Q&A with Marcella Alsan

Stritch Alum Awarded MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant"Photo of Marcella Alsan

October 4, 2021

Marcella Alsan (MD ’05) was one of just 25 recipients of this year’s prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which was announced in late September. Commonly referred to as the “genius grant,” the fellowship is awarded to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” Since 1981, only 1061 people been awarded the $625,000 “no-strings-attached” grant. Learn how Alsan’s Stritch education has influenced her career and led her to this extraordinary accomplishment.

What prompted you to pursue an MD and study at Stritch?

I wanted to become a doctor and work with Doctors without Borders. After I graduated from Harvard College, I worked in an orphanage in a small town in Tijuana, Mexico, on the U.S./Mexico border. It was an area with many maquiladoras – factories built by U.S. companies that used cheap labor. Because many families could not afford to keep their children, they sent them to orphanages.

During that experience, I started looking at medical schools. At the time, Stritch was one of the very few schools that had opportunities for first year students to work internationally. Its program was really appealing and it was well-developed and well-funded. And Stritch is in Maywood, which is an underserved community. All of that (and I am from Illinois) led me to Loyola.

I absolutely made the right choice. During my first and second year, I interned at Partners in Health in Boston. That experience helped me think about inequalities in disease outcomes. After that internship, I went to Ecuador where I saw – on the ground – what I was learning about intellectually. There was a shortage of insulin in the country, due to cutbacks on health and education budgets. That was a prompt for me to start looking at economics.

How did your Stritch experience shape your career?

As mentioned above, the frontline work experience in developing countries, and underserved communities in Chicago as a Schweitzer fellow really allowed me to identify that although I had excellent clinical training – I still had fundamental gaps in the tool kit. This ultimately led to pursuing a PhD in economics.

COVID-19 highlighted pervasive health inequities. How do you look at infectious diseases through an economic lens?

In economics, we think about market failures – meaning when the competitive equilibrium is actually not optimal in the usual sense. Infectious diseases by their definition lead to market failures, since the actions of some individuals may affect others and that lies outside the price system. In such situations, it’s really incumbent on government to intervene and correct these failures.

Some of your current research explores how physician messaging affects patient health behaviors, including if non-Black physicians’ acknowledgment and discussion of the medical field’s past injustices improves take-up of health care services among Black patients. Can you share any initial observations?

Yes, what we’ve found in research with Sarah Eichmeyer is that overall the acknowledgement frames are rated highly – but don’t change behavior. To date, my research has pointed to race concordant experts as being important for some as well as hearing from peers. The latter seems especially important among individuals with little prior connection to the health care system.

How do you anticipate investing your MacArthur funding?

I anticipate investing in research. I am currently developing a health inequality lab at Harvard Kennedy School and I envision us doing many more projects, including some projects that are outside the box and hard to identify a funder. I am very excited!