Two Stanford professors recently won the MacArthur Grant for their contributions to science.

The MacArthur Grant, often referred to as the “Genius Grant,” is given to anywhere from 20 to 40 individuals each year.  The grant is $625,000 paid over a five-year period, given by the MacArthur Foundation to people who exhibit excellence and creativity in their particular field of research.

Recently, Professor Kevin Boyce and Professor David Lobell, both of Stanford University, won this prestigious honor.  Neither of them saw it coming.

“You don’t expect these things,” Boyce said. “It validates what you’re doing and says, ‘do more of that,’ so you just get back to work.”

“It feels good,” Lobell said.  “It was a surprise. They give out so few of these that you don’t really expect to get one, but it’s certainly a nice vote of confidence.  You feel like it’s good validation for how you’ve been pushing things.”

Neither professor knows yet how the grant will help them with their research moving forward.

“I haven’t really thought through if there are now things I can do that I wouldn’t have done otherwise,” Boyce said.

According to Lobell, most of the funding he receives comes with strings attached.  However, the McArthur Grant is an exception; it gives the recipient freedom to spend it any way they choose.

“Things like this free scientists up to do whatever they think is the most interesting,” Lobell said.   “In my case, that means having to pay very little attention to what other people think I should be doing; that’s a lot of freedom — which is very nice — but it’s also a challenge.”

Scientists don’t apply for the grant; rather, their colleagues nominate them for it.  It is a long process, during which the MacArthur Foundation interviews people who know the nominees in order to find out who is making the biggest contribution to their field of research.

“I think what they [the MacArthur Foundation] look for is new approaches to doing things; somebody who has not followed too much in some other person’s steps, and so in my case what it means is that I came into a field that was really relying a lot on models and experiments… What I brought in was a perspective more from a statistics background,” Lobell said. “There’s lots of data out there and maybe the data wasn’t collected for the purpose of asking this particular question you had, but there’s lots of data out there and let’s think of ways to really inject more of that data into these questions that we have about plants.  I think they saw that as new enough.”

“It feels good; it’s kind of a validation of what you’re doing and kind of a ‘keep on doing it,’ kind of thing,” Boyce said.

Both professors’ research involves plants. Boyce looks at the fossil records of plants to figure out how plants and their roles in the ecosystem have changed over the last few 100 million years.

“I work primarily with the plant fossil record and I’m interested in the evolution of development and the evolution of physiology; how plants function,” Boyce said.  “That involves looking at fossils through time, but also a lot of work with living plants and seeing how they work and how that information can then be applied back to the fossil record.”

Lobell looks at data and uses it to determine what effect the environment has on crops. Lobell hopes that, moving forward, he can continue learning and improving his research, and that his research can have a positive impact on the world.

“My goal as a scientist is always to keep learning new things and not just resting on what I’ve done already or what I know how to do.  Partly that’s to keep my life interesting and partly because a lot of good science is done when you’re learning new things and when you’re taking your own perspective and adding to those things,” Lobell said.  “So I want to keep learning and working out problems that I feel have some benefit to society…My goals are to keep doing good work and also to train the next generation of scientists to work on these problems.”

In contrast with Lobell, Boyce’s goals for the future are very fluid.

“I’m not trying to cure cancer; it’s more basic than that,” Boyce said.  “It’s more kind of a ‘see where it takes you’ kind of thing.  I have no single goal, which is fine.  One goal would get kind of boring.  Every two or three years I’m doing something different.”

Neither Boyce nor Lobell planned on being a scientist at a young age.  Both stumbled upon science in college.

“I went into grad school for paleontology without knowing any paleontology or any botany,” Boyce said.  “I kind of just went to grad school thinking it would work out and that this would be fun, but I didn’t know anything about any of it… I thought it would work out and it’s gone okay so far.”

According to Lobell, his field of research appealed to him because it allowed him to utilize his love for math while making an impact on the world.

“I think everybody meanders around a little bit through college and then into graduate school,” Lobell said.  “That’s pretty much how I came about it: just wanting to do something interesting day to day, like doing puzzles and working with numbers, but also wanting to have some sort of lasting impact.”

For Boyce, what appealed to him about his branch of paleontology was the utility of plants, not an interest in the plants themselves.

“I’m not really a plant person,” Boyce said.  “People who like flowers know it from birth – I’ve never cared about plants.  It was only in grad school that they seemed very useful to me for some of these reasons.”

T

wo Stanford professors recently won the MacArthur Grant for their contributions to science.

The MacArthur Grant, often referred to as the “Genius Grant,” is given to anywhere from 20 to 40 individuals each year.  The grant is $625,000 paid over a five-year period, given by the MacArthur Foundation to people who exhibit excellence and creativity in their particular field of research.

Recently, Professor Kevin Boyce and Professor David Lobell, both of Stanford University, won this prestigious honor.  Neither of them saw it coming.

“You don’t expect these things,” Boyce said. “It validates what you’re doing and says, ‘do more of that,’ so you just get back to work.”

“It feels good,” Lobell said.  “It was a surprise. They give out so few of these that you don’t really expect to get one, but it’s certainly a nice vote of confidence.  You feel like it’s good validation for how you’ve been pushing things.”

Neither professor knows yet how the grant will help them with their research moving forward.

“I haven’t really thought through if there are now things I can do that I wouldn’t have done otherwise,” Boyce said.

According to Lobell, most of the funding he receives comes with strings attached.  However, the McArthur Grant is an exception; it gives the recipient freedom to spend it any way they choose.

“Things like this free scientists up to do whatever they think is the most interesting,” Lobell said.   “In my case, that means having to pay very little attention to what other people think I should be doing; that’s a lot of freedom — which is very nice — but it’s also a challenge.”

Scientists don’t apply for the grant; rather, their colleagues nominate them for it.  It is a long process, during which the MacArthur Foundation interviews people who know the nominees in order to find out who is making the biggest contribution to their field of research.

“I think what they [the MacArthur Foundation] look for is new approaches to doing things; somebody who has not followed too much in some other person’s steps, and so in my case what it means is that I came into a field that was really relying a lot on models and experiments… What I brought in was a perspective more from a statistics background,” Lobell said. “There’s lots of data out there and maybe the data wasn’t collected for the purpose of asking this particular question you had, but there’s lots of data out there and let’s think of ways to really inject more of that data into these questions that we have about plants.  I think they saw that as new enough.”

“It feels good; it’s kind of a validation of what you’re doing and kind of a ‘keep on doing it,’ kind of thing,” Boyce said.

Both professors’ research involves plants. Boyce looks at the fossil records of plants to figure out how plants and their roles in the ecosystem have changed over the last few 100 million years.

“I work primarily with the plant fossil record and I’m interested in the evolution of development and the evolution of physiology; how plants function,” Boyce said.  “That involves looking at fossils through time, but also a lot of work with living plants and seeing how they work and how that information can then be applied back to the fossil record.”

Lobell looks at data and uses it to determine what effect the environment has on crops. Lobell hopes that, moving forward, he can continue learning and improving his research, and that his research can have a positive impact on the world.

“My goal as a scientist is always to keep learning new things and not just resting on what I’ve done already or what I know how to do.  Partly that’s to keep my life interesting and partly because a lot of good science is done when you’re learning new things and when you’re taking your own perspective and adding to those things,” Lobell said.  “So I want to keep learning and working out problems that I feel have some benefit to society…My goals are to keep doing good work and also to train the next generation of scientists to work on these problems.”

In contrast with Lobell, Boyce’s goals for the future are very fluid.

“I’m not trying to cure cancer; it’s more basic than that,” Boyce said.  “It’s more kind of a ‘see where it takes you’ kind of thing.  I have no single goal, which is fine.  One goal would get kind of boring.  Every two or three years I’m doing something different.”

Neither Boyce nor Lobell planned on being a scientist at a young age.  Both stumbled upon science in college.

“I went into grad school for paleontology without knowing any paleontology or any botany,” Boyce said.  “I kind of just went to grad school thinking it would work out and that this would be fun, but I didn’t know anything about any of it… I thought it would work out and it’s gone okay so far.”

According to Lobell, his field of research appealed to him because it allowed him to utilize his love for math while making an impact on the world.

“I think everybody meanders around a little bit through college and then into graduate school,” Lobell said.  “That’s pretty much how I came about it: just wanting to do something interesting day to day, like doing puzzles and working with numbers, but also wanting to have some sort of lasting impact.”

For Boyce, what appealed to him about his branch of paleontology was the utility of plants, not an interest in the plants themselves.

“I’m not really a plant person,” Boyce said.  “People who like flowers know it from birth – I’ve never cared about plants.  It was only in grad school that they seemed very useful to me for some of these reasons.”

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