Peidong Yang, a chemist who is building nanowires into commercial applications—such as devices that generate fuel from solar energy, or convert waste heat into electricity—is one of nine US scientists and social scientists to win a so-called ‘genius grant’ this year from the philanthropic MacArthur Foundation, based in Chicago, Illinois.

The awards, announced on September 29, give $625,000 of “no-strings-attached” funding to creative and inspiring individuals in any field, paid out over five years.

Yang, at the University of California, Berkeley, recently helped build a device that uses nanowires and bacteria to absorb solar energy and convert carbon dioxide and water into fuel. His nanowire research has also been used to make chemical sensors and optical switches.

Other science and social science-related winners of this year’s fellowships are listed below.

Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, discovered that microglia in the brain play the critical role of pruning back neurons as the brain develops. Her work could help us understand how neurodegeneration occurs in diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Christopher Ré, a computer scientist at Stanford University in California, created DeepDive, a data analysis engine that has been used to crawl across vast tracts of data and pull out information—for example, to analyse human trafficking networks on the web, to identify interactions between genes and prescription drugs, and to construct fossil databases directly from research papers.

John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago, IIlinois, works on understanding human ancestry through analysing genetic data. He created a detailed map of genetic diversity among African Americans, and has mapped out the rare genetic variants that riddle human populations.

William Dichtel, a chemist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, makes sponge-like polymers called covalent organic frameworks, which might be useful for storing fuels and separating molecules.

Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University in New York, works on new ways to treat wastewater. He uses microbes and other technologies to clean the water while also produce valuable byproducts such as biofuel. He has tested his projects on the ground in Ghana, with Engineers without Borders.

Lorenz Studer, a stem cell biologist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is leading efforts to transplant neurons into the brain, with the hope of replacing cells that die due to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Heidi Williams, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks at the causes of innovation in health-care markets. She focuses on the influence of patents and intellectual property laws, and has examined the race between public and private institutions to decode the human genome.

Matthew Desmond, a social scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studies the impact of eviction on the urban poor. His research has led to policy changes that help victims of domestic violence.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on September 29, 2015.