4 UC-affiliated researchers awarded annual MacArthur fellowship grant

Safiya Noble, Joshua Miele, Taylor Perron, Daniel Alarcón
Of the 25 MacArthur Fellows selected this year, four have ties to the UC system. From left to right, top to bottom: Safiya Noble, Joshua Miele, Taylor Perron, Daniel Alarcón.

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Four researchers with associations to the UC system were chosen as recipients of the annual MacArthur Fellowships, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Sept. 28.

Every year, the foundation selects 25 fellows and provides them with $625,000 grants for their outstanding talents and groundbreaking work, according to a UC news article. Of the 25 selected this year, three are UC Berkeley alums: Joshua Miele, adaptive technology designer at Amazon Lab126; Taylor Perron, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of geology; and Daniel Alarcón, a writer and radio producer for NPR. Safiya Noble, UCLA associate professor of gender studies and African American studies, was also chosen to receive the grant.

Honorees selected this year represent a diverse group of historians, scientists, economists, artists, poets, activists, performers and filmmakers, the MacArthur Foundation website notes.

“The grant makes it easier for fellows to take intellectual risks,” Perron said. “It also helps provide more time and space to be able to do one’s research.”

While the fellowships, paid out in quarterly installments over the course of five years, are popularly known as “genius grants,” the foundation does not associate with the name, according to the U.S. Embassy website.

The term emphasizes intelligence rather than innovation and creativity, the website notes.

“Continuing MacArthur’s tradition of encouraging creativity and building effective institutions to help address some of the world’s most challenging problems, these annual awards recognize exceptional Foundation grantees and help ensure their sustainability,” the foundation’s website reads.

Miele, who studied physics and psychoacoustics, said he uses his creativity to design new products for the visually impaired. 

While his innovations are meant to be accessible, Miele added that accessibility is not enough.

“There’s tons of stuff that is much easier for people who can see,” Miele said in a video on the MacArthur Foundation website. “Blind people are very often locked out of opportunities for education, for jobs.”

While working at Amazon Lab126, Miele helped make Fire tablets braille-compatible and led the initiative on an Echo device feature that helps those with visual impairments identify pantry and food items, according to a UC news article.

Not all MacArthur grant winners are scientists, however. Alarcón, previously a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies and an investigative reporting fellow at the campus Graduate School of Journalism, received the fellowship for his cross-disciplinary reporting on the cultural and social ties that join Spanish-speaking communities.

“When (the foundation) selected me I was eager to tell my wife Lisa,” Perron said. “She has been my copilot in much of the research I have done so I thought part of the award was hers.”

Contact Philippe Jin and Phoebe Chen at [email protected].