Three Mass. Women Awarded MacArthur 'Genius Grants'

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A MIT astrophysicist who is "fueling curiosity about life in worlds beyond our reach" is just one of the three women from Massachusetts among this year's 24 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipients.

Through her study of exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars other than the sun, Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science at MIT, is exploring the possibility life on other planets throughout the galaxy.

"My main goal right now is to lead an effort to actually be able to find the true Earth twins. That is, Earth-like planets orbiting nearby sun-like stars," Seager explained in a video provided by the foundation. "There's absolutely an earth twin out there somewhere, we just don't know exactly where. And that's why we have to build a sophisticated space telescope to find it."

Seager is looking to achieve that goal through ExoplanetSat, a university collaboration to build "nano-satellites" to observe planetary transits.

The MacArthur foundation explains the project this way:

ExoplanetSat is a new concept for space science: a fleet of dozens of cheap copies of an ultra-small space telescope that will open up a new avenue for wide-ranging space exploration.

Two other Massachusetts residents will also receive the $625,000 "no-strings-attached stipends" to pursue their research.

Robin Fleming, chair of the Boston College history department, researches late Roman and medieval Britain. The foundations says her work provides "a framework for incorporating material culture into the writing of history."

Dina Katabi, a MIT computer scientist, researches the reliability and security of wireless networks. She is working with her colleagues to design "wearable devices that protect pacemakers against unwanted manipulation while allowing medical personnel emergency access without security codes."

The grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognize "exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future."

This program aired on September 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Abby Elizabeth Conway Twitter Digital Producer/Editor
Abby Elizabeth Conway was formerly a digital producer and editor at WBUR.