What’s the shared link between a neuroscientist working on new ways to think about cognitive disorders and a designer making it easier for kids with disabilities to participate at home and school? Both can now help even more people, thanks to the MacArthur Foundation. Earlier this week those two accomplished professionals, along with 22 others working to create a more “just, verdant and peaceful world,” each received $625,000 grants as one of the 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2015.
The research on microglial brain cells done by Beth Stevens, an assistant professor in Harvard Medical School’s department of neurology, opened the scientific community’s eyes to a new role played by these protective cells. Stevens discovered that in addition to getting rid of foreign bodies and reducing inflammation in the brain, microglia also eliminate excess synapses. The removal of these extra synapses—or connector cells—allows for healthy brain development and clear lines of communication among nerve cells. Diseases like autism and Alzheimer’s might be caused by microglia failing to perform this synapse-pruning function correctly.
Alex Truesdell takes low-tech, affordable design to high levels of creativity. She founded the nonprofit Adaptive Design Association in 2001 to provide custom furniture and tools to kids with special needs. Truesdall not only makes these inventive pieces herself, but also teaches people around the world how to design and make them so more kids can comfortably participate in activities at school or at home. The colorful designs fit each individual child and are made from readily available, inexpensive materials like corrugated cardboard, paint and glue.
All MacArthur “genius grant” recipients focus their ideas and efforts on improving the world in some way. The foundation’s president, Julia Stasch, credits each fellow with “making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.”