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3 UC, Caltech scientists are among 'genius' award winners

They'll get $500,000 each from the MacArthur Foundation -- to spend on anything they'd like.

September 25, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

A UC Riverside biologist who studies spider silk to make natural product-based materials such as biodegradable fishing lines and sutures is among the 24 winners of this year's MacArthur "genius" awards.

A Caltech scientist trying to understand how interactions between proteins and genes control the activity of cells, and another who folds DNA into complex shapes that could eventually be used in electronic circuits were also among the six California scientists who received the awards.

The winners will receive $500,000 each over the next five years to use as they see fit.

The awards are presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to people selected for their "creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future," according to the Chicago-based foundation.

"This was a complete surprise," said biologist Cheryl Hayashi of UC Riverside. "My first question was, 'Is it someone pulling a joke on me?' "

Hayashi, 30, studies the genetics of how spiders make silk in the hopes of eventually manufacturing the materials synthetically. The silks have a number of advantages over totally synthetic materials, she said.

In many cases, they are stronger or more elastic than artificial products. They can also be manufactured under much milder conditions and thus are more environmentally friendly. And because they are composed primarily of protein, they are biodegradable.

She said she was not sure what she would do with the money, but travel probably would be one use. "So far, most of my work has been on California spiders" because "they are easy to collect around me. I'd love to go to Australia and Africa. They have some really unique, special spiders."

Hayashi is the second UC Riverside faculty member to receive the grant. Francesca Rochberg, a historian, received a grant in 1982.

Michael Elowitz, a biologist at Caltech, said he is "interested in how individual living cells are able to process information and make decisions about what they want to do."

Elowitz, 27, designs artificial genetic "circuits" and introduces them into cells to test their activity. "This synthetic approach stringently tests how well we understand and predict cellular behaviors," he said by telephone from Greece, where he was attending a scientific meeting.

The process is "extremely collaborative," Elowitz said, so perhaps his colleagues will receive a fine dinner from the grant.

Caltech computer scientist Paul Rothemund performs what he calls DNA origami, weaving DNA into complex two-dimensional shapes. In a paper last year, he reported the construction of microscopic DNA objects including a triangle, a five-pointed star, a smiley face and a map of the Americas -- all smaller than a typical bacterium.

Although whimsical, the objects demonstrated the practicality of the techniques developed by Rothemund, 25. Eventually, the techniques could be used to produce substrates for computer circuits, he said.

"You go along working on things that you enjoy, and you are not doing it for the money at all," he said. "Then somebody calls and says they are going to give you a half-million dollars. . . . That's pretty amazing."

Two other recipients also have Los Angeles connections.

New York-based playwright Lynn Nottage, 43, first developed a national reputation with "Intimate Apparel," a poignant play about a young black seamstress around the turn of the 20th century. It was staged in 2003 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and -- in a rarity for a new drama -- the following year on a competing major stage, the Mark Taper Forum.

Shen Wei, a New York based choreographer, presides over Shen Wei Dance Arts, the first company to headline on the stages of both the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Born in Hunan province in China, Wei gathered accolades in 2003 for a fresh rendering of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this story.

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Other MacArthur grant recipients

The 24 fellows announced Monday by the MacArthur Foundation include five with Southern California ties. All will receive $500,000 apiece over the next five years. The others:

* Deborah Bial, 42, of the Posse Foundation in New York helps talented minority students get into college.

* Peter Cole, 50, of Jerusalem is a translator, publisher and poet who brings works of medieval Spain and the modern Middle East to English-speaking audiences.

* Dr. Lisa Cooper, 44, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is improving medical care for minorities by developing new approaches to patient- physician communication.

* Ruth DeFries, 51, an environmental geographer at the University of Maryland, uses remote sensing from satellites to explore the relationship between humans and Earth's vegetation cover.

* Mercedes Doretti, 49, a New York-based member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, unearths evidence of crimes against humanity.

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