When public servants face a challenge, AAAS Member and newly elected 2020 AAAS Fellow Dr. Laura Albert finds solutions. Whether helping police tackle the opioid crisis, or assisting election officials in protecting voters during a deadly pandemic — which was one of her most recent feats — the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor uses mathematical models and analytics to recommend safe, economical and often innovative remedies.
“The main thread is that I'm looking at how to reduce risk in public sector applications, and also use limited resources wisely. That's really critical in the public sector because we live in a world with limited resources,” says Albert.
From cybersecurity to aviation safety, her industrial and systems engineering research can be prompted by current events. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. presidential election presented a complex predicament: How to keep an expected record number of voters safe in a global health crisis.
Albert learned about COVID-19 while on sabbatical in Germany. She returned early to the U.S. in mid-March of 2020, a mere month ahead of the chaotic Wisconsin presidential primary. This election included long lines of frustrated voters, due to consolidated polling locations, plus coronavirus precautions like social distancing.
Then, a conversation with fellow University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dr. Barry Burden helped Albert launch research to help state and local officials prepare for the November general election.
“We started talking about how queuing theory and location analysis are really important for elections. My ears perked up, because [those are] among my main topics of research,” she says.
Albert focused on how to protect in-person voting on Election Day, using details from the large, ethnically diverse city of Milwaukee. Her background researching cybersecurity contributed to the design for streamlining the process, while protecting the vote.
To more accurately capture what could actually happen on Election Day, Albert and her team studied the workflow of poll workers during the April primary in Wisconsin. Albert's team reviewed transcripts of statements given by many of these poll workers to the Wisconsin Election Commission, about all the pandemic obstacles they faced. For example, poll workers had to disinfect voting booths and use protective gear. Her team also screened hours of archived television news video of primary obstacles. Learnings from these data helped the scientists create a model to predict Election Day behaviors in Wisconsin and, at the end of the day, keep voters safe in the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.
Albert’s report recommended officials take many actions, including hiring more poll workers, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for them, frequently sanitizing voter stations, creating priority queues for the medically fragile at each location, and more. Interestingly, Albert suggested that Milwaukee’s NBA arena not be used as a polling location. The huge facility had never been used for voting and it was unclear how many people would vote at the arena and how many would vote at their regular polling place. That left big questions about proper staffing.
Importantly, the report highly encouraged the expansion of early and mail-in voting.
“You could see hope in every state that had early voting. Just having more options provides a level of resilience,” says Albert.
She shared findings with election officials, on her blog, "Punk Rock Operations Research," and in national op-eds. She encourages academic colleagues to do similar outreach.
“Engineers and scientists need to get out there and do that. I tried to spin it as, ‘here's what science can tell us about elections,’ so it would have a different angle. Now that we're past the election, it might be a time for a sobering look back, taking into account what happened on Election Day and what science can tell us for preparing for our next federal election,” she says.
Not all of Albert’s research and teaching is crisis-oriented, however. As a big sports fan, she incorporates modeling techniques for college football playoffs as a teaching tool. It’s helped students relate their research in mathematical modeling to something fun.
“We're trying to forecast who might be the top four teams at the end of the season. I try to include many different applications in teaching, but definitely being on a Big Ten campus, sports is intriguing to a lot of students,” says Albert.
Methods used in that sports project can be adapted for other investigations, too. Albert says bracketology and forced rankings used in football predictions can be helpful in contact tracing for COVID-19, to help rank the riskiest individuals for disease spread.
Another COVID-19-related topic — pooled testing — can benefit from engineering strategies. Instead of testing one by one, samples can be mixed in batches of five, up to 50. Only if the batch results are positive must individual tests be done.
“But that specific line of thinking is very much industrial engineering. How do we get the best testing with limited resources? And how do we get the most tests done? We had the data for it, so it turned into a sobering case study,” she says.
Not only did Albert use imaginative new ways to address COVID-19 pooled testing, but she also uses her problem-solving skills to address the opioid epidemic. Police and EMS crews spend an enormous amount of time dealing with addiction and the crime and grief it generates. One strategy looks at disrupting drug usage patterns by diverting addicts to treatment instead of the criminal justice system. Effective treatment can lead to fewer follow-up crimes, less interaction with the police and a positive outcome for the community.
“If police were to divert users to other resources, the idea is that's going to save us all this money. But in the short-term, it really doesn't. They need extra training. Social services need extra resources. You need to have these other resources there to make this work,” she says.
Whether it be addressing the COVID-19 pandemic or the opioid pandemic, Albert is optimistic there will be more institutional support from state and federal governments to help us all manage these risks.
“It's important that we look beyond our discipline and make a difference in the world and think about what impact our research has.” she says.