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UCLA professors awarded MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ to further innovative work

UCLA professors E. Tendayi Achiume (left) and Park Williams (right) are pictured. The two were recently awarded MacArthur Fellowships, which include $800,000 in funding to support recipients’ work. (From left to right: Courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Courtesy of Park Williams)

By Danielle H. Cho

Oct. 29, 2023 9:01 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 31 at 11:13 p.m. 

Two UCLA professors were named as recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship – which is awarded to leading artists, scholars and entrepreneurs across the nation – on Oct. 4.

Park Williams, a professor of geography, and E. Tendayi Achiume, a professor of law, were announced as two out of 20 members of the 2023 MacArthur Fellows. According to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the fellowship, also commonly known as the “Genius Grant,” provides recipients with $800,000 for advancing, expanding or changing the direction of their own work. It functions as a recognition of recipients’ past work and as an investment in their future potential, according to the foundation.

Because recipients are selected by nomination rather than application, Williams said he did not even know he was being considered, adding that he initially thought the call notifying him that he had received the award was a prank call.

“They actually told me five weeks before the announcement was made, and they told me that it was extremely important that this is kept a secret, and that I was allowed to tell one person – but that that one person wasn’t allowed to tell anybody. And so I called my wife and told her, and she was really excited for me,” he said. “And then I cheated and called my parents, too.”

Williams said his work centers around climate and various factors that affect water availability. He added that his studies were shaped by his experience growing up in California during a period of severe droughts.

Jennifer Balch, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of Williams’ collaborators, said she always comes away from her discussions with Williams with new ideas for projects.

“He has such an amazing understanding of … how the climate system and the biosphere work,” Balch said.

Williams said he believes the award will give him the freedom to pursue projects he otherwise might not have been able to.

For example, he said one project he wants to work on is a computer simulation model that will simulate wildfire and vegetation ecosystems in order to better understand how they influence each other.

Since certain ecosystems such as forests have a maximum temperature they can withstand, work like Williams’ is important for documenting how climate change is changing the planet, Balch added.

“Park’s work is really important in helping to set the stage for policy decisions coming down in future years,” she said.

Achiume said she also thought the call notifying her of the award was a prank. Being in the middle of preparing breakfast for her toddler, she was not expecting the call – making it a moment she would never forget, she added.

“Even after they said who they were, and once I believed that they were who they were – I couldn’t tune into anything,” Achiume said. “It just felt so surreal.”

Achiume said she works on addressing injustices and human rights violations in border-related law, adding that she was drawn to this work because she had to cross borders while growing up with parents from different countries.

Achiume said her policy work, inspired by her experience in law school defending Zimbabwean migrants and refugees seeking asylum in South Africa, involves advocating for protections for people crossing borders. Her work also more generally examines ways to rethink migration, including through studying how colonialism has historically affected the way borders have been defined, she added.

Michael Waterstone, dean of the UCLA School of Law, said he believes the award recognizes not only Achiume’s innovative work but also her efforts to create a more just global community.

“She’s a leading voice on the global governance of racism, xenophobia and the legal and ethical implications of contemporary international migration,” Waterstone said. “She really is a leader, and through her work with the United Nations, brings that real-life application of human rights law into what she brings to the law school.”

With the grant funds, Achiume said she plans to advocate for people who are vulnerable to border violence, particularly those from racially marginalized groups.

She said that this award has provided her with a sense of affirmation.

“Receiving the award, … to my mind, signals being in a time when there is openness to perspectives and views that might otherwise in the past not have had space,” she said.

Since the process for selecting awardees involves receiving nomination letters from colleagues in the field, receiving the fellowship has also been very validating, Williams said.

Achiume added that she is excited for the advocacy work the grant will allow her to pursue.

“The grant comes with no strings attached in a way that I think creates or allows for a kind of flexibility and experimentation,” Achiume said. “(It’s) an opportunity to be more experimental and radical in the way that I … invest in ways of thinking about the problems that I care about.”

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Danielle H. Cho
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