SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah researcher recently received one of the nation’s most prestigious fellowships.
Nels Elde, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Utah, studies evolutionary cell biology.
Now he can also be considered an honorary “genius,” though he’s not anxious to add that title.
“I mean the word genius is a little ambitious here, at least in my case,” Elde said. “A lot of scientists kind of shy away from the limelight — I think myself included. So putting myself in the category of genius seems a little out there.”
Among grants that scientific researchers are eligible to receive, the MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” is unique for several reasons.
First, the money comes with no strings attached. Rather than financial backing for a project or an idea, the grant is an investment in a person — a creator. As such, the fellows aren’t just scientists, they hail from “every field of human endeavor.”
This year’s winners include a playwright, two fiction writers, a poet and a historian.
The foundation trusts that recipients will do their best work if they’re not confined by pre-set boundaries or limitations. And they attest to that belief with money — a lot of money. That’s the second aspect of the fellowship that makes it special: its size.
The stipend is $625,000.
That’s how much Elde and 20 others will each receive in payments over five years now that they’ve been named 2020 fellows.
“Dr. Elde has achieved a hallmark in the scientific community,” Dr. Michael L. Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences and CEO of University of UTah Health, said in a news release. “His innate ability to think creatively about unsolved problems inspires all of us to do the same in our quests to advance knowledge. University of Utah Health is extremely proud of him and his accomplishment, which is representative of our faculty’s desire to improve the world.”
The third unique aspect of MacArthur grants is that they’re based on recommendations, not applications, which also shows how highly Elde’s colleagues think of him.
“An entire roomful of people will be listening to the same scientific talk and he has the insight to ask the one question that no one else is asking but that everyone should be asking,” Harmit Malik, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Elde’s postdoctoral mentor, said in the release. “It’s not fair to call him ‘outside the box’ because he is so far beyond that.”
Elde credits his upbringing and family for his interest in science as well as his creativity.
He grew up in Minnesota and is from a family of artists, scientists and ministers. He remembers being curious about nature from a young age. And not just animals and plants, but microorganisms as well.
“Dip into a mud puddle and look under a microscope,” he said. “There is all this interesting energy, complexity. There’s lifeforms.”
This fascination led him to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, where he sought to answer questions about how cells work — about their biology.
“I think those sort of forces somehow came together to just put me on a path to continue thinking about science, thinking about nature, thinking about ideas — more philosophical ideas. Where are we from? What explains all of the diversity of life around us?” he said.
Like many scientists, he seems to love talking about his research. In fact, in his interview with the Deseret News, he talked more about his work than the $625,000 he was just awarded.
He discussed his graduate training in Chicago and his current research at the University of Utah.
He talked about how interactions between infectious microbes and other living species have shaped evolutionary biology.
“These infections, these collisions or actions between infectious microbes and hosts have really big outcomes, as I think we are all ... grappling with (in) this current pandemic,” he said. “If we kind of step back and put that in a bigger perspective, then what I think you begin to see is how, depending on how an infection unfolds ... that might influence whether that population lives or has kids.”
At the end, he admitted while laughing, “that’s sort of a long answer.”
He explained that what he loves most about science is the creative aspect of it, the exploration and discovery of new things — sometimes without even meaning to. In some ways, he is still the kid who simply loves nature and wonders why it is the way it is.
And that’s exactly what the fellowship is designed to encourage.
“I think it is fun to sidestep, and this is what the MacArthur Foundation does as well. So they consider it an award for creativity. And so I am much more comfortable with that framing of it. In fact, in some ways, I think that’s for me what makes it such an incredible and a fun honor — is to put the creativity forward. Because that’s really what kind of keeps me in this job, or why I got into this job.”
“It’s just such a fun kind of playground to exercise creativity. Science, sometimes, we think about it as dried out, textbook kind of stuff. But I think the kind of research we do, discovery research, it really depends on being kind of creative and curious.”
He said the phone call telling him he had been selected “was a totally surprising and overwhelming moment to let that sink in. And it is just really a spectacular honor.”
He also called it “mysterious” and said he was originally sent an email by the foundation that told him the call’s purpose was so he could weigh in on other candidates.
“I was kind of having fun thinking about all of my science mentors and science heroes, people who deserve to get this prize,” he said. “So I was thinking about how I would describe their work or try to really support their case.”