UC Davis prof ‘went into shock’ over MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for her work in planet science

Professor Stewart shows off Shock Compression Lab at UC Davis

Sometimes the most useful tools are unexpected and this might be said of Professor Sarah Stewart’s Shock Compression laboratory, where huge cannons are fired (indoors) to study the early history of our Solar System.
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Sometimes the most useful tools are unexpected and this might be said of Professor Sarah Stewart’s Shock Compression laboratory, where huge cannons are fired (indoors) to study the early history of our Solar System.

A UC Davis scientist who won one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarly honors managed to keep it secret from immediate family members for a month.

Before that, her own peers and colleagues were able to keep her consideration on the down-low for even longer.

Sarah T. Stewart, a professor and planetary scientist at UC Davis, was named to the 2018 class of MacArthur Fellows, commonly known as MacArthur “genius” grants. The Chicago-based foundation gave the awards to Stewart and 24 others in the fields of science, academics and the arts, announced Thursday. The honor includes a $625,000 non-conditional grant.

Stewart personally found out the good news about a month earlier, but was sworn to secrecy by the organization. By 11 a.m. Thursday, her two daughters, ages 9 and 12, still didn’t know.

“We’ll tell them after school,” Stewart said with a chuckle during a phone interview with The Bee.

When Stewart, 45, found out early last month the MacArthur Foundation had selected her, she said she “basically went into shock.”

“It took a couple hours for my hands to stop shaking.”

It was a humbling experience for a scientist whose work offers enormous insights in the field of astronomy.

Stewart studies how planets form, offering new ideas and theories relating to the celestial development of Earth and other planets. This February, she published a new possible explanation for how the Earth and moon were formed; the research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, offered revolutionary possible explanations for features of the moon that were previously difficult to understand.

“I was a pretty big sci-fi junkie in high school, and I had a super-fantastic physics teacher” — whom she remembers as Mr. Curry, teaching at a school in O’Fallon, Ill. “That got me interested in physics, but I was one of those people that watched every episode of ‘Star Trek’ on TV.”

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world,” and fellowships are given to those who show “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to its website.

The MacArthur grant is a $625,000 cash award split evenly over five years that recipients can spend in any way they choose. Before 2013, the grant was $500,000.

Stewart doesn’t know yet what she’ll spend the money toward, she said.

Stewart also developed the Shockwave Compression Lab, an experimental facility that uses cannons to model violent planet collisions, UC Davis said in a news release. The lab was set up in 2016.

MacArthur grant recipients do not apply, but are anonymously nominated and selected by a small committee.

The MacArthur Foundation reached out to between 30 and 40 people close to Stewart, including colleagues and graduate students, over a span of several weeks. None let it leak what their peer or mentor was being considered for, Stewart said.

Stewart boasts an impressive academic résumé spanning decades, with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Caltech. She was a professor at Harvard from 2003 to 2014 before heading to UC Davis.

Notable past winners of the MacArthur award include author Cormac McCarthy; geneticist and Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McClintock; and Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist and namesake of the “Bechdel test.”

The rare distinction also applies to two other current faculty members at UC Davis. Geerat Vermeij, a distinguished professor of paleobiology, and Leah Krubitzer, a professor in the university’s psychology department, earned the honor in 1992 and 1998, respectively.

Stewart is the first such recipient for the university since 2010, when English professor and fiction writer Yiyun Li won the honor at age 37. Li moved from UC Davis to Princeton in 2017.

“It’s fitting that this prestigious no-strings-attached award goes to Professor Stewart because her curiosity and ingenuity know no bounds,” UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May said in a statement.

Though Stewart was born in Taiwan, where her Air Force veteran father was stationed at the time, her family now has close ties to Sacramento. Her brother was born at the then-Air Force base at Mather (now an airport). Her parents now live in a retirement home in Rancho Cordova, she said.

Stewart’s husband, Sujoy Mukhopadhyay, is also a professor and planetary scientist at UC Davis. Stewart said her two daughters, in fourth and seventh grades, have an interest in science, for now at least.

“At this age, they like what their parents do, and so today they say they’re interested in science,” she said. “But they haven’t reached the rebellious teenage years. So we’ll see what sticks.”