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The 'Genius Grant': How an ASU researcher won, and what they look for in a fellow

The MacArthur Fellowship is a highly regarded investment in innovators and problem solvers; Amber Wutich entered the 2023 class of winners for her water insecurity research


ASU professor Amber Wutich is involved with numerous projects focusing on water insecurity.

MacArthur Fellowships invest in future problem solvers across all fields of study. From water research to poetry, anyone can win the grant, given the set of unique qualities they look for. 

On Oct. 4, the MacArthur Foundation released their list of 20 MacArthur fellows, including Amber Wutich, an ASU-based anthropologist who researches solutions for water insecurity across the world. 

The MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the MacArthur "Genius Grant," is a unique no-strings-attached investment of $800,000 to support the work of creative innovators.

Wutich is a president's professor and director of the ASU Center for Global Health. Her interest in water issues started at an early age.

"I am from Miami and grew up with lots of hurricanes. This sparked my interest in understanding how social infrastructure can help humans survive crises," Wutich said in an email. 

Wutich is involved in several projects that look at the intersection of water and human behavior, including the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, which is a collection of programs and collaborations invested in by the state government.

One of the projects Wutich has pioneered is the Modular Adaptive Decentralized water system.

"MAD water systems are off-the-grid water systems (or integrated with piped water systems to enhance them)," Wutich said in an email. "They can help people who are excluded (from) piped water systems, or whose systems fail, or who have to flee a disaster to places with no water system. MAD water systems can range from ancient water technologies (such as rainwater harvesting) to cutting-edge inventions."

Wutich is also the director for the Action for Water Equity, which researches water in Southwest border states, and the Global Ethnohydrology Center, which studies water across the globe. 

"This range of research sites enable us to investigate both what works well locally, but also to leverage the full range of human knowledge and experiences, cross-culturally, to solve water problems," Wutich said in an email. 

This is why the MacArthur Fellowship is a unique award: It was not granted to any of her one projects, rather, it is an investment in her as a creative problem solver. 

Marlies Carruth is a director with the MacArthur Fellows program, who discussed the qualities the MacArthur foundation seeks in its grant recipients. 

"By providing these individuals with unfettered support in pursuit of creative activities, the Fellows Program seeks to cultivate the next generation of innovators, highlight the importance of creativity and risk-taking in addressing deep-rooted societal problems and support artists who craft expressions of beauty that inspire and influence how people think about creativity," Carruth said in an email. 

The 2023 class of fellows exemplifies this. With diverse backgrounds ranging from reproductive health to fiction writing, there have been investments in twenty unique areas of innovation. 

"The MacArthur Fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award; we are looking for individuals who demonstrate a track record of accomplishment in their fields, as well as demonstrate the potential to be enabled by a community that extends beyond a narrow field of practice," Carruth said. 

College students are at a unique point in their lives where they begin to establish themselves with their achievements. As daunting as it seems, there are no shortage of large scale problems students can apply their talents to.

"I know students often feel despair about climate change and the future they face," Wutich said. "And, while there are challenges, I think there are reasons to feel hopeful too. Throughout human history, major climate disruptions have created openings to reshape society and reinvent humanity. Let’s all think of ways that we can improve and enrich our lives."

Whether in water insecurity or elsewhere, there is support and recognition for the large scale problem solvers. The criteria for a MacArthur Genius Grant may be vague, but the award's widespread nature encourages creativity and determination in all fields.

"My main goal has always been that my students, collaborators and the communities I work with feel well served by my work," Wutich said. "This recognition makes me feel like I might be on the right track."

Edited by River Graziano, Sadie Buggle and Grace Copperthite.

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