'Genius Grant' Winners Keep It Simple



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It could be a burden to be tagged with the label "genius." But to win $500,000 over five years, with no strings attached, might lighten that burden.

On Tuesday, 25 winners of this year's MacArthur awards — which have come to be known as "genius grants" — found themselves considering that new reality.

The winners were chosen for their creativity and their efforts to "make our world a better place," according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Two of the winners spoke with host Melissa Block about their work and why they are so passionate about it.

Unlocking The Sense Of Smell

A neurobiologist who is trying to unlock some of the mysteries of our sense of smell, Rachel Wilson teaches at Harvard Medical School.

"Something that is interesting about olfaction is it seems to have a very intimate connection with the sense of emotion and memory," Wilson says. "We're interested in why it is that it seems to be such a visceral and emotional sensory modality."

Wilson, 34, says her lab studies the sense of smell in fruit flies, which sounds "a little wacky," because fruit flies have brains the size of a poppy seed.

"We're monitoring electrical activity from individual brain cells," she says, "and meanwhile, we're puffing different odors on the fly — odors that smell like fruits or represent pheromones."

The scientists study why a fruit fly responds to one odor and not another. Fruit flies like the smell of ripe mangoes, Wilson says.

Ultimately, the lab would like to compare the computations that occur in the olfactory systems with those in the senses of hearing and taste.

"It's part of a deeper question about whether different parts of your brain are very highly specialized for the tasks that they perform, or whether on the other hand, your brain is a bunch of useful matter, and you can just plug all kinds of information into it willy-nilly, and it will kind of do the right thing."

Wilson says another application of her research is in the development of artificial noses that are designed to "detect and discriminate between large numbers of odor molecules in the air around you."

These odors can help with environmental protection and medical diagnosis. According to Wilson, lung cancer patients "seem to have a characteristic fingerprint of odors in their breath that can be detected by a machine, not so well by a doctor."

Says Wilson of the fruit flies: "Sometimes, the simplest creatures give us the greatest insights."

The Sound Artist

Walter Kitundu, 35, is a multimedia artist, composer and builder who creates hybrid instruments out of turntables and strings.

One such instrument he created is the Blue Steel String 1200 Phonoharp, which uses the turntable to pick up vibration.

"Many people for years have been trying to isolate the turntable from vibration, precisely because it's so good at picking it up," Kitundu says. "So I turned that on its head. When I pluck the strings of the phoneharp, the vibrations are actually varied into the body of the turntable, and they're amplified by the cartridge."

Depending on the instrument, Kitundu will pluck the strings or blow them. He says because they're so sensitive, they can be used as both percussive and melodic instruments.

Some of his instruments are inspired by traditional instruments like the Japanese koto or the West African cora, he says, while others he imagines.

"I build them, and I find out what they sound like after they're built," he says.

Born and raised in Tanzania, Kitundu says he was always taking things apart as a kid.

"I've blown up a couple of turntables in the process of making new things, but those have always been great learning processes," he says. "I call it trial and terror."

Kitundu also says he likes going to flea markets and finding ways to creatively reuse things he finds.

"I find that if you limit your palette and you limit your tools, you have to think more creatively about how to use them," he says. "And sometimes that leads to novel solutions."

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