‘Genius grants’ to Israeli computer linguist, opera kingpin with Israeli parents

Regina Barzilay and Yuval Sharon are among 24 fellows awarded $625,000 each by Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation

Regina Barzilay, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. on Sept. 20, 2017. (CC-BY: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)
Regina Barzilay, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. on Sept. 20, 2017. (CC-BY: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

CHICAGO — An Israeli computer scientist and an opera director with Israeli heritage were among this year’s MacArthur fellows and recipients of the so-called “genius” grants.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Wednesday announced the 24 fellows, who each receive $625,000 over five years to spend any way they choose. The recipients work in a variety of fields, from computer science to theater, immunology and photography.

Regina Barzilay, 46, is a computational linguist who is working on “machine learning methods that enable computers to interpret unstructured document content and perform real-world tasks with the promise for significant societal impact,” according to the MacArthur Foundation website. She gained bachelors and masters degrees at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, followed by a doctorate at Columbia University.

Barlizlay is currently working with physicians in “devising deep learning models that utilize imaging, free text, and structured data to identify trends that affect early diagnosis, treatment, and disease prevention,” the website said.

For opera director and producer Yuval Sharon, whose Israeli parents moved to Chicago where he was born, the news that he had been selected was “an enormous shock and honor.” When the foundation called, he assumed they were seeking a referral for someone else who’d been nominated.

“I’m totally amazed,” said Sharon, 37, the founder and artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based production company that produces operas in nontraditional spaces and formats. A 2015 production transported audience members and performers to various locations in Los Angeles via limousines, with singers and musicians performing along the way and at each stop.

Yuval Sharon, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, at his home in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, September 26, 2017. (CC-BY: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

His next work, an adaptation of the radio program “War of the Worlds,” will utilize decommissioned World War II sirens to broadcast the performance occurring inside the theater onto the streets. The sounds of performers stationed outdoors — and likely the traffic and other street noise — will then be transmitted back into the concert hall.

Sharon said he comes across many people who don’t think opera is for them, but he hopes hearing about these kinds of “audacious experiments” will pique their interest.

The foundation has awarded the fellowships annually since 1981 to people who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” Previous winners have included “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, and author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. There is no application process. Instead, an anonymous pool of nominators brings potential fellows to the foundation’s attention. Those selected learn they’ve been chosen shortly before the awards are announced.

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