A UNL business professor studies pandemics, applying the science of data and supply chain management to difficult questions like school closings and the availability of ventilators. 

When Theory Becomes Reality

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Jennifer Overkamp

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: jennifer.overkamp@nufoundation.org

UNL Professor At the Center Of COVID-19 And Supply Chain Management

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.”

 

We can solve complex systems problems using complex models, but it doesn't have to always be profit maximization. We also solve problems and design systems to improve the quality of life for everyone.

- Özgür Araz, Ph.D., UNL business professor

The data also shows a high fatality rate among older population groups, according to Araz. He sees health officials using predictive analytics to ensure that public safety is optimized through modeling tools developed through research like his own.

“People say closing schools costs a lot, but if we save more lives, it makes it cost-effective,” Araz said. “Optimizing social distancing intervention depends on this research modeling. We take a societal perspective regarding life lost, parents staying home with children impacting the workforce and all the other factors we are dealing with today. In severe cases, we might need prolonged closures, and even 24 weeks of closings can be still a cost-effective result.” 

Jennifer Ryan, Ph.D., chair and Ron and Carol Cope Professor of Supply Chain Management and Analytics at UNL, explained that in addition to informing the social distancing response, Araz’s research helps Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials prepare for situations in which hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed.

“We’ve all heard the discussions of ‘flattening the curve,’” Ryan said. “The modeling tools Özgür developed can provide critical insights into how we best allocate scarce resources during a pandemic. If we don’t control the rate of infection, experts expect our hospitals and clinics to be overwhelmed and to lack the necessary beds and equipment to treat the influx of patients.”

This aspect of benefiting society is a key part of why Araz continues his research at the intersection of SCM and pandemics.

“We can solve complex systems problems using complex models, but it doesn’t have to always be profit maximization,” Araz said. “We also solve problems and design systems to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

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