Leonard wins MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'

Naomi Ehrich Leonard, a Princeton engineer who invents mathematical theories that allow underwater robots to coordinate their own behavior like schooling fish, has been selected to receive a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship.

Prof. Naomi Ehrich Leonard

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Leonard is among 23 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who will each receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over a five-year period. The fellowships, known informally as "genius grants," recognize people who have "shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction.

Leonard, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, specializes in a branch of engineering and applied mathematics called control theory. The field involves designing methods for influencing the behavior of a dynamic complex system -- anything from a drug regimen that controls a disease process to software that drives a robot. In recent years, she has focused on the control of autonomous underwater vehicles that patrol the seas for long periods of time collecting data about ecosystems and ocean dynamics.

Much of Leonard's work is inspired by living organisms, such as fish and birds, which coordinate their movements without any overall leader. "We want our vehicles to forage for data like a school of fish forages for food," said Leonard, who collaborates with biologists, oceanographers as well as other engineers and applied mathematicians.

"She's a truly visionary scientist and engineer," said Maria Klawe, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "She has managed to create an interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together the best in engineering, control theory, oceanography and biology for groundbreaking research. She also is a role model to students as someone who takes basic science and applies it in very innovative ways to real problems facing the world."

Leonard, who received her bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1985, is one of two Princeton alumni recipients of 2004 MacArthur Fellowships. John Kamm, a 1972 graduate from San Francisco, was recognized for his efforts combining business and human rights work in China. Building longstanding relationships and personal trust at many levels in Chinese society, Kamm has secured the release of many political prisoners and improved conditions for many others.

The full story is available in a news release.