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Faculty, student volunteers key to St. Elmo Brady effort
Stephen Greenwell
Taewoo Lee and Poria Dorali.
Taewoo Lee and Poria Dorali.

For Industrial Engineering assistant professor Taewoo Lee and doctoral student Poria Dorali, each one came to the decision to volunteer with the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy in different ways.

Lee finished his doctorate in Operations Research at the University of Toronto in 2015 and moved to the United States, taking a position at Rice. Since he learned about the pressing issues in the healthcare system, especially related to disparity in access to care, his research has been focused on how to use mathematical models to redesign healthcare delivery systems to improve equity and reduce disparity in access to care.

“While doing this research in healthcare, I was also aware that disparity in access is not only limited to healthcare but is prevalent in other aspects as well, and one that really caught my attention was education,” Lee said. “At Rice, I used to work with a non-profit organization to develop the software, based on mathematical modeling, to recruit and assign college student tutors to elementary schools in underrepresented areas in Houston. As I moved to UH in 2017, I naturally looked for new opportunities to expand.”

At this point, Lee connected with Jerrod Henderson, a co-founder of the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy and now an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Ricky Greer, another co-founder of the academy.

“I learned about Dr. Henderson's exciting initiatives on out-of-school STEM interventions for K-12 students in underrepresented areas,” Lee said. “We started with the summer camp events through PROMES – my research group didn’t have fancy robots for the students to play with, but Dr. Henderson let us host some interesting, interactive games we play with the students, through which the students can naturally understand what industrial engineering is. Ever since, this event has been my research group’s tradition. Based on our collaboration with Dr. Henderson and Mr. Greer, we were then honored to participate in the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy to have the opportunity to further reach out, and the rest is history.”

Dorali knew Henderson as an undergraduate, and enthusiastically agreed to help when Lee offered the opportunity for his students to work with the academy.

“I knew of Dr. J as an undergrad and I had the privilege of working with him in the summer right before I started my Ph.D. on education research,” Dorali said. “When the opportunity arose with Dr. Lee to work with Dr. J in helping out with events with students in the local community, it was an instant yes from me.”

Dorali and Lee were both quick to stress that the volunteer effort was wide-ranging, with support from a variety of organizations.

“Sometimes it can be tough and time-consuming process developing curriculum and setting things up, especially when you try to keep refining it the best you can in hopes of delivering something meaningful to them,” Dorali said. “However, it’s never a solo project. It has always been incredible observing the outflow of support from not only the volunteers from INFORMS or IISE, our industrial engineering-based student organizations, but also from PROMES to the site coordinators and even to Mr. Greer and Dr. J themselves. The energy and insight everyone pours into these projects and events is nothing short of amazing and seeing how others are so motivated and caring is something that gives me energy too.”

Along with Lee, Dorali identified IE graduates Zahed Shahmoradi, Amanda Khem and Krystal Ashby, and undergrad senior Emilia Diaz, as a few of the people he's worked closely with the past few years on efforts at the academy.

“It’s always such good-feeling moment sharing our experiences after the week’s over as well as brainstorming as to what we can do to improve,” he said.

Lee added, “I must say that all of the activities are driven by our passionate students in the department, led by Poria and a former student, Zahed Shahmoradi, who is now a post-doc researcher at UT Health. They put together a great team of both undergraduate and graduate students from different background to make every event a success. I am grateful to them for their initiatives and endless well of creativity.”

Dorali, who went to an elementary school in Alief ISD before transferring to a school in Fort Bend, attributed his continuing participation in the programs to the difference it makes for the children he works with.

“There isn’t almost anything in the world that beats seeing that light bulb moment for someone,” he said. “To be able to be in a position where I can give back to the community I grew up in and to work on projects and share knowledge with these students about a field I love is something I have the utmost appreciation for.”

He added, “This is my fourth year here as a Ph.D. student in the industrial engineering department, where I finished my B.S. in Industrial Engineering in 2018. I’ve been fortunate to take part in what I consider very meaningful research in medical decision-making for vulnerable or under-served patients, particularly in Harris County. In the future I hope I can continue this focus, whether it be as a professor, with the added bonus of teaching students, or even in the healthcare industry, particularly in the public sector."

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