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Two Columbia Professors Win MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grants

Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Terry A. Plank
Terry A. Plank

Research on volcanic eruptions and on the structure of abstract graphs have resulted in two Columbia professors being named MacArthur Fellows, the “genius” awards given to individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.”

Terry A. Plank, a professor of earth and environmental sciences with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a lecturer in Columbia College's Frontiers of Science course, and Maria Chudnovsky, an associate professor of industrial engineering and operations research at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, are among the 23 fellows named for 2012. Like all MacArthur Fellows, they were nominated anonymously by their colleagues. They will receive $500,000 in a no-strings grant paid out over five years by the MacArthur Foundation. Known informally as the “genius” award, the fellowship makes no requirement of the winners except the expectation that they will continue to create and explore their extraordinary work.

Maria Chudnovsky
Maria Chudnovsky

Plank (GSAS’93) studies volcanoes, particularly in and around the Pacific Ocean. “I’m interested in how much gas they have in them before they erupt, how much water is dissolved in magma before it erupts,” Plank told Columbia College Today last year. “It’s like trying to find out how much CO2 is in seltzer before you take the cap off and it goes ‘psht,’ because once it goes ‘psht,’ the gas is all gone. How do you know how much used to be in there? That’s the challenge.”

Plank, who earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from Columbia, has received the Houtermans Medal from the European Association of Geochemistry and the Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America. She lectures on volcanoes each spring for the Core Curriculum science course Frontiers of Science.

Chudnovsky, who joined the engineering school in 2006, studies the structure of abstract graphs with a focus on graph theory and combinatorial optimization.

“Graph theory does not involve what most people normally think of as graphs,” she explained. “A graph is a good model for many practical problems, like finding the best route for a delivery truck or routing Internet traffic or calculating the shortest itinerary on a GPS.”

Chudnovsky, who earned a B.A. and M.S. from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. from Princeton University, was a part of a team that proved the Strong Perfect Graph Theorem, a 40-year-old conjecture that had been a well-known open.

“I am incredibly excited and honored, but mostly shocked, to be recognized in such an extraordinary way,” said Chudnovsky. “This grant will enable me to focus my research on problems that I love, but that may have seemed too hard to tackle until now.”

Dinaw Mengestu (SoA’05), an award-winning writer, is also among this year’s MacArthur Fellows. He has written two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007) and How to Read the Air (2010), after which The New Yorker named him one of 20 important fiction writers under the age of 40.