PhD Student’s Research Recognized by American Society of Transplant Surgeons

PhD Student's Research on Geographic Disparity in Kidney Donations Wins Award

PhD Student’s Research on Geographic Disparity in Kidney Donations Wins Award

If you didn’t know better, you might think that all patients waiting for a kidney transplant have the same opportunity to receive an organ donation, but unfortunately, that is not the case. One issue is geographical disparity, and that is what PhD Speed School Industrial Engineering student Fatemeh Karami wanted to address.

“People in different locations across the country don’t have an equal chance to receive a kidney transplant,” Fatemeh said. “For example, in California they might wait for six months and in Kentucky for two months.” To tackle this issue, Fatemeh used operations research to create a mathematical model designed to reduce disparity in transplant possibilities. “If kidneys are recovered in a certain hospital, and we want to donate it to someone at a different hospital, we have been looking at a 250-mile radius,” Fatemeh explained. But the 250-mile perimeter was not optimal, and was decided arbitrarily. Her research was used to try to identify the radius they should be looking for in order to “give everyone an equal chance,” she said.

She had an opportunity to showcase her research through a poster presentation contest at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS) 20th Annual State of the Art Winter Symposium Conference in early January in Miami. Fatemeh won the Distinguished Poster Award from more than 100 posters submitted in the field of transplantation. The criteria for the award considered the clarity of the research question and the presentation of the material.

As part of Fatemeh’s research about organ transplantation, she completed a seven-month internship from June to December at John Hopkins University in 2019. She used an optimization model to design geographic boundaries to address geographic disparity in access to transplant in kidney allocation system.

Dr. Suraj Alexander, Speed School’s Chairperson of Industrial Engineering, said Fatemeh’s research “utilizes optimization methodologies to redefine current geographical boundaries used for the allocation of harvested kidneys. Her work has the potential to change policies to improve access of donor kidneys to those needing transplants across the United States.”

Fatemeh said that winning at the medical conference was a complete surprise. “It was the first time I had ever presented at that kind of conference,” she said. “Everyone was a doctor, and I was the only engineer. I did not think I had a chance there,” she said.

But in industrial engineering, many problems we are working to solve are in the health care field, said Fatemeh. “We use optimization models or use machine learning algorithms to solve health care related problems, like scheduling a patient, surgery rooms, or nursing care,” she said. “We are predicting how a cancer situation is getting worse or getting better – finding solutions for some medical conditions.”

In her case, the organ allocation system she designed is not only for kidneys, but can be applied in multiple ways. Her dissertation is about the heart, too. “Resource allocation, blood allocation – there are many ways engineers can work with medicine. It’s gratifying to feel like you are making a difference,” she said.

Next up for Fatemeh is defending her dissertation and graduation in May 2020.  She hopes to continue her work with a job in the health care sector. “Operations research and optimization is something I really like to do,” she said. “My dream job would be at a company where my work could be used to produce a positive result, and also gives me the opportunity to learn different things so I can grow.”