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ABC7 talks to Bay Area "genius grant" recipients

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

They call them the "genius grants" -- $500,000 with no strings attached for a select few people who the MacArthur Foundation thinks really deserve it.

Bill Seeley has always known he wanted to study the brain. He's trying to cure frontotemporal dementia.

"Frontotemporal dementia often strikes adults in the prime of life, really when their children are young," Seeley said. "That's what makes it so tragic in a way; these are pivotal members of their community, of their family."

Now, with $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation over the next five years, Seeley will study the brains of dementia patients at a microscopic level.

"To give us better tools to diagnose these diseases early, so we can get a treatment started in the early phases of the illness," Seeley said.

The MacArthur fellowships aren't just for science, they're for anyone who's doing something truly new and different, like one local artist who makes moving murals out of computer screens.

Camille Utterback received her MacArthur grant two years ago. Like all the other recipients, she had no idea she had even been nominated.

"They told me why they were calling and it was pretty shocking," Utterback said.

Utterback's just finished a 40-foot tall installation at the Sacramento airport. As elevators go up and down, they trigger animated fish and blowing leaves.

The MacArthur grant didn't pay for any of it, but it paid for Utterback's living expenses while she continued refining her art.

"It's a gift of time really to plan for your future and to take some new risks," Utterback said.

For local poet Kay Ryan, another one of this year's recipients, it's time she might've spent looking back on her long career, if not for this push to keep looking forward.

"You're being told to work to go ahead for five more years, and at 65, that's pretty nice," Ryan said.

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