First Time’s a Charm

There’s an old saying that goes, “third time’s a charm,” and it means that the third time you attempt something, luck is sure to result. For Ph.D. student Maragaret Tobey, it turned out the “first time’s a charm” when it came to competing at this year’s INFORMS Annual Conference. She placed second in the Best Paper Contest and was a finalist in the Best Poster Competition on her first visit to the conference.

The Competitions

Tobey was one of around 40 people who submitted their papers to the INFORMS Section on Public Sector OR (PSOR) best paper competition. Before the start of the conference, judges reviewed each entry and selected the top five finalists. Tobey and the other four finalists were invited to the annual conference and allowed to present their work in a special session. The papers were judged on the quality of the writing, quality of methods and results, and impacts on the public service sector. The following day, The judges announced that Tobery had won second place.

Margaret Tobey (front row, far right) standing with the other finalists

Tobey had also signed up to compete in the Best Poster Competition, which was open to all members of INFORMS and featured around 200 posters. On the first day of the poster session, multiple judges visited each contestant to judge the quality of their poster and presentation. “They seemed to pay special attention to the methodological contributions and impacts of the works,” recalled Tobey. From the original 200, the judges selected nine finalists to return the next day and participate in another round of judging. “The other posters were impressive, and ultimately my poster was not chosen as a winner, but I was still thrilled to participate as a finalist.”

The Research

Tobey’s research focuses on solving one of the world’s biggest societal problems, human trafficking. “This illegal and exploitative industry is widespread across the United States, endangers vulnerable populations, threatens public safety, and harms the legitimate massage industry,” explained Tobey. She has been working with the Global Emancipation Network (a non-profit partner), from whom she has gained specialized expertise and shared knowledge from the social sciences.

Tobey presented her research to the judges

“We built risk prediction tools for targetting human trafficking in illicit massage businesses,” said Tobey. “Our tools can help stakeholders like law enforcement better prioritize investigations and allocate resources to the riskiest businesses. Additionally, the results from our work can inform evidence-based counter-trafficking legislation.” Maria Mayorga, Operations Research (OR) interim director, is one of Tobey’s research advisors. “Often trafficking crimes operate within other illicit networks or crimes, such as money laundering,” she explained. “By helping law enforcement prioritize investigations, we can not only help trafficking victims but also reduce crime and improve safety within our local communities.” Joining Tobey and Mayorga on the NSF-funded research team are ISE professor Ozman Ozaltin and Ph.D. student Ruoting Li and Sherrie Caltagirone from the Global Emancipation Network.

The Results

Tobey’s performance on such a big stage will undoubtedly raise the reputation of NC State’s OR Program. “Tobey’s award highlights the quality and impact of the work conducted by OR students and faculty,” shared Mayorga. “The awards highlight the program at the most important conference for OR researchers, INFORMS.” Regarding Tobey’s hard work and performance, let’s turn to another old saying about luck, “luck is the residue of design.”