theory which was known as "directed mutation," and published a series of papers that appeared in Nature defending their theory.

The first alumnus named a MacArthur Fellow, in 1984, was performance artist Bill Irwin '73, whose work as a mime has earned him numerous Broadway and TV credits. Ralf Hotchkiss '69, a pioneer in the field of rehabilitation engineering, received a fellowship in 1989; and theater director Julie Taymor '74, best known for imaginative stage adaptations using masks and puppets, was named in 1991.

Since the program's inception in 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has named a total of 479 fellows, ranging in age from 18 to 82, and invested over $150 million in the program, often referred to as "genius grants." The dollar amount of each grant is determined by the age of the recipient. About 125 nominators, chosen for their expertise and ability to identify exceptional creativity, compile a list of nominees each year. These "talent scouts" turn their list over to a separate 12-member selection committee that reviews the list and makes recommendations to the Foundation's board of directors. Typically between 20 and 30 fellows are selected each year. Recipients can use the grant in any way they wish, and health-insurance coverage is included.

--Mavis Clark

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