As the two new Canadian recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the Genius Award), parasitologist Elodie Ghedin of the University of Pittsburgh and evolutionary geneticist Sarah Otto of the University of British Columbia are in rarefied company. You can't apply for the five-year, $500,000, no-strings grants – the handful of winners are selected through a confidential nomination process that seeks original thinkers who display exceptional creativity and potential. As they began plotting the next five years of their working lives, Dr. Ghedin and Dr. Otto talked to The Globe's John Allemang about the personal side of being a MacArthur winner.
How do you like being called a genius?
Elodie Ghedin: It's used more to make fun of me. When I say something stupid, my husband will say, "Hello, MacArthur called, they want their award back."
Sarah Otto: I know I'm not a genius. There are too few hours in my day and I haven't read up on as much history and politics as I'd like.
Ghedin: I'll admit that with American politics, I'm a political junkie. I find Canadian politics so boring. But I can say that because I'm Canadian.
Otto: They're getting crazier by the day.
What kind of reaction did you get from your family?
Ghedin: My father and mother started arguing whose genes I had.
Otto: My nine-year-old son said, "Does this mean you'll buy me that artist's pencil I've been asking for?" So I know where at least one dollar of the MacArthur is going.
Everyone must be asking that: How will you spend the money, apart from on your research?
Ghedin: I've never owned a house, so this may help cover part of a down payment. We just finished paying my husband's medical school loans, which were astronomical. But it wouldn't feel right to say, woo hoo, now I'm going on vacation.
It could be a very serious parasitologist kind of vacation.
Ghedin: I did say to colleagues who do field work in Africa that I'd like to join their research team.
Otto: I'm thinking of helping to buy land to reserve it from development. To me, that's a way the award money can make a bigger statement: Humans have so impacted the world that there's virtually no land available free of these impacts. I've seen species that my son will never be able to see.
Is there a chance you'll channel your creativity in a new direction?
Ghedin: I've daydreamed about becoming a cartoonist.
Otto: I'd like to write a novel. When I've been spending all my time doing committees, filling out forms, making grant applications, I think, "Sheesh, I'm going to stop this, go work at Starbucks, and I'd still have more time to think."
Is there a public side to the award? Are you looking for ways to make your work more accessible?
Otto: I'd like to find a venue to make evolution exciting and fun and interesting. How about a reality show with an evolutionary biologist?
Ghedin: Have you ever seen The Big Bang Theory? It actually features a bunch of graduate-student geeks who talk about physics.
Otto: Could we do this with evolution? Or is the topic still taboo for TV?
Ghedin: Evolution might be walking on thin ice. Because you know, "It's just a theory."
Elodie, you used the word "geek" just now. Isn't that a demeaning term for smart people like you?
Ghedin: I embrace it. I love fashion, I'm always buying stuff, but I'm a geek at heart.
Otto: It doesn't bother me. I'm a bit oblivious to the latest trends, I don't mind going my merry old way. It frees up a lot of time.
When you're in the company of non-geeks, is it hard to adapt?
Ghedin: I still get uncomfortable when people ask what I do. I start rambling about genomics, do you know what that is, DNA, do you know what that is, a parasite … and their eyes glaze over.
Couldn't you just say you're curing disease?
Ghedin: No, I'm not. I could say I'm trying to cure disease. Yeah, there you go.
Otto: When I was younger, I was reluctant to tell people what I did because I didn't know how they'd react. But now I make a point of saying I'm an evolutionary biologist. I'm not in-your-face about it, I'm just a person who's curious about exploring the natural world. My goal is to normalize the subject so it doesn't feel taboo.
Is there anything you wanted to ask each other?
Ghedin: I was wondering how a nine-year-old reacts besides asking for a dollar to buy a pencil.
Otto: He's been pretty excited about telling his teacher and all his friends at school. And I'm saying, "You don't have to tell everybody."
Ghedin: It's nice to hear children being proud rather than the usual, "Oh, mom."
Otto: Elodie, you spoke with a few people who won this in the past. How did it change their lives?
Ghedin: One person said, make sure you protect yourself. And it's true, all kinds of people have contacted me, wanting a handout. But the award is more about the recognition than the money. I was giving a seminar – in normal circumstances these people would be barely interested in what I had to say. But suddenly, no one was falling asleep, all my jokes got a big laugh, I'd become so witty. I thought, this is so unreal, an entire crowd can be completely blinded: She must be brilliant, she got the award.