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Two Oberlin Alumni Receive MacArthur "Genius" Awards

"Poets aren't used to such abundance," laughed Oberlin alumna Thylias Moss, who recently was named a 1996 MacArthur Fellow.

The "abundance" to which she referred is the $265,000 grant that came with the prestigious fellowship.

Moss '81 is a prolific poet whose reputation has soared and list of prizes has grown steadily longer since the publication of her first collection, Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman, two years after her graduation from Oberlin.

Also named a MacArthur Fellow was Richard Lenski '76, a biologist in the fields of evolutionary biology and microbial ecology whose work has had enormous relevance for understanding the impact and emergence of new diseases. His grant was $250,000.

The two are among 21 of the country's leading artists, scientists, performers, and grassroots organizers honored this summer by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Their selection brings to five the number of Oberlin alumni who have received the "genius" awards, as they are also known.

The grants--which range from $150,000 to $375,000, depending upon the age of the recipient--are given in five annual installments and are designed to free recipients to pursue creative accomplishments.

Moss is an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor. "It was a perfectly ordinary Thursday afternoon" when she learned she'd received the award, she said.

"I was home. When the phone rang, I thought it was going to be some kind of solicitor so I answered with the attitude that 'here is someone who is going to sell me something.'

"When I was asked, 'Would you agree to be a 1996 MacArthur Fellow?' I was stunned. Isn't that a marvelous question? I said I would be delighted!"

Moss didn't always plan to be a writer. A native of Cleveland, she had been married for several years and was a junior auditor at a large downtown department store when she decided to abandon the executive track for a college career and writing.

"I'd been writing my whole life but it wasn't until I wrote a piece titled 'Coming of Age in Sanduski' that won first prize in a poetry contest sponsored by the Cleveland Public Library that I felt able for the first time to commit myself to creative writing," she said.

She chose Oberlin because she knew it was the first college to open its doors to women, was a historical leader in the education of blacks, and offered a major in creative writing.

"I was a non-traditional student, older than the others. The classes were small, and I felt completely at ease, even though I was a commuting student," she recalled.

Moss writes about everything from tornadoes and New England to Twenty Mule Team Borax and a hospice for children. Drawing on her experiences and ethnic history, she combines a gift for narrative and observation that captures the flavor of community interactions and the impact of public life on private life. Her poetry combines the African-American concept of "witnessing" with a variety of Western poetic traditions and shows a special talent for language, imagery, and syntactical music.

Besides Hosiery Seams . . ., her books of poetry include Pyramid of Bone (1989), At Redbones (1990), Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (1991), and Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (1993). She has written two children's books: I Want to Be (1993) and Somewhere Else Right Now (forthcoming).

Last year Moss received a Guggenheim Fellowship but deferred it until this fall. She said the Guggenheim and the MacArthur fellowships will enable her to work full time on poems already in progress. However, she plans to continue teaching--"it's vital to me; I benefit from it so much"--albeit "in a reduced capacity. I am not likely to have this opportunity again!"

Ironically, Richard Lenski arrived at his career choice almost as accidentally as did Moss.

When he came to Oberlin, Lenski had no intention of becoming a scientist. "I didn't particularly like science in high school. I didn't know what major I wanted to pursue in college. But I took a course in human biology. It was a non-majors course in which the department faculty members shared the teaching. That was a real eye-opener. Then and there I fell in love with biology," he said.

A course in microbial genetics taught by Richard Levin was particularly important, Lenski noted. "It subsequently influenced my switching from insects to microbes."

Lenski's research has placed phenomena usually studied from a purely genetic standpoint--such as plasmids or antibiotic and viral resistance--into an evolutionary context. He has made important contributions to the understanding of how microbes evolve not only through his own research, but through his expert commentary on socially important issues, such as the release of genetically engineered organisms.

"Calling Richard Lenski just 'an evolutionary biologist' is a major understatement!" said Joseph Graves '77, who began his career at the University of California at Irvine in part due to Lenski. "Rich is one of the luminaries in the field."

Lenski, however, modestly refers to other eminent Oberlinians of his generation and credits the Oberlin faculty. "A number of Oberlinians are now faculty members and scientists in evolutionary biology," Lenski said, including 1977 graduates Roger Albin, Claude DePamphilis, Jeff Seemann, and Graves (who was the first African-American in the field). This "reflects the influence of some really outstanding teachers during that decade, such as David Egloff and Warren Walker."

Lenski, who lives in East Lansing, Mich., heard about his MacArthur Fellowship late in the afternoon in his office at Michigan State University, where he is the Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology.

"The call came out of the blue, just a few days before the official announcement. I knew about the MacArthur awards, of course, but I thought they might be going to ask me to be a reviewer for grant programs."

Lenski says he doesn't have any well defined plans for the MacArthur as yet. "I'm still getting used to it." He does plan to spend his 1997 sabbatical year working with colleagues in Montpelier, France, "catching up on a backlog of writing and continuing the kind of work I'm doing now."

--Betty Gabrielli

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