ΦBK Award Winners 2018

By Caroline Secrest 

MacArthur Foundation Fellowships

The MacArthur “Genius Grants” candidates are anonymously nominated and evaluated, with the winners chosen for their unparalleled innovation and potential for imminent breakthrough. Over the course of five years, the recipients receive a total of $625,000 to use as they see fit in order to leverage their work to the betterment of the nation and world. This year’s fellowship winners feature four Phi Beta Kappa members:

Composer and conductor Matthew Aucoin (ΦΒΚ, Harvard University) weaves together melody with language, music with speech, producing works such as the opera Crossing (2015), which brings to life Walt Whitman’s diary as he cared for Civil War soldiers. With his grant, Aucoin will be adapting a play into an opera, composing large-scale instrumental pieces, and working with the ensemble he founded to premiere new works.

Health Economist Amy Finkelstein (ΦΒΚ, Harvard University) attracted the MacArthur Foundation’s attention with her innovative use of randomized controlled trials to understand the impact and effectiveness of Medicaid. Finkelstein’s grant will contribute to ongoing and upcoming projects, such as her opioid crisis research to investigate supply-side sources of addiction.

Kristina Olson (ΦΒΚ, Washington University in Saint Louis) directs the Social Cognitive Development Lab’s TransYouth Project, which traces a cohort of transgender and gender-nonconforming children over 20 years to study their emotional and physical health. Thus far, the psychologist has found that youth supported in their non-conventional identification display good mental health alongside their peers and hopes to use the grant to expand her data and its impact.

Rebecca Sandefur (ΦΒΚ, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a sociologist and legal scholar at the University of Illinois studying access to legal justice across demographic lines. She has created a national map of legal aid providers to discover gaps and epicenters of available assistance. Her grant will support current projects such as generating technology that broadens access to legal advice.

Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards

Since 1950, The Christian Gauss Award has celebrated an outstanding work of literary criticism or scholarship honoring the legacy of its namesake, Princeton University dean and former Phi Beta Kappa president Christian Gauss.


In this year’s winning entry, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017), Laura Dassow Walls (ΦΒΚ, University of Washington) probes her subject’s psyche with affecting sympathy and depth, exploring his words both famous and private to portray a life wrought with pain and hope.


Edwidge Danticat (ΦΒΚ, Barnard College) was shortlisted for The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf Press, 2017). Danticat studies scenes of death, as imaged by authors as varied as Dante and Toni Morrison, incorporating insights from her Haitian-American heritage.

Megan Marshall’s (ΦΒΚ, Princeton University) shortlisted work, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) follows her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Her most recent work is an investigation and reflection of her own life alongside that of the poet’s, Marshall’s one-time teacher.

Lastly, Deborah Epstein Nord (ΦΒΚ, Princeton University) co-authored the shortlisted At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017) with Maria DiBattista. Their work uncovers the ways female writers have engaged deeply with national and global issues, even through narratives penned in their bedrooms.

Since 1959, The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science has highlighted groundbreaking books written by scientists that translate scientific innovation to a wide readership with outstanding rigor and clarity.


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin, 2017) by Robert M. Sapolsky (ΦΒΚ, Harvard University) earned this year’s prize for its neuroscientific approach to the interplay between brain and action.

Since 1960, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award has recognized scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. The award encompasses work in the fields of history, philosophy, and religion, including appropriate work in related fields such as anthropology and the social sciences.


Caroline Fraser (ΦΒΚ, University of California-Los Angeles) was shortlisted for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books, 2017). In this extensively researched biography, Fraser draws on her deep knowledge of Wilder’s work and previously unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and records to create one of the most comprehensive portraits of the famed author’s life.

Dennis S. Rasmussen (ΦΒΚ, Michigan State University) analyzes an extraordinary acquaintanceship in his shortlisted work. In The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University, 2017), Rasmussen traces the 18th-century correspondence between the skeptic Hume and capitalist Smith to reveal profound insights into their inner worlds.

With Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Steven Stoll (ΦΒΚ, University of California-Berkeley) treks deep into Appalachia to uncover its geographic and social development, revisiting the Hatfield-McCoy feud, the origins of lasting stereotypes, and the underbelly of industrialization. 

Nobel Prizes

Along with two other recipients, Arthur Ashkin (ΦΒΚ, Columbia University) earned this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering creation of optical tweezers, which utilize light to grip and manipulate microscopic particles.

Francis Arnold (ΦΒΚ, Princeton University) is one of three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Arnold won for her work on directed evolution of enzymes, proteins that catalyze chemical reactions.

William D. Nordhaus (ΦΒΚ, Yale University) received this year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his scholarship reporting the influence of climate change on economics, and vice versa.

Nordhaus shares the Economic Science award with Paul M. Romer (ΦΒΚ, University of Chicago), who was recognized for modeling the link between economic progress and technological innovation.

National Book Awards

Since 1950, the National Book Awards have honored the year’s finest publications across multiple categories. The works of two Phi Beta Kappa authors were honored as finalists:

Collin G. Calloway’s (ΦΒΚ, Dartmouth College) The Indian World of George Washington (Oxford University Press), a Non-Fiction finalist, revisits the life of America’s first president through his contentious relationship with Native-American peoples.

Jenny Xie (ΦΒΚ, Princeton University) was a Poetry finalist for Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018), an astonishing and celebrated debut that also earned the 2017 Walt Whitman Award.

Pulitzer Prizes

Established at the bequest of Joseph Pulitzer and first awarded in 1917, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrate the year’s best and most impactful writing in journalism, literature, and music.

New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor (ΦΒΚ, Columbia University) shares a prize in Public Service with colleague Megan Twohey for uncovering patterns of sexual abuse inflicted by influential men such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly.

Michael Kimmelman (ΦΒΚ, Yale University), also of the New York Times, was a finalist in the category of Explanatory Reporting for covering the impact of climate change on cities worldwide, from Houston to Jakarta.

Sharon Grigsby’s (ΦΒΚ, Baylor University) pieces for the Dallas Morning News earned her a place as a finalist in the Editorial Writing category for her uncompromising call for justice for sexual assault survivors at her alma mater, Baylor University.

Winner Caroline Fraser (ΦΒΚ, University of California-Los Angeles) earned the top prize in the Biography category for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books, 2017). The book was also shortlisted for Phi Beta Kappa’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.

Biography finalist Kay Redfield Jamison (ΦΒΚ, Johns Hopkins University) holds professorships in both psychiatry and English. In Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), Jamison revisits the poet’s bipolar disorder to understand how it influenced his verse and the general public’s understanding of mental illness.

Caroline Secrest (ΦBK, University of Virginia) is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia, where she studied Spanish and American studies, concentrating in race and ethnicity. She is currently a communications intern at Phi Beta Kappa’s national office in Washington, D.C. The University of Virginia is home to the Beta of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.