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MacArthur 'genius' grants go to three from MIT

Elizabeth A. Thomson, News Office
September 28, 2004

Angela M. Belcher, Ph.D.

Two MIT engineers and an alumna have won 2004 MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as 'genius' grants. They were honored for coaxing viruses to manufacture microelectronic devices, inventing inexpensive technologies to solve problems in developing countries, and unraveling the secrets of bacterial infection. Associate Professor Angela Belcher of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, Edgerton Center Instructor Amy Smith (S.M. 1995), and Julie Theriot (S.B. 1988) will each receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support. MacArthur Fellows -- this year there are 23 -- are selected for their "originality, creativity and potential to do more in the future," according to the MacArthur Foundation. Candidates are nominated, evaluated and selected through a confidential process; no one may apply for the awards, nor are any interviews conducted.

Coaxing viruses

Belcher, 37, got the news early last week in her MIT office. She knew something exciting was happening she said, because "the person who called said, 'Are you sitting down? Are you by yourself?'" Although she's still getting used to the news ("I was very shocked and very surprised," she said), Belcher said she foresees using the award in two ways. "It will be a catalyst for exploring new ideas in my lab and, equally important, let me contribute more to my community through science outreach to kids." According to a biography from the MacArthur Foundation, Belcher has "demonstrated a proclivity for developing new techniques for manipulating systems that straddle the boundary of organic and inorganic chemistry at the molecular scale. In her most recent work, she has genetically modified viruses (strains that only attack bacteria and are harmless to humans) to interact with solutions of inorganic semiconductors, yielding self-assembling metal films and wires" with diameters only billionths of a meter across.

"The ability to control this self-assembly process may one day lead to the next generation of microelectronics or other nanoscale machines," the Foundation said. Belcher is excited to further extend her work "to medical applications with some of the materials we're developing," she said, and has also recently become interested in energy-efficient batteries and lighting. Belcher received the B.S. (1991) and Ph.D. (1997) from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, before joining the MIT faculty in 2002 as the John Chipman Career Development Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering.

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