Rick Prum said that while he found his research on bird feathers fascinating, he often would wonder who his audience was.
He knows better now.
The former Kansas University ornithologist, who now works at Yale University, received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly called a “genius grant,” worth $500,000.
“Not even in moments of hubris would you ever expect this or imagine it,” Prum said from his Yale office on Tuesday.
Prum worked at KU from 1991 until 2003 as a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and as a curator of KU’s Museum of Natural History. A portion of the research for which he’s credited took place at KU, he said.
His KU colleagues recall an energetic, creative researcher who always was willing to shake up commonly accepted beliefs in science if he had the evidence to refute them.
Leonard Krishtalka, director of KU’s natural history museum, said Prum broke new ground with his research into coloration of bird feathers, and said his research on the anatomical structure of feathers was “one of the nails in the coffin” for people who would deny that birds were evolutionarily linked to dinosaurs.
“Rick was always brimming with enthusiasm,” Krishtalka said. “And always wanting to discuss a new idea.”
The process for awarding MacArthur grants remains extremely secretive. In fact, Prum said he has no idea who nominated him for the honor. He doesn’t even know the identity of the group who selected him.
He said the foundation has gone out of its way to assure him that the money may be spent any way he chooses, going so far as to say that beyond a few upcoming phone calls and letters, he will never hear from them again.
It was gratifying to be recognized, he said, particularly for his interdisciplinary work.
As for the money, he said he has three boys who will need college educations.
“A lot of this is going to go out the door in tuition,” Prum said, adding that a trip to Borneo may be in order, too.
Town Peterson, another KU colleague in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, said that his friend is always good for a “frighteningly energetic, high-energy” conversation.
Peterson said Prum’s research, which has gone off in many different directions, was worthy of the high honor he received.
“He deserves it,” Peterson said. “This is a great honor.”