One Less Headache

By Matt Hawkins

What can be more aggravating than a trip to the doctor? Actually scheduling the appointment itself.

As Bradley industrial engineering major Heather Hawkins ’19 discovered, office schedulers work stressful hours coordinating doctors’ calendars by hand. It’s a problem she helped solve as a summer research intern in the University of Michigan’s top-tier industrial operations program.

“I kept imagining our chief resident working on schedules by herself for hours,” she said. “I can’t comprehend doing that by hand like she does. It’s a no-brainer to create something that will allow people to spend more time helping patients.”

DeKalb, Ill., native Hawkins contributed to two studies that could automate part of the process and free staff for more patient-centered tasks. One built a program to optimize a dermatologist office’s care providers so experienced doctors could handle complex patients, residents could get their training and all could take vacations. The other, which Hawkins helped launch, created a new process by which clinic staff would schedule colonoscopies and endoscopies, given preparation and recovery steps patients required.

She worked closely with a professor and doctoral student through the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), which encourages underrepresented students to pursue graduate degrees through research immersion experiences. As an adopted child from China and a woman engineer, Hawkins was targeted by SROP as an ideal candidate.

This research appealed to Hawkins’ human factors engineering interest and expanded her horizons to health care applications of operations research. Working with providers and patients complemented her Bradley background in ergonomics, which focuses on workplace safety and design for humans, while coding helped strengthen her knowledge in programming languages Python and C++.

“I’m interested in people, but I can’t stand medicine or thinking about doctors performing surgery,” she said. “I’d rather look outside the body and design products that can better serve people.”

Summer also rekindled Hawkins’ desire to mentor students. She once dreamed of teaching K-12 students, but set that aside until she felt the impact of college professors. Now, she plans to pursue a doctorate and a faculty position where she can make medical advances while she sparks students’ own research.

“Teaching typical subjects never appealed to me, but engineering brought me back to my dream,” she said. “I can influence minds of the next generation while I help the engineering community with my research.”

(Photo by Duane Zehr)