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Meet our graduates | Giovanni Malloy (PhD '22)

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July 19, 2022. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Audio and text edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2022 Graduates podcast series, we chat with Giovanni Malloy, a graduate of the PhD program in MS&E.

Giovanni explains how his early experiences in computer science and math paved the way for his interest in engineering. That path led him to study infectious disease outbreaks as an undergraduate, which in turn positioned him to be at the forefront of COVID-19 research when the pandemic began. Giovanni also shares advice for current students and how he found work/life balance as a PhD student at Stanford. 

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My name is Giovanni Malloy, and I'm a fifth year PhD student in the health policy group. I grew up in Syracuse, New York and spent the first 18 years of my life there.

I got interested in engineering through coursework in computer science and math in high school. I didn't really like any of the hard sciences, so I gravitated more toward what some schools call Industrial Engineering and others like Stanford call Management Science and Engineering. I did my undergrad at Purdue in Industrial Engineering and then found my way to Stanford MS&E.

How did you become interested in engineering?

Originally I became interested in engineering because, in high school, I had the opportunity to take AP computer science. I also really liked AP calculus in high school and just started putting some things together.

I had conversations with some of my older peers that I played with in jazz bands and things like that, and they would talk about the majors they were interested in, including Industrial Engineering. I started to look into it for myself, and that's how I landed in IE at Purdue.

What led you to your research in health policy?

When I was in my first or second year at Purdue,  I started doing research with a professor in the Industrial Engineering department, Mario Ventresca. He was happy to work with me and told me to take a look at his papers to see which ones interested me.

At the time, I was involved in a lot of politics and policy clubs on campus. Prof. Ventresca had a paper on making policy decisions during an influenza pandemic that looked really exciting. It blended my interests in policy and math with my academic major. So he said, great; pitch a project.

The Ebola outbreak was going on then, so I suggested that we figure out the optimal way to address Ebola in West Africa. That became my honors thesis when I was at Purdue. It got me excited about blending the human dynamics and disease dynamics of an outbreak into this language of mathematics, and trying to understand situations that you can replicate and model in real time.

I got very interested in that interplay, so when I was looking at graduate schools, Prof. Margaret Brandeau’s group stood out as an obvious choice—that was exactly the sort of work that she was doing.

Over time, I've definitely learned that my approaches during the honors thesis left a lot to be desired. I've learned a lot in MS&E that has made my research a lot more policy-relevant and more driven by clinical questions, things that would translate easily into actual policy decisions.

Can you tell me more about your research in MS&E?

Generally, I do data and decision science applied to health policy, specifically related to infectious disease outbreaks. This manifests in three different streams of research.

The first stream looks at COVID-19 mitigation in jails and prisons. During the pandemic, I got connected to corrections health researchers at the Yale School of Medicine who were looking for a disease modeler like myself. Early on, we were able to develop estimates for the strength of transmission in a jail, as well as how different interventions—beyond the CDC guidelines—could affect the spread of COVID in a jail. We were able to create guidelines and groundwork for jails that were struggling.

More recently, we partnered with an entire prison system. Now that we have a lot more data, we’re working on how to leverage that data to answer questions that continue to arise in that space.

The second stream of research looks at mitigating plague in Madagascar. I did a cost-effectiveness analysis of several different policy interventions there. This inspired a more methods-based or theoretical project, where I developed an analytical model to make decisions in the midst of a pandemic.

A lot of the infectious disease work is retrospective—here's this outbreak, here's the data from that outbreak, here's what we should do next time. I wanted to develop a model where you could input the current situation and make decisions in real time.

The third stream of research compares how different model structures might impact predicted intervention effectiveness. When you're modeling, you have to be cognizant of the art of it, which can include choosing between different model structures and different populations. Understanding how those choices affect outcomes is really important.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your time at Stanford?

On a personal level, it was pretty difficult. I’m a very social person, so not being able to interact with people as much, especially early on, was tough. Although I eventually figured out ways to make things work and meet up with people outside. One of the hardest parts was my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was living in another country. For eight months they closed the border, so for eight months we couldn't see each other at all. That was really tough. 

Unexpectedly though, it was sort of beneficial for my professional life. As a result of some of my work on COVID in jails and prisons, I had the ability to have a strong policy impact. It gave some credibility to the work that I was already interested in, and it allowed people outside the small world of infectious disease modeling to understand that this is really important and we should be investing time and resources into it.

The pandemic also changed the way I interact with campus. I don't take things for granted as much, like going into the office and seeing people, the social events for MS&E, or just going to Treehouse or CoHo and grabbing food with friends. I think it made me cherish those moments more.

How do you imagine your research interests might change over the course of the next 5-10 years?

To a certain extent, COVID is going to continue to be a problem, but the question is what’s going to happen when the world resets and infectious diseases settle back into what their previous role in research was.

The next five to 10 years will be shaped a lot by where I am choosing to spend my next couple of years. I’ll be working on projects that span different policy areas, so I expect to continue to be able to apply the data and decision science that I love, potentially in health spaces and national security spaces. I’ll ideally use a lot of the skills I've learned on the more mathematical side as well, and use the art of modeling that I've learned during my time in health policy to work on new problems in health and other areas.

What are your career plans after Stanford, and how did you decide on them?

I'm going to be an Associate Information Scientist at Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. I made that decision because I really love the research process. I wanted to continue to be a part of an organization that values research, and especially  one where I could have an impact by applying analytical or mathematical methods to solve application-driven policy questions.

That's what Rand is well-known for; they have a lot of people who circulate in the worlds of academia and government. I saw them as a really nice organization and a great team that will allow me to bridge those things together and continue to work on meaningful and impactful projects.

What most excites you about your future?

On a professional level, I'm most excited about the opportunity to work on projects that will be closely tied to decisions made by the federal government. At Rand, the research is very impactful to decision makers, partly because it's a federally-funded research center. As a PhD student, you're usually one or two steps away from policymakers, so I'm excited to get closer to the actual decision making process and hopefully have a larger impact in the future.

On a personal level, I'm excited to explore a new city with my wife and continue to grow our family. I think it'll be a really exciting time to be out there in the world and in my first real job.

What advice do you have for future PhD students? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?

The most important thing you can do is figure out how to have a great relationship with your advisor. That will look different for everybody.

My advisor, Margaret Brandeau, and I have a great working relationship and we have a great personal relationship as well. Margaret has always helped move things in the right direction, helped my development, and never stood in the way of my success in any way, shape, or form. In fact, she's always tried to elevate me as a person, as a student, and as a professional.

Figuring out even simple things—how often you want to meet with your advisor, what's the best form of communication with your advisor, how you get feedback from your advisor—and having those conversations early on can help make that relationship more seamless. At the end of the day, I think that's probably the number one thing, anecdotally, that people say has shaped their experience here.

In terms of making the best use of your time in MS&E and at Stanford, I think it's all about taking advantage of the many resources that are available on campus. There are a wealth of opportunities. They can come in the form of amazing guest speakers, talking with professors, and connecting with Nobel Prize-winning researchers on similar topics. There are next-level professional opportunities that you have access to any day here on campus.

For example, I've been able to learn from world experts in machine learning, infectious disease modeling, and health policy. It's hard to think of another place or institution where you can get world experts from many different areas all in the same place who are willing to sit down with a PhD student and have a one-on-one conversation.

Also, being able to talk with people from all over the world, who study all different types of things, and who are going to be experts and leaders in their field at some point can be really a fun and exciting experience professionally and socially. There are many opportunities for this, like social events through the residences or at the gym. The pool is close to Huang, too.

Another thing to know is that Stanford does a really good job understanding the balance of mental, physical, and professional well-being.

How did you maintain work-life balance and your well-being during your PhD?

I got some helpful advice early on, which was that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. While there are going to be some rough patches, slow and steady wins the race, if you will. I think that's super true for the PhD. It’s helpful to center yourself, get with other PhD students, and understand that, even if research isn't going the way you want for weeks or months, you'll be able to correct your course with your advisor.

I tried to establish things to do outside of work and commit time for those things, even in a busy week. For me, I love to play music. I play in the Stanford Afro Latin jazz ensemble and a jazz trio with an adjunct professor in MS&E and another PhD student in MS&E. I also like to go running.

It's important, even when you’re absolutely swamped, to take an hour out of your day for your own well-being. Go for a run, take an hour away from screen time, or go play music and connect with people on a different level. Hang out with a friend and talk about something that's not related to work. Try to get yourself refocused on the world outside of your research project.

What will you miss most about Stanford and the Bay Area?

Definitely the people. I've made some really amazing friends here, in the department and outside it. I made friends in the Rains Apartments, which is where I lived for a number of years, through music, and in all manner of ways. All those people really helped shape my experience. I've gotten to do so many crazy and new things hanging out with those people, and I'll definitely miss seeing them every day.

I’ll also miss all the experts from different walks of life and fields of study coming together and being willing to collaborate or chat. That’s maybe not completely unique to Stanford, but you could probably count on one hand how many places that happens in the world.

What will I miss about the Bay Area? Well, the Raiders already left... But seriously, I'll miss some of my favorite spots for hiking and eating. I think the Bay Area has a unique culture, especially if you're into entrepreneurship and tech. That's something I think you can only find here.

Luckily we’ll be close by in the Los Angeles area. There's still going to be great weather, and a lot of the things I love about this area will also be in Southern California.

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