MITRE researcher Jaya Tripathi became interested in opioids research seven years ago when a relative’s leg had been shattered after a bad ski accident. He was prescribed an opioid, which is a painkiller and controlled substance, and she wanted to explore further why she had to get the prescription in-person from the same doctor’s office and pick it up at the pharmacy at frequent intervals.
“Based on my initial research, I learned that it is difficult it to taper off opioids when still in pain, even for people who have no addiction tendencies,” said Tripathi, who didn’t even know what controlled substances were at the time. She then started to research the effect that opioids have on the reward circuit in the brain, and also researched federal and state laws on controlled substance prescribing.
Working with public and private stakeholders, and evaluating some of the existing vendor solutions, today Tripathi has created a drug control tool that can be used by law enforcement and other organizations. Presenting research at the White House is a long way from her roots, when Tripathi came to the United States in the 1980s on a one-way ticket from India and with $100 in her pocket. She studied quantum mechanics and then particle physics, and began applying big data to the airline industry and telecommunications. Tripathi came to MITRE in Bedford — a nonprofit tech firm that runs government-sponsored research operations — when she saw how information systems could be applied to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, including health care management. The Globe spoke with her about the ground-breaking research she’s doing.
“My research ideas have all stemmed from events that have happened in my life, like my (relative’s) ski accident, deciding on treatment plans for prostate cancer, or studying the use of bitcoins on the dark web for nefarious activities. I’m not alone in struggling with these kind of challenges, and I look for solutions to address the problems. My physics background is the foundation of being able to think logically and tackle a complex issue in terms of numbers. I employ analytics and other mathematical techniques to build real-time systems. The problem of the opioid epidemic, for example, needs to be addressed at all points: manufacturer, distributor, supplier, prescriber, dispenser, and consumer, using a multi-pronged approach. I hope that with these kinds of tools, the epidemic becomes a thing of the past.
“It was an honor to present my research to the Office of Management and Budget in the Eisenhower Executive Building, which is next to the West Wing. I liked the understated elegance of the building, and as I walked through the corridors. The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. I had been ill and my voice was almost gone, but I didn’t want to postpone the meeting. For just for that one hour, I found the strength to do my presentation. I was invited next to present it to the White House Office for National Drug Control. I came away with positive feedback and useful suggestions for future direction.
“My parents were unusually progressive for people of their time. My mother was a refugee [who had to flee her home after the partition of India] who met my father while they were both doing field work for anthropology. I grew up in [urban] India where day-to-day life is defined by your class. Americans typically are not so snobbish about status. I went to graduate school in Texas and until I received my first stipend, people loaned me money for furniture, coats, and anything else I needed. Now, looking back, I wonder how I did it. I think I was not as much brave as naive. It was easy for me to adapt because as a child, I moved every two to three years, relocating from north to south India, which have very different cultures.
“Today, as a woman of color in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field, I sometimes need to prove my ability and I am challenged by those who harbor stereotypes on gender and ethnicity. But we are breaking through the glass ceiling and making inroads. And remember, pursuing a STEM field does not mean forsaking the liberal arts: one can do both. I’m an avid reader, enjoy creative writing, and love helping my children with the classics. Right now, I’m re-reading Macbeth along with my high schooler. I encourage young people to pursue any field they want, as long as they are passionate and have a flair for it. That has always been my driving force.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the inspiration for Jaya Tripathi’s work in opioid addiction and prescription controls. Her interest was sparked when a relative was prescribed a painkiller after shattering his leg in a skiing accident. The relative did not go through any dependency or addiction, either during or after the recovery. The story also misstated details of her upbringing. Tripathi’s mother was a refugee who fled her home during the partition of India. Tripathi was raised in urban India. The Globe apologizes for the errors.