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October 5, 2018

Introducing this year's health care MacArthur 'geniuses'

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    The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Thursday announced 25 "genius" grant winners, including four who work in health care or have made contributions to the field.

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    The selection process

    The MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program recognizes creativity, originality, and the potential to make an important contribution to the world. The fellowship is often called a "genius grant" or "genius award."

    To select fellows, a committee of leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities, and for-profit and nonprofit communities review nominations brought to the committee's attention by a pool of external nominators. The selection committee completes a multi-step review and typically names between 20 and 30 fellows each year.

    The 2018 winners each will receive a $625,000 stipend, dispersed in quarterly installments over five years. The funding comes with "no strings attached," the foundation noted, as the award is designed to "support ... people, not projects."

    The winners

    This year, four of the "genius" grant winners won for their work to advance health care.

    Livia Eberlin, an analytical chemist at the University of Texas-Austin, was awarded a fellowship for her work developing methods to more rapidly and accurately distinguish cancerous tissue from healthy tissue during surgical procedures. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach—using analytical chemistry, clinical diagnostics, machine learning engineering, and surgical practice—to determine what cancerous tissue needs to be removed and what tissue can be left in place to ensure patients can maintain a high-quality of life after undergoing surgical procedures, particularly in cases involving brain tumors.

    Eberlin is working with researchers to develop a pen-sized tool, called the MasSpec Pen, to extract and analyze biomolecules and identify cancerous and healthy tissues in the clinical setting. Eberlin's "technological innovations have the potential to improve health care by decreasing the time between diagnosis to treatment and increasing the accuracy of cancer diagnoses and surgical interventions," the foundation said.

    Deborah Estrin, a computer scientist at Cornell Tech, was awarded a fellowship for her work developing digital tools to address socio-technological challenges, particularly in personal health management. Her work leverages mobile devices and network services to integrate various health data into a platform, called Open mHealth, which uses an open-source software designed to build customized applications to address specific health conditions.

    "Open mHealth avoids the proliferation of redundant, non-interoperable digital health services, and its scalability encourages wider adoption of mobile health technologies by individuals, researchers, and medical care providers," the foundation said. It added, "By designing and promoting the open data architecture needed to bring about its broader availability and adoption, Estrin is addressing many challenges to, and opportunities for, socially important applications of mobile health."

    Amy Finkelstein, a health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was awarded a fellowship for her work examining how health care policy influences health, health care, and well-being. Finkelstein uses new empirical research designs along with theoretical models to conduct large-scale studies to determine the effects of policies related to Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance. Her findings have shown expanding Medicaid results in an increase in self-reported financial and health security and the use of emergency department services—without having a substantial effect on health-related measures.

    "In this extensive and growing body of rigorous research, Finkelstein is challenging conventional assumptions about the economics of health care and providing stakeholders and health care institutions with data-driven guidance for validating program refinements and designing future interventions," the foundation said.

    Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and global health advocate at Yale University, was awarded a fellowship for his work developing approaches to improve public health responses by integrating community activism with quantitative analysis and operations research. Gonsalves for nearly 30 years worked as an HIV/AIDS activist, connecting HIV/AIDS patients with researchers to help advance the science community's knowledge of the disease. His activism has informed his work as an epidemiologist, which currently centers on "optimiz[ing] the effectiveness of health programs for epidemic diseases, particularly within poor and marginalized communities."

    "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," the foundation said (Deb, New York Times, 10/4; McCann, AP/Sacramento Bee, 10/4; Barrett, Wall Street Journal, 10/4; Healy, Los Angeles Times, 10/4; Gibson, Washington Post, 10/4; Thielking, "Morning Rounds," STAT News, 10/5; 2018 MacArthur Fellows, 10/4).

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