Jacob Lurie Pays It Forward

By Ali Valdrighi

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards annual fellowships to honor individuals who possess the capacity for creative, critical thinking and self-direction.  According to the MacArthur Foundation, the criteria for Fellow selection include creativity, promise for future advances and the potential for subsequent creative work. Recipients are from a variety of fields including writers, scientists, teachers, entrepreneurs, and artists. Additionally, they are given a “no strings attached” stipend of $625,000 to spend on their current research, new research or even in an entirely new field. 


Phi Beta Kappa member and Harvard mathematics professor Jacob Lurie (ΦBK, Harvard University, 2000) recently received the MacArthur Award for his work in mathematics.  Although Lurie said he is not sure which aspects of his work were of greatest interest to the MacArthur Foundation, he finds his contributions to topological quantum field theory (for those with a mathematics background, specifically, the proof of the Baez-Dolan cobordism hypothesis) most interesting.

“(My work) establishes an unexpected link between a subject which is very formal and abstract, category theory, and a subject which is very geometric, the theory of manifolds,” Lurie said. He has also done innovative work in a number of different areas including algebraic geometry, representation theory, number theory, and homotopy theory. 


Lurie was initially surprised to receive the award: “I had not even been aware that they gave (MacArthur Awards) to mathematics.” Lurie said he plans to contribute the money, along with that he earned from receiving the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics (a $3-million award larger than any other scientific prize, including the $1.2-million Nobel Prize) to help further mathematics through education. 

Lurie will contribute “some money to an International Math Union initiative to fund mathematics in the developing world in the form of graduate student fellowships,” he said. “I am also making a gift to the Ross Program where I had a great experience when I was a student, and some smaller gifts to similar programs,” Lurie added. The Ross Program is hosted at Ohio State University and is a prestigious (clearly, with Lurie as a former attendee) six-week summer math program for pre-college students.

Lurie has contributed extensively to the field of mathematics and is now creating a multiplier effect by using his awards to help others similarly follow their passions. 

Ali Valdrighi is a senior at Pomona College majoring in neuroscience. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.