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3 Bay Area Residents Tapped for 'Genius Awards' : Grants: Evolutionary biologist Margie Profet and writers Thom Gunn and Jim Powell are recognized by MacArthur Foundation. Each will receive $30,000 to $75,000 annually for the next five years.

June 15, 1993|LARRY GORDON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The so-called genius awards from the MacArthur Foundation went to three Californians on Monday, who were recognized for such diverse work as research into the mysteries of pregnancy, the composition of modern poetry and translations of ancient Greek writings.

Self-taught evolutionary biologist Margie Profet and writers Thom Gunn and Jim Powell--all from the Bay Area--were among 31 MacArthur fellows around the country who will receive annual grants of $30,000 to $75,000 for the next five years.

Other winners included gospel singer Marion Williams; Carol Levine, who works to help New York children orphaned by AIDS; energy efficiency expert Amory Bloch Lovins, and producer William H. Siemering, a founder of National Public Radio.

Profet, who works at a UC Berkeley laboratory, does not have a doctoral degree and has never owned an automobile. Monday's announcement that she had won a $225,000 MacArthur grant means that one of those conditions may change soon.

"I may get a car," said Profet, 34, who grew up in Manhattan Beach. "I just won't have the burden of constant financial worries and tedious part-time jobs. So this is really a godsend."

The best part of the award, recipients say, is that there are no strings attached. For Profet, that means she can continue her research without the formal scholarly credentials that government grants and other foundations usually require.

Combining evolutionary biology with health science, Profet has probed such mysteries as how morning sickness during pregnancy protects the embryo from toxins. Her ideas, the foundation noted, "has major potential consequences for medicine and the understanding of human biology."

"Generally, you are at a disadvantage if you have no formal training in a field," said Profet, who has two bachelor's degrees unrelated to her work--one in political philosophy from Harvard University and another in physics from UC Berkeley, where she now is a research associate. "But I look at things from a different vantage point. If no one told you what to think, you find your own way to think about a problem."

Gunn, 63, is a poet and literary critic whose writings exhibit "a scrupulous craft, unique intelligence and a sense of moral responsibility," according to the MacArthur selection jurors. British-born, Gunn is the author of eight volumes of poetry, most recently "The Man with Night Sweats," published in April.

A senior lecturer at UC Berkeley since 1987, Gunn said he would try to save much of his $369,000 grant for retirement because he expects to receive only a small UC pension. "I've no plans for squandering it," Gunn said Monday from his San Francisco home. "I have very modest needs now and it will be wonderful when I retire." The award will also make it easier to complete a volume he describes as halfway finished.

Powell, the other Californian among the MacArthur fellows, writes poetry and translates works from ancient Greek. "His poetry, informed by his knowledge of Greek and Latin, combines a colorful vision of California life with a classical restraint and sense of decorum," the foundation said. The 41-year-old Berkeley resident will receive $260,000 over the next five years, some of which he said he may use to visit Greece for the first time.

Mainly, Powell said, the grant will provide relief from the survival anxieties of free-lance writing. "I'm still just amazed and very grateful," said Powell, who earned a bachelor's and master's degree in comparative literature at UC Berkeley. He has written a book of poetry called "It Was a Fever That Made the World," and his translation of Sappho's poetry is to be published in the fall.

Since the program began 12 years ago, 191 winners have received $120 million in grants, with older winners getting the largest stipends. The money comes from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, named for a late insurance executive and his wife who are its benefactors.

Singer Williams, 65, will receive $374,000. A Philadelphia resident, Williams said she will donate some of her money to the needy and use some to indulge herself. "I really think this means that after years of hard work and suffering and toiling and whatever, this is the time for me to enjoy a little bit," she said. "I've never been so happy, other than receiving salvation."

She was praised by the foundation as "one of the greatest and most versatile singers of her generation, exerting a profound influence not only in gospel, but also in the development of rock & roll and soul music."

Levine, executive director of the Orphan Project, will receive $345,000 to continue her work with the increasing number of AIDS orphans. Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, will be given $280,000 for work on "non-polluting and economically competitive sources of energy." With his $345,000 grant, radio producer Siemering was recognized for his NPR show "All Things Considered" and his efforts to train radio journalists in South Africa.

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