Two Brown alumni receive MacArthur ‘genius awards’

Marine biologist Kelly Benoit-Bird and Sebastian Ruth, founder of Community MusicWorks, will each receive $500,000 as MacArthur Fellows for 2010.
By Deborah Baum  |  September 28, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Five hundred thousand dollars — and no strings attached. That’s what musician Sebastian Ruth and marine biologist Kelly Benoit-Bird will each receive as 2010 MacArthur “genius” fellows.

Sebastian Ruth: Sebastian Ruth Ironically, Ruth’s life is thoroughly attached to strings. A 1997 Brown University graduate, he is being recognized for his work as the founder of Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit agency that introduces urban youth to stringed instruments through performances and lessons. He is also a founding member of the Providence String Quartet.

Ruth founded Community MusicWorks shortly after graduating, with $15,000 in start-up funding from the Swearer Center for Public Service. Based in Providence’s West End, Community MusicWorks began modestly with 15 violin students. Now in its 14th season, it is a thriving organization with 10 professional resident musicians and more than 100 neighborhood children participating free of charge — some for as long as 10 years — regardless of talent or ability. The students, who live in the West End, South Side, Elmwood, and Olneyville neighborhoods, participate in after-school programming and receive instruments free of charge. They have weekly lessons, participate in a weekly community day that includes studio class and ensemble playing, attend educational workshops led by guest artists, and perform several times a year.

Kelly Benoit-Bird: Kelly Benoit-Bird Benoit-Bird, a 1998 Brown graduate, is an associate professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. She studies the inter-relationships of animals in different marine environments, using acoustics and other sophisticated technologies. Her innovative uses of sonar in tracking marine creatures from Humboldt squid to spinner dolphins have led to new discoveries about their feeding behavior, movements and even communication. She has said the MacArthur funds will allow her to take some risks in her research that otherwise would not have been possible.

As a student at Brown, Benoit-Bird studied aquatic biology and researched bat echolocation under advisers James Simmons and Andrea Simmons. She also worked with Mark Bertness, illustrating a book on shoreline ecology.

This year’s 23 MacArthur fellows, announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, were selected for their “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.” Each fellow will receive $500,000 in support over the next five years, to spend however they wish.

Photographs courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.