CHICAGO — A pair of UC Berkeley professors were among 24 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

A newspaper reporter who refuses to forget decades-old murders and a law professor trying to get people to forget the way they think about severe mental illness also won the $500,000 fellowships, which were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

While recipients can spend the money however they wish, the foundation said the selections were made as much for what the scientists, artists and others might achieve as much as for what they've already done.

"We're looking for ways to have an impact with the grants," said Bob Gallucci, the foundation's president. "This is not just an award for past accomplishment (but) for the potential to do more creative things in the future."

Among the winners were UC Berkeley professors Maneesh Agrawala, a computer scientist, and Lin He, a biologist.

Agrawala said he was "amazed and speechless" to receive the foundation's phone call last week, while he was trying to finish a paper.

"I made the deadline, but it was quite distracting," he said.

Agrawala studies how people understand information on computer screens, such as maps. One of his projects, called LineDrive, is used by Microsoft to simplify driving directions.


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LineDrive mimics hand-drawn maps, leaving out the streets that do not pertain to a route. People often are distracted by extra — and useless — information on maps, he said.

"In a way, hand-drawn maps are much better than maps drawn to scale because they highlight the relevant information," Agrawala said.

He also studies how to make storytelling more effective, including through animation, radio and print. Agrawala plans to use the MacArthur grant to learn more about radio journalism, and specifically how stories are told on the radio.

The other Berkeley professor declined to comment Tuesday.

San Francisco artist Camille Utterback also received a fellowship.

As in previous years, a wide variety of fields are represented on the list of recipients, including both arts and sciences. There is a novelist and an applied physicist, a photojournalist and a molecular biologist, a painter and a biochemist, physicians and a short story writer, a bridge engineer and poet.

They are also people who are as close or closer to the beginning of their careers than they are to the end. Of the 24 recipients, nine are still in their 30s, with a total of 16 of them not yet 50 years old.

One after another, they say the money will help them continue what has become their life's work.

Staff writer Matt Krupnick contributed to this story.