MacArthur Foundation names 2 Bay Area Jews geniuses

Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor, was eating breakfast at home last week with her husband and daughter, when she got the phone call. David Green, a Berkeley social entrepreneur, was in Kansas visiting his wife’s relatives.

Both were asked similar questions. “Are you alone? Are you sitting down?”

And then Green was asked something like: “Do you know any MacArthur Fellows?” When he responded in the negative, the voice on the other end of the phone said, “You know one very close to you; do you know who that might be?”

It was Green himself, chosen as one of 23 MacArthur Fellows. Green and Koller happen to be Jewish recipients of this year’s so-called “Genius Awards,” which were given to seven area residents.

MacArthur grants come as a complete surprise, since winners are not told they are even being considered. They are nominated by experts in their field and then chosen in secret. Each winner receives $500,000 over a five-year period, with no restrictions on its use.

Green, who calls his philosophy “compassionate capitalism, is the founder of the Berkeley-based Project Impact.

The nonprofit helped establish a company in India called Aurolab that makes affordable plastic lenses that restore sight to people with cataracts. He now hopes to do a similar thing with affordable digital hearing aids.

Because the products are made in India, the prices are far lower than in the West, making the products more widely available.

Green, originally from Ypsilanti, Mich., came to the Bay Area two years ago, because of his wife, Tanya Shaffer, an actress and writer. Shaffer has appeared in numerous local shows, including a Traveling Jewish Theatre’s production of “Come My Beloved” in 2002.

Green said that as a newcomer to the Bay Area, he is not as involved in the Jewish community as he’d like to be, but with the birth of his son a year ago, he expects to become more active.

When asked his family’s reaction to his getting the award, he said, “My mom always felt that I should be a MacArthur Fellow. I think I am one because of all of her prayers and thoughts and intention and will in that direction.”

Green said that he was still in too much shock to think about how he will use the money. He did, however, have this to say:

“The recognition and what it does for me internally is great, but hopefully I’ll be able to use the notoriety to raise awareness and support for the kind of work that I do.”

Koller, 36, is an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University. Originally from Jerusalem, she settled in the Bay Area in 1989, getting her Ph.D. from Stanford in 1993 and joining its faculty in 1995. She lives in Portola Valley.

Koller’s research builds on probability theory, decision theory and game theory, using techniques from artificial intelligence and computer science as well.

Her research leaves her little time for anything but her family, she said.

Koller, who is seven months pregnant, lives with her daughter and husband, Dan Avida, also Israeli, who works in high-tech. Koller said her family in Israel — many of whom are academics — at first did not understand what a big deal this was. “It’s not very well-known there, because it’s U.S.-based,” she said.

“Initially, they were very pleased that I had gotten an award, but then they looked it up on the Web and were even more pleased.”

Koller didn’t know whether she is the first Israeli national to receive the award — she has dual citizenship — and a spokeswoman from the MacArthur Foundation said that the foundation does not keep track of such things, since the award is only given to U.S. citizens.

Noting that the foundation doesn’t distribute the first check until the beginning of next year, Koller said she was grateful to have the waiting period to decide.

“They understand that this is a very big surprise, and you don’t have pre-made plans,” said Koller. “It’s not a decision people want to take lightly.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."