What do air traffic control systems and the US pharmaceutical supply chain have in common? If industrial engineering PhD student Min Gong has anything to say about it, it’s how they’re optimized. After being inspired to change the course of his professional career and move from China to the United States to complete his PhD, his ambition is to apply the AI-driven optimization methods used in aviation to how we manufacture, distribute, and deploy live-saving medicines in the US.
Gong was a new college graduate working as a flight dispatcher in China when he found what would ultimately become the focus of his PhD research. “What I realized was that the aviation industry uses AI and large-scale optimization to do much of the work,” he explains, “A flight dispatcher or air traffic controller really only needs to click their mouse. So, I thought, why should I be the one clicking the mouse when I could be the one designing the system?”
His ambition stoked, Gong decided to quit his job and pursue a master’s degree, a decision that would lead him to Northeastern, where he began his PhD in industrial engineering in 2019. His interest in AI-driven optimization led him to the Healthcare Systems Engineering Institute, or HSyE, where he is applying himself to the challenge of combating critical drug shortages in the US pharmaceutical supply chain.
“Every year in recent decades, the US has faced drug shortages, especially now during this pandemic. We have so many shortages occurring at once, which cost us not just money but time and lives,” he explains, “So, we are studying these problems using AI technology and optimization methods to try to predict the trends and model things like the decision-making patterns of agents within the supply chain. That way we can find methods to mitigate these problems.”
The supply chain is a vast organism made up of many organizations, from raw material and drug producers to distributors and end-users like hospitals, each with their own priorities and agendas. One of the key problems he and his fellow researchers have identified is a lack of communication and coordination between the various agents up and down stream within the supply chain; agents generally act in the best interests of the agency they represent, rather than coordinating with their counterparts downstream, leading to delays and inefficiencies.
As complex as this challenge is, Gong sees hopeful signs in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “During the pandemic we’ve seen much greater communication and coordination among agencies, like with the antiviral drug Remdesivir,” he says, “So we know it is possible!”
While he has much left to do in his PhD research, Gong has seen his path forward once he completes his studies and hopes to continue working in the pharmaceutical industry. “Ideally, I’d like to work as a data scientist for optimization or as a supply chain specialist within one of the big distributors or manufacturers…in the longer term, who knows? Anything is possible.”