Never have operations research and public health collided so magnificently than in 2020. The world requires modeling to predict how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting communities around the world on a daily basis.
Dr. Pinar Keskinocak is leading this daunting charge.
Keskinocak is the director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems at Georgia Tech, where she also serves as a professor and the William W. George Chair. She’s also leading some of the nation’s top COVID-19 pandemic research and became president of The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) this year.
“When I was younger, I loved math, learning, building, and discovering new things, and I still do,” Keskinocak said. “This motivated me to study and do research in engineering, systems, and supply chains.”
“I also had a passion for making a positive impact on people’s lives,” she continued. “So it has been a great journey, working collaboratively with students and colleagues from a variety of fields, creatively applying quantitative methods for improving systems and decision-making in healthcare and humanitarian response.”
This sort of empathy is carried out with all of her research. On top of teaching, according to Google Scholar, she’s been cited in 680 research papers this year alone, with the vast majority of her work revolving around providing pandemic insights and aid.
Her field of expertise is practical and clearly implemented. It sits at the nexus of humanitarian crises and strategies for alleviation. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Keskinocak studied pandemic flu, malaria, and more diseases that have plagued populations across the world. In addition, she is a top scientific advisor in disaster preparedness in the U.S. and abroad.
“The pandemic highlighted the weaknesses in many of our ‘systems’ like never before. Its impact, similar to many other previous disasters, has been disproportionately high on vulnerable or underserved populations,” Keskinocak said.
“When we prepare for or respond to a complex emergency, we need the public and the private sectors to speedily coordinate, with all players understanding what is needed from them, when, and where, so that we achieve synergies, providing resources and services that are the right place at the right time,” she explained. “This requires coordination on a national and sometimes global scale, which has been lacking in many of the complex emergencies in the past, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Keskinocak said the lack of information visibility is also hurting us now more than ever, though she emphasized that universal collaboration is possible. Ideally, according to Keskinocak, it will help trigger a chain reaction that will hopefully help systems learn how to deal with catastrophic events, like COVID-19, in the future.
“Hence, we need a ‘systems’ perspective, with collaborations across public and private sectors and different fields including engineering, public health, and medicine,” she said. “This will help us establish our systems’ agility, flexibility, and responsiveness during normal times, as well as during disruptions and emergencies.”
Because of this eclectic expertise, Keskinocak was named INFORMS president this past year. The organization acts as a guiding beacon in operational research (the science of analytics-based decision-making). The professor said that while 2020 has required all-hands-on-deck, INFORMS has actually expanded its breadth of expertise and is looking to continue with these updates as a result of the pandemic.
While she has made awe-inspiring strides, Keskinocak acknowledges more should be done regarding gender equality in engineering fields. Unconscious biases from teachers and family members may still persist for young women—but she says this should only motivate up-and-coming scientists further.
“No matter where you are today, what your life or career aspirations might be, remember that you deserve success and happiness, and celebrate every little victory,” Keskinocak said. “You can focus your time and energy on drawing lines, or crossing them.”
In her view, we are at a point in history where women in STEM fields have, ideally, paved a way for a new generation interested in science and technology. She hopes enough access has been created to make this growth of women in the field exponential.
“I am inspired and truly excited about the future of engineering, thinking about all the amazing things our next generation, especially women, are capable of doing, to make this world a better place,” Keskinocak said, addressing young women aspiring to become scientists. “The value of your unique voice and perspective is priceless.”