Two Indian American scientists, physical biologist Manu Prakash and theoretical computer scientist Subhash Khot, along with Sri Lankan American attorney Ahilan Arulanantham are among the 23 recipients of the 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant.”

“I was in shock,” Arulanantham told India-West. The human rights attorney, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California, is currently working on a case to get legal representation for undocumented Central American children facing deportation. He said he was busy trying to get out briefs for the case, and kept ignoring phone calls from the unknown Chicago number.

On the fourth call, Arulanantham did pick up, and – upon hearing it was the MacArthur Foundation – initially tried to transfer the call to the ACLU’s marketing department. But the caller asked if he had 15 minutes to talk; and thus Arulanantham learned he had won the coveted award.

This year’s awards recipients – announced Sept. 22 – were a diverse mix of artists, writers, scientists, and computer scientists. The genius grants carry a cash “no strings attached” grant of $625,000, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The award is given to people who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the organization’s Web site. "The fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential," noted the Foundation. No nominations are made or accepted.

“While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope. They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts, and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways. Their creativity, dedication, and impact inspire us all,” said MacArthur president Julia Stasch, in a statement announcing this year’s recipients.

Arulanantham, who serves as the director of advocacy and legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told India-West he is trying to establish the rights of everyone in deportation proceedings to be guaranteed legal representation. “The government has taken the position that they do not have to provide a lawyer,” he said, noting that the vast majority of people – including children – who lack representation during deportation proceedings, lose their cases and are ordered to return back to their home countries, where they may face violence.

“This is inconsistent with our values,” said Arulanantham, adding that a funding provision exists through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide representation for children, but is being utilized haphazardly.

“People will look back on Obama’s immigration policies and judge it very harshly,” said Arulanantham, noting that the current administration has deported more people than in the history of the U.S.

“Through his incremental approach and careful selection of cases, Arulanantham works to demonstrate the human costs of denying due process to immigrants and to set vital precedents to expand the rights of non-citizens,” noted the MacArthur Foundation in a press release.

Stanford University physical biologist Manu Prakash has invented the Foldscope, a lightweight, optical microscope made from a single sheet of paper, which can be used to detect certain diseases, including leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis and malaria. Prakash demonstrated the simple device – produced for under $1 – last summer at the 2015 IIT Global Leadership conference in Santa Clara, Calif. At that time, nearly 10,000 foldscopes had been distributed throughout the developing world. Prakash Labs has posted a template online so that others can replicate the foldscope.

“I think like a biologist, but I solve problems like an engineer,” said Prakash in a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation. “I like solving puzzles,” said the 36-year-old father of two infant twins.

Prakash’s lab has also developed a “water computer,” which operates using the unique physics of moving water droplets. The water droplet computer can theoretically perform any operation that a conventional electronic computer can crunch, although at significantly slower rates. The computer could be used as a chemistry and biology laboratory: instead of running reactions in bulk test tubes, each droplet can carry some chemicals and become its own test tube, and the droplet computer offers unprecedented control over these interactions, noted the scientist when he showcased the device last year.

Prakash, a 2002 graduate of IIT Kanpur who received his Ph. D from MIT, has also developed a low-cost microfluidic chip, which can collect thousands of droplets of saliva from mosquito bites that can then be screened for pathogens. Data from the chip could predict and control mosquito-borne disease outbreaks.

“With remarkable breadth and imagination, Prakash defies traditional disciplinary boundaries in his coupling of basic research and fabrication of high-capability scientific instruments for widespread use in the field and classroom,” said the MacArthur Foundation in a press statement.

Subhash Khot, a theoretical computer scientist at New York University, has provided critical insight into unresolved problems in the field of computational complexity. “My work focuses on the power and limitations of computing: what computers can do and what they cannot do,” said Khot, in a video released by the MacArthur Foundation.

Certain problems – known as NP-hard problems – cannot quickly be solved by a computer algorithm, said Khot.

The 38-year-old IIT Bombay graduate, who received his Ph.D. from Princeton University, has developed the Unique Games Conjecture, which sheds new light on the computational complexity of many very diverse optimization tasks.

“If you believe that this one specific problem is very hard to solve fast, then it implies that lots and lots of other problems of interest are also hard to solve,” said Khot, explaining the UGC.

“As computers come to drive ever more aspects of our lives, greater understanding of the limitations of computing is increasingly important. Khot’s continued ingenuity and tenacity in exploring the potential of the UGC will drive this important and fruitful area of research for many years to come,” noted the MacArthur Foundation.

Bill Thies, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research in Bangalore, also was named a MacArthur Fellow for creating communication and digital technologies aimed at low-income communities in the developing world. Thies received his Ph.D. from MIT.

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