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Two Boston-area scholars receive MacArthur Foundation genius grants

Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and Isaiah Andrews, a Harvard University economics professor, are among the 21 scholars named as 2020 MacArthur fellows.
Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and Isaiah Andrews, a Harvard University economics professor, are among the 21 scholars named as 2020 MacArthur fellows.The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Two local scholars are among 21 recipients of this year’s MacArthur fellowships, colloquially known as genius grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Tuesday.

Isaiah Andrews, a Harvard University economics professor, and Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and the 19 other recipients “have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” the foundation said on its website.

Andrews, 34, a 2005 graduate of Brookline High School, said he has no plans yet for the $625,000 each fellow receives over five years, no strings attached.

“I’m still very much thinking about what to with the additional flexibility I have by virtue of the grant, which I very much appreciate,” he said.

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Andrews, an econometrician, is working to develop new statistical methods that could improve people’s understanding of data by filling in gaps in the information, which can help guide public policy, he said.

Andrews, who lives in Boston, said the process for nominating and selecting MacArthur fellows is conducted in secret. His only hint that he was being considered came when a colleague let it slip that they had written a letter of support.

He was stunned when he got the call from the foundation four weeks ago, he said. He had to keep the “extremely good news” mostly to himself.

“When you first find out, you’re only allowed to tell one person,” he said. “So I told my husband, and that was it.”

Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows program, said the grant recipients are doing important work amid “civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations.”

“They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us,” Conrad said in a statement.

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Gray, 51, said she, too, was shocked to learn she had been named a fellow. A professor of informatics at Indiana University, she’s currently on research leave.

"I spent at least the first 10 minutes swearing out loud, saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ " she said by phone.

Gray is an anthropologist, media scholar, and author whose work focuses on how the Internet affects society and individuals, particularly those who have the least access to the online world, she said.

“In the mid-'90s I was asking how is the Internet going to become this powerful political tool for LGBT people organizing in places outside of cities,” said Gray, a California native who lives in Somerville. “Fast-forward to now, where we have so much work coursing through this global system of the Internet.”

Gray said she plans to use the grant to support a project she began with colleagues in March, as the coronavirus became a global pandemic, examining “how would you build technologies for community health workers who manage monitoring patients who are among the most vulnerable … who don’t trust or who don’t have access to health care.”

Other recipients of this year’s awards include sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, chemical engineer Paul Dauenhauer, evolutionary geneticist Nels Elde, cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair, playwright Larissa FastHorse, environmental health advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers, author N.K. Jemisin, artist Ralph Lemon, and cellular and developmental biologist Polina V. Lishko.

Also, legal scholar Thomas Wilson Mitchell, historian Natalia Molina, cultural theorist and poet Fred Moten, author Cristina Rivera Garza, singer and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant, experimental physicist Monika Schleier-Smith, biological chemist Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost, sociologist Forrest Stuart, documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang, and author Jacqueline Woodson.

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Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.