Duke University ‘genius’ says she’s humbled, because so many scientists are deserving

For three weeks Jenny Tung kept the secret that she’s a certified “genius.” Well, she did tell her husband.

But he was the only other person that could know that she was going to be named a winner of the prestigious 2019 MacArthur Fellowship.

“It was a shock,” Tung said about finding out she’d won the “genius grant,” which comes with a “no-strings-attached” award of $625,000 over five years. She said she even had to double check how to spell her own name on the initial call.

Tung, a 37-year-old biology professor at Duke University, said the honor is “incredibly humbling” because there are many other scientists who “deserve it just as much.” The “genius grant” winners were announced Wednesday.

“It feels wonderful as an individual honor, but it really has to do with a lot more people,” Tung said.

She pointed to her colleagues over the years who’ve been a critical part of the work at her genetic lab in Durham and to her students who have been on the front lines of executing that work.

Jenny Tung
Jenny Tung, a Duke University associate professor, was named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

As an evolutionary anthropologist and geneticist, Tung’s research has taken her across the world, from South America to Kenya and South Africa.

‘Gratitude and appreciation’

Tung and her colleagues study how different species of animals such as baboons behave in social groups and the effects of their interactions on their behavior and genetics. Her work explores how a primates’ day-to-day experiences can impact things like their health, life expectancy and how many offspring they’ll have, which could be translated to humans.

As one of the 26 MacArthur Fellows this year, Tung demonstrates “the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge, and better the world for everyone,” John Palfrey, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement.

Her work studying primates and “investigating the interplay between social experiences, genomics, and health” has significant implications for humans, according to the foundation.

“The big reaction was a lot of gratitude and appreciation for the fact that there are a lot of people whose names I will never know in my intellectual and professional community who think what we’re doing is good,” Tung said.

Tung said she loves being able to do science in this particular style, where she gets to work with fantastic people and great minds.

“One of the things I find most rewarding is the opportunity to discover new things about how the world works and to be able to do that collaboratively,” Tung said. “At a meta level, I enjoy the social interactions associated with our study of social interaction.”

Jenny Tung Duke University

Tung grew up in a small town in Delaware with her older sister and two parents who immigrated to the U.S. from China. Her mother was a teacher in Taiwan before coming to the U.S., but Tung likely got her scientific mind from her dad, who worked as a chemical engineer at DuPont.

Tung came to Duke 20 years ago as an eager undergraduate student, and Durham has been her home throughout her academic and professional career.

She studied biology and came to Duke thinking, like many do, that she’d become a doctor. Then, she quickly realized she liked the science more than the practice of medicine.

After graduation, Tung spent a year doing fieldwork in South America studying a species of monkeys and then returned to Duke to get her Ph.D from 2004-2010. She returned again as a faculty member in 2012 and is now an associate professor of biology.

Tung was recognized for her role in a research project that has been observing generations of baboons in Kenya since 1971. Tung joined the Amboseli Baboon Research Project as a Duke graduate student and continues to contribute to the scientific field research and DNA analysis.

Kenyan baboon research

“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,” the foundation said on its 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.”

Tung isn’t sure how she’ll spend the money from the award. She said she wants to take the time to think about the possibilities and how best to use the grant.

Tung joins two other female scientists and acting Duke professors in winning the MacArthur prize while at Duke, according to the university. Biochemist Jane Richardson won the award in 1985 and primatologist Patricia Wright in 1989.

Two other North Carolinians were named MacArthur Fellows this year. Mel Chin, a 67-year-old from Egypt, N.C., and Walter Hood, a 61-year-old who grew up in Charlotte and graduated from N.C. A&T State University, are both artists.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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