2 NRIs win MacArthur Fellowship

Two Indian Americans are among the 23 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowships for the yewar 2016, also popularly referred to as the “Genius Grants.” Each recipient receives a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 in quarterly installments over the next five years, to pursue their passion.

Subhash Khot, 36, a theoretical computer scientist from New York University and Manu Prakash, 36, a physical biologist and inventor from Stanford University are the two who won this year’s prestigious award. Another South Asian on the list is a civil rights lawyer from California Ahilan Arulanantham, 43, of the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a Tamil of Sri Lankan heritage.

“While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope,” Julia Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation is quoted saying in a statement. “They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts, and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways,” Stasch added.

Khot’s work is providing critical insight into unresolved problems in the field of computational complexity, MacArthur Foundation said on its website. Khot contributed the Unique Games Conjecture (UGC), which proposes that for one specific problem about assigning colors to the nodes of a network according to a set of constraints, finding even an approximate solution is hard (NP=hard).

The UGC, even if restricted in its applicability, “has spurred novel and unexpected research,” the Foundation said, and “Even if the UGC ultimately is found to be false, efforts to prove it have led to new theorems in geometry, Fourier analysis, the mathematics of foams, and even the stability of different election systems,” it said, lauding Khot for his “continued ingenuity and tenacity.” A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, Khot is currently Silver Professor of Computer Science in the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.

As a physicial biologist, Prakash is applying his expertise in soft-matter physics to illuminate often easy to observe but hard to explain phenomena in biological and physical contexts and to invent solutions to difficult problems in global health, science education, and ecological surveillance, the Foundation said, and praised him for his deep interest in democratizing the experience and joy of science.

Prakash’s has invented several devices that empower people in poor areas. Foldscope, a lightweight optical microscope that costs less than a dollar to produce, is assembled from an origami-based folding design from a single sheet of paper with integrated lenses and electronics. It has already been widely embraced in educational contexts, the Foundation said and thousands of volunteers are testing Foldscope to help refine it. Another recent project is a low-cost, sticker-like microfluidic chip that can collect thousands of nanoliter-volume droplets of saliva from mosquito bites that can be screened for pathogens. The chip would enable rapid, scalable, and low-cost collection of surveillance data that is critical for predicting and controlling mosquito-borne disease outbreaks, the Foundation noted.

“With remarkable breadth and imagination, Prakash defies traditional disciplinary boundaries in his coupling of basic research and fabrication of high-capability scientific instruments for widespread use in the field and classroom,” the Foundation said. Prakash is a B.Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, a member of the Biophysics Program in the School of Medicine and the Center for Innovation in Global Health, Faculty Fellow of Stanford ChEM-H, and an affiliate member of the Woods Institute for the Environment. He holds numerous patents.

Arulanantham’s legal and advocacy work has focused on securing the right to due process for people facing deportation. He has successfully litigated some landmark cases resulting in expanding immigrant detainees’ access to legal representation and limiting the government’s power to detain them indefinitely, the Foundation said on its website . Some of his cases include Nadarajah v Gonzales; the class action suit Rodriguez v Robbins; and Franco-Gonzales v Holder. He is currently advocating for right to counsel for children placed in deportation proceedings in J.E.F.M. v Lynch.

Arulanantham received B.A. degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Oxford, Lincoln College, and a J.D. from the Yale Law School. He was an Equal Justice Works fellow (2000–2002) with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, an assistant federal public defender (2002–2004) in El Paso, Texas, and lecturer in the University of Chicago Law School (2010) and the University of California, Irvine, School of Law (2015). In 2004, he returned to the ACLU, where he is currently director of advocacy and legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.

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