"Genius" Grants to two Alumni

November 30, 2006
Deep thinkers: von Ahn, left, and Rich, right, pursue innovations in cryptology and medicine, respectively

Deep thinkers: von Ahn, left, and Rich, right, pursue innovations in cryptology and medicine, respectively. Photos courtesy MacArthur Foundation

Two Duke alumni have been named MacArthur Fellows by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. John Rich M.D. '84 and Luis von Ahn '00 garnered recognition for their work in medicine and cryptology, respectively. The award consists of a $500,000, unrestricted grant distributed over five years.

At Duke, Rich served as president of his med-school class from 1981 to 1983. After graduating, he completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, earned a master's of public health at Harvard University (1987), and then completed a two-year faculty-development fellowship in general internal medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is currently the chair of and professor in the department of health management and policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health.

Rich's work explores the impact of economic and mental health, and education and employment opportunities on the physical well-being of African-American men in urban settings. In Boston, he has spearheaded efforts to reduce racial disparities in health, led health campaigns including the Mayor's Crusade Against Cancer, directed the implementation of Boston's workplace smoking ban, and developed the Men's Health Initiative at the Boston Public Health Commission.

After completing a bachelor's of science in mathematics at Duke, von Ahn earned a master's and doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. Now an assistant professor there, he works at the intersection of cryptography, artificial intelligence, and natural intelligence to address theoretical and practical problems. One line of his work focuses on a subdiscipline of cryptography known as steganography. Unlike standard encrypted communications, a steganographic message disguises the fact that it contains a secret. (The prototypical example is a text message subtly embedded in the bits that encode a digital photograph.) 

Another major thread of his research concentrates on human computation that, so far, cannot be emulated by computers. He and his colleagues developed a method for distorting text in a way that remains easily readable by humans, but cannot be parsed by computers; this system, known as "CAPTCHA," has found widespread application on commercial websites. In addition to being named a MacArthur Fellow, von Ahn was included on Popular Science's list of the "Brilliant 10" scientists of 2006.