Two people could never represent the full breadth of our city's creativity and brainpower, but the MacArthur Foundation definitely covered some serious intellectual terrain when it included Trevor Bedford and Don Mee Choi on its list of 2021 "genius" grant recipients.
Bedford, a computational virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has risen to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic because his career interests overlap with just about everyone's interests these days. Early on, he warned colleagues we could be dealing with another "1918" and began identifying virus strains well before people knew to worry about Delta and Lambda. "Through his rigorous and timely analysis of evolutionary dynamics and commitment to creating open source and collaborative tools," the foundation observes, "Bedford is improving our collective ability to detect the emergence of novel viruses and to respond to infectious disease outbreaks." Kind of important.
Bedford has developed a massive following on Science Twitter, where he shared his appreciation for the $625,000, no-strings-attached grant that is paid out over five years. "I'm honored and completely overwhelmed by the recognition... Flexible funding with a multi-year commitment is the professional scientist's dream and I'm incredibly grateful for this opportunity, he tweeted."
Many in Seattle's flourishing scientific community will certainly be envious of that freedom, as will the city's many poets and creatives when they learn of Choi's coveted award. Or, more likely, they'll just be stoked about what someone of the Seoul-born poet and translator's talent can do with rare resources at her disposal.
Last year, the poet and translator's latest collection, DMZ Colony, won the National Book Award for Poetry. She became the first Seattleite to nab that honor since Theodore Roethke in 1965. Now she'll add a "genius" grant to her haul. (Choi reports she's "speechless.")
Calling her examination of colonialism, DMZ Colony, merely a volume of poetry feels inadequate. As our former arts editor Stefan Milne wrote, "Throughout the books she upends what a 'normal' poetry collection looks and sounds like. You won't find pretty, personal lyrics marching down pages. These are book-length events, constellations of photographs, drawings, prose, quotation (Roland Barthes, Édouard Glissant), transcribed interview, imagined monologues that appear in Korean and English, and the language rending poetics of Samuel Beckett."
On its website, the MacArthur Foundation says it looks for "exceptional creativity" and "promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments" in selecting fellows. The foundation could hardly have done better than picking Choi, or Bedford, by those standards.