SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A UC San Diego professor who specializes in sign language is the recipient of a $500,000 award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, it was announced Tuesday.

Carol Padden, a professor in UCSD's Department of Communication, will receive the no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a "genius" award, over the next five years, according to the university.

"I was completely caught off-guard and I'm dumbfounded," Padden said.

"I have been working on sign languages for 30 years - my entire career. It's very rewarding to feel that after all these years people recognize what you have done."

Padden, who was born deaf, is a linguist whose research focuses on the unique structure and evolution of sign languages, how they differ from spoken language and from each other and the social implications of signed communication, according to UCSD.

She was cited by the MacArthur Foundation for work that "demystifies sign language and opens windows of understanding regarding how languages evolve over time and the role of language in building and maintaining communities."