When Zachary Lippman ’00 received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation earlier this month, he was “shocked.”
“I actually thought they were calling to ask me for input on other people they were considering,” Lippman told The Sun. “But they very quickly let me know that it was an award for me.”
First announced on Sept. 25, there are three Cornellians among the 26 individuals selected for this year’s prestigious MacArthur Fellowship — the foundation’s “genius” grant that guarantees each fellow a no-strings-attached award of $625,000 to further their creative pursuits. Lippman, a plant biologist, joins architect and urban planner Emmanuel Pratt ’99 and criminal justice reformer Lisa Daugaard M.A. ’87 as part of the recipients.
MacArthur annually recognizes professionals and academics across a range of disciplines who demonstrate “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work,” according to the foundation’s website. The MacArthur Fellowship program encourages recipients to pursue their inclinations with the grant money, which is paid out over five years.
Lippman studies the genetics that control plant flowering and flower production and uses these discoveries, along with gene editing, to improve agriculture.
Lippman has been exploring plant genomics and breeding since he was a Cornell undergraduate, when he pursued three years of research with Prof. Emeritus Steve Tanksley, plant breeding and genetics. Together with Tanksley — who told The Sun in an email that Lippman “validated [his] career choice to become a plant scientist” — Lippman mapped the genes that are responsible for extreme fruit size in tomatoes.
“I will say outright that I did not learn much genetics from Genetics 281, my genetics course sophomore year,” Lippman told The Sun. “I learned it from working with Steve Tanskley.”
While Lippman’s current work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory stems from his undergraduate research in genomics, Lippman’s lab also runs an outreach function that educates elementary and middle school students about plant biology and genetics.
Lipmann is considering using the MacArthur grant to expand this outreach component, potentially adding a program that links writing and science.
“If I couldn’t write, I would not be a successful scientist,” Lippman said. “Between grants, papers and being able to communicate my writing for the lay public — it’s critical.”
Outreach is the basis for Pratt, an architect and urban planner who engages in regenerative neighborhood development. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s website, Pratt is co-founder and executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Chicago’s South Side that applies a “resident-driven approach” to community development, blending art, education and agriculture to revitalize neglected urban neighborhoods.
Pratt described Sweet Water’s work as “almost like urban acupuncture” in a video for the MacArthur Foundation.
“Identify a stress point, do some kind of activation with some of the youth in the neighborhood … start feeding folks by doing the garden, and also in the process you’re doing training in carpentry and agriculture,” Pratt said in the video. “And the next thing you know, it has seeds of its own regeneration, and energy continues to grow.”
Sweet Water is transforming an abandoned home as part of this regeneration for one of its current projects. In 2011, the organization converted an abandoned shoe factory into a productive aquaponic fish and vegetable farm — an example of Pratt’s fresh approach to neighborhood revitalization that MacArthur recognized.
Daugaard, a criminal justice reformer, also takes an innovative approach to her field as the executive director for the Public Defender Association. As a “primary architect” of the association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, Daugaard advocates replacing policies of punishment and detainment with harm reduction services such as drug treatment and mental health support, according to Daugaard’s MacArthur Foundation profile page.
“What would be a better response than locking that person up, tearing their family apart and making it incredibly unlikely that they were going to be able to work and take care of themselves and their family in the future?” she asked in a MacArthur Foundation video.
Lippman, Daugaard and Pratt joined 19 other Cornellians who have received the MacArthur grant in the award’s history. Last year, Cornell Tech professor of computer science and Weill Cornell professor of healthcare policy and research Deborah Estrin was the sole Cornell affiliate named a MacArthur grant recipient.