Five Questions With Engineer Kayse Lee Maass

Name: Kayse Lee Maass
Job: Industrial Engineer
Country: United States
Age: 29

Kayse Lee Maass is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and leads the Operations Research and Social Justice lab at Northeastern University. She also currently holds a research appointment with the Information and Decision Engineering Program at Mayo Clinic. Dr. Maass’s research focuses on the application of operations research methodology to social justice, access, and equity issues within human trafficking, mental health, housing, and supply chain contexts. Her work is supported by multiple National Science Foundation grants, centers interdisciplinary survivor-informed expertise, and has been used to inform policy and operational decisions at the local, national, and international levels. A recipient of multiple awards, she currently serves as the INFORMS Section on Location Analysis Secretary and is a member of the H.E.A.L. Trafficking Research Committee. Find her on TwitterLinkedIn, and her website

On why she chose to study engineering:

“When I was growing up, I was interested in a lot of social justice types of topics, but I also really loved math. I knew I wanted to do something with applied math. In college, I studied math and physics [I had some physics in high school and liked it], but it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I wanted to tie in social justice with math, but I didn’t know how to do that until I took an operations research course in my senior year. That’s when I learned about the field that I’m in, which is industrial engineering.

I like to explain Industrial Engineering as the mathematics of decision making where we can look at things from a systems perspective. It’s nice because anything—any application or any topic that you think of—involves decision making. However, it wasn’t until I was pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE) from the University of Michigan that my mentors provided me with space and encouragement to explore how industrial engineering and social justice applications, like human trafficking, intertwined.”

On her self-care practices for a healthy lifestyle:

“I’ve been thinking about this [self-care] a lot lately. I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care. There are things I personally need to do for self-care, but we also need to make sure we design our systems and communities around making sure people have space to have healthy lifestyles.

As a professor, I work with a lot of students interested in pursuing a PhD or a career as a professor. I know that academia gives this idea that everyone’s always working, rarely has time for fun, and it’s very intense [which it is]. But, that’s not true for everyone in academia, and the assumption that it is true is one of the major barriers to creating an inclusive, diverse academy. I want students interested in academia to know that the field can be welcoming to people with diverse family needs or diverse health needs with different accessibility levels – but to do this I have to help create an academic environment where people know that flexibility and accessibility are the norm. For example, I try to be intentional about encouraging students to step away from their work to take time for their own self-care and relaxation, to be with family, and to generally just not work when they need to not work. This involves setting boundaries between work and other areas of your life and creating an environment where stepping away and having other interests is normal. The workplace can do a better job at normalizing healthy living. In fact, stepping away from your work to focus on other parts of your life is healthy and can lead to you being more engaged and productive once you are back at work!

In my personal life, I try to exercise as much as I can with realistic expectations. If I don’t reach my goal on a day, then self-care for me means I have to avoid being hard on myself for missing the goal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen to my body a lot more, including understanding when I’m starting to get stressed or anxious, and when what my body really needs is to rest rather than move.

Learn more on her website.

On how engineers can help fix healthcare:

“A lot of people in our field also look at healthcare applications. Sometimes it’s looking at telehealth options for people who either cannot drive anymore or live in rural populations. Industrial engineering can help answer questions such as: How can these populations have better access to a healthy lifestyle and check-ins? There are also people in our field who use industrial engineering to determine how often people should get screened for different conditions as they get older. If people were screened all the time, that would put a lot of time and financial burden on patients and they probably would not go to their screening. But if patients are not screened frequently enough, then they might have an undetected medical condition that can progress or get worse over time with limited treatment options available in the future.”

On how she uses data to fight human trafficking:

“There are researchers in other fields that use quantitative data to get insights into what human trafficking. Statisticians are working on better ways to determine the prevalence of human trafficking; economists create economic models to understand ways to reduce the profitability of exploiting people by using trafficked labor; there are quantitative social scientists researching, among other things, ways in which systems of poverty, racism, and homelessness intersect with human trafficking.  But, in industrial engineering, there really hasn’t been much prior work focused on data and mathematical, systems-based models to provide decision support to anti-human trafficking stakeholders. For example, there’s often not enough of a budget for anti-human trafficking agencies or non-profits to adequately address the needs of trafficking victims and survivors. They don’t have enough resources. They already have a lot of things they need to do. Industrial engineering is great for those kinds of applications because we can help figure out, “How do I make the most efficient use of my resources?” For example, in some of our current work, we focus on how to increase access to shelters and other services for human trafficking survivors. After people come out of their trafficking experience, they need safe and stable housing options, they need access to food and medical care and many additional things, but those supports currently are not adequately available throughout the world, including the United States.

Some of our work is focusing on determining how to best increase access to shelter and other services if an organization/government has a limited budget to spend. We work with human trafficking survivors to determine what they want and need after they leave their trafficking experience. From this we can answer questions such as: Where should you build these additional shelters? What types of services should each shelter offer? How can the shelters best coordinate with other community support partners? In short, one of the things we as industrial engineers can do is help determine how to most efficiently use your resources to meet your goals.

This a similar problem to something like what any other company would do when they are going to create a new warehouse or storefront. They use these kinds of models to say, “Where am I going to open my next warehouse?” or “Where am I going to open my new store?” And we’re just doing it in a different application while also considering things that aren’t focused primarily on demand and profit. Instead we incorporate more human components as well.”

On her tips for combining engineering and social justice passions:

“It’s important to understand both the technical aspects of industrial engineering and the nuances of social justice issues. Sometimes what can happen is a prospective engineer who has a math/engineering background can get so excited about a social justice topic that they just jump into it without understanding all the nuances and all the complexities of that social justice topic. And while it’s good to have interest and passion in all these topics, it can also be harmful if we don’t understand how there are many different complexities and overlapping systems involved. For example, creating a new decision model that looks at stopping trafficking within a city might just push the traffickers outside of the city and into the suburbs or rural areas, causing problems for other populations or marginalized groups.

So, I think it’s important that industrial engineers come with a passion, and start working on these topics, but also come with the willingness to really get connected with people that have expertise in human trafficking.

It’s important that if you’re making decisions about trafficking-whether through industrial engineering models or policy-, you need to have trafficking victims and trafficking survivors centered at the decision table with you; they understand what the complexities of the system are, and are crucial to making sure that we aren’t having any unintended consequences.” There’s that saying, “Nothing for us without us” that is particularly helpful for us as industrial engineers to remember as we work on problems that have very real impacts on people’s lives.

I read somewhere that when we talk about self-care, what we often need is community care.

Kayse Lee Maass, PhD

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