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UT professor wins MacArthur 'genius' grant

a man standing with his arms crossed
Photo courtesy of UT Austin
Moriba Jah, an associate professor at UT Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering, is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows this year.

Moriba Jah, an associate professor of engineering at UT Austin, is one of 25 winners of MacArthur “genius” grants this year.

Jah, who works in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, will receive $800,000 to spend however he wants. His work on tools to identify and locate precisely where objects are in Earth’s orbit to avoid potential collisions brought him to the MacArthur Foundation’s attention.

“He’s a leader … he’s creative, he’s original, he’s a one-of-a-kind person,” said Clint Dawson, chair of his department. He added that the department is “very proud” to have Jah as a professor.

Jah graduated from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a bachelor’s of science in aerospace engineering and a master’s and Ph.D. in the same field from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He came to Austin in 2017 to join UT Austin’s faculty after working at the Air Force Research Laboratory just after being a spacecraft navigator for NASA in Mars missions.

He also co-founded Privateer, a space data company, along with Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding, who co-founded technology company Ripcord.

Privateer specializes in what Jah’s tools do: collecting data on the debris in Earth’s orbit to make sure nothing hits a satellite and disrupts tasks that depend on it, like weather tracking and cellphones.

At the end of the day, Dawson said, he is not surprised Jah won a MacArthur grant.

“He’s the kind of person that would definitely win one of these things,” he said, “but, you know, still, it’s a huge deal.”

Kiese Laymon, an English professor at Rice University in Houston, also received an award this year.

The MacArthur foundation has awarded genius grants every year since 1981 through a series of anonymous nominations and an ever-changing pool of candidates so the fellows be selected impartially.

The foundation chooses individuals who have shown creativity, passion and dedication to their fields and come from a wide variety of professions -- from artists and entrepreneurs to teachers and scientists.

The grant is given directly to the recipient instead of through an institution, which allows the fellow freedom to do anything with it. The recipient can use the money to advance their careers, start a new project or even have a career change, according to the website. The award is paid over five years in quarterly stipends.

Gabby Rodriguez is the former digital producer for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at
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