Nels Elde ’95 has worked with a lot of brilliant scholars and researchers over the years, so when the University of Utah professor got an email last fall from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to arrange a phone call, he figured someone wanted to ask him to comment on a colleague: Did so-and-so deserve a prestigious MacArthur fellowship? To Elde’s shock, however, the foundation was calling to award him a so-called Genius Grant for his work as an evolutionary geneticist. In recent years, Elde’s research has focused on host-pathogen interactions and the evolutionary processes that enable organisms to better attack others or defend themselves, a subject that particularly interests scientists who battle infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Elde was among 21 Americans to receive a fellowship in 2020. In addition to the international recognition, the fellowship comes with a $625,000 no-strings-attached award. Elde says he’s grateful for the funds but hasn’t decided yet how he’ll use the money. Rather than finance his current research, he may use the award to jump-start work in an underresourced area like science communication. “I think a lot about how scientists can better connect with the community,” says Elde, who co-hosts a podcast called This Week in Evolution. “How do we pull back the curtain and show what scientists do? The MacArthur might be rocket fuel for that project.”