It was totally unexpected, but entirely welcome.
“I’m thrilled the MacArthur Foundation has recognized me for this honor,” Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said Thursday after it was announced that he was a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.
The fellowship—commonly called a “genius grant”—comes with a $625,000 prize paid out over five years. The MacArthur Foundation cited Dr. Gonsalves work “at the intersection of human rights and public health research and practice to address inequities in global health.” The highly prestigious award is not given for past accomplishments, but rather future potential. Dr. Gonsalves was one of 25 recipients across the United States this year.
Dr. Gonsalves left college as a young man in the 1980s to fight an emerging epidemic—HIV/AIDS—that was devastating the gay community. He returned to Yale in 2011 to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and then went on to earn his doctorate from the Yale School of Public Health in 2017. He joined the school’s faculty shortly thereafter.
“I am a product of Yale College and the Yale School of Public Health, which gave me the training to bring new skills and expertise to the questions that have vexed me for decades: how do we get HIV treatment and prevention services to those who need them most, how do we give policymakers better evidence to make better choices about policies on HIV and other infectious diseases?” he said.
Soft spoken and thoughtful, Dr. Gonsalves credited his colleagues and research collaborators—Drs. Forrest Crawford, A. David Paltiel, Ed Kaplan, Paul Cleary and Josh Warren, among many others, for inspiring him.
“The Yale School of Public Health is a wonderful place to work to try to answer these questions—there is no place else I can imagine being right now,” Dr. Gonsalves said.
Dr. Albert Ko, chair of the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Disease, to which Dr. Gonsalves belongs, said his contributions to public health began decades ago as an activist in ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group.
“We are immensely proud to now have him here at the Yale School of Public Health as a professor dedicated to using his talents as a researcher in the fight for social justice in health,” Dr. Ko said.
Dr. Paltiel, with whom Dr. Gonsalves has collaborated on many research projects, said his colleague has a special combination of real-world experience coupled with academic rigor.
“When you combine intellectual brilliance with the humble wisdom acquired from years of working in the trenches, you get Gregg Gonsalves, a powerful force for good in the world,” Dr. Paltiel said.
In addition to his work at the School of Public Health, in 2012 Dr. Gonsalves co-founded the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale—a collaboration between YSPH and the Yale Law School. “We’ve been able to connect the dots between health outcomes and law and policies, understand the links between public health and social justice, interactions which are so important in determining our fates, our health and our survival,” he said.
Just last month, Dr. Gonsalves co-authored a paper with Dr. Crawford on how a 2011 to 2015 HIV outbreak among people who inject drugs in Indiana could have been avoided if the state’s top officials had acted sooner on public health warnings.
Published in The Lancet HIV , the study offers a stark warning to public officials confronting the opioid crisis across the United States: Ignoring the risk of HIV can have terrible consequences for public health. An Indiana lawmaker recently described the study as a “wake-up call.”
Dr. Melinda Pettigrew, senior associate dean for academic affairs, said Dr. Gonsalves is a role model for faculty, staff and students at the Yale School of Public Health. “We are extremely proud of him,” she said. “This is well-deserved.”
Dr. Edward H. Kaplan, Willian N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Operations Research, professor of public health, and professor of engineering, said it has been astonishing to watch Dr. Gonsalves transform from an activist to a policy and modeling expert as a student, during his dissertation and now as a faculty colleague.
Dr. Gonsalves’ recent work includes a study on how increasing the availability of public toilets in South Africa could result in fewer sexual assaults against women, demonstrating that the recent Olympics in Brazil were not a major source of Zika virus contagion, and figuring out how to geographically deploy HIV testing to increase the detection of previously unknown infected individuals.
“Gregg has shown how data, statistical analysis, and modeling public health operations can be combined to help understand and design public health policies for the betterment of vulnerable populations,” Dr. Kaplan said.