A tap dancer who has spent her life demanding respect for an overlooked art form. A writer at the center of the national conversation about race. A sociologist who lived in a trailer park to study evictions.
They are among the 24 winners of this year's "genius grants," each to receive $625,000 over five years to spend any way he or she wants, no strings attached, thanks to the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Each of them found out in recent weeks through a phone call out of the blue.
"You think it's a prank until you hear everyone on the (conference) call describing your work," said Matthew Desmond, the sociologist, who works at Harvard University.
The 2015 winners have studied everything from the brain to prehistoric Greek societies. One created a university in Africa, another a community organization in Chicago.
Some have gained fame and fortune for work that, in the case of Ta-Nehisi Coates, landed him atop best-seller lists for what he has written about race.
Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, has, in "Between the World and Me," crafted a highly provocative, thoughtfully presented, and beautifully written narrative concerning his own misgivings about the ongoing racial struggle in America. In this slender (176 pages) volume Coates is also, like Baldwin before him, set on revealing similar "uncomfortable truths" to 21st-century America. Coates's prose is addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori. In the wake of all the recent tragedies involving black men and boys at the hands of police – Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri in particular – Coates says he cannot help but fear for Samori's life.
Another winner is playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose play, "Hamilton" has been a hit on Broadway. He wrote the book, the lyrics, the music and starred in the production.
The show is a retelling of the 18th-century story of America's birth by a nontraditional cast using rap and song. It stresses the orphan, immigrant roots of "the $10 Founding Father without a father," his vices and ambition, and his almost Greek tragedy of a death. It's narrated by Aaron Burr, the man who would kill Hamilton.
Others come from worlds little understood outside their fields. For them, the award is a reminder that what they are doing is important — and the money may just help keep what they do alive.
"I can finally pay my debts that I have to create what I have created," said Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer and choreographer. "But what is so much more important is this will turn heads toward this art form."
Kartik Chandran said he sees his grant as validation for something bigger than his work as an environmental engineer at Columbia University turning wastewater from a pollutant into a valuable resource. It is recognition, he said, that something must be done about the many millions of people without clean water.
In 2011, Chandran won a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his work. At the time, Chandran said, The world is experiencing a "sea change" in the way human waste is regarded and used. "In fact, the term ‘wastewater’ is already archaic," he says. "Wastewater is, after all, just water with a different chemical and biological composition."
Maybe, said Matthew Desmond, the Harvard sociologist, the work he's done can remind people that there are human beings behind statistics and quiet tragedies going on around them.
His work, according to the MacArthur site reveals "the impact of eviction on the lives of the urban poor and its role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality. In his investigations of the low-income rental market and eviction in privately owned housing in Milwaukee, Desmond argues persuasively that eviction is a cause, rather than merely a symptom, of poverty."
Evictions "used to be so rare that they used to draw crowds," he said. "Now families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks early in the morning."
The winners are:
__ Patrick Awuah, 50, Accra, Ghana. An educator and entrepreneur who founded a university in Ghana that teaches ethical principles and skills needed in contemporary Africa.
__ Kartik Chandran, 41, New York. Columbia University environmental engineer integrating microbial ecology, molecular biology and engineering to transform wastewater into useful resources such as fertilizers, energy sources and clean water.
__ Ta-Nehisi Coates, 39, Washington, D.C. Journalist and blogger who writes about issues such as racial identity, urban policing and racial bias.
__ Gary Cohen, 59, Reston, Virginia. Environmental health advocate and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm who has worked to reduce the amount of pollutants and hazardous waste produced and released into the environment by American hospitals.
__ Matthew Desmond, 35, Cambridge, Massachusetts. An urban sociologist at Harvard University, Desmond's work has revealed the impact of eviction on the urban poor and how eviction is not just a symptom of poverty, but a cause.
__ William Dichtel, 37, Ithaca, New York. A Cornell University chemist working to bring a new class of nanostructured materials out of laboratories and into daily use.
__ Michelle Dorrance, 36, New York. A dancer and choreographer reinvigorating tap dancing by combining its musicality with the intricacies of contemporary dance.
__ Nicole Eisenman, 50, New York. An artist whose paintings, sculptures and drawings explore such themes as gender and sexuality, family dynamics and the inequities of power and wealth.
__ LaToya Ruby Frazier, 33, Chicago. Photographer and video artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who uses visual autobiographies to capture the impact of economic decline and environmental degradation.
__ Ben Lerner, 36, New York. An English professor at Brooklyn College of the City College of New York, Lerner also is a novelist, poet and critic who has explored the relevance of the artist to modern culture.
__ Mimi Lien, 39, New York. A set designer for theater, opera and dance who has created performance space to establish relationships between the characters on stage as well as between the actors and the audience.
__ Lin-Manuel Miranda, 35, New York. A playwright, composer and performer whose work fuses traditional storytelling with contemporary musical styles and whose most recent play, "Hamilton," is a Broadway sensation.
__ Dimitri Nakassis, 40, Toronto, Canada. A classicist at the University of Toronto, whose work is transforming the understanding of prehistoric Greek societies.
__ John Novembre, 37, Chicago. A computational biologist at the University of Chicago, Novembre's work has shed new light on the study of human evolution, migration and the cause of the genetic diseases.
__ Christopher Re, 36, Stanford, California. Stanford University computer scientist, who has created an inference engine, DeepDive, that can analyze data in a way that is beyond the capabilities of traditional databases.
__ Marina Rustow, 46, Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University historian whose work has shed new light on lives of Jews and the broader society of the medieval Middle East.
__ Juan Salgado, 46, Chicago. President and CEO of Instituto del Progresso Latino, Salado has pioneered an education helps immigrants learn the skills they need for higher paying manufacturing and health career jobs.
__ Beth Stevens, 45, Boston. A neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, Stevens' research has triggered a major shift in thinking about neuron communication in the health brain and the origins of adult neurological diseases.
__ Lorenz Studer, 49, New York. A stem cell biologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Studer has pioneered research that could provide treatment for Parkinson's disease and perhaps other neurodegenerative diseases.
__ Alex Truesdell, 59, New York. An adaptive designer and fabricator, Truesdell has created low-tech and affordable tools and furniture out of such materials as cardboard and glue for children with disabilities.
__ Basil Twist, 46, New York. A puppeteer and theater artist recognized for his innovative work that has helped revitalize puppetry as a serious and sophisticated art form.
__ Ellen Bryant Voigt, 72, Cabot, Vermont. A poet whose work is known for its distinctive musical quality, Voigt explores will, fate, and life cycles of the natural world.
__ Heidi Williams, 34, Cambridge, Massachusetts. An economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams has explored the causes and consequences of innovation in health care markets.
__ Peidong Yang, 44, Berkeley, California. An inorganic chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, Yang is seeking to transform the field of semiconductor nanowires and nanowire photonics.