Bioengineer Melody Swartz got a surprise phone call three weeks ago informing her she had been selected to receive a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
But the 43-year-old Glen Ellyn native was told to keep it a secret until after the official announcement.
For Swartz, that meant just one thing: not telling her mother.
"I couldn't tell her, because I knew she would tell the whole world," Swartz said during a telephone interview Tuesday after the news finally broke that she was one of 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2012.
Marie Swartz is understandably very proud of her daughter, who is a professor with the Institute of Bioengineering at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
"She was always a scientist," Marie Swartz said when reached by phone at her home in Carol Stream. "Her first word was 'why?' She is still doing that ... always asking questions."
While growing up in Glen Ellyn, Melody Swartz won her first awards participating in science fairs at Hadley Junior High School. The honors kept coming through her years at Glenbard West High School.
Melody Swartz admits she finds the attention she's getting for the MacArthur Fellowship "kind of embarrassing."
"Clearly, there are so many people who are more deserving of this," she said. "They call it a 'genius grant,' but there are so many people way smarter than me."
According to the foundation, Swartz and the 22 other recipients each will receive $500,000 in "no-strings-attached support" over the next five years.
"MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations or reporting requirements and offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore," foundation officials wrote in a news release. "The unusual level of independence afforded to Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors."
The foundation indicated all the recipients were chosen "for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future."
Swartz said her research focus is on the lymphatic system and what role it plays in maintaining a person's health. Her work is making contributions in a variety of areas, including cancer research.
"Lymphatics have been really ignored," she said. "There's like one paragraph in most medical textbooks on this system."
Swartz hasn't decided exactly how she's going to spend the $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, which will be given to her in quarterly installments.
She does know she will have to pay taxes on it to both Switzerland and the United States. And because doing science is "extremely expensive," Swartz is expecting the money to help her work.
"I can use it to not worry about a lot of things," she said.
Swartz received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1991 and earned a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1998.
Before moving to Switzerland about nine years ago, she was an assistant professor at Northwestern University. She has written scientific articles that have appeared in Science, Nature and Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering.