Thursday, October 14, 2010

America's Geniuses: John Dabiri and a culture of nourishing excellence

Every year in September the MacArthur Foundation announces a grant for 20-40 American citizens cutting across disciplines. The grant is $500,000 with NO strings attached, as the foundation site says "MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations and reporting requirements and offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore". This grant is also often called "MacArthur Genius grants" and the 'fellows' are also called 'geniuses'. 

For 30 years the foundation has selected 'geniuses'. The 2010 fellows were noted for ethnic diversity, number of women, diversity in the fields. The foundation press release notes "working across a broad spectrum of endeavors, the Fellows include a stone carver, a quantum astrophysicist, a jazz pianist, a high school physics teacher, a marine biologist, a theater director, an American historian, a fiction writer, an economist, and a computer security scientist. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future".

The youngest of them is John Dabiri, born to Nigerian Immigrants. John Dabiri  is. "Associate Professor in the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories and the Option of Bioengineering at Caltech". Check out that hyperlink in Dabiri's name which is his page in Caltech's website. The short biographical sketch speaks, to use a cliche, volumes. Just ponder at the name of what he is professor of, a very unique, hybrid intersection of Engineering (aeronautical engineering) and biology. His research area is studying jelly fishes and trying to apply those principles to aeronautical engineering. His M.S. was in aeronautical engineering and his PhD was in bio-engineering. Dabiri was a 'tenured' professor by age 29. A 'tenured' professorship is such a big deal in America and it takes a genius to become one at 29. 

His curriculum vitae is interesting to check out for the scholarships he had won. The scholarships, Government and Private sector, have really fueled him to higher echelons of academic achievements. The scholarships, apart from recognizing talent reward him financially thus enabling to study at the best schools of the country.What really impressed me is that "Popular Science" magazine identified him as "Brilliant Scientist" in 2008. In 2009 he was awarded "Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers" (PECASE). 2010 he is declared a 'genius' by MacArthur foundation. 

This country has a tradition of "FERRETING" out excellence, "RECOGNIZING" talent, "REWARDING" merit. Whether its MacArthur foundation or Intel's talent search or Pulitzers or National Book Awards and so many, many other programs that have all become sheer institutions in their own right. What is most important is that over many decades these programs have been untouched by scandals or nepotism or favoritism or even censorship. 

Annette Gordon-Reed, Historian at Harvard Law School (oh look at that alone what is a historian doing at a law school) shocked the literary world and America in general by publishing the damning "Hemingses of Monticello". That book nailed the most venerated founding father Thomas Jefferson for having fathered an illegitimate child with his Afro-american slave, Sally Hemings. The foundation rewarded for THAT. She is rewarded for debunking, or humanizing, a founding father of the nation. (let it be noted that this infomation about Jefferson is cited without fail in the official tours at Jefferson's historic home at Monticello. Good luck expecting that at Nehru's Teenmurthi). 

A week after Dabiri won the award he was featured on NPR (National Public Radio, a popular non-partisan channel). Noting his Afro-American background the interviewer queried him on a very important sociological aspect. Within the Afro-american community and other ethnic minorities, attempts by children to excel academically could get mischaracterized as trying to 'act white'. Here is the exchange in full (

MARTIN: Did you ever confront the challenge that some kids of color tell us that they confront, of being viewed as, you know, not cool or a nerd because of your interest in science?Mr. DABIRI: Yes, the phrase was typically acting white. You know, if you were someone who did your homework and spoke with correct grammar. I hope that that sort of attitude is waning. I don't know if it is. But that is something that I think discourages a lot of students. And so what we need are just more role models that show that you can be interested in science and engineering and still be a normal person who enjoys everyday things. You don't have to be a geek.

When George Bush wanted to use 'faith based initiatives' to address some social programs he was derided by the liberal intelligentsia, many shrieked in horror "separation of church and state, oh my god". Here is Dabiri talking about his church "We have a mentoring program at our church out here in California called The Faith Foundation. And many of the students in the area are from under-represented groups, and so we hope that the impact of our program will be to continue investing in the next generation of scientists and engineers."

Dabiri very warmly remembered his 4th grade teacher, "I remember my fourth grade teacher Cathy Kemp who really encouraged me in my classes. She encouraged me and I think made me believe that I was smart and so I took that and sort of owned that and tried to live up to the expectations that she had placed on me, even as a fourth grader".

Was I joking about the "no strings attached" condition for the $500,000?On national radio Dabiri cheekily said "I do know a small portion of that will go towards swimming lessons, because ironically, as much as I enjoy studying the ocean, I can't swim."

This is the bed rock of what makes America what it is today. Only the intellectually feeble would brush aside these and take refuge in bromides like "oh the country is rich", "oh the country is rich in minerals", "oh they drain the talent from other countries". For them I've no answer if they are willfully blind


iYogiBear said...

Enuff said. Awesome. I am one of the people who returned back to India after 5 years in USA as I was optimistic about my country. Now about 11 years after returning back, I totally regret the decision. I do not think we have too much hope on this ever and I know the reason why.

Unknown said...

@ iYogiBear said...Why do you regret going back to India... What is the reason?