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Virginia Tech’s Marr wins ‘genius grant’

Linsey Marr’s research on the transport, removal and mitigation of airborne pathogenic viruses became instrumental during the COVID-19 pandemic. Marr is one of 20 people recently named as 2023 MacArthur Fellows.

Linsey Marr in a laboratory in Kelly Hall at Virginia Tech. (Photo by Randy Walker)

October 2023

by Tad Dickens, Cardinal News

Linsey Marr grew up in a family full of stubborn women. It’s been a feature of her grandmother, her mother, her sisters, even her 12-year-old daughter.

“And I’d say I fall into that category,” Marr said.

She needed big resolve when going up against national and international health science powers who refused to believe that COVID-19 spread widely through the air. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recognize that idea in the pandemic’s early days.

“With this question, I thought it was incredibly important, and I thought I was right, so I stuck with it,” Marr said.

Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, and an international group of colleagues proved them wrong and changed the novel bug’s trajectory. On Oct. 4, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Marr had won a fellowship popularly known as a “genius grant.”

Marr and 19 others — artists, scientists, writers, musicians, scholars and researchers among them — each will receive an $800,000, no-strings-attached award. The foundation annually gives the fellowships to people who show originality, dedication and self-motivation, according to a Virginia Tech news release.

Marr, in a recent phone interview, said she was both surprised — nominations are anonymous, and winners aren’t aware until after they’ve won — and thankful to have received the genius grant.

“I feel incredibly grateful to them for putting in the work, because it takes time and effort for the nominators to do their job, and so I’m really blown away that they thought of me and went to the effort to build a nomination package,” she said.

It’s the second time this year that Marr has received an anonymous nomination for a prestigious position. The announcement from Virginia Tech came three days after she’d visited Washington, where the National Academy of Engineering concluded its own secret process by inducting her and more than 100 other new members.

The MacArthur Fellowship reflects a collaborative effort, Marr said. After she and a group of colleagues gathered on Zoom to make their first, unsuccessful, arguments to the WHO, she teamed with a smaller group that included a graduate student named Katie Randall, who dug into research that revealed the mid-20th century roots of airborne transmission skepticism, according to Wired magazine. They were ultimately able to show that COVID-19 spread via microscopically tiny aerosols that can infect people from distances much greater than 6 feet in indoor air, and that masking was key to slowing the fatal coronavirus.

“It’s absolutely critical [to collaborate] and to have people bring in different expertise, and there’s a skill in being able to work in that kind of environment and listen and learn from people with other expertise, and to see how it can fit together with yours to create a bigger picture,” Marr said. “So this was collaborative all the way, and really one of the big leaders was [atmospheric physicist] Lidia Morawska, in Australia.”

Marr noted that Morawska made Time magazine’s 2021 list of the 100 most influential people.

“She really spearheaded this,” Marr said. “She’s more experienced. She’s been around longer. She’s worked with the World Health Organization. She pulled together a group of 36 health experts from around the world to work together on this topic, and that grew to include some other people too. And that group was really critical for kind of honing our understanding and getting the message out.”

Marr’s work on understanding COVID is not her sole credential, according to the MacArthur Foundation. Her longtime project focuses on influenza, and she is involved with air pollution studies as well.

“One focus of Marr’s research is infectious bioaerosols — that is, airborne particles containing viruses or bacteria,” the MacArthur Foundation wrote on its website. “She integrates insights and methods from research on traditional particulate pollutants with chemical and biological studies of pathogens. In this way, Marr has gained new insights into how time, atmospheric conditions, and particle size affect virus viability in aerosols.”

[Listen to Marr discuss her work in this video from the MacArthur Foundation.]

Marr hopes to use the money to support research and projects that would be hard to fund through traditional channels, according to the Virginia Tech news release. “I’m also looking for an experience that will rock my world, get me out of my comfort zone, and jolt my creativity,” she said in the release.

What might do that trick?

“I know when I had kids, that completely changed my world, turned it upside down and forced me to think in new and different ways,” she said in the phone interview from Blacksburg. “And so I was thinking of some kind of travel experience. I was thinking of going hunting, for example. I’ve never hunted before, and I don’t eat meat, partly because of environmental reasons, but I feel like hunting is a sustainable way of sourcing meat. So I’m not sure.”

What might she hunt?

“Whatever is easiest, because I’ve never done it before,” she said. “In the end, the goal is to kind of juice my creativity and help me think in new ways about new problems. I’ve been working on flu transmission for 15 years now, and a lot of people have jumped into the field, so I am starting to think about new problems that might pique my interest.”

Marr’s personal intersection — an aerosol scientist who studies infectious diseases — was a rarity before COVID. That is not the case these days, she said.

“Since the pandemic, a lot of people have jumped into this area,” she said. “The number of papers coming from various disciplines, not just aerosol scientists but also people who study fluid mechanics and buildings and lots of different fields are contributing work in this area, so it’s really exploded since the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if this maintains legs, or if people go back to what they were doing before. Probably some of both.”

Her frequent media appearances likely sparked some of that interest. She’s been a regular expert source for The New York Times and has been interviewed more than 500 times by outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American, NPR and CNN, according to the university.

“During the pandemic, it was exciting” to talk to reporters, she said. “I felt like I was living my research. I felt I was doing something that I had thought was really important but that no one else had thought was important. And all of a sudden, it was important, and everybody wants to know about it. So I thought it was a great opportunity to educate people about how transmission works, so it was exciting in that way.

“It was also very stressful — the number of interviews I was doing and the seriousness of the problem, the pressure I felt to communicate things accurately, and knowing that the whole world could see or hear what I said and could critique it, also.”

Critique from professionals, in multiple email and text discussions, helped refine ideas, she said.

“There wasn’t a major shift in our knowledge, but we quickly realized that, in addition to masking, good ventilation is really important, and filtration could also play a role in indoor air.”

The interviews, along with the online discussions, continued for two and a half years.

“I had an auto reply, because I couldn’t handle the deluge, and I kept trying to turn it off, but then a week or two later I’d turn it back on, because I’d get flooded with inquiries again because, oh, there was this outbreak, or the masking guidance changed, and that would bring on a new slew of interview requests,” she said. “The media relations team here at Virginia Tech was really wonderful and so helpful in managing that. Things fell off about a year ago and then in the past year I’ve been maybe doing an interview, one per week or one every couple of months. Until today.”

There might come another time when her phone is blowing up.

“It is inevitable that there will be another pandemic,” she said. “The question is how soon it will be. [Given the] increasing population and increasing pressure that we’re putting on habitats, I think it will be sooner rather than later. We’ve been lucky. The last big pandemic was 100 years ago. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something sooner than that, and hopefully we’ve learned enough from our experience with COVID-19 that we’ll be better prepared next time.”

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands noted Marr’s innovation, creativity and continuing contributions to science and society in the university’s news release.

“We are especially proud of her global leadership and outreach, which exemplifies Virginia Tech’s spirit of exploration and discovery in service to humanity,” Sands said.

Marr is the second Virginia Tech professor to receive a genius grant, according to the university. The first went to University Distinguished Professor Marc Edwards, also a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty member. The MacArthur Foundation honored Edwards in 2007 for his work analyzing the chemistry and toxicity of drinking water in large cities. His work in the early 2000s focused on lead contamination in the Washington water supply, and about a decade later on the water in Flint, Michigan.

Marr, 48 and a Sacramento, California, native, joined Virginia Tech as an assistant professor in 2003. She graduated from Harvard University in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science, and received a doctorate in environmental engineering six years later, from the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’m just really grateful to Virginia Tech for always being supportive of my work,” she said. “I have amazing colleagues here, in environmental engineering and around campus. … What I would say is different about Virginia Tech is that it is highly interdisciplinary. We don’t have the egos that get in the way of collaboration. I’m talking mainly about my own local group, in environmental engineering. We’re one of the top groups in the country. … It’s just a really strong group that’s fun to work with.”

This article comes from Cardinal News, an online nonprofit news agency based in Southwest Virginia.