Meet the U of M’s latest ‘genius grant' winners

U of M cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair
Damien Fair poses for a photo in Minneapolis. Fair, a cognitive neuroscientist, is among the 21 recipients of this year's "genius grants." The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the fellowships Tuesday. Each will receive $625,000 over five years to spend as they please.
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via AP

Two University of Minnesota professors have won MacArthur Foundation fellowships. The so-called "genius grants" are awarded to scholars and scientists, artists and writers — usually out of the blue. The recipients don't even apply.

Paul Dauenhauer is a chemical engineer at the U and Damien Fair is a neuroscientist.

Fair was a physician assistant at Yale New Haven hospital and worked a lot in cerebral vascular disease. And he was curious: Could medical imaging see other conditions, such as autism or ADHD?

Now he's helping start a multidisciplinary institute at the University of Minnesota's medical school.

"So I study the developing brain,” he said. “I study from early, early, early in development, from infancy all the way through adolescence and even into young adulthood. We use noninvasive techniques like MRI and functional MRI to understand how the brain changes over time."

He says researchers can see individual changes in young people's brains, some that precede atypical brain development. They can also see how those changes are different in each person. He says his Institute of Child Development is looking not just for treatments, but new ways to teach kids, and even public policy to approach kids that grow up with atypical brains.

His MacArthur Fellowship comes with $625,000, no strings attached, spread over the next five years. Fair says he's actually teaming up with his wife Rahel Nardos, a gynecologist and scientist who also works at the U. Fair said she does a lot of work in her native Ethiopia.

"We've had this vision for years to think about how we could leverage each other's expertise to expand the contributions of our science and the training of our work in underrepresented populations and in developing countries and kind of building bridges to communities that are often left out," he continued.

Fair is just one of the genius grant winners at the U this year.

Across campus Paul Dauenhauer is a chemical engineer. He works in catalysis, the science of how chemical reactions can be sped up by catalysts.

And he's looking at very specific reactions, namely how to turn biomass — the organic materials, even waste materials from forest products and agriculture — into stuff that's usually made from fossil fuels. 

"So we could make things like rubber for car tires or we could make plastic coating for food or medicine or clothing fibers,” he said.  “Any of those kind of things that we use plastic materials for right now but we can try to make them of course as good as they are right now for sealing and protecting food and things like that, but we can also make them with advanced properties that make them biodegradable and recyclable."

The trick is to also do it in a way that makes sense, that doesn't take a huge amount of energy or doesn't emit a huge amount of climate change inducing carbon dioxide. And, most importantly, create a process that can compete, economically, with the same fossil-fuel derived materials that are already in use.

“For some of the technologies we're working on, on paper, they're right at the cost-competitive level with fossil fuel technologies,” he said.

Some of them can be licensed out to other manufacturers. Some can be developed into home-grown startup companies.

Dauenhauer says he wants his research to push a host of changes: To reduce waste plastic, to cut down on carbon emissions and also bring energy and raw material development back to places such as Minnesota, where they can help build local industries, including forestry and farming.

He says he plans to plow his MacArthur grant back into the lab.

"And so this will do things like support laboratory equipment and supplies we need, but also funding for students to work in the lab to help invent these technologies."

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