William Seeley, associate professor of neurology at UC San Francisco,… (Martin Klimek, Getty Images )
A UC San Francisco neurologist working to crack the mysteries of early-onset dementia and a Marin County poet known for her spare, often witty verses are among the 22 winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants.
Each winner will receive $500,000 over the next five years to use however they choose. Established in 1981, the prestigious prizes recognize originality and the potential for important future work in a wide array of sciences, arts and social activism.
Among this year's other MacArthur recipients are a New Jersey silversmith who restores medieval treasures, a Massachusetts psychologist working to lower suicide rates and a North Carolina researcher who has made key advances in the diagnosis and treatment of sports-related concussions. Others include an advocate for the elderly, a computer scientist, three musicians and a radio host.
"It took the wind out of my chest," William Seeley, associate professor of neurology at UC San Francisco, said of his reaction to winning the award. Seeley, 39, researches brain imaging to track — and he hopes, one day to help treat — disorders that often strike in midlife and cause dementia. He said he hoped the funds will propel his research "into something more daring than what we've been working on, if that's where the science takes us."
Seeley said he was drawn to helping patients suffering from frontotemporal dementia, which typically strikes earlier than Alzheimer's and wipes away "core elements of their personhood." To witness such devastating deterioration, he said, "is very motivating."
The other California winner this year is Kay Ryan, the nation's poet laureate from 2008-10 who won a Pulitzer Prize this year. Ryan, of the Marin County town of Fairfax, taught remedial English for three decades at the College of Marin, achieving public recognition relatively recently. Her 66th birthday is Wednesday.
Ryan, a UCLA alumnus, said the MacArthur award was especially gratifying because it encourages new work from young and old.
"One of the gorgeous things about being a poet … is that you don't peak at 22. It's something that is really a lifetime endeavor," Ryan said. She has not decided how she will use the money but said it represents "freedom for the next five years to do what you want to do," which in her case means more writing.
The MacArthur citation described fourth-generation silversmith and art scholar Ubaldo Vitali's work — whether creating a contemporary silver domino set or restoring medieval sculptures — as "playing a vital role in preserving historical collections and reinvigorating classic silversmithing."
Vitali, who is 67 and has a studio in Maplewood, N.J., said he might use the grant to research a book of essays about his craft but has no thought of retirement: "I consider work like breathing. It keeps me alive."
The award came at a fortuitous time for Peter Hessler, a former Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker magazine who has written three books on China. Now based in Colorado, he is moving to Egypt next month to write about the Middle East. The grant will help support his family while he studies Arabic and "moves into a new life," said Hessler, 42.
As director of the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, Kevin Guskiewicz was among the first to identify the link between sports-related concussions and subsequent depression, memory loss and dementia. He was named last year to lead a National Football League committee on head, neck and spine safety, and he works with college teams to change dangerous tackling techniques.
Guskiewicz's three sons have played football and he has coached Pop Warner teams. His colleagues think he's crazy for allowing his 11-year-old to play, but "they're half-joking," he said. "Their comfort level is increased because I'm doing this work; their kids are out there too."
Guskiewicz, 45, said he hopes to use part of his award to teach concussion prevention to young players. "It's going to take more than a helmet change," he said.
Another recipient, Harvard psychology professor Matthew Nock, said the award will help fund additional research aimed at understanding suicidal behavior. Nock's studies have identified an objective marker that could be used to help predict suicide attempts — a valuable tool because the suicidal often deny they are thinking about taking their lives.
"I think we need to get more creative about trying to understand the complex factors that are involved in suicidal behavior," said Nock, 38.
Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago-based philanthropy that funds the fellowships, said this year's winners are reminders of "the potential individuals have to make a difference in the world and shape our future."
A list of this year's winners can be found online at: http://www.macfound.org
Times staff writers Melissa Healy and Shari Roan contributed to this article.