When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced their list of fellowship recipients for the year, Kelly Benoit-Bird, a pioneering young oceanographer from Oregon State University was surprised to hear she had been selected. While Benoit-Bird, 34, has had a promising career, the fellowships, known as "Genius Grants," are incredibly prestigious -- and they come with a $500,000 no-strings-attached stipend.
"It was a bit of a surreal phone call and I'm not sure it's fully sunk in yet," Benoit-Bird told me about the 8:00 a.m. message she received. (Eight months pregnant and in need of her sleep, she didn't pick up when they first tried calling at 7:30.)
It has sunk in enough, though, because Benoit-Bird already has some plans about how to spend the money.
Rather than spend it on a new house (Peter Shor, 1999), a grand piano (Bright Sheng, 2001), or a year off (C.D. Wright, 2004), Benoit-Bird plans to use her $500,000 prize to complete high-risk research that it would be difficult to find funding for.
The oceanographer has spent the last several years all over the world completing research into the foraging behavior of fur seals and marine birds in the Bering Sea, the ecology of Humboldt squid, the midwater ecosystem of Hawai'i and the feeding habits of gray whales along the Oregon coast. Now she's looking for her next project. "My research is increasingly moving towards comparing the tactics animals use to deal with variability in the ocean in different ecosystems and at different spatial scales," she said. "Trying to work with different animal groups requires the development of new approaches and technologies that I can't guarantee will work but have the potential to lead to exciting results."
Benoit-Bird works primarily with sonar and other acoustic technologies that allow her to probe beneath the ocean's surface, where the lack of light limits the effectiveness of cameras. Right now, Benoit-Bird is excited about data she collected off the tiny, volcanic Bogoslof Island in the Bering Sea that shows murres, a type of seabird related to gulls, dive deeper than 300 feet to reach dense patches of krill. Benoit-Bird is working with a team of other researchers to determine why the population is growing on Bogoslof but declining on nearby islands.
Maybe half a million dollars can solve the mystery of the murres deep-diving. Or not. That is, after all, the best thing about the MacArthur.
"The fact that the money is completely string-free really makes it a gift of time," Benoit-Bird said of the prize, for which there are no reporting requirements concerning its use. "I can now use my time to pursue research ideas that might be deemed too risky by various funding agencies without having to ask."