‘Genius Grants’ Provide Two Alums $500,000 to Pursue Dream Projects

Two MIT alumni were awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation last week. The fellows, Saul T. Griffith PhD ’04 and Yoky Matsuoka PhD ’98, will receive a stipend of $500,000 over the course of five years that may be spent however they wish. Griffith and Matsuoka are among 24 recipients this year.

According to the Foundation Web site biographies, Griffith, an inventor, “holds several patents in optics, textiles, and nanotechnology.” Matsuoka, an assistant professor and robotics expert at the University of Washington, “creates sophisticated prosthetic devices and designs complementary rehabilitation strategies.”

Griffith said his initial reaction was one of “shock and delight” when the director of the MacArthur Foundation called to inform him that he had won the award. He described it as a “Mission Impossible moment” because the follow-up letter told fellows that “we trust that you can spend this money more effectively than we can to help make the world better.”

“It took me off guard,” Matsuoka said. At first, she “couldn’t believe that they were talking about me.” The call began with a warning that “they’re about to tell you something shocking” and that she should set down anything “fragile, like a baby.” She said that she was the first person in 20 years actually holding a baby when she got the call.

Matsuoka’s plans for the award money include starting a company that creates robotic devices used by disabled people and writing a book about balancing her engineering career with having a family. “A lot of women want to do that, but it’s intimidating,” she said. She hopes she can convince more women to stay in the field and still pursue what they want in their personal life, she said.

Griffith said that there “are projects I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the resources to do” or could not justify financially before receiving the award. For example, he said it would be fantastic if there were a CAD program anyone could use to design a paper airplane; then every kid’s paper airplane designs would be stored forever. Griffith added that he had many similar “silly ideas” and would probably think of better ones when “the shock dies down.”

Griffith recalled “taking apart his Tonka trucks” when he was six years old as his first foray into inventing. Matsuoka said “she switched careers halfway through [her] graduate career.” Working in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory building robots, she became interested in neuroscience and, after studying in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, combined her two passions in the field of neuroprosthetics. “That sort of opportunity doesn’t come anywhere else,” Matsuoka said.

Griffith said that MIT was “probably the best experience of my life,” calling it an “unbelievably special place.” “Most students don’t realize just how amazing it is,” he said.