Two Brown alums were named winners of the MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday, earning themselves each half a million dollars to use for future creative endeavors.
Sebastian Ruth ’97 and Kelly Benoit-Bird ’98 were two of the 23 winners of the fellowship, or “genius” award, for 2010. The fellowship chooses winners based on demonstrated creativity, prior accomplishments and the chances of future breakthroughs in fellows’ fields.
Ruth, who concentrated in education studies at Brown, is the founder of Providence’s Community MusicWorks. The organization provides the city’s children with string instrument education by exposing them to musical performances and programs, according to the organization’s website.
Ruth told The Herald in March 2009 that he founded the organization after he graduated from Brown out of a desire to combine his love of music with his passion for community service. His goal was to bring music education to students in urban Providence who might otherwise miss out on the opportunity.
“From the beginning I didn’t want Community MusicWorks to seem like a missionary effort where music is the answer to everything,” Ruth told The Herald in 2009. “I really wanted to embed ourselves into the community and grow with the community.”
Senior Lecturer in Music Paul Phillips, who had Ruth as a student, said he embodies a combination of idealism and practicality. Being focused in education and music, Ruth knew how to approach his endeavors “very step-by-step,” Phillips said. At the same time, Ruth always had a strong desire to reach out to the community, Phillips said, as demonstrated when Ruth founded Community MusicWorks.
“It takes a lot of idealism to found something like that,” Phillips said.
In addition to his organization, Ruth helped found the Providence String Quartet, according to a University press release.
Benoit-Bird, like Ruth, demonstrated a similar dual interest during her time at Brown. Benoit-Bird, a biological oceanographer at Oregon State University, concentrated in aquatic biology, but also considered being an artist. After completing her thesis her junior year, she considered writing a second thesis before Professor of Biology Mark Bertness “talked me out of it,” she said.
Instead, Benoit-Bird collaborated with Bertness on his book “The Ecology of Atlantic Shorelines” for which she drew the illustrations. Bertness called Benoit-Bird, who was the first in her family to attend college, a “massive overachiever” and wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that “her amazing drive is what set her apart from most Brown undergrads.”
Benoit-Bird said she was incredibly surprised to find out she had been nominated, let alone determined a winner. She said she has not decided what to use the award money toward, but that the loose guidelines give her the opportunity to pursue research ideas that might otherwise be deemed “too risky” for funding. She is currently researching how to use sound “to study the ecological interactions of animals in the ocean,” she added.
President Ruth Simmons wrote in a statement that she was pleased the two alums were being recognized through the fellowship.
“Alumni of Brown are known for making a difference in the world, and it is gratifying when these efforts and their impact are recognized by an award as prestigious as the MacArthur Genius Award.”