Researcher Q&A: Sabrina Tang, M.H.Sc. Candidate in Clinical Engineering at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto

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Photo courtesy of Fiona Lee

Sabrina Tang is a Masters of Health Science student in clinical engineering at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She completed her B.A.Sc. in industrial engineering from the University of Toronto. She works under the supervision of Professor Michael Carter from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto and Professor Sonia Vanderby from the University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering.

Tell me a little bit about your research.

Broadly speaking, my research deals with how we can make healthcare systems more efficient in terms of cost, human resources, and resource allocation. My thesis is on CT scanner accessibility for patients in Saskatchewan. I wanted to have policy angle, which makes my research a little further away from the clinician-patient interaction. I was interested in developing a tool policy makers could use to improve CT scanner access in Saskatchewan using available data. In our mathematical model, we have constrained the problem as such that we are only looking at the travel distance and hopefully, associated road networks and commute times for patients. We are also looking at basic patient information such as gender and age to get a comprehensive understanding of the patient demographic.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

I have always had a passion for improving healthcare systems. During my undergrad in industrial engineering, I learned about the mathematical concepts that I could apply in my research. However, I actually had the opportunity to follow clinicians around in their daily routine to appreciate the clinical contexts that the mathematical models may be applied. I wanted to try clinical engineering to get further appreciation of the clinical context, knowing that I had a decent grasp of mathematical modeling from undergrad.

What is a typical day like for you?

The first year in the program was course based with six courses. Then, I interned for the summer, and currently I am working on both my thesis and another part-time internship, so depending on my obligations, my day varies widely.

What are some challenges you face as a researcher in your masters program?

I live at Massey College which gives me the opportunity to be part of a very interdisciplinary community. However, I have friends who otherwise feel very socially isolated within the university, with little sense of community with anyone outside of the program. If you’re not taking a course, you can be spending up to eight hours in a lab, and the only people you end up interacting with on a daily basis are people in your lab. If the government and the university really want to advance research that is socially impactful, an interdisciplinary outlook needs to be fostered among researchers, because their findings have implications beyond the laboratory. Even if the scope of your research is very narrow, having a broader perspective of where it could go is very valuable.

A lot of my work relies on the collection of big data. I contact every single CT clinic in Saskatchewan and completed the ethics review for each one. Ideally, this could have been done through a provincially centralized system. Our research area deals with very granular data, so it can be challenging.

One thing that would help my research is access to free statistical consulting services, if the university offered them. Since we are working with large amounts of data, and having someone to professionally look over your statistical work would be helpful. It would be unfortunate to have a paper retracted because of a poor statistical analysis. Not everyone is or needs to be an expert in statistics, but there should be someone who can be consulted.

Your training was in industrial engineering. Right now, do you identify as such, or rather as an operations researcher, big-data person, a science, an engineer or something else entirely? How do you think that affects the way your results are communicated?

I don’t define myself in any of those ways necessarily, and it also depends on how you define each of those terms. From a methodological perspective, I am an operations researcher. If you define an engineer as someone who is involved in problem solving, then definitely, my research has such implications.

Regardless of labels, I think if you are a good researcher, you will communicate your results in a way that resonates with your audience. This is perhaps particular in the health field, but as a researcher in my area who does mathematical modeling, you would have two papers: one for a health journal, which focuses on the health impacts without providing a detailed description of the mathematics, and one describing the mathematical models and its generalized applications.

What are some your interests outside your research work? How do they complements your research?

Since my research is in healthcare, I try to learn as much as I can about the healthcare system in general by meeting people from different disciplines. I organize events for Massey Grand Rounds and last year I was involved with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Open School at the University of Toronto, which is also interdisciplinary and focuses on patient safety and quality improvement methods. This helps me put my research into a broader context and also provides ideas for future research/opportunities. To de-stress, I participate in intramural sports and try to be as active as possible.

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