KU News Release

Sept. 29, 2010
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

KU graduate earns ‘genius grant’ and $500K for beekeeping research

LAWRENCE — The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has named University of Kansas alumna Marla Spivak a 2010 MacArthur Fellow. The honor, popularly called the “genius grant,” comes along with $500,000 that a recipient may use with “no strings attached.”

Spivak is the Distinguished McKnight Professor of Apiculture and Social Insects in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota.

Her research centers on breeding disease-resistant strains of bees for a beekeeping industry wrestling with “colony collapse disorder” — work that offers the industry an alternative to chemical pesticides.

“What I do is study bee health,” said Spivak. “I focus on the most positive aspect of bee health, from the bee’s point of view. I look at what we can do for the bees to help them defend themselves, rather than what can we do as people to help them.”

Spivak, who graduated from KU in 1989 with a doctoral degree in biology, studied Africanized bees in Costa Rica during her time in Lawrence.

“My Ph.D. work was done at KU with Chip Taylor and Charles Michener,” said Spivak. “KU was the mecca for bee research. If you were anybody doing bee research, KU was where you went.”

Chip Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said Spivak was “very deserving” of the recognition.

“I’m very excited about this,” Taylor said. “Marla is certainly prepared to do some very good things with the money that comes with this award. She is remarkable in her ability to work with industry and also to work with a lot of researchers and to bring groups together. She’s providing very effective education for the beekeeping industry to improve the stocks of bees that they work with.”

For her part, Spivak credited Taylor with helping to establish a research path.

“For one of Chip’s classes, the requirement was to write a grant proposal,” said Spivak. “I did one as a fantasy proposal, but Chip took my grant, rewrote parts and submitted it to the National Science Foundation as a dissertation improvement grant — and it was granted. I had no idea that was happening. This amazing grant allowed me to spend two years in Costa Rica working with Africanized bees, and it started as this assignment for Chip’s class and launched my career.”

The MacArthur Foundation is dedicated to supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”

Spivak was one of 23 recipients this year.

Previous KU graduates to have won the MacArthur fellowship include David H. Hillis for developing molecular genetic analyses that contributed to the understanding of the history of life on earth; visual artist Ann Hamilton; and Wes Jackson, environmental historian and president of the Land Institute in Salina.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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