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HIV/AIDS researcher receives MacArthur Genius Grant
by Sarah Toce
2018-11-14

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It seems unlikely in this social media ravaged climate to find a humble genius among us, but Yale University Assistant Professor Gregg Gonsalves has set the bar high. $625,000 with no strings attached high.

Gonsalves, a 54-year-old epidemiologist and global health advocate, was just dubbed a recipient of the 2018 MacArthur "Genius" Grant. The human rights and public health researcher received the recognition by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—and was legitimately in shock.

"I had no idea that anybody was scrutinizing what I've been up to lately," Gonsalves shared.

"I don't accept the 'genius' moniker," he told Queerty following the announcement. "And they don't describe it that way either. They talk about it as an award for creativity. I'm creative, I can say that. If I take myself out of the picture, I think they do tend to honor people who've done creative work that doesn't necessarily fall within the guardrails of their disciplines. But it feels good."

Gonsalves discovered the news the day after Labor Day, but kept it a secret from everyone except his partner. "And then after I told everybody, I heard from everybody in my past—everybody from people I went to school with to old employers. It was sort of overwhelming," he said.

His mother, Norma Gonsalves, 84, told Newsday, "The best thing is, he may be a genius, but he's got a big heart, he's a loving son, and he knows the importance of family, so I think he's worthy of the award. … It's something that I'm not only proud of him, but not surprised."

The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year grant to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future. The Fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements. There are no limits on age or area of activity. Individuals cannot apply for this award; they must be nominated.

Nominators write a letter to the program director, usually a page or two, describing the person they are nominating and their reasons for doing so. These letters focus on the quality and creativity of the nominees and their work, and on the likely benefits of the award to the recipient.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, Gonsalves spent three decades as an HIV/AIDS activist, working with domestic and international organizations such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power ( ACT UP ) and the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa. His efforts to connect the HIV/AIDS community with top-tier researchers and scientists were a critical catalyst to fundamental advances in scientific knowledge of the disease.

These experiences paved the way for his later training in epidemiology and current efforts to optimize the effectiveness of health programs for epidemic diseases, particularly within poor and marginalized communities.

A genius indeed—even if he'll never admit it.

Gonsalves was responsible for determining a method that identified hot spots for HIV testing in real time in order to maximize identification of undiagnosed HIV-positive persons. His work has helped shed light on ways to minimize dropout of HIV-positive patients at key points in the care continuum. He's also assessed the epidemiological costs of emerging epidemics of HIV in the United States due to intravenous drug use and lack of needle exchange programs.

In another line of research, Gonsalves examined the link between high rates of sexual violence against women living in informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa, and the lack of indoor sanitation - the remote location of facilities left women vulnerable to attacks. He developed a mathematical model that determined the optimal number of new facilities and demonstrated that sanitation investments by the city would significantly reduce instances of sexual violence as well as their associated costs.

Gonsalves co-founded the Global Health Justice Partnership ( GHJP ), an interdisciplinary initiative between the schools of law and public health at Yale University, to further advance human rights and social justice perspectives in public health and legal research, practice, and teaching. Working in cooperation with local nongovernmental organizations, GHJP mobilizes research and evidence around pressing health issues and translates that evidence into action.

Currently, GHJP is working with organizations in Brazil to investigate the role of the war on drugs and high incarceration rates on the community burden of TB as well as advocacy for wider availability of hepatitis C treatment in U.S. prisons.

Through these initiatives, Gonsalves is training a new generation of researchers who, like himself, work across public health and human rights sectors, scholarly research, and activism to correct disparities in global public health.

About that "no strings attached" concept, the MacArthur Fellowship ascertains that "we provide the maximum freedom for the recipients to follow their creative vision, whether it is moving forward with their current activities, expanding the scope of their work, or embarking in entirely new directions. There are no restrictions on how the money can be spent, and we impose no reporting obligations."

To learn more about Gonsalves' work and the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship, visit www.macfound.org/fellows/1011 .


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