Duke professor named MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner of $625,000 prize

Jenny Tung, a Duke University associate professor, was named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow.
Jenny Tung, a Duke University associate professor, was named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow.

Three people with North Carolina ties — including a Duke University associate professor — have been named MacArthur Fellows for 2019.

Jenny Tung, 37, an evolutionary anthropologist and geneticist at Duke, is one of 26 people selected for the MacArthur Fellowship’s 2019 “Genius Grant.” The prize comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 over five years.

“From addressing the consequences of climate change to furthering our understanding of human behavior to fusing forms of artistic expression, this year’s 26 extraordinary MacArthur Fellows demonstrate the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge and better the world for everyone,” said MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey in a news release.

“They give us reason for hope, and they inspire us all to follow our own creative instincts,” Palfrey said.

The awards were announced Wednesday. Those who win the prestigious awards don’t apply for them. They’re given to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” according to the MacArthur Foundation website.

The unrestricted prize is seen as a way to help recipients “facilitate subsequent creative work.”

Jenny Tung Duke University

Tung’s work focuses on the links between social environmental factors like social status and changes to a subject’s genes, and how those “connections impact health, well-being and longevity.”

“Her research with a population of Kenyan baboons living in the wild, about which there is nearly 50 years of longitudinal data, has found that factors such as drought, low social status and isolation lead to significantly shorter life spans,” according to the fellowship’s website. “Importantly, she and collaborators have shown that these experiences can manifest at the genomic and cellular levels, leaving signatures in the way that immune cells function in response to wounds and infections.

Her work, the website said, has “important implications for human health.”

Tung received her bachelor’s of science from Duke University in 2003 and her postgraduate doctoral degrees from Duke in 2010. She was a postdoctoral fellow

Her work has been published in scientific journals including Science, Nature, eLife and Molecular Biology and Evolution.

North Carolina Genius Grant winners

Mel Chin, a 67-year-old artist from Egypt, NC, is also a 2019 fellow. Egypt is outside of Burnsville, near the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

Chin is described as a “category-defying artist” who calls special attention to social and environmental issues.

“In an expansive body of work ranging from collages, sculptural objects, animated films and video games to large-scale, collaboratively produced public installations, Chin demonstrates a unique ability to engage people from diverse backgrounds and to utilize unexpected materials and places,” according to the fellowship’s website.

In 2018, Chin created a two-part installation called “Wake” and “Unmoored,” both located at Times Square in New York City. “Wake” included a large sculpture meant to look like the wreckage of a ship and the skeletal remains of a whale, while “Unmoored” let people use their smartphones to see what Times Square would look like under water due rising sea levels.

Walter Hood, a landscape and public artist who lives in Oakland, Calif., was also named a 2019 fellow. The 61-year-old grew up in Charlotte graduated from N.C. A&T State University.

Other recent North Carolina MacArthur fellows include the Rev. William Barber, who received the award in 2018. Another 2018 winner, Kelly Link, earned a 1995 Master of Fine Arts from UNC-Greensboro.

Musician Rhiannon Giddens and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a former reporter for The News & Observer, both received the award in 2017. Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance, formerly of Chapel Hill, got the prize in 2015.

Since 1981, more than 1,000 people have been named a MacArthur Fellow.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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