Where's that research now?
These apps are already being tested, but they are not at a point where they are individualized. We are at the point where we are developing algorithms to better tailor care to a person. Apps for medical use are already out there. Strategies are there. The question is: How do we individualize it to the person? Another thing that is important here is it’s really difficult to change your behavior. The coach on the phone has to engage you and keep you motivated, so a lot of these strategies are about maintaining interest to stay the course with behavior change.
Walk me through the nuts and bolts here. You would input data about yourself and it would spit out text messages at specific intervals or something like that?
These algorithms, they work much like the algorithms that work on the Internet. When you go on the Internet and go to a big company site, they give you ads that have been personalized to you. How do they do that personalization? They explore (or randomize you between) different appropriate recommendations and they see which ones you pick. In our situation the little coach app would try different behavioral strategies—maybe ones with high probabilities that they would work for you. [With the] variety of behavioral strategies, it would record how well you do—for example keeping your weight off or staying off drugs. The behavioral coach might suggest you text a friend or indicate exercise that was helpful in the past. The coach might suggest you look at pictures of your family and children and think about why you have made this decision to stay off drugs.
So, what would you need to tell the "coach" then?
Now there are more and more sensors being worked into phones—activity sensors that record how active you are, and sensors can be built into phones that record how much social activity you use the phone for—so, there is a lot of information the phone records already, like with diabetes. Wireless sensors on your body could communicate with the phone. The goal is to have health care that doesn’t interfere with your life.
Why are you interested in mental illness and behavior change in particular?
People who have these difficult conditions, they have been stigmatized for years. I think that I should try to help the people who need my help most.
What do you plan to do with your award?
I’m going to use it mainly to support the development of these algorithms. It requires a lot of effort, a lot of programming and different people have to be involved: computer scientists, statisticians, clinical scientists. All that money is going to go toward that endeavor. That’s all I really want to do. What can I say?
As a woman working in mathematics, what do you think can be done to further encouarge women to enter into STEM careers?
I like math. It’s the only thing I’m really good at. I can’t be anything else. I think having really engaging junior high math teachers and potentially high school math teachers is key. Certainly it was for me with one of my teachers. I still remember her name; I named a number of my pets after her. That teacher doesn’t need to be female necessarily, but he or she needs to allow teenagers to experience how much fun math can be.
You work at the University of Michigan. Do you have any thoughts on what statistical applications could be employed to help the people of Detroit?
Poverty can be viewed as a chronic, relapsing disorder that requires a sequence of interventions to help people get out of poverty and stay out. So from my point of view, helping people get out of poverty is just as important as helping people manage their diabetes or helping people improve their recovery in substance abuse. Poverty is a similar type of problem in that people move in and out of poverty repeatedly over time. Welfare policies can often be viewed as a sequence of treatments, so we need to think about how best to sequence those treatments to help people stay out of poverty and move into the middle class.