MIT Women, Harvard’s Vijay Iyer Win $625,000 Grants

Pianists Jeremy Denk and Vijay Iyer and Karen Russell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2011 novel, “Swamplandia,” are among the winners of the 2013 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “genius” grants.

This year’s 24 winners will have more money to spend than their predecessors since the gifts were increased to $625,000 from $500,000. The no-strings attached grants are paid in annual installments of $125,000 for 5 years. Winners range in age from 32 to 60.

Denk, 43 and a classical pianist, got the call from the foundation while at the gym three weeks ago. He said he was “thrilled and bewildered” upon learning of his selection.

“It will give me the freedom to explore some of the milions of projects I have in mind,” he said by phone.

Denk, also a writer who holds a doctorate from the Juilliard School, was selected for his “unmatched music ability paired with an unusual eloquence with words.” He will serve as the music director of the Ojai (California) Music Festival next year.

Iyer, 41, is known for music that borrows from pop, African rhythms and melodies, the spoken word and orchestra settings.

The Yale graduate who also holds a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California at Berkeley, will join Harvard’s music department in January as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.

“For me, it’s an amazing sense of validation to know you’re being heard outside of the music community,” Iyer said by phone. “What I admire about this award is that it goes to a variety of different people. It places us and all that we’re doing in dialogue with each other.”

Grant Giddy

Russell and playwright Tarell McCraney of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, both 32, are the youngest winners of the award this year. Russell said she was “giddy” when she heard the news. Writer Donald Antrim, 55, known for his often surreal slim novels, also won a grant.

Photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems, 60, was chosen for her cutting-edge view of black issues using cinema verite, collage and experimental printing methods.

The field of dance was represented by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, 45, of New York’s American Ballet Theatre. He was chosen for his “distinctive style that honors the past while infusing a modern sensibility to interpretations of standard repertoire.”

Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College, made the list for her work on the nervous system and prosthetic devices.

MIT Winners

Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers also won. Astrophysicist Sara Seager, 42, was selected for examining the makeup of planets beyond our solar system, and computer scientist Dina Katabi, 42, for exploring ways to improve the reliability and speed of data exchanges, especially in wireless networks.

John D. MacArthur owned and developed Bankers Life & Casualty Co. (now a unit of CNO Financial Group Inc.) and had numerous real-estate holdings in New York and Florida. His wife, Catherine, served as a director of the foundation and held positions in many of his companies.

For a complete list of the winners, please go to

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera, Ryan Sutton on dining.

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