Several figures with Boston-area ties among 2018 MacArthur fellows
Lisa Parks was in her office at MIT, getting ready to go to a faculty meeting, when she got the call: She had received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly called a “genius” grant, which recognizes “exceptional creativity” in various fields with a $625,000, no-strings-attached award.
“I literally almost fell on the floor,” said Parks, a media scholar who explores the cultural, humanitarian, and political implications of satellites, Internet cables, drones, and other communications technology. “I was just overjoyed.”
Parks was one of three Boston-area figures to receive one of the 25 awards on Thursday. The other two are Amy Finkelstein, a health economist at MIT, and Kelly Link, a short-story writer from Northampton.
Three others who grew up in Massachusetts also received the awards. They are Matthew Aucoin, a composer and conductor; Clifford Brangwynne, a biophysical engineer at Princeton; and Wu Tsang, a filmmaker and performance artist.
Parks, a 51-year-old Weston resident who came to MIT two years ago from the University of California Santa Barbara, said she plans to use the award to strengthen MIT’s Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab and deepen the university’s ties to Africa, where she does research.
Like other recipients, Parks was told, after she got the call from the MacArthur Foundation on Sept. 4, that she could only tell one person until the official announcement was made. She told her husband, worried her mother, bursting with pride, might leak the news.
“It was kind of like sitting in this limbo for a month of unadulterated excitement,” she said. “I was like, is this a dream? Today, it feels totally real and it’s exhilarating and overwhelming, and I’m proud to be a woman and a humanities scholar winning this honor.”
Finkelstein said she, too, was in her office when she got the call.
“I first thought it was a prank because I have some colleagues with sick senses of humor,” she said, adding that, once reality sunk in, she was “thrilled, honored, and stunned.”
Finkelstein, a 44-year-old Brookline resident, told her husband, making the difficult choice to keep her parents in the dark for a month.
She said that, other than a dinner out with her husband, she plans to use the award to undertake health care research that might not get funded by a typical scientific grant that comes with restrictions.
“We have a bunch of half-formed and ill-formed ideas of things we want to look at,” said Finkelstein, who has done pioneering research on the costs and benefits of expanded Medicaid coverage. “This allows us to take some more risks.”
Link, a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories, said she was at her friend Cassandra Clare’s house with a number of other writers — Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Emily Houk — when she found out about the award.
“I had to go sit in the bathroom so no one would overhear the conversation, even though these were some of the people I most badly wanted to tell, because they’re some of my closest friends,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I found it all very hard to believe.”
Link, whose stories feature ghosts, zombies, and vampires, as well as teenage girls and middle-age people in flux, said the award will help her complete the novel she has been writing “very slowly.” And it will help her and her husband, Gavin Grant, run Small Beer Press, which they founded to publish fantasy and literary fiction.
“A MacArthur Fellowship means I can continue to work at my natural snail’s pace, and that Small Beer can continue to publish the kinds of writers that we are most excited about,” she wrote.
Aucoin, a 28-year-old New Yorker who grew up in Natick and Medfield, said he plans to give away some of his award and use some of it to give himself “the gift of time.”
“Time is the most important thing for a composer — time to think and explore and get lost and, hopefully, get found again,” said Aucoin, the artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Opera and co-artistic director of the newly formed American Modern Opera Company.
Aucoin said, unlike commissions from donors, the unrestricted nature of the award means he can indulge “crazy” ideas — maybe a piece with six trombones or seven percussionists or one that clocks in at 3½ hours.
“This allows the musical needs [to take the lead],” he said, “and for me to be less dependent on outside demands. And I’m hugely grateful for that.”
Brangwynne, who grew up in Brighton and moved to Lexington when he was 11, was in the gym, sitting down on a rowing machine, when he learned about the award. A specialist in cell biology, he said he was planning to use his award in part to pursue research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.
“It really is a huge honor,” he said, “and the idea that it’s honoring scientists alongside artists and writers and dancers and journalists and activists is really cool.”
Tsang, a New Yorker who grew up in Worcester, explores race, gender, and class in films and performance art. Tsang’s work emerged in part from collaborations that formed at a weekly nightclub called Wildness that Tsang helped organize in Los Angeles, and which became a draw for immigrant and LGBTQ artists and activists.