Using analysis and modeling to individualize treatment strategies for Type 1 diabetes

Başak Özaslan develops algorithms that improve physical activity-related blood glucose management in patients with Type 1 diabetes. Using data collected in patients’ daily lives, she designs treatment adjustment methods tailored to the patient and their changing insulin needs due to variations in their daily physical activity. The most exciting moments of her research come during clinical trials.

“You go in with anticipation and see how what we observed in the simulation environment is happening in real life,” she said. “We get to see how our algorithms work in real patients.”

Özaslan, a multilingual native of Turkey, is a fifth- year Ph.D. candidate in systems engineering. She works closely with UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology, where the goal of their research is to optimally control blood glucose levels for patients as they go about daily activities.

Özaslan examines data collected from patients’ glucose monitors, insulin pumps and fitness tracking devices such as the Fitbit.

“I do statistical analyses to understand the factors and their relationship to blood glucose control in everyday life. Then, I use that understanding to build computer models capable of enhancing and individualizing treatment strategies,” Özaslan said.

Portrait of Basak Ozaslan, Ph.D. student in Engineering Systems and Environment

Başak Özaslan works closely with UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology, where researchers aim to make managing glucose levels less disruptive to patients’ lives.

Systems such as an artificial pancreas developed at UVA with technology co-created by former Engineering Systems and Environment faculty member Stephen Patek — and the decision-support tools for “open-loop” glucose control that Özaslan has been working on — promise to help patients better manage their Type 1 diabetes through more accurate dosing. Ultimately, researchers also want to eliminate the need for patients to manually check blood glucose levels and adjust insulin injections.

For her dissertation, Özaslan recently concluded a clinical trial to test her physical activity-informed insulin dosing method. Her approach adjusts the mealtime insulin dose for glycemic changes that are related to the patient’s everyday physical activity as opposed to structured exercise.

She also extended her model to take part in a collaboration further developing UVA’s artificial pancreas system, augmenting the mealtime insulin dosing calculation when accounting for exercise. The new system is undergoing testing as part of a summer 2019 clinical trial.

Özaslan came to the U.S. for graduate studies after earning her bachelor’s in industrial engineering from Boğaziçi University in Turkey. UVA’s prestige and the diverse research landscape of the systems engineering program drew her here in 2015. She earned an M.E. first, doing research on the impact of psychological stress on blood glucose control in Type 1 diabetes patients in a collaboration with behavioral scientists at UVA.

“You can find professors doing anything from robotics to health-related data science. Since I did not know exactly what I wanted to be a researcher in, it was really an advantage of the department back then. Now, if we think about systems, civil and environment combining, actually for new students, this is even better,” she said.

“When you’re just out of college, it’s not always clear what topic you are most interested in, even though you know you want to be a researcher. In my first year here, I had the opportunity to explore and talk to professors and joined meetings so that I could have a feeling for what it would look like to do research in a particular topic. At the end of the day, I picked something I love, which is designing individualized treatment systems to improve patients’ care and quality of life.”

Özaslan pointed to another positive outgrowth of the new Engineering Systems and Environment Department: Graduate students’ involvement led to the creation of a new Graduate Student Council, where one had not previously existed for either the systems or civil programs. She is a co-founder.

“This is purely a result of how the interactions went between graduate students and the support we got from faculty, especially Professors Lisa Colosi Peterson, Garrick Louis and Brian Smith. I think it’s an important organization that is going to help build this department into a supportive, productive and also connected community,” Özaslan said.