The MacArthur Fellowship: Reflections on 40 Years of Impact

This year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the MacArthur Fellowship and highlighted the MacArthur Fellows Program’s commitment to recognizing exceptionally creative and inspiring individuals with no-strings-attached grants. Over the years MacArthur Fellows in various fields have pursued their creative ideas, cultivated cross-disciplinary collaborations, and inspired us over the past four decades.

We have been posting reflections from MacArthur Fellows on how the Fellowship has empowered them and their work. Today, we share this year’s final installment of perspectives, directly from seven Fellows, on how the award has impacted them.

Join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #Fellows40.

“The MacArthur Fellowship inspired me to explore new ways to address societal priorities in computing. When profits and publications are the only shapers of emerging technologies, we leave important societal needs on the table…[our goal is] to bring this public interest lens to our work.”–Deborah Estrin, Computer Scientist, 2018 MacArthur Fellow

“I feel like the Fellowship gave me courage to take greater risks and push the limits of my work—the courage not only to dream bigger but to realize those dreams. Users [a film that I made after receiving the Fellowship] is both an epic and intimate film that looks at our relationship with technology — how it changes our relationship to our environment and to each other. The film’s score is performed in collaboration with MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase, whose beautiful flute performance I saw at the MacArthur Fellows conference.”–Natalia Almada, Documentary Filmmaker, 2012 MacArthur Fellow

“For me, winning a MacArthur Fellowship has been a license to try out new things, new media, new kinds of projects. It’s given me courage to curate a museum exhibition about Ugandan president Idi Amin, which was held in 2019–2020 at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. The resources that a MacArthur affords are both financial and, more importantly, moral…fuel for a widened sense of purpose.”–Derek Peterson, Historian, 2017 MacArthur Fellow

“In 2007 I was sitting in a rental car in Chicago when I got the call. I cried. I felt the significance of the moment as truly life-changing. Wow. A MacArthur. It was sudden, a shock of being acknowledged, of being seen. It validates and confirms, it breathes wind into our sails. And it creates a magic around us that helps us achieve more.”–Deborah Bial, Education Strategist, 2007 MacArthur Fellow

“It was 1988. I was living in a Mexican town that had one moody telephone that worked every now and then. ‘Me, a MacArthur Fellow? Is this for real?’ I was a young anthropologist and writer, and the mother of a little boy. I dreamed of doing many things. Suddenly it all seemed possible — a life of journeys, writing vulnerably about ethnographic encounters and also writing poetry and fiction, building bridges between Cuba, where I was born, and the United States.”–Ruth Behar, Cultural Anthropologist, 1988 MacArthur Fellow

“The Fellowship has enabled me to take a bolder path that’s less traveled by, to tackle some of the biggest challenges that society faces at a greater scale.”–Dawn Song, Computer Security Specialist, 2010 MacArthur Fellow

“While studying cranes in northern Australia in 1984, I lived with Indigenous Australians on a huge cattle station they managed. Long before cell phones. The landline there seldom functioned. One evening when I returned from a long, hot, wet day in the field, the cook said an emergency call came in for me from the United States. One thinks the worst at such times. It took a spell before I finally got through. It was the MacArthur Foundation. Elation canceled fear, and the financial transfusion from the MacArthur Foundation translated into a better future for cranes, one of the most endangered groups of birds.”–George Archibald, Ornithologist, 1984 MacArthur Fellow