Like a lot of young gay men in the 1980s, Gregg Gonsalves dropped out of college and took a stand as part of ACT UP, the direct action protest group pushing for change around HIV and AIDS policies, medications, and stigma. He wasn’t living with HIV at the time (he became poz in 1996), but he was part of a community that was swiftly overwhelmed by the disease. Fast forward to 2018, and Gonsalves has just been awarded one of the country’s highest honors: The MacArthur Fellowship.
Called the “Genius Grant” by those in the know, the fellowship goes to the 25 most promising and innovative thinkers in the country each year — and it comes with a stipend of more than half a million dollars, which can be used in any way to support their work.
For Gonsalves, that money goes towards funding his life’s passion: connecting people living with HIV with top-tier researchers who push for global advances in scientific knowledge of the disease.
After decades of activism, in his 40s, Gonsalves “decided I wanted a new set of tools to do the work, so I decided to come back to school,” he says in a new MacArthur Fellows video. He got a degree in biology and a PhD in quantitative health from Yale University, where he’s currently an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, an associate (adjunct) professor and research scholar at Yale Law School, and codirector of the Global Health Justice Partnership and the Collaboration for Research Integrity and Transparency.
The cofounder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in the early-1990s, Gonsalves is now an epidemiologist and global health advocate. Among his projects are mathematical models that help show “how to identify hot spots for HIV testing in real time in order to maximize identification of undiagnosed HIV-positive persons.”
That work helps organizations minimize the places where people living with HIV tend to drop out of treatment, and it also helps understand how emerging outbreaks occur. He mapped out the Scott County, Ind., outbreak for example, and how the lack of needle exchange programs helped propel transmissions.
In another line of research, Gonsalves examined the link between high rates of sexual violence against women living in Cape Town, South Africa, in settlements where bathroom facilities were far away and left women vulnerable to attacks. Gonsalves’s mathematical model showed 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 also cofounded the Global Health Justice Partnership, an interdisciplinary initiative between the schools of law and public health at Yale University. The GHJP program uses an interdisciplinary approach to solving contemporary problems at the intersections of global health, human rights, and social justice.
“My work is designed to give politicians and policymakers the information they need to make better decisions for better public health,” Gonsalves says.
In the video, Gonsalves gives an example: “One of the projects I’m working on now is using a set of algorithms or mathematical tools that were originally designed to figure out how to go to the hottest slot machine in a casino.”
He continues, “But we’re using that same kind of thinking and decision-making algorithms to figure out where to test for HIV infection, to find the greatest number of HIV-positive people who are still undiagnosed.”