U of M bee researcher gets MacArthur genius grant


University of Minnesota entomology professor Marla Spivak thought she was waiting for a freelance journalist in her St. Paul office. She’d put off the interview for a while, but after some insistence, scheduled it for about 10 days ago.

The journalist didn’t show. Spivak had been set up.

Instead of an interview, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation called to tell her she’d received a MacArthur “genius grant,” the culmination of an exhaustive, secret selection process.

“I’m bewildered, I’m floored and honored,” Spivak said. “I was pretty shocked. I had to take notes to make sure I was hearing it right.”

The foundation announced 2010’s MacArthur Fellows Tuesday. Each of the 23 chosen was awarded a $500,000, no-strings attached grant to be paid out over five years.

The grant is meant to allow a fellow the “unprecedented freedom and opportunity to create, reflect and explore,” according to the foundation’s website.

“They get a call from me, which says, ‘guess what? We think you’re terrific. You’re never going to hear from us, but go for it.’ Then we hand off half a million dollars and we get out of the way,” said Daniel Socolow, fellows director at the foundation.

Spivak began at the University in 1997. She researches the honey bee, whose population has been decimated by disease, pesticide and predators in recent years.

In the past she has focused on increasing hygienic traits in bees to combat bacteria, viruses and parasitic mites. Now, Spivak’s Bee Lab is examining the health benefits of a resin called Propolis, which bees collect from plants. The lab is also researching a disease that kills bees through malnutrition.

University scientist Gary Reuter, who has worked with Spivak for about 18 years, said her creativity is key to their lab’s research.

“All the research is really cool,” Spivak said, “but what I really like the best is brainstorming with Gary and with my students about new ideas.”

Spivak applies a novel approach to problem-solving, Reuter said, and her skills extend into practical applications.

“She has a good ability to go out to beekeepers and explain the research to them and how it affects them, how they can use that research in their operation.”

But the foundation isn’t focused on past accomplishments.

“We’re betting on what they’re going to do, not what they’ve done,” Socolow said. “This is a forward-looking program. We believe in the person. We know from looking at what they’ve done how enormously creative they are and we just want to step back and watch them.”

The weight that comes with a MacArthur grant could help leverage funding for a new bee research lab, Spivak said. She will use the grant to help bees and beekeepers, but declined to comment on specific spending.

Each year, the foundation invites a new batch of nominators to suggest extraordinary people they consider to be “smart or creative,” Socolow said.

A foundation selection committee winnows thousands of nominees down to a group of about 20. Other 2010 recipients include David Simon, creator of the HBO television series “The Wire,” and Nicholas Benson, a stone carver from Rhode Island.

There have been 828 fellows since the programbegan in 1981.

“We’re looking for the really standout, original, creative person, and you got one.”