Yale Aging Expert and Evolutionary Biologist Receive "Genius" Grants

Two Yale faculty members have been named MacArthur Foundation Fellows for 2009, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced. Mary Tinetti, M.D., the Gladys Phillips Crofoot Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health and Richard O. Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will each receive a five-year, $500,000 “genius” grant to spend as they see fit.

“Mary Tinetti and Rick Prum exemplify what the MacArthur Grants are all about—extraordinary creativity, energy and a commitment to research,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin. “Mary’s work on fall prevention not only improves the health of the elderly, but has led to millions of dollars in reduced healthcare costs. Rick’s restless intelligence has led him to show some dinosaurs may have had colored feathers and to explore the physics of structural color found in nature. We are all eager to see what other insights their MacArthur Grants will inspire.”

The foundation supports individuals who have exhibited exceptional creativity in their careers.

Tinetti, who is director of the Yale Program on Aging, has devoted much of her research to fall prevention for the elderly. She was the first investigator to show that older adults at risk for falling and injury could be identified, that falls and injuries were associated with a range of serious adverse outcomes, and that multifaceted risk-reduction strategies were both effective and cost-effective. She is involved in efforts to translate these research findings into clinical and public health practice.

“Falling doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of aging because it is preventable,” said Tinetti who has been on the faculty at Yale School of Medicine since 1984.

Tinetti has also investigated and published extensively on functional disability and mobility impairment. Her most recent research focus is on clinical decision-making in the face of multiple health conditions, particularly trade-offs among health conditions, the harms and benefits of commonly recommended treatments, and the need for universal health outcomes that transcend individual diseases.

“I hope to use this grant to further the work of incorporating fall prevention into the healthcare of older adults and to further explore the complexities of clinical decision-making in the face of multiple co-existing diseases,” said Tinetti.

Prum, who serves as chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator of ornithology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, has diverse research interests that cross many academic boundaries. The ornithologist is best known for his work studying the development and evolution of feathers and his research that supports the idea that dinosaurs were ancestors of contemporary birds. 

Prum and his Yale colleagues recently found fossil evidence that a 47-million-year-old bird had colored feathers, similar to those of a starling. Prum hopes the work will allow scientists to discern the color of many dinosaurs.

His study of sexual selection and ornamentation in mating rituals of birds led to a fascination with the physics of structural colors, which do not arise from pigment molecules but are produced by light scattering from the material itself as in oil slicks and soap bubbles.  Prum has done research on structural colors of birds, monkeys, butterflies and dragonflies.

Currently, Prum is collaborating with Yale professors in the School of Engineering, and the Department of Physics to explore how the self-assembly mechanisms of color- producing nanostructures in bird feathers and butterfly scales can be applied in the development of new photonic technologies. Prum is also interested in studying the aesthetic philosophy of art and beauty “in a way that spans evolutionary biology and the humanities.”

“I tell my students that doing interdisciplinary work sometimes feels like you have no audience at all,” said Prum. “I think this grant shows that ultimately there is an audience.”

The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society.

Information on the Fellows Program, past Fellows, and biographies, photographs and videos of the new class of Fellows is available at www.macfound.org.