IU Geniuses And The ‘Intellectual Room To Roam’

An illustration of a brain in profile, designed with layered geometric and wave patterns and set against a mustard yellow background.

By almost any measure, the word “genius” is overused these days. Your co-worker is a self-proclaimed “basketball genius”; your neighbor admiringly dubs you a “genius at landscaping.” But in the case of the “genius grant”—usually awarded to no more than 30 people annually—the term is aptly applied.

That makes it all the more impressive that in the 40 years since its inception, the prestigious “genius grant” has been awarded to seven IU researchers, most recently in 2020. Formally called the MacArthur Fellowship, the grant is awarded to those who show “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

In the case of IU’s newest recipient, Mary L. Gray, the award recognized her efforts “investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.” More specifically, Gray—an associate professor of informatics at IU’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering—studies contract labor, LGBTQ youth, and how the two intertwine.

Gray’s work sheds light on vulnerable groups whose lives—and livelihoods—are dependent on tech, and how tech companies can better support identity and human rights. With the grant, she will further explore how everyday uses of technologies can better serve vulnerable groups.

Gray credits IU as a place that makes winning the “genius” distinction possible, saying, “The intellectual room to roam that IU has built over centuries is unparalleled.”

As for IU’s other winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, their work has covered a wide range of subjects—Tibetan studies, microbiology, music composition, and more. The varied work of these scholars reflects IU’s strong liberal arts tradition and its history of nurturing cutting-edge research—a “genius” combination, to be sure.

This article was originally published in the 2021 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
A. Price
A resident of the Hoosier state since grade school, Alex forged a friendship with “tried and true” IU upon becoming a writer at the IU Foundation.