Dr. Inbal Yahav-Shernberger: Crunching the Data to Save Lives

The gap between the number of kidney donors and patients who are waiting for a transplant is disheartening: in the U.S. alone, there’s an 8:1 ratio working against the people who are desperately in need of a lifesaving organ: 100,000 candidates vs. only 12,000 donors a year. So, when the rare kidney does become available, how do doctors, hospitals and institutions decide who will be granted a second chance at life?

Dr. Inbal Yahav, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Business Administration at Bar-Ilan University, has developed an algorithm that may help with the heartbreaking process. Yahav studied Computer Science and Information Systems at the Technion and at the University of Maryland. She has a PhD in Operations Research and Data Mining, and her keenest area of research is in healthcare; her most recent published paper, in fact, was on “Modeling Kidney Allocation.”

“I don’t have a medical background,” Yahav explains, “so I can’t say who gets the match. But I can help by looking at the data to determine fairness and the efficiency of allocation. We can analyze historical data that shows how long a patient will live with a kidney, without a kidney, what will change based on when the kidney arrives, and how sick a patient might be. We can even take into account demographic information.”

Yahav’s statistical analysis has been sent to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) as a candidate to create a new national allocation system (the last one still uses data modeling from the 1980’s). “When you work on something like this, it’s very gratifying,” Yahav beams. “In academic life, you may come up with a beautiful system, but in practice it often doesn’t get used.”

Yahav is one of 16 young academic stars absorbed into BIU’s Liberal Arts disciplines during Academic Year 2011/12, within the framework of the University’s innovative Faculty Recruitment initiative. Her most popular class actually has nothing to do with healthcare, yet everything to do with data mining: in this case, it’s all about the social network. Yahav gives the surprising example of eBay.

“When people think of social networks,” she says, “it’s always Facebook, but eBay is one too. It connects buyers and sellers in a trust relationship. The question we looked at was what factors make a buyer loyal to a particular seller.” Perhaps counter intuitively, it turns out that a high price can often generate more loyalty if it results in a perception of greater quality. Yahav first became interested in her field while working in Information Systems in the Israel Defense Forces. Later, she went to work for a transportation company while an undergraduate. “We’d try to predict the effect on traffic of changing the number of lanes, of adding stop lights.” she says. “That's when I decided that data is my thing.”

Yahav loves teaching at Bar-Ilan. “It’s the friendliest academic environment I’ve seen,” she enthuses. “It’s based on real relationships and caring for each other. And the University understands if you have kids, you can be flexible with your schedule.”

Yahav’s latest project is back to the health space – this time she is looking at how to use data to distinguish between the symptoms of a bio-terrorism attack and those of just a seasonal flu. “The main fear is that we’ll have an attack and we won’t know about it,” she says. “A doctor won’t recognize the symptoms and will tell the patient to simply take an Advil and go home.”

With all of Yahav’s professional passion for data, one might think it would stop when she returns home to spend time with her family (she has two children under the age of 3). But for Yahav, data never sleeps. “We were looking to buy a new apartment and wanted to understand the prices,” she explains. “Everyone says that prices in Israel are going down. So I wrote a program to download real estate data from Yad2 (a popular ecommerce website in Israel). It turns out that in the area where we were looking, prices have actually gone up by 10 percent in the last year!” Yahav hasn’t bought a place yet. But there’s no doubt it will be the data that will alert her when the price is right.
For more on Dr. Yahav click here.