Feb 15, 2021 | Atlanta, GA
For Toyya Pujol, numbers tell a story. “They give a concreteness to people’s experience,” she noted in a recent interview. An alumna (Ph.D. 2020) of the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), Pujol has taken this perspective to an assistant professorship at Purdue University, where she will be examining statistical data related to issues of social justice and public health.
This viewpoint has in fact defined Pujol’s academic and career choices since she was an undergraduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Most of her peers pursued full-time positions in banking or consulting. However, Pujol declined such job offers after deciding that she was not interested in helping companies make more money. She began bartending in Boston while considering her options.
“You can imagine the complaints of my mother,” Pujol said, laughing. “After she had just paid for four years of MIT tuition, I was tending bar!”
Eventually, Pujol recognized that what she really cared about was channeling her natural talent for numbers to help others — specifically, using math to describe the world with direct applications to social good problems. She accepted a civilian position with the U.S. Air Force as an operations research (OR) analyst, a role she held for six years. Pujol was responsible for using data to develop cost estimates, especially for advanced communications systems.
And where was the social good factor in that work, you might ask? “Everything we did was geared toward saving the warfighter’s life,” she explained.
Even after Pujol earned her master’s degree in OR from Northeastern University, the itch remained to apply numbers toward improving people’s lives, and she enrolled in ISyE’s Ph.D. program with a concentration in statistics. Her work here has focused on applying data analytics and machine learning to examine health outcomes and ways to provide patients with better treatment. In pursuit of that goal, Pujol joined an interdisciplinary Georgia Tech team that studied biomedical informatics and personalized medicine through a T32 training grant from the National Institutes of Health. She also spent a year at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Health Care Policy as a visiting scholar. Harvard’s interdisciplinary department included medical doctors working alongside biostatisticians and economists to drive health policy decisions; she learned biostatistics, rather than straight engineering statistics, for healthcare research.
These research opportunities clarified for Pujol where she wanted to land, career-wise, after defending her ISyE thesis. She decided on Purdue’s industrial engineering department, with a joint affiliation with the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, where colleagues from many different engineering disciplines have come together to solve major healthcare issues. Pujol also liked the center’s access to large amounts of data, as well as government connections. This means that she has been able to step right into doing the work she cares about most.
Additionally, Pujol, recipient of a scholarship through the prestigious Sloan Minority Ph.D. Program, sees the ongoing conversation around issues of race and social justice as a way of looking at numbers that significantly impact minority communities: infant/maternal mortality rates or implicit bias by medical professionals or inadequate access to telehealth, which has become essential during the Covid-19 pandemic. She hopes to be in the vanguard addressing concerns that profoundly influence the quality of life for entire demographic groups.
“People are starting to see how statistics around these questions represent human stories,” Pujol said. “This is why the work is important — no one would know about these issues if no one was looking. You can describe the world through numbers.”