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Long Island native recognized as MacArthur Foundation 'genius'

Long Island native Gregg Gonsalves, seen on Sept.

Long Island native Gregg Gonsalves, seen on Sept. 8, was a 1981 East Meadow High School graduate. Credit: MacArthur Foundation

A Long Island native who dropped out of college and then tackled the AIDS epidemic head on is being honored as a "genius" for his life’s work of ridding worldwide disease.

Gregg Gonsalves, 54, a Yale University epidemiologist, has been named by the MacArthur Foundation as one of about 1,000 fellows, whose exceptional creativity and record of important achievements, the foundation says, hold the promise for more of the same.

“I do think we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; the fact that we have epidemics around the world is because we forgot that point,” he said by telephone last week. Deeply flawed health systems keep Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases from being eradicated, he said.

“My parents instilled in me that you treat people the way you wanted to be treated,” said Gonsalves, a 1981 East Meadow High School graduate.

So he reacted compassionately instead of spurning one of his first partners after that individual fearfully confessed he was HIV positive — and dove into analyzing possible treatments.

“If you care for somebody, you don’t turn your back on them,” said Gonsalves, who by then had left his studies at Boston’s Tufts University and moved to New York City, where he waited on tables and intensified his involvement with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. 

The group surmounted the prejudice, indifference, fear — and sometimes terror — early AIDS patients encountered because no medicine could save them. ACT UP forced an unfair  health system to prioritize AIDS and give them a say in the research that by the mid-1990s created effective treatments, social historians say.

Gonsalves, who is HIV positive himself, resumed his college education,  earning his bachelor's degree from Yale in 2011, followed by a Ph.D. in 2017  

He said he learned the importance of giving back to the community from his parents, both former schoolteachers. He noted his mother, Norma Gonsalves, a Republican who retired last year as the Nassau County legislature's presiding officer, was a dedicated local activist before entering politics.

“I think, actually, I didn’t fall far from the tree,” Gregg Gonsalves said. “I think the main point is: We may be on different sides of the political aisle, but we are both committed to community service, committed to grass roots organizing.”  

Norma Gonsalves, 84, of East Meadow, in turn credited her son for encouraging her to try again after she lost her first race in 1995 by just 68 votes. “My son said, ‘You can’t back off now,’” said Gonsalves, who easily won the next contest.

As for her son’s fellowship, “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 Foundation, in announcing its 25 honorees for 2018 on Oct. 4, cited Gonsalves for his domestic and global work as an HIV/AIDS activist, beginning in 1989 with ACT UP, bringing communities and scientists together and deploying quantitative models to spot outbreaks early and demonstrate cost-effective treatments.

Among his achievements, “Gonsalves has determined how to identify hot spots for HIV testing in real time"  and "assessed the epidemiological costs of emerging epidemics of HIV in the United States due to intravenous drug use and lack of needle exchange programs,” the foundation said.

Gonsalves said nowadays he is interested “in the intersection of HIV and Hepatitis C in states like Connecticut and New York, in New Haven and Nassau counties,” which is tied to people struggling with opioids. Heroin can be less costly, but injections can spread those two diseases; outbreaks also are occurring in the Midwest and South.

“So I’m interested in how to sort of use quantitative methods to better predict HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks and opioid overdoses,” he said, as those diseases “sort of travel together.”

Gonsalves, saying he was surprised and honored by the award, has not figured out how he will spend the $625,000 he will receive over five years — with no strings attached. And he was both modest and hesitant about being singled out.

“But my work is collaborative…I may be sort of working with scientists now, but it’s a team effort.”

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