Yale faculty member and other alumni win MacArthur Fellowships

Faculty member Gregg Gonsalves ’11, ’17 Ph.D., an epidemiologist and global health advocate, and four other Yale alumni — Vijay Gupta M.M. ’07, Titus Kaphar M.F.A. ’06, Becca Heller J.D. ’10, and Okwui Okpokwasili ’96 — are among the 25 individuals chosen as 2018 MacArthur Fellows.

The MacArthur Fellowship — informally referred to as the “genius grant” — is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” according to the MacArthur Foundation. In addition to exceptional creativity, the award recognizes the recipients’ “promise for important advances” and subsequent creative work based on their track record of accomplishments.

MacArthur Fellows may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in new work, or to change fields or alter the direction of their careers. This year’s recipients include writers, artists, a choreographer, a community organizer, a psychologist, a chemist, and a mathematician, among others.

Working in diverse fields, from the arts and sciences to public health and civil liberties, these 25 MacArthur Fellows are solving long-standing scientific and mathematical problems, pushing art forms into new and emerging territories, and addressing the urgent needs of under-resourced communities,” said Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. “Their exceptional creativity inspires hope in us all.”

Nominees for the award are brought to the program’s attention through a changing pool of external nominators chosen from a broad range of fields and areas of interest. Nominations are evaluated by an independent selection committee composed of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities. Typically, 20 to 30 fellows are selected each year. Since 1981, 1,014 people have been named MacArthur Fellows.

Gonsalves: Improving global public health

Gregg Gonsalves ’11, ’17 Ph.D.
Gregg Gonsalves ’11, ’17 Ph.D.

Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) and adjunct professor of law at Yale Law School, is co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnerships (GHJP) and the Collaboration for Research Integrity and Transparency. His MacArthur Fellowship biography notes that he integrates “his experiences as a community activist with quantitative analysis and operations research to improve responses to global health public health challenges.”

For nearly three decades,” said the MacArthur Foundation, “Gonsalves was 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 deeply informed his later training in epidemiology and current efforts to optimize the effectiveness of health programs for epidemic diseases, particularly within poor and marginalized communities.”

The GLJP Gonsalves co-founded is an interdisciplinary initiative between Yale’s Schools of Public Health and Law to further advance human rights and social justice perspectives in public health and legal research, practice, and teaching.  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 to advocate for wider availability of hepatitis C treatment in U.S. prisons. Through these initiatives, Gonsalves is training a new generation of researchers who will work across public health and human rights sectors to correct disparities in global public health.

My work is designed to give politicians and policy makers the information they need to make better decisions for better public health,” Gonsalves says in a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation to accompany his biography.

Gupta: Creating connections with marginalized people through music 

Vijay Gupta M.M. ’07
Vijay Gupta M.M. ’07

Gupta is a violinist and social justice advocate “providing musical enrichment and valuable human connection to the homeless, incarcerated, and other under-resourced communities in Los Angeles,” according to his MacArthur Fellowship biography. After joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic following his Yale graduation, he gave lessons to a Juilliard-trained violinist whose mental illness led to homelessness. Gupta began playing for the homeless and mentally ill living on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and eventually co-founded the not-for-profit Street Symphony, which harnesses the power of the arts to foster social connection and support. In addition to providing live performances at shelters, jails, and treatment and transitional housing facilities, Street Symphony also offers an annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Skid Row, and invites residents there to create or perform their own original works alongside selections from Handel’s oratorio.

Dedicated to bringing beauty, respite, and purpose to those all too often ignored by society, Gupta is demonstrating the capacity of music to validate our shared humanity and focusing needed attention on interrelated social issues that cluster at places such as Skid Row,” said the MacArthur Foundation.

Artists and performers do not have a choice to not be engaged in social and civic discourse,” says Gupta in his MacArthur Foundation video. “It is as much our job to heal and to inspire as it is to disrupt and provoke. It is our job to be the truth tellers of our time.”

Kaphar: Addressing social concerns through art

Titus Kaphar M.F.A. ’06
Titus Kaphar M.F.A. ’06

Kaphar is an artist who in his paintings, sculptures, and installations addresses social concerns, such as the legacy of slavery in the United States and racial injustice. Often, he employs traditional painting techniques to “rupture the coherence of the scenes and figures he represents — and their attendant claims to authority — through a literal deconstruction or obscuring of the image and its physical support,” says his MacArthur Fellowship biography. Kaphar has established NXTHVN, an art space based in New Haven, opening in the winter of 2019, that provides studio spaces and residencies for artists and curators to develop new creative initiatives that help bridge socioeconomic divides.

Through a growing body of work that yokes grim yet naturalized historical realities to contemporary crises of social justices, Kaphar is marshaling the combined powers of art and history to effect social change,” said the MacArthur Foundation.

I use a lot of techniques in making paintings,” says Kaphar, describing in his work in his MacArthur video. “Sometimes the surface of the canvas will be cut out, something will be removed from the surface of the canvas in order to show something behind. This theme or idea of layers and multiplicity is a recurring theme of my work. There are always multiple narratives. I’m asking the viewer to try to piece that whole story together without leaving behind the valuable narrative of — in many cases — those people who have been silenced over years.

Heller: Defending the rights of refugees

Becca Heller J.D. ’10
Becca Heller J.D. ’10

Heller is a human rights lawyer who has mobilized the resources of law schools and law firms “to defend the rights of refugees and improve protection outcomes for many of the world’s most at-risk populations,” according to her MacArthur Fellowship biography. She is the director and co-founder of the International (originally Iraqi) Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which provides legal services to individual refugees as they navigate application, appeal, and resettlement processes under U.S. and international law. IRAP was originally founded as a student organization at the Yale Law School in 2008 to help Iraqis displaced by war to resettle in the West. More recently, Heller and IRAP played a prominent role in responding to the January 27, 2017, executive order restricting people from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States. Hameed Darweesh, an IRAP client who served as a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq, became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that resulted in a nationwide stay preventing the deportation of people with valid visas and refugee status.

Heller is working to expand pathways to safety for those fleeing persecution and educating a new generation of lawyers about the importance of access to counsel for those whose lives hang in the balance,” says the MacArthur Foundation.

What we’re trying to do is to say that refugees have rights, that they are human, and that they should have the legal aid to enforce those rights just like every other human,’ says Heller in her MacArthur Fellowship video about her work with IRAP.

Okpokwasili: Inviting audiences into the lives of women of color through dance and theater

Okwui Okpokwasili ’96
Okwui Okpokwasili ’96

Performer, choreographer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili creates multidisciplinary performance pieces “that draw viewers into the interior lives of women of color, particularly those of African and African American women, whose stories have long been overlooked and rendered invisible,” says the MacArthur Foundation of her work. She is the child of immigrant parents from Nigeria who was raised in the Bronx. Her productions bring together elements of dance, theater, and the visual arts, with spare sets designed by her husband and collaborator Peter Born. One of her pieces is loosely inspired by the Bring Back Our Girls movement, launched in response to the Boko Haram kidnappings of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014 and the Women’s War of 1929, when thousands of Igbo women revolted against the British government, entangling women of the past with present-day women.

A versatile and virtuosic performer in her own works and in those of other choreographers, filmmakers, and theater artists, she mesmerizes audiences with her shape-shifting character play, sinuous grace, and rich, hypnotic voice,” says the MacArthur Foundation. “Okpokwasili is making visible the aspects of black womanhood that have been left out of dominant cultural narratives and evoking in audiences a profound sense of empathy for the pain, resilience, fears, and desires that each of her gestures makes manifest.”

I want people to know when they encounter my work that they should be comfortable with doubt and some confusion …,” she says in her video. “I work at the intersection of dance, of theater, of art practices, of sound. I want to make a total experience.”

Other Yale affiliates

Two other MacArthur Fellowship recipients this year also have ties to Yale: Writer John Keene won a Windham Campbell Prize from Yale in September, and psychologist Kristina Olson taught at Yale from 2008 to 2013.

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