Three University professors were awarded MacArthur Fellowships worth $500,000 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to further their research through any means of their choosing.

Tiya Miles, director of the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies, Melanie Sanford, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor of chemistry and Yukiko Yamashita, an assistant professor in the Life Science Institute and an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology in the Medical School, were among 22 researchers nationwide to be awarded the prestigious fellowship.

The University of Michigan tied Harvard University for the most recipients this year. A faculty member at the University last earned a MacArthur Fellowship — nicknamed a Genius Award — in 2005. Twenty-four University faculty members, including Miles, Sanford and Yamashita, have been named fellows since the MacArthur Foundation began naming them in 1981.

University President Mary Sue Coleman wrote in a University press release sent today that the fellowships awarded to the University professors marks “a remarkable day in the life of the University of Michigan.”

“The exceptional contributions of professors Tiya Miles, Melanie Sanford and Yukiko Yamashita deepen our understanding of life – from a single molecule to the sweep of human history,” Coleman wrote.

Miles, Sanford and Yamashita each said they plan to spend their grants in ways that differ as much as their specialties.

“It’s an awful lot of money,” Miles said in a telephone interview last night.

The $500,000 is paid out to the recipients quarterly over five years. Miles said she plans to split her grant among several projects, including research about the history of slavery in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan.

“It’s a really fascinating story that I look forward to having time to delve into,” she said. “And, of course, having fellowship funds helps to create time.”

Miles also said she will devote some funds to enhance ECO Girls, a program she developed to enhance environmental awareness and cultural diversity among elementary and middle school age girls in Michigan’s urban communities.

Yamashita wrote that she will continue to study the biology of stem cells, focusing on the asymmetric division of the cells. She said asymmetric division is believed to generate tissue homeostasis — or a stable condition — and when it malfunctions, it can become a causing factor of cancer or tissue degeneration.

Sanford, who researches organic and inorganic chemistry, will work on the development of metal catalysts to cause a reaction in carbon-hydrogen bonds. Though the bonds are in many chemicals found in objects ranging from DNA to shampoo, Sanford wrote that the bonds are typically unreactive. If the metal catalysts can be used to cause a reaction, Sanford wrote, the bond could be made into new atom groups used to make pharmaceuticals greener and also could become possible natural gas convertors.

The MacArthur Fellowship has no application process. Recipients are nominated anonymously by a group of people who, also anonymously, submit recommendations to a selection committee of about a dozen leaders in fields ranging from the sciences to the arts.

The committee reviews each nominee and then makes recommendations to the MacArthur Foundation’s president and board of directors who make the final decision. The foundation typically awards between 20 and 30 fellowships each year.

Fellows, including those at the University, don’t know they are nominated until they receive a phone call congratulating them for receiving the grant.

“The call from the Foundation is the culmination of an intensive year or longer review of the creative efforts and promise of each Fellow,” Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program wrote in a MacArthur Foundation press release sent today. “It comes out of the blue and offers the new Fellows the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity to explore, create and contribute.”

Miles said she received the call about 10 days ago and, like the other fellows, said it came out of “the clear blue sky.”

“It was a complete and total shock to get this news,” she said.

Sanford wrote in an e-mail interview that she was boarding a plane to Scotland as she got the call from the foundation. Initially, she thought it was a practical joke.

“As you can imagine, I did not sleep much on the flight,” Sanford wrote.

According to Yamashita, the MaCarthur Foundation told the recipients that until today, they could only tell their spouses about the award. When she first told her husband, he thought it was a hoax.

Yamashita wrote: “He seriously warned me, ‘Okay, if you get a second phone call asking (for) your bank account and the PIN number, saying they need it for award money transfer, don’t give them away.'”

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