Developmental biologist Susan Mango was spell-checking documents when she picked up the phone last week and learned she was selected for the MacArthur Foundation's famous "genius" grant.
The University of Utah scientist, who studies organ development in transparent worms to better understand cancers in humans, didn't even know she was a candidate for the $500,000 fellowship. But that's how the MacArthur Foundation works. Through a secret screening process, it chooses 25 people each year whose innovations in the sciences, arts and activism warrant generous support.
"It's such a surprise. I'm still kind of speechless. I had to swear not to tell anyone," said Mango, a professor in the department of oncological sciences and a Huntsman Cancer Institute investigator. "It's mysterious. You don't apply for it. You are completely in the dark."
On Tuesday, the foundation listed Mango, as well as an urban farmer, an astronomer, a novelist, an inventor of new musical instruments and a saxophonist among 25 new fellows to win the $500,000 no-strings-attached award "for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future."
Mango, 47, leads a research team endeavoring to discover the genes that control the formation and physiology of the digestive tract, genes that are often mutated in cancer or in birth defects. A crucial research subject is a tiny roundworm, Caenorhabdits elegans, whose transparency offers a window into organ development.
"You can watch the whole process in the living animal under a microscope," Mango said. "We are interested in the early stages of development in the embryo. When you have a fertilized cell, that cell can become anything."
Only last week, Mango published a study in Current Biology that probed associations of certain genes with cancer and aging.
"Dr. Mango is a vibrant young biomedical researcher with a remarkable career," said U. President Michael Young. "Dr. Mango's research accomplishments, her vivacious enthusiasm for science, her clarity in thinking and presenting her work has catapulted her to a national reputation and leadership role within the broad fields of developmental systems and molecular biology in just a few years of starting her independent laboratory."
Other than meeting tax obligations, Mango can spend the award however she wishes.
''I don't know what I'll use it for. It's a chance to dream and imagine really doing something with it,'' she said. ''It will help us, especially now because [National Institutes of Health] is in a crunch, so funding for basic research is hard.''