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Iowa State University Professor Lisa Schulte Moore, a landscape ecologist who has conducted groundbreaking research to help address sustainable farming, water quality and climate change, Tuesday became the university’s first MacArthur Fellow — an honor often referred to as a “genius grant.”
She is among 25 people the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced will each receive $625,000. The selection process for the MacArthur grants is shrouded in secrecy. Instead of applications, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation's board of directors. As in previous years, the work of several recipients involves topics that have been dominating the news.
ISU said in a statement that Schulte Moore “pushes the boundaries of her field by incorporating other disciplines traditionally thought of as beyond the scope of ecology — economics, engineering and sociology, for instance — to address critical challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and rural depopulation.”
The professor “represents the best of Iowa State University,” said a statement from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen.
“I think of my work as putting together a puzzle, and I’m always looking for the missing puzzle piece,” Schulte Moore said in a statement Tuesday. “Where do I have to go or what do I have to learn to get the next piece? I’ve found that sometimes you have to build and paint the puzzle piece yourself, and that’s part of the fun of science.”
According to ISU, Schulte Moore, 50, is a first-generation college student in her family. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1993, a master’s of science from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She joined the ISU faculty in 2003.
Schulte Moore was one of the founders of the Prairie STRIPS conservation program. The program, which was established in 2003 at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, studied how planting prairie strips on farmland can protect soil and water quality. In that research, she and others showed that prairie strips can reduce soil loss from farm fields by 95 percent and nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by up to 80 percent. Prairie strips now are used in 14 states on over 115,000 acres of cropland, according to ISU.
Among other projects she leads, Schulte Moore also is the lead developer of the a computer simulation that shows how land use affects soil, water, agricultural production and habitat. Last year, she won a $10 million federal grant to develop new ways of turning biomass and manure into fuel.
“I’m working to show the full value of the Midwest’s native ecosystems and figure out how to turn it into financial value for farmers and rural communities,” she said in her statement.
This year’s MacArthur Fellowship winners include scientists, economists, poets and filmmakers. Race figures prominently in the work of about half of them. And COVID-19 comes up in the work of no fewer than four recipients.
The 2021 fellows, in addition to Schulte Moore, are:
- Hanif Abdurraqib, 38, Columbus, Ohio, music critic, essayist and poet forging a distinctive style of cultural and artistic criticism through the lens of popular music and autobiography.
- Daniel Alarcon, 44, New York, writer and radio producer chronicling the social and cultural ties that connect Spanish-speaking communities.
- Marcella Alsan, 44, Cambridge, Mass., physician-economist investigating the role that legacies of discrimination and resulting mistrust play in perpetuating racial disparities in health.
- Trevor Bedford, 39, Seattle, computational virologist developing tools for real-time tracking of virus evolution and the spread of infectious diseases.
- Reginald Dwayne Betts, 40, New Haven, Conn., poet and lawyer promoting the humanity and rights of people who are or were incarcerated.
- Jordan Casteel, 32, New York, painter capturing everyday encounters with people of color in portraits that invite recognition of shared humanity.
- Don Mee Choi, 59, Seattle, poet and translator bearing witness to the effects of military violence and U.S. imperialism on the civilians of the Korean Peninsula.
- Ibrahim Cisse, 38, Pasadena, Calif., cellular biophysicist developing microscopy tools to investigate the subcellular processes underlying genetic regulation and misfunction.
- Nicole Fleetwood, 48, New York, art historian and curator elucidating the cultural and aesthetic significance of art created by incarcerated people.
- Cristina Ibarra, 49, Pasadena, Calif., documentary filmmaker crafting narratives about borderland communities, often from the perspective of Chicana and Latina youth.
- Ibram X. Kendi, 39, Boston, historian and cultural critic advancing conversations around anti-Black racism and possibilities for repair.
- Daniel Lind-Ramos, 68, Loiza, Puerto Rico, sculptor and painter transforming everyday objects into assemblages that speak to the global connections inherent in Afro-Caribbean and diaspora legacies.
- Monica Munoz Martinez, 37, Austin, Texas, public historian bringing to light long-obscured cases of racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
- Desmond Meade, 54, Orlando, Fla., activist working to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens and remove barriers.
- Joshua Miele, 52, Berkeley, Calif., adaptive technology designer developing devices to enable blind and visually impaired people to access everyday technologies and digital information.
- Michelle Monje, 45, Palo Alto, Calif., neurologist and neuro-oncologist advancing understanding of pediatric brain cancers and the effects of cancer treatments.
- Safiya Noble, 51, Los Angeles, digital media scholar highlighting ways digital technologies magnify racism, sexism and harmful stereotypes.
- J. Taylor Perron, 44, Cambridge, Mass., geomorphologist deconstructing the physical processes that create landforms on Earth and other planetary bodies.
- Alex Rivera, 48, Pasadena, Calif., filmmaker and media artist exploring issues around migration and exploitative labor practices.
- Jesse Shapiro, 41, Providence, R.I., applied microeconomist devising frameworks of analysis to advance understanding of media bias, ideological polarization and the efficacy of public policy interventions.
- Jacqueline Stewart, 51, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures/University of Chicago, Los Angeles, cinema studies scholar and curator ensuring that contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have a place in the public imagination.
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 49, Princeton, N.J., historian analyzing political and economic forces underlying racial inequality and the role of social movements in transforming society.
- Victor J. Torres, 44, New York, microbiologist investigating how bacterial pathogens overcome the immune system and identifying therapies.
- Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, Tallahassee, Fla., choreographer and dance entrepreneur using the power of dance and artistic expression to elevate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.