British Columbia

UBC biologist wins $500,000 'genius' grant

An evolutionary geneticist from UBC has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation — a prestigious award popularly known as a "genius grant."

An evolutionary geneticist from UBC has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation — a prestigious award popularly known as a "genius grant."

Professor Sarah Otto specializes in creating mathematical models that unwrap the mysteries of ecology and evolution. Her recent research focuses on why some species reproduce sexually and why some species carry more than one copy of each gene.

More than 20 of the prestigious fellowship are awarded by the U.S. non-profit foundation each year, but not one of the recipients has ever applied.

UBC evolutionary geneticist Sarah Otto has been awarded a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. ((MacArthur Foundation))

That's because all the recipients are nominated anonymously and generally find out through a phone or email call out of the blue.

Otto, who also goes by the name Sally, told CBC News her notice came in an e-mail, which she almost deleted because she thought it was spam.

"Anyway I did call up. I found out that it was legit. And when I was speaking to the person from MacArthur Foundation I said, 'Is this what I think it is?' and immediately was jumping up and down," she said.

She says she has no idea who nominated her, and the MacArthur Foundation has told her they will never tell her.

The Stanford graduate describes herself as a sort of investigative journalist of the natural world.

The MacArthur fellowship is described as an investment in a person's originality, insight and potential.  

"And so I am going to take that to heart, and try and carve out more time for research, for thinking, and for the kind of math I like doing, and the science I like doing," said Otto.

A second Canadian, Elodie Ghedin, also received an award this year. The McGill educated biomedical researcher is now based at the University of Pittsburgh.

Foundation oversees $5.6 billion in assets

According to the MacArthur Foundation's website, the Chicago-based organization was set up by John D. and his wife Catherine T. MacArthur with a bequest of $1 billion in 1978. MacArthur was one of the three richest men in the U.S. at the time of his death that year.

Since then the foundation's endowment has grown to $5.6 billion, enabling it to provide nearly $300 million in grants each year to groups and individuals around the world to support a wide range of social causes and challenges.

The foundation says although the media often calls the fellowships "genius grants," they avoid the term "because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess."

"The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches," says the website.