The Genius of Lab
Amanda Williams, ’92,

Amanda Williams, '92

The Genius of Lab

By: Valerie M. Reynolds

Around October of each year, scholars and academics from around the world tune in to the announcement of the year’s Nobel Prize winners, live-streamed from Stockholm. Excitedly, these school administrators and other Nobel enthusiasts anxiously watch—some in the wee hours of the night—to learn if one of the many fascinating scholars or researchers who once graced their school’s halls will be named the recipient of the coveted award.

This past October, however, when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced their 2022 MacArthur Fellows—often referred to as the “Genius Grants”—many community members at Lab came to the realization that the same practice could be required for our institution when it comes to the announcement of MacArthur’s similarly coveted award. In this year alone, symbiotic relationships were unearthed as it related to the Laboratory Schools and several of the 2022 MacArthur Foundation Fellows.

Among those bestowed with the honor in 2022 were three awardees with ties to Lab: artist Amanda Williams, ’92, an active alumna and current Lab parent; composer and cellist Tomeka Reid, a Lab orchestra teacher from 2003–2011; and mathematician Melanie Matchett Wood, who is the granddaughter-in-law of Margaret Matchett, a large contributor to Lab’s Math Department for many years until her retirement in 1987. Other former Lab alumni who received this award in the past include musicologist George Lewis, ’69, geriatrician Diane Meier, ’69, and astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, ’83, who went on to receive the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.”

Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, '83

Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, '83 | Photo credit: Elena Zhukova

A nexus of creativity

According to the organization’s website, the MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. MacArthur contends that there  are three criteria for the selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

It’s no coincidence that this idea of creativity that’s mentioned in two of the three Fellowship criteria is also enshrined in the Lab mission statement to “ignite and nurture an enduring spirit of scholarship, curiosity, creativity, and confidence.”

“The first criterion for the MacArthur Fellowship is exceptional creativity; that’s a pretty broad concept and idea, and it is that way by design,” said Don Meyer, senior program officer for the MacArthur Fellows Program. “Creativity can take many, many forms, and MacArthur recognizes that we might not be able to know in advance the innumerable ways creativity manifests—actually, we’re quite certain that we don’t—given that creativity continually expands and takes on different meanings in response to different sorts of urgencies at different moments in history.”

Alumna and MacArthur Fellow Andrea Ghez agrees. “Creativity is not having known answers,” says Ghez, who has been researching the role of supermassive black holes in the evolution of galaxies for the past 30 years. “Asking the right questions is the key to deeper understanding. Lab school was not about cookie cutter rules and answers. It was teaching us how to learn creatively; how to be comfortable with discomfort.”

A transformative award

“Humility is something that is important to MacArthur and the way we do our work,” said Meyer. “Who are we to tell these exceptionally creative people who have track records of amazing, groundbreaking work, how best to use the funds?”

Artist Amanda Williams, '92

Artist Amanda Williams, '92

An unrestricted, no strings attached grant is rare in the world of funding and grant-making. One of the many things that makes the MacArthur Fellows Program and its award unique is that Fellows are not required to report on the status of their work or explain how the funds were used. It is not a grant-making program in the same way that many other funds are; it’s an award. 

“We take the ‘no strings attached’ aspect of the award very seriously and really just let the Fellows do what they do best. We don’t monitor in any official way,” said Meyer. “We do keep track, of course, but more as a matter of interest, or just in the course of reading the news. How could we not be curious to see what Lin Manuel Miranda or George Lewis is up to?”

Ghez used a portion of the grant to pay for childcare. At the time, she was a mother to two small children who were attending the UCLA Lab School which was founded by Corrine A. Seeds, a protege of Lab’s founder John Dewey. Providing high-quality, safe, and reliable childcare is an important factor in any parent’s life, and it’s an increasingly expensive factor. According to “Demanding Change,” a recent report from Child Care Aware, the annual cost of child care in 2020, the latest data available, was $10,174. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends parents spend no more than 7% of their household income on child care, but the amount shared in the report represents more than 10% of the median income for a married couple and more than 35% percent of the median income for a single parent.

These grants can be transformative not only for recipients of the award, but for society as well. Williams’ work as an artist who trained as an architect often uses color and architecture to explore the intersection of race and the built environment. Her work visualizes the ways urban planning, zoning, development, and disinvestment have impacted and continue to impact people’s lives, especially in Black communities. Her work also invites the participation of the community in reimagining their space, as it did during her Redefining Redlining project, which brought together hundreds of community members this past fall to plant 100,000 red tulip bulbs across several vacant Washington Park lots to re-imagine the value of blocks on the South Side of Chicago that have been impacted by the discriminatory practice of redlining.

A legacy of unparalleled teaching

Musicologist George Lewis, '69

Musicologist George Lewis, '69 | Photo credit: Eileen Barroso

“Everyone I had there from the third grade with Miss Louise Bliss, right on to high school, played a role in who I am today,” says George Lewis, who received the MacArthur Fellowship Award in 2002 and is the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University, where he also serves as Area Chair in Composition and Faculty in Historical Musicology.

There were many fond memories of teachers that came up when these “Genius” award recipients spoke about their Lab experience. Lab educators are continuously recognized, locally, nationally, and internationally, for excellence in teaching and innovation in the classroom. Currently, Lab boasts 11 teachers that have won Chicago’s prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in teaching—more than any other school in the city.

Lewis recalled from decades ago how his social studies teacher was a great influential figure. “I hate to play favorites, but Earl Bell was a social studies teacher who was a great influential figure,” Lewis recalled. “When I think about how I teach, like a flashback, I’m teaching my class on twentieth century music and I’m talking a certain way, and I think, "God, I’m talking just like Mr. Bell would talk.’”

As it turns out, Bell was not just influential to Lewis, but also to his fellow alumna Valerie Jarrett, ’73, which he learned when comparing notes with Jarrett as they discussed both being honored with Lab’s Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award.

Williams and Ghez both fondly referenced being inspired by the renowned Vivian Gussin Paley, a former teacher who was a MacArthur Fellow too. Paley, who was an early childhood educator, researcher, and writer, worked nearly her entire forty-year career as a preschool and kindergarten teacher at Lab and was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1989. A 1992 New York Times article about Paley asserted that “Vivian Paley is an artist whose medium is children in the classroom. The end product of her year’s work is a group of children who can live comfortably with themselves and with one another.”

Teacher Vivian Gussin Paley

Teacher Vivian Gussin Paley | Photo credit: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

John Dewey founded Lab in 1896 upon the notion of “experiential learning,” and since its founding—more than 126 years ago—the school is still recognized as a pioneer in education that changed the way teachers went about their jobs in the classroom: the children, not the lesson, became the center of the teacher’s attention.

“The training at Lab was all about asking questions. Asking good questions is the key to being a good scientist, says Ghez. “So am I fundamentally different from other scientists? No. But was I trained well? Yes.”

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