(TNS) -- An East Bay chemist who has harnessed tiny "nanowires" to convert sunlight into other forms of energy and a Stanford computer scientist who analyzes "dark data" that can hunt down human traffickers on the Web are among the 2015 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants."

"It was totally a big surprise," said Peidong Yang, an inorganic chemist at UC Berkeley and a pioneer in the field of semiconductor nanowiring and photonics. "It's a huge honor."

The prestigious fellowships, announced Tuesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, were given to 24 recipients, including Christopher Ré, a Stanford University professor who created a groundbreaking "inference engine" called DeepDive. The computer program can make sense of massive amounts of information that traditional databases aren't capable of analyzing.

The $625,000 prizes bestowed by the MacArthur Fellowship Program are meant to give each recipient the freedom to pursue their passions with no strings attached.

"I seriously don't know what to do, because I had no clue who nominated me or when," Yang said in a phone interview. "I'll probably put it into my research and use it to train students."

Born and raised in China, Yang earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Science and Technology in Anhui Province. He later enrolled at Harvard University, where his first doctoral project soon fell apart.

"My adviser encouraged me to not go into an overcrowded field," Yang said, "so we started asking ourselves, 'What's next?' "

That turned out to be nanowires, which are so small that they behave differently than ordinary wires, with the characteristics defined by quantum physics. The MacArthur Foundation said Yang's research has produced real-world applications, including nanowire lasers and solar cells.

The 44-year-old Yang expects to push nanowires next into the field of artificial photosynthesis. His team has already combined nanowires and bacteria to create a synthetic leaf that transforms sunlight into chemicals such as butanol.

The foundation said Yang's breakthroughs are "opening new horizons for tackling the global challenge of clean, renewable energy sources."

Yang, who lives in Berkeley with his physicist wife, Mei Wang, and their 11-year-old daughter, said he owes his success to his decision two decades ago to gamble on a new and unproven field.

"It was a risky proposition," he said. "It could have failed miserably. Now I look back and it was really big!"

When Ré received a phone call recently from the MacArthur Foundation, he thought it was a prank.

"Then they kept telling me things about myself," he said. "After a while you learn it's not a prank, and then you just try not to say something stupid and ruin the award."

The foundation honored Ré for harnessing his training in databases and knowledge of "machine learning" to create DeepDive. In a telephone interview, Ré said traditional search engines cull the Web for specific documents, and then leave the rest to people. His DeepDive, however, can analyze what computer scientists call the "dark data" hidden in massive amounts of information, which could include journal articles, government reports, illustrations and photos.

The engine is being used to extract data about human trafficking networks from the so-called Dark Web.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Pasadena, the 36-year-old first intended to pursue a career in math, but a speech by the late Bay Area computer scientist Jim Gray inspired him to study how data analysis could help science and society advance. He lives near the Stanford campus with his wife, Mikel.

Like Yang, Ré hasn't decided how to spend his prize money.

"I don't know yet," he said. "That's the honest answer."

©2015 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.