Mason researchers receive grants to help combat illicit supply networks

George Mason University was the only school with more than one representative among the recipients of the nine new National Science Foundation (NSF) grants that focus on illicit supply networks and dismantling them.

Louise I. Shelley, the director of Mason’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center within the Schar School of Policy and Government and Naoru Koizumi, an associate professor and the director of research within the Schar School, will lead multidisciplinary teams of experts that each received grants of $300,000 over two years to conduct exploratory research.

The new NSF awards support research that combines engineering with computer, physical and social sciences to provide a better understanding of how the networks function and how to thwart them.

Naoru Koizumi

Koizumi’s project, which includes a network analysis and optimal interventions for disruption of organ trafficking, will include network analysis, simulation and mathematical optimization to better gauge network structures and effective disruption strategies.

Organ trafficking is often somewhat different from other, more well-known trafficking networks because of the significantly higher profit-per-transaction, the necessary involvement of physicians and lab technicians and the specific facilities and equipment needed for the illegal enterprise.

Koizumi’s team includes Schar School’s Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a human trafficking expert with a particular focus on Latin America; Hadi El-Amine, an assistant professor of systems engineering and operations research, and Duminda Wijesekera, a professor in the Computer Science Department, both with the Volgenau School; and Jim Olds, a University Professor of Neuroscience within the Schar School of Policy and Government.

“One goal of this group of awards is to get the right people together to talk to one another,” said Wendy Nilsen, NSF program director for Information and Intelligent Systems within the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “There are lots of computer scientists and engineers who want to address societal problems while still conducting basic research. These are really complicated problems where we think we can have real impact.”

Louise Shelley

“Given the transdisciplinary composition of the team, the project will provide a unique opportunity to examine the nature of the networks from multiple perspectives and to discover structural patterns that may not be easily discerned otherwise,” Koizumi said.

Shelley’s project, which examines a new, multilayered approach for improving the detection of human trafficking, recognizes that human trafficking works as a business with varying means of operations. She and her team want to learn more about the modes of transport, financial systems and daily operations of the traffickers. Insights from the research will be included in classes on operations research, human trafficking, illicit trade and transnational crime within Mason’s Schar School and Volgenau School of Engineering.

Shelley is working with co-principle investigator Edward Huang, an associate professor of systems engineering and operations research within the Volgenau School of Engineering.

Shelley said trafficking is a growing problem unencumbered by traditional boundaries.

“We need new approaches to deal with illicit supply chains that are increasingly taking advantage of social media, cryptocurrency and other new forms of technology to operate,” Shelley said.