UC Berkeley professor, 3 alumni awarded MacArthur Fellowships

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A UC Berkeley professor and three alumni were among 24 distinguished individuals who were awarded Tuesday this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, also known as “genius grants.”

The fellowships are given by the MacArthur Foundation each year to accomplished artists, scientists and creative individuals in the form of a $625,000 grant to be used at the recipients’ full discretion. This year’s winners include Peidong Yang, campus professor of chemistry, and alumni William Dichtel, John Novembre and Patrick Awuah.

“It was a huge surprise,” Yang said in an email. He was selected as a fellow for his work in the field of semiconductor nanowires, a form of nanomaterial with significant potential application to the field of sustainable energy. He and collaborators have developed a “synthetic leaf” that artificially produces chemicals and fuels such as butanol in a way similar to photosynthesis.

“What’s beautiful about the award is that it provides money that (Yang) can use to work in any direction that he wants,” said Mark Asta, professor and chair of the materials science and engineering department, of which Yang is a joint faculty member.

Dichtel, an associate professor at Cornell University who received his doctorate from UC Berkeley, was also recognized for his potential impact on the field of sustainable energy because of his work with nanostructured porous polymers.

Fellows are kept in the dark about their consideration until they have been selected for the grants, which, in some cases, leads to confusion among the winners.

“I was getting phone calls from a strange number, and I was ignoring them,” Novembre said about how he was informed he was selected.

Novembre, who received his doctorate from UC Berkeley and is now an associate professor at the University of Chicago, develops computational algorithms for analyzing genetic data that can be used to improve scientists’ understanding of genetic disease.

Gary Cohen, who spent a year as a graduate student on campus in the 1980s, was surprised and thrilled by the news but was allowed to tell only one person — he chose his wife — before the public announcement was made. He was recognized for advocating environmentally sustainable health care practices through the international organization he started, Health Care Without Harm.

Patrick Awuah, who received an MBA from UC Berkeley, founded Ashesi University in Ghana to educate a new generation of African leaders with a focus on liberal arts, ethical principles and practical skills.

In addition to surprise at the announcement, gratitude among the new UC Berkeley alumni inductees was universal.

“It’s a huge vote of confidence for us,” Novembre said. “It is an award not for lifetime achievement but for pursuing your potential, and we’re going to take that seriously.”

Contact Maxwell Jenkins-Goetz at [email protected].