Two UC Berkeley Professors Awarded MacArthur Fellowships

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Since it was created in 1981, the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship - nicknamed the "Genius Award" - has been awarded to 43 members of the UC Berkeley faculty, each receiving a $500,000 stipend with no restrictions on use. This year, two more will join the list.

Economics professor Emmanuel Saez and computer science associate professor Dawn Song are two of 23 people recently chosen to receive the award after an extensive evaluation process that takes six months at the least and 20 years at the most, according Daniel Socolow, the director of the MacArthur Fellows program.

The main criteria for winning the award is "exceptional creativity" - intentionally left undefined. Potential to achieve more in the future and the impact that winning the fellowship would have on the fellow's career are also considered, Socolow said.

Each fellow is first mentioned in a one- to two-page letter written by one of more than 1,000 nominators. The fellow is then subject to lengthy background checks, which involve collecting everything they have ever written, made or recorded, depending on their field, as well as sending over 10,000 letters to people who know the fellows in the context of their fields.

After reviewing this pool of information, the Selection Committee, appointed by the MacArthur Foundation board of directors, chooses between 20 to 30 of the candidates to receive the stipend.

"The point is to give it to someone we know very well by virtue of their research and have a lot of confidence in, and then back off entirely," Socolow said.

Song's work involves developing mathematical formulas to recognize and actively combat computer viruses, work which is being "looked at very closely" by several large corporations, including Symantec, which makes Norton AntiVirus, according professor of computer science David Wagner. He said he considers Song's work "some of the most exciting work in computer security in the past few years."

"Being awarded a MacArthur fellow is a big deal," said professor of computer science Doug Tygar. "What it is saying is her work is particularly important and creative and really stands out worldwide."

Both Tygar and Song said the award symbolizes a breakthrough for computer science. Song added that the award is an opportunity to take an "unconventional" approach to research she might not otherwise be able to secure funding for.

Saez's work examines income distribution patterns from the past 100 years, finding that income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. He also looks at the psychological effects of various tax policies, ­such as people's tendency to buy less when the sales tax is displayed on a purchase, according to Gerard Roland, chair of the campus economics department.

Saez's research on income tax in particular is constantly cited by politicians in debates on tax cuts, and the award acknowledges Saez's "extraordinary creativity," Roland said.

"Nobody had thought of doing long-term income distribution," Roland said. "Nobody had thought of doing tax policy research like (Saez) is doing."

Socolow said both Song and Saez can be regarded as "living examples of creativity and originality, quintessential MacArthur." David Culler, associate chair of the campus electrical engineering and computer science department, said that the recipients are a source of pride as a member of the UC Berkeley faculty.

"It's great to see relatively objective organizations like the MacArthur Foundation paying attention to Berkeley," Culler said. "There's a lot of genius here."


Contact Samantha Strimling at [email protected]

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