MIT’s Soljacic and Ochsendorf Win MacArthur Prizes

A Harvard neurobiologist who regularly does surgery on fruit fly brains smaller than a poppy seed, and an MIT structural engineer who searches for modern design principles in Gothic churches, are among the 25 winners of the $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grants announced last week.

The two — Rachel Wilson, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School and John A. Ochsendorf, a structural engineer from MIT who probes ancient structures for modern design principles - join two other “geniuses” from New England. They are Marin Soljacic ’96, a theoretical physicist from MIT who demonstrated a way to transmit electricity without wires; and Stephen Houston, an anthropologist from Brown University who probes Mayan artifacts and writings to better understand the ancient society’s culture.

All four said the out-of-the-blue phone call notifying them of the award will change their life.

Unlike awards that recognize a lifetime of achievement, the five-year fellowships sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are given to people at a pivotal point in their career. This year’s winners of the no-strings-attached award range from a 30-year-old violinist to a 71-year-old stage lighting designer.

“The idea is to pick exceptionally creative people at an important moment in their career, and give them the financial freedom to pursue their work,” said Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.

Fanton noted that this year, there were nine scientists — an unusually high number — among the fellows. He also pointed out that Massachusetts continues to field many fellows. Historically, he said, the state has ranked in the top three, behind New York and California, which have much larger populations.

The number of MacArthur winners from New England has varied widely over recent years, from one last year to as many as eight in 2006.

The nomination and selection process for the MacArthur award is known for its secrecy. Several hundred anonymous nominators suggest possible fellows, and then the list is whittled to 125 potential fellows. An anonymous panel of “selectors” choose the winners. When the MacArthur Foundation begins to make the calls, Fanton said, the reactions have ranged from shrieks of excitement to a fainting spell.

Soljacic recalled that he was driving to pick his son up when his cellphone rang. The caller urged him to pull his car to the side of the road, and then told him he had won the award. The rest of the phone call was a blur, said Soljacic, 34, of Belmont.

He is looking forward already, he said, to the opportunity that the grant will give him to pursue the “far out,” high-risk ideas that might not be funded by traditional sources.

In addition to his work on wireless electricity, Soljacic works in a field called nanophotonics, looking at how light can be manipulated at a very small scale to create the foundation of a new method of computing - using light instead of electrons.

Ochsendorf, 34, of Cambridge, said he had already spent some nights lying awake thinking about how the honor will help his work, which has sometimes been a struggle because it lies between so many disciplines: architecture, archaeology, engineering, and green design. He argues that ancient structures — from Incan suspension bridges made of grass, to vaults and buttresses in Romanesque churches — may hold clues to designing stronger, or more sustainable, structures today.

“It can be difficult if you don’t fit into one field easily. This is kind of the ultimate affirmation that the risk-taking has paid off and I should keep following my passion for what I’m doing,” Ochsendorf said.

Wilson, 34, of Brookline - whose surgery on fruit flies is aimed at understanding the neural circuitry behind the sense of smell — said her award underscored the idea that simple organisms that seem primitive may yield powerful insight into how things work.

“We study fruit flies partly because when you sit back and think about it, a little fruit fly is an amazing little creature,” she said. “Nobody in the world can build a robot that does everything a fruit fly does.”

Houston, 49, called the award a “humbling” bolt of lightning. He said the award comes at an opportune time; he is currently in the midst of excavating a site in northern Guatemala, where he is continuing the work of delving into both the physical remnants of an ancient culture — and into their intellectual culture.

“They’re so absolutely gone — you’re talking about people that died 1,200 to 1,300 years ago — and yet there are vestiges of these really ephemeral and short-lived emotions,” he said.

Also among the 25 winners is Miguel Zenon, a New York saxophonist with Boston ties; he left San Juan to study at the Berklee College of Music in 1996.

The other winners are: Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist; Will Allen, an urban farmer from Wisconsin; Regina Benjamin, a rural family physician from Alabama; Kirsten Bomblies, a plant evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany; Tara Donovan, a New York sculptor; Wafaa El-Sadr, a Columbia University infectious disease physician; Andrea Ghez, a University of California, Los Angeles astrophysicist; Mary Jackson, a South Carolina fiber artist; Leila Josefowicz, a New York violinist; Alexai Kitaev, a physicist and computer scientist from the California Institute of Technology; Walter Kitundu, an instrument maker and composer from the Exploratorium in San Francisco; Susan Mango, a University of Utah developmental biologist; Diane Meier, a geriatrician from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York; David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist; Peter Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine critical care physician; Adam Riess, a Johns Hopkins University astronomer; Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker; Nancy Siraisi, a New York historian of medicine; Sally Temple, a neuroscientist at the New York Neural Stem Cell Institute; and Jennifer Tipton, a New York stage lighting designer.

The 2008 awards — which are taxed — will be given in quarterly $25,000 installments each year for five years, starting in early 2009.