Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology J. Drew Lanham ’88, M ’90, Ph.D. ’97 is a man of many talents and titles, but he often refers to himself simply as a “wondering wanderer” or “man in love with nature.”

Now he can officially add “genius” to the list … not that he plans on calling himself that.

In October 2022, Lanham was announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of its 2022 MacArthur Fellows, commonly known by their informal title: genius grants.

“I’ll dismiss that quickly,” Lanham said with a laugh of being dubbed a genius. “I think the genius of it is really in the foundation having the vision to see that you can give license and liberty to thinking in a way that is truly saying to a group of people, ‘Look, you’re doing some unique work here that moves the world’s needle toward some better place. We want to support you in that and do so in a way that can be significant and life-changing and allow you to focus on that for a significant amount of time.’ So, that’s the real genius to me: that the MacArthur Foundation sees fit to fund dreams.”

The fellowship is awarded to talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits. Fellows receive $800,000, paid in quarterly stipends over five years with no conditions; recipients may use the money as they see fit.

Nominated anonymously by leaders in their fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee, recipients learn of their selection only when they receive a call from the MacArthur Foundation just before the public announcement.

“That’s the real genius to me: that the MacArthur Foundation sees fit to fund dreams.”

Drew Lanham

“When I got the congratulatory call, I was both speechless and, I think, a babbling idiot,” Lanham joked. “But it’s a great honor. For a while, I thought of it almost as an intellectual lottery, but really what it is, is creative liberation. It allows me to continue the work that I’ve been doing, but without so much explanation as to why that I do the work that I do.”

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential.  The purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

Shortly after this announcement, Lanham was listed among 2022’s most influential Black Americans by the online publication The Root.

Lanham is an ornithologist, naturalist, writer and poet, combining conservation science with personal, historical and cultural narratives of nature. His research and teaching focus on the impacts of forest management on birds and other wildlife.

The poet laureate of Edgefield County, from where he hails, Lanham brings his ecological knowledge as well as his perspective as a Black man living in the South to bear on his work as a storyteller and passionate advocate for birdwatching, outdoor recreation and environmental conservation and stewardship. 

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