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South Carolina native Joseph Drew Lanham awarded MacArthur 'genius grant'

Clemson professor Joseph Drew Lanham is an ornithologist, naturalist, writer, and now a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Clemson professor Joseph Drew Lanham is an ornithologist, naturalist, writer, and now a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.

South Carolina native Joseph Drew Lanham, an ornithologist, naturalist, writer, poet and Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, has been named among the 25 winners of this year's distinguished MacArthur "genius grant."

The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2022 recipients on Wednesday.

The prestigious fellowship is perhaps the most coveted award in academia. There is no application process and the general public cannot nominate individuals.

In 2019, Lanham was a guest on WFAE's podcast Southbound, on which he talked to host Tommy Tomlinson about his love for birds, growing up in the South and being a Black birdwatcher.

Lanham grew up in rural South Carolina, where he fell in love with watching birds and eventually turned his passion into a career. He details this love and journey in his 2016 book, "The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature."

"[Those 'gone birds'] surround me and I think about them constantly," he said on Southbound. "I can't help but think about them in the context of my South and our South and culture here."

"Gone birds," as Lanham calls them, are the focus of his research. He specializes in the study of birds that have gone extinct. His essay, "Forever Gone," on the Carolina parakeet that died out 101 years ago was part of the "Best American Essays" collection in 2019.

As part of this year's class of fellows, Lanham will receive $800,000 over the course of five years as a "no-strings-attached" award.

The MacArthur Foundation said that Lanham is "creating a new model of conservation that combines conservation science with personal, historical and cultural narratives of nature."

"I try to put those 'gone birds' in the context of the past and what we've done to make them disappear," Lanham said to Tomlinson in 2019. "But I also try to keep in mind that people before me, people who looked like me, may have had those birds in their hearts, somehow in their hearts and minds and in their bodies, quite honestly. And so they are important to me."

Listen to Lanham's conversation with Tomlinson above.

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Layna Hong is a digital producer at WFAE. She is a graduate from UNC Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she concentrated in graphic design and reporting.