When their office phones rang the other day, two Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers were expecting the routine.
Instead, they heard the biggest news of their careers. Kay Redfield Jamison and Geraldine Seydoux were informed they'd each won one of the most prestigious grants in the country: the MacArthur Fellowship. The prize gives each researcher $500,000 over five years to use however she wants.
"It was just ... completely out of the blue," said Jamison, a psychologist, teacher and writer on mental health. "I was just unbelievably happy and delighted."
In her office, Seydoux was also stunned.
"It was almost embarrassing," said Seydoux, a young scientist whose work has revealed important elements of biological development. "They are telling me 'We chose you because of your creativity and purpose,' but I was speechless."
The two Hopkins researchers were selected along with 21 others nationwide to be named today, including an optical physicist, a concert pianist and a conservationist. The fellowships are meant to give creative, bright individuals who are improving society the freedom and means to pursue their ideas without the hassle of reporting requirements.
No one can apply for the award. Instead, nominators and a selection committee, all of whom are anonymous and work in secrecy for months, review hundreds of candidates from all walks of life. The foundation looks at what candidates have done as well as their potential.
"Kay Redfield Jamison is an incredible person who has written beautifully and opened our eyes to so many things, and Geraldine Seydoux is a woman of great, great talent who has much to do," said Daniel J. Socolow, the program's director, who placed the calls to all the winners.
Both scientists said they plan to stay at Hopkins.
Though all her plans for the money aren't clear yet, Jamison said she wants to expand a college program she has started at Harvard and Howard universities. The program seeks students' ideas for ways to decrease the stigma of mental illness and get more people into treatment. She hopes to start it at Yale and UCLA.
Jamison, 55, is well-known in many circles. She has won respect in the scientific world for her research and writing on manic depression and other mood disorders. Along with a colleague, she wrote the standard medical text on manic depression. She has also written more than 100 scientific papers.
But through sweeping, lyrical bestsellers like Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide and a memoir of her own struggle with manic depression, An Unquiet Mind, Jamison has reached the public, breaking down stereotypes, teaching about mental illness and inspiring many who suffer with such disorders.
"She is a major figure," said Dr. Paul McHugh, who recently stepped down after 26 years as psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "She's taught about the disease, she's treated patients with the disease, but in the process of revealing aspects of the disease in her own life, she's encouraged people to think they could get beyond this, that there is a life out there for them."
Jamison, who lives in Northwest Washington, D.C., with her husband, teaches at Hopkins. She is working on her sixth book, a study of exuberance, its biology and psychology, as well as who is exuberant and why the trait exists.
In recent years, she has used her celebrity to focus attention on mental health issues, galvanizing donors and academics to pay attention to a long-neglected field.
The other MacArthur winner from Hopkins, Seydoux, has also made her mark through rigorous yet creative science. At 37, Seydoux has already made pioneering discoveries in basic science. She has worked to reveal the process by which certain cells become "germ cells," the precursors to reproductive organs that pass on genetic material.
An associate professor of molecular biology and genetics at Hopkins, Seydoux grew up in France and Italy, and when her mother remarried, she landed in the United States. She was 18, unhappy and hoping to return to Europe. But her professors at the University of Maine, and later at Princeton, encouraged her aptitude in science and math. And then one day, a Princeton professor called her into a lab to let her see a worm under a microscope.
"I could see every single cell in the worm, and he was alive and moving about," Seydoux said. "That seemed to me the most beautiful mystery of life. I wanted from then on to figure out how cells know to get together to form a living organism."
For years, Seydoux has scrutinized the tiny, transparent roundworms known as C. elegans. She has identified genes that control the development of their germ cells and make them different from most other cells. She has also developed new methods to study the organism, including a way to stain embryos to see where particular genes are active.
"At every stage of her career, she marked herself as a truly outstanding young developmental biologist," said Thomas Kelly, the Hopkins department director who recruited Seydoux.
Along the way, Seydoux, who lives with her husband and two toddlers in Roland Park, became a teacher and mentor, the kind who has attracted students to her lab with her enthusiasm.
Just last week, one of her graduate students, Kim Reese, ran into the lab to share a discovery.
"I was bursting to tell her," Reese said. "She's always as excited as you are."
Seydoux credits her success to the teamwork of her lab members and colleagues. When she was told about the grant, she said, she felt overwhelmed, going through in her mind all the other scientists she thought were more deserving.
She said she will weigh carefully how to use the money. But she has already decided the MacArthur Fellowship has given her something even more valuable.
"It feels like an endorsement, the scientific community out there telling me, 'What you're doing is right, and go on and do some more,' " Seydoux said. "It's priceless."
Honoree's examination of mental illness
From Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness:
In a rage I pulled the bathroom lamp off the wall and felt the violence go through me but not yet out of me. "For Christ's sake," he said, rushing in - and stopping very quietly. Jesus, I must be crazy, I can see it in his eyes: a dreadful mix of concern, terror, irritation, resignation, and why me, Lord ... . "I can't help it. I can't help it," I chant to myself, but I can't say it; the words won't come out, and the thoughts are going by far too fast. I bang my head over and over against the door. God make it stop, I can't stand it, I know I'm insane again. He really cares, I think, but within ten minutes he too is screaming, and his eyes have a wild look from contagious madness, from the lightning adrenaline between the two of us. "I can't leave you like this," but I say a few truly awful things and then go for his throat in a more literal way, and he does leave me, provoked beyond endurance and unable to see the devastation and despair inside. I can't convey it and he can't see it; there's nothing to be done. I can't think, I can't calm this murderous cauldron, my grand ideas of an hour ago seem absurd and pathetic, my life is in ruins and -worse still - ruinous; my body is uninhabitable. It is raging and weeping and full of destruction and wild energy gone amok. In the mirror I see a creature I don't know but must live and share my mind with.
I understand why Jekyll killed himself before Hyde had taken over completely. I took a massive overdose of lithium with no regrets.