'It was big:' Duke scientist wins prestigious 'genius grant', $625K prize

Dr. Jenny Tung had to keep it secret when she found out early this month she was one of the 26 minds in art and academia being awarded the "genius grant." But this week the list of 2019 MacArthur fellows was revealed to the world -- a big bright spotlight for this Duke scientist, wife and new mom. Her son Kiran is 22 months old.

"So it was big. It was sudden. And it was surprising," Tung said. "Actually they said, 'Are you familiar with the MacArthur fellows?', and I said yeah, Lin Manuel Miranda won one of those. And they said, 'Actually you were harder to get on the phone!"

Tung has built a busy life here in Durham with hours spent in the lab and classroom at Duke. She's become a pioneer in evolutionary anthropology and genetic study.

And she's spent a month every summer since 2006 in Kenya, in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a part of the Amboseli Baboon Research Project. It's a 48-year long study of the same troop of baboons living completely in the wild.

"So we're not looking at the almost 8th generation of descendants from those original animals and that gives us the ability to ask a lot of different kinds of questions."

Questions like how the monkeys' social relationships affect things like how they live, how many babies they have, how successful they are in life. And the answers could provide insight on how adversity early on for humans affect our life path.

"One of the bigger things that a baboon can experience that's pretty toxic is losing their mom early on," Tung said.

When it comes to balancing her own life as a mom and leading scientist, Tung credits some pretty great role models.

And while she isn't embracing the title of genius, she humbly accepts the $625,000 stipend that comes with the fellowship

"(The MacArthur Foundation) says this about creativity and promise and the hope that you can use the funds to do something bigger than what you've done," she said. "Now, the first step to fulfilling that obligation is to figure it out."

The $625,000 stipend will be delivered in installments over the next five years. It comes with no strings attached -- just a means to inspire more of her potentially world-changing creativity.
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