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Calvin Grad Named MacArthur Fellow
September 20, 2005

A 1989 Calvin College graduate is one of 25 new MacArthur Fellows for 2005.

Todd Martinez, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, will be given $500,000 in "no strings attached" support over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The stipend carries no restrictions, but is designed to provide a kind of seed money or venture capital for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors.

Martinez, 37, is a theoretical chemist who seeks to explain and predict complex chemical reactions based on the quantum mechanical properties of the atoms involved in the reaction.

Says the MacArthur Foundation: "By combining effective strategies for computing the quantum mechanical properties of complex molecules with a deep intuition for their underlying chemical behavior, Martinez is revealing fundamental insights into the physical basis for chemical reactions."

The awards have been dubbed by some media outlets as the annual "genius grants" although the MacArthur foundation shies away from that language, noting on its website that it avoids using the term because it "connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess."

"The people we seek to support," the website adds, "express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches."

For his part Martinez isn't too worried about the terminology used to describe the honor. He's simply elated to have the financial support for his ongoing research and happy to have the chance to thank his research team for their support.

"The first thing I hope to do with the money," he says, "is take my research team somewhere to both meet and also have some free, fun time. I also plan to endow a scholarship here (at Illinois). With the majority of the money I'll extend and expand my current research. It really is an amazing thing to be given this money totally out of the blue."

Jonathan F. Fanion, president of the MacArthur Foundation, says the reaction of most MacArthur Fellow is the same. None of them apply for the award (the only way to be considered is to be nominated) and none know that they are being considered at any time in the process.

"The call can be life-changing," says Fanion, "coming as it does out of the blue and offering highly creative women and men the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity to explore, create, and contribute."

Martinez says what he's doing now at Illinois can be traced all the way back to his days as a Calvin undergraduate. In fact he credit a Calvin interim class as his "aha" moment.

"It's because of Roger DeKock (Calvin professor of chemistry) and his (interim) class that I'm doing what I do now," says Martinez. "Interim is a very special thing that Calvin has, giving professors that ability to teach classes off the beaten path. Roger was teaching an interim on theoretical chemistry and using computers in chemistry. That was really the beginning of my love affair with theoretical chemistry. Math, computers and chemistry all came together in that interim. I enjoyed the class very much. In fact, I enjoyed Calvin very much."

Martinez was born in New York City, but lived much of his life in Central America and the Caribbean as the son of missionaries. His parents eventually became missionaries for the Christian Reformed Church and through that CRC connection Martinez found his way to Calvin College. After graduating Calvin in 1989 he went on to do graduate work at UCLA and then post-doctoral work in the U.S. and the Middle East.

The MacArthur Fellows Program was the first major grantmaking initiative of the Foundation and the inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows was named in 1981. Including this year's Fellows, 707 people, ranging in age from 18 to 82, have been named MacArthur Fellows since the inception of the program.

The number of Fellows selected each year is not fixed; typically, it varies between 20 and 25. Interestingly the selection committee consists of 11 to 15 individuals who serve confidentially.

As one of the nation's largest private philanthropic foundations, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded more than $3 billion in grants since it began operations in 1978. Today it has assets of approximately $5 billion.