Most researchers love to see their work impact the real world. They are thrilled when their theories are tested or their papers widely read.
Özgür Araz, Ph.D., is not so thrilled. He is a business professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and he studies pandemics, applying the science of data and supply chain management to difficult questions like school closings and the availability of ventilators. While he is glad his research is useful, he never wanted to see it in action.
Araz’s background is in industrial engineering. However, he said he “finds the social side of technical problems very interesting,” an interest which led him to supply chain management. He first studied pandemics as a dissertation topic for his Ph.D. and taught complex systems thinking at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health before being recruited to UNL’s College of Business to teach supply chain management and analytics.
Supply chain management education is a strength at the university, with programs at UNL, UNK and UNO. Supply Chain Management and Analytics is the newest department in the UNL College of Business. Araz describes the ultimate goal of SCM as creating systems which produce “the right quantity of items, in the right place, at the right time.” Students study logistics, production, procurement and distribution, leading to jobs in fields as diverse as manufacturing, health care, global sourcing and inventory control. Currently, around 140 students major or minor in SCM at UNL, in addition to about 45 graduate students in the department’s online master’s degree in business analytics.
The battle against COVID-19 rages on many fronts: hospitals, labs and even private homes as people carefully wash their hands and practice social distancing. But Araz argues that, in many ways, fighting the virus is fundamentally a supply chain and capacity management problem. Are there enough masks, ventilators, test kits, hospital beds and other supplies? Are there sufficient health care personnel? SCM is also about timing. It’s not only a question of whether the needed ventilators are available; they are needed at a certain time and in a certain place. Next week may mean they are too late to save lives. If they are in a warehouse three states away, that’s not much good either.
Araz’s most recent article, published in Decision Sciences in November, studies capacity optimization under resource shortages. Previously, he looked at the challenges of stockpiling ventilators for influenza pandemics and school closure policies for cost-effective pandemic decision-making.
A pandemic is also a living math problem, and Araz is a numbers guy. How many people does one infected person generally infect? How quickly does the disease spread? What are the fatality rates? Araz explained that economic impacts are taken into consideration when modeling effective decision-making.
“We want to answer whether school closings and social distancing policies are cost-effective,” Araz said. “Both questions, of when to close schools and when to reopen, are equally important. We take information about how fast the virus is spreading, using a basic reproductive number, and estimate the number of secondary cases generated in a completely susceptible population. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s spreading fast.”