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Eppendorf/Science Winner Rachel Wilson Receives MacArthur Foundation Grant
Photograph © and courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation
Rachel Wilson, whose insights into how the brain identifies odors earned her the 2007 Eppendorf & Science Prize in Neurobiology, has now also received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
Wilson, an assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, was one 25 recipients of the awards bestowed this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She learned of the award last week in a phone call from the Foundation. "Receiving this fellowship is of course a great honor," Wilson said. "When I got the phone call, I was so surprised that I couldn't speak coherently." She has not yet decided what to do with the money.
"I'm thrilled for Rachel and delighted that her outstanding work, honored by Science and Eppendorf, is also receiving recognition by the prestigious MacArthur Foundation," said Katrina Kelner, deputy editor at Science and administrator of the Eppendorf/Science prize.
Wilson, 34, studies olfactory processing in fruit fly brains. She uses a combination of anatomical, electrophysiological, genetic and behavioral approaches to show how the fruit fly brain—about the size of a poppy seed—can distinguish between different smells. Her work has shown how simple neural circuits can be deconstructed.
"The air around us is full of chemical signals—plumes of smelly molecules floating in the breeze," wrote Wilson in her essay that won the Eppendorf & Science Prize and was published in the 26 October 2007 issue of the magazine.
The Eppendorf & Science Prize recognizes outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist, as described in a 1,000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years.
Olfactory neurons—brain cells that respond to smell—can be activated by multiple types of odors. In order to differentiate a blossoming rose from spoiled milk, the brain must decode patterns of impulses.
In her award-winning essay, Wilson described how connections between olfactory neurons make all the difference in fine-tuning the olfactory system. She also found that certain olfactory neurons are tuned specifically to pheromones while others are more generally tuned to respond to a variety of smells.
Her MacArthur award highlights how simple systems can produce powerful insights, she told the Boston Globe. "We study fruit flies partly because when you sit back and think about it, a little fruit fly is an amazing little creature," she said in the Globe. "Nobody in the world can build a robot that does everything a fruit fly does."
The $500,000 MacArthur grant is distributed over five years and has no strings attached: Recipients may use it as they wish, as the program strives to provide its creative and motivated awardees with the flexibility to pursue intellectual, social and artistic activities without the constraints of reporting obligations. Since the program began in 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has honored 781 individuals ranging in age from 18 to 72. This year's class of Fellows includes a 31-year old saxophonist from New York City and a 59-year old urban farmer from Milwaukee, Wis.
24 September 2008