John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Nancy Rabalais doesn’t quit. This marine ecologist has been doggedly studying, speaking about, and agitating to improve the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone for over three decades. Currently the executive director and a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Rabalais is quick to point out that the dead zone is not only one of the biggest human-made disasters we face today, but it’s one we can still reverse if we choose to. (You see, rain washes a steady stream of nitrogen from excess fertilizer and animal waste that heads down the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf. These nutrients create algae that sinks, decomposes, and eats oxygen. The result is an oxygen-free area or underwater desert — a dead zone.)

Last week, Rabalais was awarded a highly sought-after MacArthur Genius Award. Whereas some MacArthur recipients may take the award as a sign that their work has peaked, this scientist appears to see it as a means to an end, a way to advance her message and to help protect a crucial body of water.