Submitted on Wednesday, 9/25/2019, at 11:24 PM

Andrea Dutton ’95, one of this year’s recipients of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship, told the Wall Street Journal that a tricky algebra problem at Amherst would send her on a career path that now has her studying coral reefs.

“I wasn’t used to failing at math, so I dropped the course,” said Dutton.

“She switched into geology because she thought it would be easier, but instead found her passion,” the Journal wrote. “Now, Ms. Dutton, a 46-year-old geochemist and paleoclimatologist, studies ancient coral reefs for clues about the interplay of climate change and sea levels.”

An associate professor of geology at the University of Florida, she is leaving for a new post at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to spend next year in New Zealand.

The no-strings-attached grants of $625,000 are given annually to a small number of individuals (26 this year) across the country, who show exceptional creativity in their work, a track record of accomplishments and promise for the future. They can’t apply for the awards, but are instead nominated anonymously.

Speaking with the Wisconsin State Journal, “She said she is still deciding how to spend her award. Part of the money will go toward taking her own research to the next level, but she said she also wants to lift other women in science, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.”

While her work, dealing with coral reef systems falling victim to climate changes, can be very sobering, she told the Wisconsin State Journal she finds hope in her work, too.

“It’s not like the Earth is warming and we don’t understand why,” she said. “It’s not like we’re moving closer to the sun and we can’t do anything about it. Having this knowledge is empowering because we know what to do. We just need to develop the social and political will to do it.”