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Three U-M researchers named 2011 MacArthur Fellows

By James Erickson

Three University of Michigan researchers—a historian, a chemist and a stem cell biologist—are among the 22 new MacArthur Fellows announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Each will receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years from the MacArthur Foundation.

This year’s U-M winners are:

Tiya Miles (right), director of the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.Miles is a public historian who is reframing and reinterpreting the history of our diverse nation in works that illuminate the complex interrelationships between the African and Cherokee peoples in colonial America. Her studies tease evidence from census records, legal petitions, missionary reports, newsprint, and oral histories and span territories east and west in the South, before and after the Trail of Tears (1838-1839) and up to the Civil War.

Melanie Sanford (below), Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry in LSA, is an organometallic chemist reigniting research on an important chemical pathway and developing a method to enable modification of complex molecules with important products we use every day. Her research focuses on using metal-based agents, primarily palladium, to catalyze reactions that substitute hydrogen in carbon-hydrogen bonds with other atoms or functional groups.

Yukiko Yamashita (below right) is a research assistant professor at the U-M Life Sciences Institute and an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the Medical School. The stem cell biologist is elucidating the process of stem cell division and its role in age-related decline in organ repair and in the onset of some cancers and other proliferative disorders. She studies the division of stem cells to establish which ones go on to replace differentiated cells and which ones maintain the pool of stem cells for future division.

“This is a remarkable day in the life of the University of Michigan,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. “The exceptional contributions of professors Tiya Miles, Melanie Sanford and Yukiko Yamashita deepen our understanding of life—from a single molecule to the sweep of human history.

“Their recognition by the MacArthur Foundation is powerful validation of their individual achievements, as well as the collective depth of the Michigan faculty,” Coleman said. “I encourage the campus community to join me in congratulating these outstanding scholars.”

Yamashita, Miles and Sanford are among 24 U-M faculty members who have won the prestigious MacArthur award—often called the genius grant—since 1981. The U-M’s last winners were in 2005.

U-M tied Harvard this year for the highest number of MacArthur Fellows from a single university. The other 19 fellows include an architect, a sports medicine researcher, a cellist, a radio producer, a neuropathologist, a conservator and a poet.

“I’m thrilled and delighted to congratulate professors Miles, Sanford, and Yamashita. In their work, each of them is making a significant contribution to our understanding of the world,” said Provost Phil Hanlon.

“The span of fields they represent is a testament to the breadth of intellectual interests on our campus,” Hanlon said. “We are pleased and proud to have them on our faculty and that they are being recognized by the MacArthur Foundation.”

The award gives the winners the freedom to explore new research interests.

“It’s a huge honor, and I really couldn’t believe it when they called with the news. Seriously, I thought it was quite impossible,” said Yamashita, who joined LSI in January 2007. “I feel now that I’ve got some freedom to try some out-of-the-blue-type ideas that probably would not receive funding through conventional research grants.”

Sanford said: “This will really allow me to pursue things that are very speculative but also really exciting new areas. What I’m hoping to be able to do is really expand my research in directions that I’ve been interested in for a while but that I haven’t had the funding to be able to pursue.”

Miles said the funding will help her advance a new project she started called ECO Girls, which is based in the U-M Department of Afroamerican & African Studies. The mission of ECO Girls is to foster environmental awareness and stewardship, ecological literacy, cultural education, friendship building, self-confidence and leadership skills for elementary and middle school girls in the southeastern Michigan cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit.

“This funding from the MacArthur Foundation will allow the project to move forward,” Miles said.

More information, along with images and multimedia, can be found on the MacArthur Foundation website beginning Sept. 20 at:

James Erickson is a senior public information officer at the University of Michigan.