“The driving force behind my career has been doing work for social good,” said Toyya Pujol, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). In 2017, Professor Nicoleta Serban’s health analytics group was granted access to three terabytes worth of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and Pujol works with the group on a wide range of projects, using statistical methods, machine learning, and data science techniques.
“With the Medicaid data, we do analysis around population disparities by race and ethnicity and urban versus rural health care and health outcomes. A lot of the research I’ve done is around women’s health, particularly reproductive health,” she explained. “I have a project looking at contraception trends in women with chronic health conditions, and another one that examines how babies are affected when they’re born to teen mothers: Are they more likely to have low birth weight, to be born with addiction issues, to end up in foster care?
“You can work on data everywhere you go – the question is what type of data interests you,” she noted. "Choose a place where you are excited by the questions the data helps you answer. If it has to do with the first year of life, I’m interested in it.”
As a result of Pujol’s extensive research, she was recently awarded a prestigious $40,000 Minority Graduate Scholarship by the Sloan Foundation’s Minority Ph.D. Program, which supports underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in STEM fields. Select colleges and universities, including Georgia Tech, are designated as Sloan University Centers for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) and are given funds to distribute to students chosen as Sloan Scholars.
“The Sloan Foundation scholarship is testimony to Toyya's research toward helping vulnerable populations,” Serban, who is Pujol’s advisor, said. “Toyya is very enthusiastic about doing social good with her work.”
In addition to the scholarship money, Pujol will receive mentoring and leadership training through the program. And once she has a faculty position, she will be eligible for additional funding as a result of receiving the minority scholarship. “It really opens a lot of doors,” she said. “You become part of a community that has invested in you.”
Pujol is spending the fall and spring semesters in Boston at Harvard Medical School, where her work is taking on a broader public health focus. She is developing methodologies for applying machine learning to causal inference in difference-in-difference settings. She will apply these methods to private insurance claims data for perinatal spending. The goal is to determine if perinatal spending decreases under an episode-based spending policy.
Pujol plans to graduate in the spring of 2020 and will seek an academic position at that time.