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Kelly Benoit-Bird, a pioneering young oceanographer from Oregon State University, has been selected as one of 23 recipients of a prestigious 2010 MacArthur Fellowship.

Popularly called “Genius Awards,” the 2010 fellowships include a $500,000 stipend to further the recipient’s scholarship. They are presented annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Benoit-Bird, 34, studies the interrelationships of animals in different marine environments, using acoustics and other sophisticated technologies. Her innovative uses of sonar in tracking marine creatures from Humboldt squid to spinner dolphins have led to new discoveries about their feeding behavior, movements and even communication.

“This is a well-deserved recognition of a tremendous young scientist who not only is creative, but is an exceptionally well-rounded person,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Benoit-Bird is the second Oregon State University marine scientist to have received a MacArthur award. In 1993, Jane Lubchenco, a professor of zoology and now NOAA Administrator, also was so honored.

Benoit-Bird learned of her own recognition a week ago and was pledged to secrecy by the MacArthur Foundation. The experience, she said, has been “surreal.”

“The foundation called me at 7:30 in the morning and I didn’t answer my phone right away — I need my sleep,” said Benoit-Bird, who is nearly seven months pregnant. “They called back again at 8 a.m. and when I finally realized they were serious, it still took a while to sink in. The last thing they said was, “don’t expect to hear from us again.’”

The fellowship includes the “no strings attached” stipend, which is designed to provide seed money for the recipients’ intellectual, social and artistic endeavors. Benoit-Bird said the five-year support would allow her to “take some risks in my research that otherwise would not be possible.”

OSU President Edward J. Ray said Benoit-Bird, who is the first member of her family to attend college, exemplifies the type of bright, ambitious young faculty members attracted to the university’s growing reputation in the Earth sciences.


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