She’s a Genius

Sarah Otto, a zoology professor and director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC, is one of 22 people to be picked for this year’s round of ”genius grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Otto, a theoretical biologist, has focused on fundamental questions of population genetics and evolution, such as why some species reproduce sexually while others reproduce asexually, and helped to make mathematical modelling a more accessible tool for fellow biologists.

MacArthur Fellows receive $500,000 payable over five years, no strings attached. Candidates are selected for their “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

“At UBC, where I’m surrounded by so many creative people, I’ve been able to go places intellectually that I otherwise might not have explored,” Otto says.

She learned about her award two weeks before the news went public, by way of an email that she at first suspected might be spam.

“I was just about to delete it when I noticed the email address:,” Otto recalls. After some online investigating, she realized that the email came from the MacArthur Foundation. When she called, her first question was: “Is this what I think it’s about?”

“The MacArthur Fellowship gives people the freedom to be creative, giving them room to focus on what they do well,” Otto says. “So I am going to take that to heart and carve out more time for the math and science that I love doing.” She is just starting to think about specific ways she will use the stipends.


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