Associate Professor Chaitra Gopalappa of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department has been approved for the prestigious position of “guest researcher” at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an arrangement that enables her close engagement with CDC research and access to the agency’s resources but doesn’t change her employment status at UMass Amherst.
According to the CDC, the purpose of this program is to allow guest researchers such as scientists, engineers, and university faculty members to use CDC facilities in order to participate in CDC research investigations or carry out their own research. Individuals approved as guest researchers are not CDC employees and are not paid directly by the CDC for their research.
The guest researcher position at CDC will enable Gopalappa to participate in CDC research and utilize CDC facilities, thus providing a platform for more active collaboration between her research team and those at the CDC.
Gopalappa says this opportunity will also provide good training opportunities for her students to be involved in mathematical modeling work closely related to health policy.
In addition to her industrial engineering professorship in the MIE department, Gopalappa also holds a joint appointment with the UMass Commonwealth Honors College. Her expertise is in dynamic systems simulation and control optimization, specifically in the areas of simulation, network modeling, simulation-based optimization, machine and reinforcement learning, and stochastic processes.
Gopalappa is the director of the UMass Disease Prediction and Prevention Modeling laboratory, which develops mathematical and computational models for simulating the dynamics of disease incidence and spread and has the far-reaching goals of analyzing disease prediction, prevention, and control.
Gopalappa says that research in her lab is focused on the development of new mathematical methods that are necessary to encapsulate the interactions between various interrelated diseases and assorted social determinants of health.
For example, one of Gopalappa’s current projects focuses on high-burden chronic diseases with viral origins, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papilloma virus, cervical cancer, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and liver cancer. All these conditions have common modes of transmission – sexual and needle sharing networks – and are driven by common social determinants of health such as poverty, food and housing insecurity, physical and mental disability, and lack of access to healthcare.
Gopalappa’s lab also works on optimization methods for the dynamic evaluation of disease-control strategies as epidemics evolve.
The overarching mission of Gopalappa’s work is to provide the decision-support tools for analyses of both disease-specific interventions and structural interventions that can improve social conditions, reduce health disparities, and improve the overall health of the population. Her approach is a radical shift from a disease-centered approach to modeling that focusses on disease-specific interventions.
Currently, Gopalappa’s lab is supported by a five-year, $1.5-million National Institutes of Health grant and four-year, $1.2-million National Science Foundation grant, along with smaller grants from the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).
In that context, the Gopalappa lab works closely with CDC and WHO collaborators who are potential stakeholders of her work.
The mathematical modeling work at Gopalappa’s lab has generated several significant contributions that have informed key policy decisions at the CDC, as related to the U.S. national HIV strategic plans, and at the WHO, related to guidelines for cancer screening globally. Several graduate and undergraduate students from her lab are collaborators on all this work.