You can’t put a price tag on genius.
Well, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation can. It’s $625,000. That’s how much the foundation awards every year in its famous “genius grants.”
And a Centre County native just gone one.
Bill Thies graduated from State College Area High School in 1997, and left home for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he picked up two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s and a doctorate.
But the real genius started after he left to work for Microsoft Research India.
A computer scientist, Thies works on “creating communication and digital technologies to advance the social and economic well-being of low-income communities in the developing world,” according to the MacArthur Foundation.
In short, he uses tech, something often considered expensive or complicated, to solve real problems for people in rural areas of India, working around issues such as money, internet access and literacy to make their lives better.
Take the 99DOTS project, in which he is fighting tuberculosis with phone calls.
The project helps monitor the medication of thousands of patients, not with doctors traveling to remote areas or making house calls or symptomatic people coming to a clinic. Instead, the tech is as simple as a blister pack and a phone number. Take your meds and unveil the number, like a message in a fortune cookie. Make the free call and talk to a health worker.
“Our solution is simple, and aims to be low-cost and accessible by all patients,” according to 99DOTS.
His mom couldn’t be prouder.
“It’s very heartening,” Anita Thies said of her son’s award. “It’s nice because the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship encourages people trying to do something positive in the world.”
His alma mater is pretty happy about it, too.
“For Bill Thies to be recognized by the MacArthur Fellows Program as one of the world’s most impactful people is incredible. He is a very talented and creative human being who is making our world a better place,” said State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O’Donnell. “Our school district community is very proud of him and his work. We know that Bill stays in touch with his family here in State College, and we’re hopeful that he might someday soon spend some time with our students. We believe that through connecting with such an accomplished alumnus, students would be inspired to pursue careers and lives that make a difference in communities and benefit others.”
Thies was one of 23 fellows named this year. Past recipients have included dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel.